Los Angeles, or the End of All Past. 2014

review article

Los Angeles.
A city like in the movies or an image of failure? Hollywood Hills or heap of corpses?
All-American Girl or Femme fatale?
Hero or goner?
Mansion or trench coat?
Merry sunshine or eternal night?
The good life or compulsive flight behavior?
The rain sets in.... and film noir begins.

Even to those, who have never set foot in it, no other city seems so auspiciously familiar like Los Angeles. Movies were its prime motor. An El dorado was supposed to emerge here, bordering the desert. It was meant to be an earthly eden for those on the East coast, who had come to realize that the European past weighed heavily on the here and now. The West, however, still ought to be conquered, and once arrived, the Old World could at last be left behind. Nevertheless even here there was no forgetting. Instead of desired salvation the Moloch of an unredeemed promise of happiness, the aporia of modernity, was lurking.

Like in a road movie along Sunset Boulevard, Kevin Vennemann takes us with him on a trip to the beginnings and end of all hopes in Los Angeles. In his book Sunset Boulevard. To film, to build and to die in Los Angeles, he sheds light on the underbelly of a metropolis, whose creators were eager to fabricate a perfect decal of genuine Southern Californian romanticism. With our index finger on fast forward we race through the history of film noir with its somber figures and the city as their backdrop. Their quest for redemption had brought them to Los Angeles. In the movies those stranded characters have no choice but to escape the alleged paradise in the end. They want to return to New York. They want to ask for her forgiveness. But only few succeed: “if Los Angeles finds us in Los Angeles, it could happen that it will never let us go.” Once in reverse—the urban silhouette in the rear view mirror—they all perish. “Without the dreamers, the prospective victims, L.A. would not be L.A.”

Los Angeles was built, not grown. Venneman reminds us of that. In Europe this licentious urban symbol cannot really excite anyone, except for a few flakes. Architectural history alone was able to also sing some praise for L.A, an “autopia” (Reyner Banham) in the windshield. Early on the old pulp fiction authors wrote the antithesis to Hollywood in their prototypes of noir. In 1950 this movement reached a peak, not only as L.A. Noir, but also as the California Modern in Architecture. 20 years after the end of the silent movie and of Californian architectural fantasies, Billy Wilder and Raphael Soriano expose the double standard on which the city was built. Because they were terrified of the specter of modernity in the fading 1920s, Hollywood and The Los Angeles Times, together with real estate investors and willful architects, crafte the ideal and contemporary Times Demonstration House. It was sought out to establish a never true story, an Ersatz fiction, an entirely made up revival of a Spanish Colonial Style.

Too late, it seemed at first. The architectural modern had swashed across the Atlantic. This modernity, that the Germans ended so abruptly with their national socialism. But before that, Viennese architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra had followed the temptation of spatial availability and fluid money, and moved to California. They hoped to build their egalitarian utopias beyond European, imperial fantasies and obsessive historical reference. Exactly here, in L.A., they shedded every American tradition and felt deeply obliged to functionalism, progress, and social use. Herein Venneman finds the revolutionary potential of modernity.

It were not planning models that guided the modernists, no made-up stories in the midst of an alleged lack of history. They wanted to put an end to decor, the ornament and misquotation by minimal means. Homes were supposed to be made for those, who inhabited them, and they should react to specific problems of life. The basis of their designs were biographies of customers, and nothing redundant were to be found in them—seamlessly integrated into the grid square of the United States National Grid.

Despite this rectilinearity, or because of it, the detached prototypes of modernism served L.A. noir as its stage of urban and emotional turmoil. Every protagonist got the house that she or he deserved, that they themselves embodied. For in film noir the single-family house is already contaminated by evil.

Los Angeles had the Chance to become a realized utopia. For everyone. Kevin Vennemann thus wants to know: why did it not work out? Only in the most modern of all cities—Tel Aviv—the functionalism of the European International Style unfolded itself so consistently and on a large scale. For everyone. From day one this city and its architecture wanted to improve life, and at last they had to. “Too Jewish” this new architecture was said to be in L.A. But that was not the only reason. According to Vennemann esteemed architectural photographer Julius Shulman is the lead suspect. He rendered the rediscovered modernity ready for the museum. With his image, the California Modern came to fame, but it also became art, sculpture, it was doomed a commodity. Shulman was never interested in what a house should be or be capable of, but only in how a house can be aestheticized, how it can be staged for the white middle class. Vennemann wants to meet Shulman for an interview. By the pageful he deliberates with himself about the failure of modernism and gets tangled up in fictitious, preparatory conversations with Shulman, whose reactions he already seems to know. In his thoughts he relentlessly puts him through the wringer. Only then we realize: this conversation will never actually happen. Shulman forgot about it. Whatever. Vennemann does not need to see him.

Without a demand of scientific stringency, and still accurately researched, Vennemann arranges his short trip to L.A. as a stream of consciousness of contemporary cultural history of film, architecture, and photography. Occasionally filmic fiction blends with the experienced and built reality, and we imagine to be inside a cinematic plot ourselves. Vennemann does not want to prove anything. He wants to paint an image of the city like we have not seen it before. Everything—the movies, the myth of Antigone, photography from Roman Vishniac to Shulman, captions, the California Modern, the dead at the roadside, the heap of corpses from Auschwitz—merges into one point: what do we see in those images, and what is it that we do not see? The ulterior, the subterranean, the marginalized, the deceased: how can we ever grasp them?

Vennemann poses countless questions and brings together, what maybe could not be brought together until now. Just like he bugs Shulman in his daydreams, one would like to ask the author during the read: Could the revolutionary potential honestly have become a realization? Was the modernity in California really more political than in Europe? Was it not also a reflection of the capitalist, taylorist relations of production projected onto architecture? Was it thus really only commodified by photography? Can’t architecture only just become art at the very moment it points toward a utopia? Even if the essay is marked by a certain resignation—film noir could not oppose the barriers of Hollywood, and modern architecture was largely a project for the rich and beautiful—there is still a glimmer of hope left. However, Venneman’s essay has to begin and end with dying. Because death operates as “constant subtext of a century entirely gone wrong.”

- Nicole Theresa King, 2012 (translation 2017)