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COMMENTARY : L.A. Symbol Needs Heart, Not 'Steel'

January 22, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Last week the Los Angeles City Council abandoned a plan to erect a design for a grand downtown monument straddling the Hollywood freeway. This week a historic and terrifying earthquake rattled Lotusland like a puppy shaking a sock. There was a certain symmetry to the events.

The monument's architect was Hani Rashid. It involved a series of horizontal skeletal spans and stairways whose industrial delicacy earned it the sobriquet "The Steel Cloud." Nice title anyway.

Local boosters who fostered this folly envisioned it to become the town's permanent trademark monument, the symbol that would say "L.A." to the world. Our Eiffel Tower. Our Statue of Liberty. I lift my lamp beside the padlocked gate.

Freud's shade would certainly see it as a bad case of erection envy.

Nobody wants to squelch civic enthusiasm in a precinct so short on it. But it is a matter of considerable wonder that--even in its present after-shocked state--this place remains blind to its own uniqueness. There is no such thing as permanent around here. L.A. is the capital of the Ephemeral Empire.

People who are bothered by this say it's because Angeltown has no sense of history or because the fickle nature of the movie industry rubs off on us.

That is backward. It is the fundamental sense of the facts we live with that rubs off on history. Our riots, brush fires and temblors make the Icarus myth part of our reality. Living with them requires a combination of steely cool and a certain lightness of touch. Behind the facade of the Angeltown airhead lurks the guy who knows that nothing lasts and everybody dies.

The earthquake smashed a lot of bric-a-brac at my house, including three of four lovely dessert plates my 77-year-old dad gave me last Christmas. Decorated with vintage-type faces, each spelled out an encouraging word like "Love" or "Pleasure." It was exactly right that the surviving plate was "Laughter."

Real Angelenos are people who love the anonymity of a great city where the isolation of the automobile guarantees everybody the privacy to invent his own town.

L.A.'s civic structure is that of a dropped egg the size of a small planet. Since nobody can see its edges, everybody cooks up their own symbols. Sunny side up. Omelette. Benedict. Certainly decidedly scrambled.

Our image is so amorphous that Mid-Western Angeltown dreamers envision Disneyland even though it's in Orange County. Others see Las Vegas neon or Santa Barbara mansions. If that's their perfect California dreamin', what's the harm?

In such a solipsistic environment anything of particular personal significance becomes the central symbol of L.A. When I was a scruffy kid growing up in the bowels of downtown, mine was the sign designating my street. I lived on Hope.

Today, still fond of the Central Library, Grand Central Market, Orpheum Theater, Bradbury Building, Griffith Observatory, Bullock's Wilshire, all Art Deco apartment houses, the Hollywood sign, Hollywood Bowl, Goodyear Blimp, Abbott Kinney's Venice arcade and palm trees, I have settled permanently on one icon as the closest thing possible to a portmanteau L.A. trademark.

The Watts Towers, of course.

Simon Rodia's masterpiece does everything the "Steel Cloud" was supposed to do and more. It embodies L.A.'s populist genius, its rich racial stew and spontaneous inventiveness. No official body commissioned Rodia. He worked out of love. The best symbols of L.A. aren't planned. They just happen. Look at Melrose Avenue. Look at all the great graffiti art around town that drives people crazy because it's in the wrong places. If the "Steel Cloud" backers wanted to do something with the leftover money, they could do worse than commissioning murals on every bare wall downtown. Rodia would have liked that.

Ah. Observe the booster wringing his well-manicured palms and worrying that nobody much sees the Watts Towers because they are not in a nice part of town. That's the beauty of L.A. symbols, they don't actually have to be there. Rodia's towers are masterpieces in part because they are forever falling apart, reminding us of human vulnerability. If the city fathers aren't trying to pull them down, they are trying to save them from collapse and, in fact, they were further weakened by the quake.

Red Cars, drive-in eateries, the Brown Derby and much else have vanished from here only to be made immortal in vivid memory which, in the absence of the real thing, comes to include delicious nostalgia and the stinging reminder that the Queen of the Angels has her ruthless side. She is as easily gentle as summer skies, as naturally rapacious as a kitten. "The Steel Cloud" lives. A skywriter should periodically letter it over the site. That way it will probably last longer than the freeway.

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