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Topology of a Phantom City

At This Small Press, L.A.'s Past Is a Key to Its Future

September 21, 2003|CHRISTINA DALTON

Forget the cliches about Los Angeles as a vast autobahn zone, a "city of the future" where the past is a dot on the horizon. Historian-slash-indie publisher Michael Jacob Rochlin wants to show you a timeless, intimate Los Angeles that's waiting to breathe its mysteries into your ear if you'll just get out of the car.

These days Rochlin has been doing talks and bookstore appearances for "Arcadian L.A.," a new book of three essays printed on recycled paper, richly footnoted and copiously illustrated with black-and-white photos of the city, past and present. Rochlin, 44, has lectured on architecture and urban history at Otis College of Art and Design, UCLA, Los Angeles City College and Cal State Northridge. And judging from the L.A.-themed titles issued by Rochlin's Unreinforced Masonry Studio, he may also be one of the city's more idiosyncratically lyrical chroniclers.

Rochlin started the studio in the late 1980s as a platform for such endeavors as historic tours, design services, preservation drafting, perspective rendering and model-making, plus a small press with five Rochlin-penned paperback titles now in print, from essays on L.A. history to a freewheeling, quasi-poetic look at Silver Lake--even a novel about women's basketball set in L.A.

A careless reader might take "Arcadian L.A." for an exercise in living in the past, and admittedly the author/publisher is no SUV Angeleno. "I don't own a car," says Rochlin, who lives in Silver Lake, grew up in Van Nuys in an extended family of writers, architects and engineers and has lived in L.A. nearly all his life. "I don't watch television. Other than research, I generally read alternative publications."

Granted, regret for a bygone Los Angeles does haunt "Arcadian L.A." The title essay wistfully salutes what Rochlin sees as three underappreciated models of inspired city planning: May Rindge's Malibu ranch estate; Aline Barnsdall's utopian hilltop expanse in Hollywood; and Anoakia, the now-vanished seat of Anita Baldwin's holdings in the San Gabriel Valley. A second piece laments disjointed L.A.'s failure thus far to realize its potential as a cohesive urban entity on the order of a large-scale Renaissance city. The final essay laments the fragmenting effect of TV and freeways on neighborhood life.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Rochlin as a deluded cultural Luddite. Disdainful of what he has called "the misrepresented nostalgia of romanticists," he is presenting a contrarian brief for how Los Angeles could evolve by reclaiming an ecologically integrated, neighborhood-friendly heritage that "Arcadian L.A." and his other works insist is there for the taking. "Arcadian L.A." is a follow-up to his most popular book, "Ancient L.A." (1999), in which Rochlin explores how the city's grids and freeways rest on an original network of indigenous trails and villages. "Ancient L.A." also pays homage to L.A.'s old brick buildings, the unreinforced masonry that gives the press its name. For Rochlin, it seems, the idea is to turn off the local news, leave the gas guzzler in the driveway and get ready to be astonished by your city.

"Arcadian L.A." is available at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 660-1175; or call Unreinforced Masonry Studio at (323) 660-7092.

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