An urban fire doesn't really exist, as such, until it burns a building: until it uses architecture as fuel. At least that's how politicians and news anchors chose to reassure us Tuesday night as flames raced across Griffith Park. Since the only structure known to be lost as evening fell was in the middle of the park, they kept telling us, the fire couldn't be quite as dire as it looked on screen or from our frontyards. That structure, we learned later, was not even a building but an "equestrian bridge" -- a bit of architectural terminology new to many of us but somehow reassuringly, distantly pastoral.
Still, because the fire roared so close to the newly expanded Griffith Observatory, and because its drama grew as it threatened to jump out of the park and into residential neighborhoods, it produced a number of memorable images combining architecture and flames. They join a very long list of such pictures -- some artistic, some journalistic -- already fixed in our collective consciousness. You remember Joan Didion's line: "The city burning is Los Angeles' deepest image of itself."
There was the observatory, most dramatic of all, seeming to stand right in the path of the fire, its three domes silhouetted against an orange backdrop. There were the groups of firefighters threading thick hoses through the living rooms of houses on the edge of the park, tromping across Oriental carpets in their boots and then standing on eucalyptus-shaded decks out back, battling the fire as it edged down the hillside.
And there was the realization, flashing quickly into the mind of anybody who has driven through those winding hillside streets, that the observatory wasn't the only architectural landmark at risk. The fire also threatened Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House and houses by Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, Craig Ellwood, Wright's son Lloyd and Raphael Soriano -- all of them tucked between Los Feliz Boulevard and the southern boundary of Griffith Park and collectively making up one of the most important concentrations of residential architecture anywhere in the country.
Seeing the fire advance on those buildings brought dozens of similar images to mind: The warehouses and liquor stores burning in the Rodney G. King riots, fires whose images have been flickering through our minds because the press has been marking their 15th anniversary this week. And Ed Ruscha's 1965-68 painting "The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire." And its imaginary forebear, the painting called "The Burning of Los Angeles" that Tod Hackett, a central character in Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust," is working on throughout that 1939 novel.
Even fictional links between fire and architecture in Los Angeles can be unsettling. They make clear that our favorite buildings are uniquely vulnerable, particularly the many landmarks that line the city's canyons and foothills, where nature is liable to take its revenge on architecture on any hot and dry afternoon. It took an extraordinary act of destruction to produce the fiery collapse of New York's World Trade Center towers in 2001. Architectural icons here are at constant risk, not just from fire but also from mudslides, earthquakes and riots, acts of man and God.
Wright's textile-block Ennis House, for instance, is being painstakingly brought back from the edge of collapse after chunks of it slid down the hill in early 2005, when the hillsides above Los Feliz were saturated from a winter of nearly nonstop rain. It seemed a twist of fate cruelly suited to Los Angeles that two years later the house would be at risk again because a shortage of rainfall has left the same neighborhood desperately dry and ready to burn. Out of the mudslide and into the fire.
A stage-set quality
Disasters of all kinds underscore the temporary nature of the L.A. landscape and why so many of our architects have tried to avoid or even undermine a sense of permanence in their work. That effort is what makes Los Angeles architecture, paradoxically enough, both the most fake and the most honest of any American city's. We put up eclectic, flimsy buildings here. But it is precisely their stage-set quality that makes them ring true. Our architects have long recognized their buildings can be burned, crushed by an earthquake or razed by a developer at any moment.