Today, most people associate Southern California with images of palm trees, beaches, swimming pools, and the entertainment industry. If pressed to imagine an earlier era they might come up with “old” Hollywood, the Gold Rush, or even the mission era. But how much of the Golden State can be attributed to the ancient Greeks and Romans? We caught up with Peter Holliday, author of American Arcadia, who gave us a whole new way of understanding the history of Southern California and how it shaped the region we are so familiar with today.
You advocate that classical antiquity played a major role in shaping the image of California. What does this entail?
California’s booster industries produced fantasy images of both the state’s physical environment and cultural landscape through a variety of mythologizing lenses, most famously the romance of the early missions. But Americans actually perceived California as a realm rich with classical significance. Their history conditioned Americans to think in terms of ancient types, how their education and culture reinforced such thinking. American Arcadia explores how Californians – as boosters and promoters, architects and artists, patrons and clients – engaged with classical antiquity. It investigates how classical antiquity – understood to encompass the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome – provided another important metaphor for fashioning the Golden State.
Your subtitle refers to a “classical tradition”. What does that mean?
By referring to the classical tradition, I emphasize the sense of continuity among certain forms and themes, conventions that provided components for composition and performance. This construct stresses how groups and individuals deployed the cultural memory of classical antiquity to communicate universal patterns that would be understood by their contemporaries. Unfortunately, today the term “tradition” is loaded for some readers, and conveys connotations of conservatism and elitism. Therefore I underscore the diverse ways in which Californians interacted with the antiquity: for some imitation was paramount, whereas for others innovation suggested new ways of connecting with the ancient past. Californians were not merely passive recipients of a grand past; rather they were active participants in a process shaped by many centuries of earlier encounters. Their action was not simply one of appropriation, either, for the process of engagement tended to alter their sensibilities.
You’ve mentioned “boosters” several of times. What were boosters?
Promoters. Southern California was heavily promoted to Americans. Boosters sold the possibility of an arcadian place to successive groups of settlers, beginning with farmers, then health-seekers, and finally tourists, who might well decide to purchase land and settle. Promotion helped the nascent film industry locate to Southern California, and in turn the movies promoted the region and its promise. The deployment of classical antiquity in framing these promotions to successive target audiences was crucial to their success.
Architecture seems to play a significant role in your book.
That’s because architecture frames the essence of a place. Since it can give focus, order, and meaning to how we experience a location, architecture plays an outsize role in creating civic and regional identity.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago profoundly influenced the form and appearance of Southern California development by inspiring some municipalities to adopt the principles of the City Beautiful Movement, whereas other towns attempted to create a new kind of suburban community that would allow residents to preserve some sense of a pastoral setting. The Beaux-Arts style of architecture encouraged governments, civic institutions, and commercial entities to deploy the style’s classical vocabulary to fashion their images. These impulses also influenced domestic architecture before WWII. The styles in which Californians built their houses, designed their gardens, and decorated their interiors were diverse and eclectic, but frequently drew inspiration from some aspect of the ancient world.
In the last century it was common to deride the domestic architecture in Los Angeles for being ersatz, akin to a series of stage sets, yet you find positive things to say about the use of historical or period styles in such building.
In his great Hollywood novel, Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West’s Yale-educated protagonist, Todd Hackett, embodies the progressive understanding of architectural thought of the day. He sees Southern California’s mishmash of architectural styles as a violation of Modernism’s teachings on the virtues of organic form and truth to materials; he finds the houses vulgar and flimsy, much like the culture that built them. “When he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper, he was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used,” West writes. “Steel, stone and brick curb a builder’s fancy a little, forcing him to distribute his stresses and weights and to keep his corners plumb, but plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.” West thereby disparages Southern Californian eclecticism as also representing “inauthentic” construction techniques and materials.
Well, there is some truth to the shoddiness of the region’s “back-lot” construction practices, isn’t there?
Several years ago I took a colleague from New York on an architectural tour of Los Angeles. We ended the day with drinks at Evan Kleiman’s now-defunct Angeli Caffe, whose façade and interior had been designed by Morphosis in 1984, at that time a very trendy statement. Watching construction on a structure across Melrose Boulevard, my friend was taken aback at the use of plywood (!) to reinforce the wood framing on the first of three floors. He protested that such shabby construction would never be permitted under the codes of New York City. I offered how the traditional lessons learned in childhood do not necessarily hold in earthquake country, where I would much prefer to ride out a temblor in a house crafted from lighter and more flexible straw or sticks rather than being crushed beneath the collapse of one made of bricks. Of course, careful design and skillful execution matter. Southern Californians shared many outlooks with the rest of America, but also expressed attitudes and followed practices distinctive to the region.
You cite Day of the Locust as a “Hollywood novel.” How has the entertainment industry, centered in Southern California, helped shape American tastes?
In the last century, the movie industry, thanks to the studio publicity machines, exercised an outsized influence on American preferences in domestic architecture and garden design. It was not simply the images projected in theaters. The 20th century also saw the rise of life-style magazines; features on the stars at home were prominent. In the postwar era, television shows – notably produced in Los Angeles – presented Americans with a suburban ideal as realized in Southern California. Although many programs were set in generic suburban enclaves with generic names like Springfield (Father Knows Best), Mayfield (Leave It to Beaver) or Hilldale (The Donna Reed Show), some featured more identifiable California locales. Of necessity, Gidget had to have access to the surf at Malibu, and her widowed father was made an English professor at UCLA; Fred MacMurray’s widowed father in My Three Sons was an engineer in the region’s important aerospace industry; and in the 1970s, the father of The Brady Bunch was an architect who designed his own house in the San Fernando Valley. Television families engaged in recreational activities out-of-doors, with sons shooting hoops in the driveway and scenes taking place on patios and at the barbecue as well as in living rooms and around the kitchen table. The Golden State advertised its postwar middle-class good life to a national audience.
That simply sounds like the postwar American dream. Did classical antiquity play a role in those images?
Absolutely. Consider how the Southland’s sunny climate, first promoted by the region’s boosters, actually encouraged Californians to lead their lives differently. Self-consciously emulating ancient Greeks and Romans, Southern Californians initiated trends that would change the way Americans eat, dress, and spend their leisure time. Californians even fashioned their bodies according to classical ideals. Visual artists were sensitive to this new conception of beauty, and represented it in various media throughout the 20th century.
Much of your discussion focuses on Los Angeles, but you sometimes seem to stray outside the confines of Southern California.
Although my primary focus is on Los Angeles, early promoters and real estate speculators made no distinction between “Southern California” and “Los Angeles,” so I feel quite comfortable looking as far north as San Simeon and southwards to San Diego. On occasion I consider what was happening in San Francisco to cast light on Southland projects, for at one time that city was the dominant political and economic power in the state, and thus set the pace in the arts; at one point I even cross the state border into Nevada, since Las Vegas was largely developed as an entertainment suburb of Los Angeles. American Arcadia considers Southern California in the context of American culture as a whole at any particular moment. It provides a new way of seeing ourselves and our past, through a language that was familiar – for a time even central – to our predecessors, that will not only help explain some of the monuments they left behind, but also how we got to where we are today.
Featured image credit: The Getty Villa — in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.