Celebrity City Tours 1: Reyner Banham Loves L.A.

There’s something indelibly charming about the colour-faded city documentaries of the seventies and eighties. During this time, national broadcasting networks like the BBC and the CBC put out a slew of celebrity-hosted city tours as hour-long TV specials. Half-documentary/half city-marketing, there is something undeniably kitsch about the final products.  Yet, placing the celebrity as the medium between the audience and the city, and charging them with the task of conveying a deeper sense of the city, unintentionally reveals something about the host himself — their relationship to the city, their perception of the city and attitudes to it — which is arguably more interesting then the presentation of the city itself. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring a handful of these city documentaries from around the world.

Beginning with Reyner Banham — Apparently if you go to planning school at UCLA, the first thing they do is make you watch “Reyner Banham Loves L.A.” This BBC documentary produced in 1972 takes Banham around L.A. in a rental car with a fictional audio tour called Baede Kar. Banham’s revelations won’t seem entirely mind-blowing to anyone who has read the work of postmodern geographers like Edward Soja and Michael Dearborn, until you take into account that Banham basically influenced this entire school of thought. L.A. had been derided as an urban planning disaster until Banham started picking up its inherent virtues. Banham weighs in on Venice Beach, surfboard manufacturing, Wilshire Boulevard, Watts, expressways, and dropouts. Banham’s role here is similar to Koolhaas’ position on cities like Lagos and Guangzhou, although Banham goes deeper and you get a sense that Banham has really walked, bicycled and driven the length of Los Angeles, before speaking authoritatively about it — and like any good urban scholar, he makes clear the idea, that L.A. like any great city, is a place that can never really be known or understood.