Hotel Theory: The History of the Los Angeles Hotel

By Erik MorseOctober 18, 2012

Hotel Theory: The History of the Los Angeles Hotel

The History of the Los Angeles Hotel in the Twentieth Century: An Interview Roundtable

With Norman KleinD.J. Waldie, Mark Z. Danielewski, Sid Krofft, Edward Soja, and Thom Andersen


  • Part 1:  Norman Klein and D.J. Waldie


I went in search of astral America, not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces.

Jean Baudrillard, Amerique

THE DISTANCE FROM THE BILTMORE Hotel’s baroque lobby to the Brutalist portico of the Bonaventure is no more than a 10 minute stroll along 4th Street, but their cultural and design histories traverse most of Los Angeles’ twentieth century. Between Pershing Square, the site of the former, and the demolished remains of Bunker Hill, the setting for the latter, the city has witnessed some of the earliest encampments of the Pueblo, the first central canals for the public water supply, an upper class enclave of Victorian nouveau riche, and the seedy roofscapes that inspired American noir. While the cartography and infrastructure of Los Angeles continues to change, suffering the accelerated hyper-urban expansion that has come to define its nebulous, postmodern skyline, the city’s industry of hotels and motels provides a network of time-capsules, whose interiors evoke, among others, the golden age of Hollywood regency, the Googie optimism of post-War road culture, and the disorienting fantasies of the Beverly Hills boutique.

More than any other American city, Los Angeles is defined by the semiosis of the freeway and the sound stage, a constant circulation between the horizontality of the open road and the verticality of the interior readymade. Between these exclusively public and private spheres rests the hotel, a topos whose permeability draws the tourist, outlier, and transient into an artificial phantasm of comfort, recreation, and dwelling. As D.J. Waldie explains in his suburban classic, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, each speculative settlement in post-Hidalgo Los Angeles required three elements to survive — a train stop, water supply, and hotel. Or, to put it more figuratively, a mode of travel, sustenance, and interiority. While these rough-hewn rooming houses initially acted as a capillary shelter from the chaos of the pueblo, their increasing architectural and symbolic vastness, concurrent with the expanding cultural significance of Hollywood, suggests an industry more intent on absorbing and exhibiting the entirety of the outside world from within, much like the epic cinema of DeMille, Griffith, or Lucas.

In Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk locates in architect Joseph Paxton’s Victorian achievement, the Crystal Palace, the antecedent of a world based on the fantasy of the hyper-interior. “The enormous original, a pre-fabricated building design […] constructed in the fall of 1850 in London's Hyde Park [began] a new aesthetic of immersion,” he writes. “It began to transpose the outside world as a whole into a magical immanence transfigured by luxury and cosmopolitanism.” With its walls of translucent glass, steel and climate-controlled atria, the Crystal Palace’s design, “spread like an epidemic across the USA and the rest of the world, [with] the convention centers, great hotels, sports arenas and indoor theme parks.”

If the consummation of this cosmophagic impulse can be found in the kaleidoscopic — if not psychedelic — theme park resorts of Las Vegas, a phenomenon first enumerated in Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas, and later celebrated in the critical mythologies of Jean Baudrillard, Norman Klein, and Bruce Bégout, its historical and architectural roots are no doubt exhibited in L.A. landmarks like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Biltmore, the Ambassador, the Roosevelt, the Bonaventure, and numerous other meccas of West coast hospitality, the model of which is to provide the tourist the Ur-experience of Los Angeles-as-environment — to bring them closer to its paradisal climates and ubiquitous sunlight and, simultaneously, to capture the sun inside a prism, reproducing its light as the simulated glow of celebrity. As Fredric Jameson writes of the Bonaventure’s glass shell, “it is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when you seek to look at the hotel’s outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself, but only the distorted images of everything that surrounds it.” The result is a kind of liminal zone between horizon and screen.

The motel, the highrise resort’s malevolent cousin, is equally tied to a phenomenology of the Southern Californian roadscape, though its status is, according to Bégout, a “countersite” and, later, “a supermarket of sleep.” Removed from the urban boulevard, the multiplicative appearance of the motor hotel became synonymous with a certain roadside mundanity, which was inscribed in suburban consciousness first as liberating, then as dangerous, and finally as corporatized. Through the literature of Chandler, West, Pynchon, Bukowski, and Ellis, and the cinema of Aldrich, Polanski, Lynch, and Mann, its space was aestheticized as a receptacle of ontological and historical disjunctions — promising both dissolution and reinvention to everyone from the milquetoast to the outlaw. “The motel is a motel anywhere,” Venturi observed. But it is in this profane seriality, this home without qualities, that the motel most resembles Los Angeles — another kind of dream-factory.

In the following interviews, conducted with Los Angeles luminaries, whose work reflects upon the city’s unique architectures of domesticity, tourism, suburbanism, and fantasy, the hotel is re-positioned beyond mere backdrop. Its philosophy of hospitality, transience, and shelter becomes reflective of a city devoted to the economies of excess and pleasure. To live in L.A. is, in a way, to inhabit an immense metropolitan hotel. And the unique language in which Angelenos speak is itself a kind of hotel theory.

— Erik Morse




Norman M. Klein is an author as well as a professor at the California Institute of the Arts

Erik Morse: There are few other American cities whose cultural, artistic, political and economic histories are so inextricably linked to landmarks like the Biltmore, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Ambassador, the Bonaventure. Why do you think the space of the hotel looms so large in the cultural imaginary of Los Angeles?

Norman Klein: Well, first, I’m not so convinced that there aren’t famous hotels in Paris or London or in New York that are of equal or greater importance. I think part of our obsession with the hotel in Los Angeles is that so much of L.A. is about being a tourist either in your own body or in the city itself. And I think that for Los Angeles the hotel is less intrinsic and more on the outside, more of an outsider’s view. I think the Bonaventure hotel is outside downtown. It’s 30 minutes to the airport. It’s like living on a slingshot over there. There are no stores around. I know it’s supposed to be postmodern as of the eighties, but I think it’s simply a hotel that is built on a ruin that used to be a neighborhood in a city that sliced its nose off. What fascinates us about hotels is that a lot of Los Angeles is seen not as a city of neighborhoods but as a city of boulevards, a city where you don’t really communicate, you don’t really walk. And while that is true, the nuance of the city is almost impossible to find in hotels.

EM: There is also a certain thread of morbidity and death that one finds in the history of the Los Angeles hotel, from the Black Dahlia’s disappearance at the Biltmore, to the shooting of RFK in the Ambassador to the overdoses of various celebrities in upscale suites. This Hollywood ‘Gothic’ aesthetic, though, seems to only further mythologize the role of the hotel as a haunted or hallowed space, a fantasy world of the ‘screen’. Where do you believe this connection between the hotel and death resides?

NK: Well, there is, first of all, a kind of noir picturesque that is associated with every city like the famous cemetery in Paris —

EM: Père Lachaise.

NK: Yes, Père Lachaise. And Rome has more corpses to visit than almost any other place on earth. It goes on and on. But the uniqueness of the noir aesthetic in Los Angeles, the fascination with Manson and scientology and Jack Parsons and who was murdered here is interesting, because I’m sure there are just as many ritual murders in any city, so why Los Angeles? What does this particular memento mori have to say? A lot of these noir images have a cinematic reference. News stories like Manson or film stories like the Black Dahlia murder keep re-invoking themselves. And she was of course named after the film Blue Dahlia, which was out at the same time.

So I would say perhaps the hotel is the place where the imaginary is indexed from tourism, cinema and the strange versions of the boulevards in a city that is multi-nodal. You might say the hotel is where absence and presence meet. I’m not sure if there is this vitality that you have in hotels in New York or Paris, I’m not sure if it’s true. I’m a non-hotel person probably, but I appreciate the importance of this imaginary absence.

EM: I’m interested in what you mean by this. Because Thom Andersen said the same thing, “I’m a motel person, not a hotel person.” What does that mean?

NK: Hotels are often associated with people staying longer and paying more for a room. Getting services, having an expensive bar.

EM: So when you say you are not a hotel person, do you mean you are a motel person?

NK: No, motels do not particularly excite me either. I don’t take road trips much. I either take a train or a plane and I get there. I’ve never been that fascinated with hotels. The one that did sort of interest me for a time was the Mondrian. What interested me about it was that it felt like you were in a camera shoot all the time, like you were having your picture snapped for a Bunuel film or something. It felt like you were in a fashion shoot.

There is an aspect of the motel that is more working class. And the hotel is more bourgeois, at least in aspiration. You go to a hotel if you have money and you want to feel fancy. And there is theatricality to the hotel. Hotels have this history of a global, cosmopolitan consciousness. But then there are all of these bungalow units with courtyards.

EM: From the establishment of the earliest resort hotels in Los Angeles, for example, the Hollywood Hotel at the turn of the century or the Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1910s, hoteliers have traded on this image — or perhaps imago — of the L.A. resort as an outdoor as well as indoor paradise. Well before the modern improvements of air-conditioning and interior ventilation “perfected” interior thermostasis, these hotels were already designing climate by creating lush gardens, large breezeways, swimming pool culture, in order to play on the tourist’s fantasies of the city. How important do you think this climatological manipulation was in building these false narratives of the resort? Do you think the recent turn toward interior climate-control has reduced the impact of the hotel’s exterior design?

NK: I agree entirely. I’ll have Lucky Baldwin speak for me for a moment — I quote him at the beginning of History of Forgetting. Someone asked him why he was selling real estate so expensively when there was no water and no roads. His answer was something like, “Hell, I’m not selling them the land. I’m selling them the climate.” And I’ve checked into this and there was the term climatology used by Carey McWilliams, who said the marketing of the climate was fundamental to the development of the city. What’s so unique about the climate of Los Angeles as opposed to Florida or Atlantic City or the Mediterranean? One fascinating aspect of it is how cold it gets here at night. It’s kind of a semi-arid climate that, because of the mountain passes and the way it is positioned along the ocean, gets really cold. I was over in Pasadena the other day up on the third floor, outdoors, and I was freezing my ass off. They had to run out and get a coat for me because I looked so pathetic; I was practically frozen solid. Los Angeles was designed to have that inside-outside design from the start. The bungalows had tremendous presence outdoors, there were lots and lots of room. They didn’t plant a lot of trees at first, but then they created the oasis effect. Because there was this obsession with nighttime and the sunset. I would say the number of photographs in L.A. at sunset is like 500 to 1 compared to sunrise. New York is always the sunrise, L.A. is always the sunset.

EM: Because of the ocean.

NK: And because it’s so weird and pastel, because the climate afterward becomes so peculiar. It’s so seemingly arid but then suddenly it gets moister, dewy, the moon gets a bit wetter, you might say, and the temperature drops 10 degrees. So they immediately took advantage of that. They positioned the windows in certain ways, those kinds of things. And they knew that the wintertime was particularly charming so it became the city for people with one lung. There was a kind of climatological industry in Pasadena, even, not just along the ocean. The marketing of the climate became fundamental to the architecture. They started with the Victorian and then this prairie style became popular. And then they moved to the bungalow, which is absolute airflow, courtyards, and so on. So, unquestionably, the whole look of the city came from the climate. It’s a city that has uniquely responded to its ecology and climate, something that is often neglected. But the early people writing about it, they were obsessed with it.

EM: How do you think that changed with the proliferation of HVAC and interior ventilation?

NK: It’s so stupid for Southern California to have that much air-conditioning. This house I bought from 1908 — the entire house was built for climate. Every detail. I never needed an air conditioning. So the whole structure of the craftsman house was built for the cross breezes.

EM: So what about modern architecture? It’s so climatologically perfected from the inside.

NK: We’ve lost that complete inside-outside feeling. We do have a tremendous difficulty just being in a natural breeze. I think part of it was the smog issue in Los Angeles, it made us feel as though we were unsafe to be in the air. So the fundamentals of L.A. were destroyed in that way. And there is this desire to bring it back, to open out. But I don’t think we are going to get back. Because we live in an air-conditioned car even when we are outdoors. And I don’t think any city can solve this. We’ve fallen in love with being five degrees cooler than we need, without any patterns of hot and cold. We’ve adapted intuitively to the unnatural air. The unnatural air is unquestionably natural to us.

EM: The theorist Peter Sloterdijk makes a similar claim about climate.

NK: It’s completely true.

EM: Let’s discuss Walter Benjamin for a second, since you mentioned to me what a devotee you are of his work. For all of the conventional descriptions of Los Angeles as a sprawling, horizontal metropolis, there is an incredible emphasis on interiorizing the frontier throughout its history, so you have the eschewing of the train system for the automobile/interstate, the proliferation of the roadside motel, the increasing popularity of the Hollywood sound stage over exterior location shooting. One might imagine a corollary between the position of the hotel here and the arcade in Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project] as they both represent a certain capitalist desire to bring the outside world into a totalizing and marketable interiority, to create a controlled and insulated simulacrum of an entire city beneath one roof. What is it about Los Angeles that stimulates this constant struggle between the cultivation and Edenic pleasures of the outside world and the desire to capture and interiorize it?

NK: Let’s start with two simple models, because this is a big question. The first is the term simulacrum in relationship to the Arcades. The term first appears in Louis Aragon’s novel, Paris Peasant, which is the foundation of and inspiration for Benjamin’s Arcades Project and was probably read by every high school student in France, including a young Jean Baudrillard. So understand that it isn’t Plato and it isn’t Baudrillard, it’s something from the Surrealist perspective of architecture. And then, also, the arcade was very much about what they called the Arabian Nights effect. It was bottled light, if you will, glassed over light, which is typical of the nineteenth century, the gardens, the train stations —

EM: The London Crystal Palace.

NK: And, of course, Paxton’s Crystal Palace and so many other examples. It was a very particular thing, to glass over light. And it makes its way to cinema too.

EM: I should also mention theorists like Paul Scheerbart too, and the Glass Chain group and the Glass Pavilion in Germany.

NK: Yes, there’s Scheerbart and the architect Bruno Taut and others. The whole history of glassed-in environments has a strange history in Benjamin’s project. And his peculiar, melancholic narrative of modernity comes out of this glassed, lived-in environment, not the high-culture. So now we begin to ask questions like how that does work in a city like Los Angeles. And we understand that in Vegas they glass over everything. Or they use the sheen of water to give a glassy, immersive effect. And the movie studios using protected light in the thirties and forties and then gradually shooting more outdoors.

EM: Or even something as simple as the Vaseline smudged on the camera to create a glassy translucence.

NK: Now they just do all that on computer. So a person can be just out of rehab and not having slept for six years and still look 10 years younger. This idea of bottled light, protected light — it even enters into the world of art installation in the seventies and eighties. So there’s this endless fascination with clear glass once the moderns begin to use it, in windshields, in movie projectors, in staging, in everything, so that we live in this screened-over or screened-in environment. And we no longer care if we live in this glass sheet. So that when you are driving through Los Angeles and you roll down your window suddenly you realize that there are dimensions that you haven’t seen. Like looking at a Vermeer painting, you no longer can see. In the latenineteenth century, Vermeer’s work was considered weird looking but now we look at his work and we think it’s a photograph. So the whole apparatus of glassed-over nature —

EM: It’s like a phenomenological or epistemic shift.

NK: Yes, it’s like a whole grammar of the glass environment. And we also should realize that it has a lot to do with the staging of nature, the environment, too.

EM: Like The Grove.

NK: Like The Grove, which is an outdoor version of an indoor version of an outdoor-indoor feeling of an indoor version of being outdoors with Frank Sinatra lounge music blasting. It’s a Tune Town version of reality. It’s a glassed over environment. But to what degree is the world seen through a windshield? Is the new flaneur someone driving through an area and not walking through it? So we have to get rid of this moralizing and start asking these questions. If the world does exist through a sheet of glass and that glass now includes cell-phones and small screens, what do we mean by being human and how do we play with it? And get rid of that easy condescension.

EM: Bringing it back to the hotel in Los Angeles, if we see it as a glassed-over space, something like the Bonaventure is the best example, do you see a connection between the way these kinds of architectures are created and this Hollywood glass aesthetic? In other words, the artificial environment or interiors in which we often dwell in Los Angeles.

NK: If you’ve ever been on a movie set, shot outdoors, even on a real street, the first thing you notice is that even if it’s eleven o’clock at night the light is blasting and you are practically getting a sunburn. Somehow that street has been converted through the glass filter of the camera into a place that could be either indoors or outdoors. Those Errol Flynn movies from the late thirties like The Sea Hawk — it was shot with the ship on the Atlantic indoors.

We don’t want to get too fussy about the indoor-outdoor in a literal sense because one can actually make the outdoors look indoors, like The Grove. And that fascination with the glass barrel vault, like in the shopping malls is almost a return to the Renaissance or Paxton’s Palace, and oddly open to the inside-outside. I don’t think it’s cinema but I do see that if you walk through the Bonaventure Hotel you do get this feeling that Clint Eastwood will jump down thinking you are trying to assassinate the president or Johnny Depp will be running around; there is this feeling we’ll be walking through a movie. There is something in our culture … we have this entire civilization built around the illusion of celebrity. I guess this is related to the glassed-in effect. And hotels definitely have the feeling of being destination resorts and the mark of the resort is that you feel like a kind of celebrity. People really want to be a celebrity for a day and hotels have decided that they will give you a sense of being one. You don’t want to feel like a businessman you want to feel like a celebrity. I guess that’s a theme. All the amenities, the gyms, and these weird sixties movies reenacted on the rooftop cafes, sipping wine and wearing expensive outfits. It’s conspicuous consumption, almost like the eighteenth century. I think Los Angeles has identified with it. But I don’t think it’s the movies that did it. It’s the need to be outside of time and have the life of a celebrity. We want that feeling and we identify it more with the celebrity than cinema itself.

EM: In The History of Forgetting you make this very interesting connection between collective nostalgia, built environments and the “unfindable,” popular memory inscribing certain fictitious narratives within historical spaces. Do you see in L.A. hotels a tension that exists between the constant bid for design novelty and a narrative of nostalgia that must accompany them as they fall out of vogue? In other words, where does novelty/innovation and nostalgia meet in the hotel?

NK: Hollywood hotels are different than regular hotels. They are all about making a statement.

EM: Yes, but no matter how novel or hip these hotels are at the moment, in another five years they will be passé. So at what point do they begin to encourage this counter-narrative of nostalgia, which must necessarily erase or change their aura of fashionability?

NK: I often say that nostalgia works only when people have forgotten what actually happened. But if you are only marketing nostalgia in a built environment, there is a good chance you are going to run out of money. Because people get tired of it after a while. We tend to think of nostalgia as too saccharine or too flat and we also know that it is artificial. We know it as a cheap, low-end version of the ruin. For the sake of discussion let’s call these places contested spaces. That even though this place may have nostalgia, it must also have a contested quality, it must have a tension to it that suggests a narrative that when you enter it has a scripted illusion, as though you are an insider. Nostalgia works perhaps for a certain percentage of people who vote for Romney no matter what, and so on. In terms of design, it’s a very delicate balance. Things age very fast. That’s the crisis of any consumer driven space. It has to have some sense of modernity. Baudelaire talks about the eternal code and the transitory code co-existing in the same moment, one meeting the other but always in a kind of suspension. And that would create a fascinating sense of modernity. It’s an endless struggle. Think about theme parks. The nuances are so incredible. These people are constantly trying to create this contested space to keep it relevant and yet create some sense of comfort and intrinsic capital value that you can’t find anywhere else.

EM: But my interest here is with the hotel. Because the hotel is a commercial and consumer venture but it also a particularly important space of comfort in which one dwells, in which one is home when they are away from home. So you are not only wanting the tourist experience but also the human necessities of sleep, shelter. It’s a very special place within this commercial world.

NK: Right. The idea is that the new kind of hotel, which is an island, must be its own destination. The idea is to recreate the city in miniature. You can see that in museums, like LACMA, where they are actually re-creating entire urban environments in miniature. It’s as if the new hotel, which is like a whole environment, and the museum, which is a city in itself, are not in districts anymore. It’s as if the suburbanization of downtown areas has made them less interesting. The city is on the defensive. There are the hotels like in the Middle East or the in Vegas that are whole environments. I think it’s the anxious, nostalgic retreat of the city back to city walls. Walled cities posing as hotels. It’s not as much fun, it’s not cruising the city in the same way, because you really get no surprise. It’s like the old Holiday Inn napkins. They used to say, “The best surprise is no surprise.” That’s a matter of opinion. To me the best surprise is no surprise means there’s no surprise. We are in a transition to see what happens in our public spaces, whether or not cities will have districts again. In cities like New York or Paris you still have districts but there are fewer and fewer of them than we think.

EM: So you are agreeing with me that the Los Angeles hotel experience is an increasing move toward interiorization?

NK: What I’m saying is that places like hotels and The Grove give experiences that are like walled-in versions of the city in miniature. The hotel is in that category in L.A. You can certainly see it in the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Mondrian, which is this environment; it’s similar to Vegas. Vegas was determined to become a destination resort. So hotels, instead of becoming a way to experience a district, become destination resorts. But I think that glamour is beginning to tarnish.

EM: In the way the hyper-interiorized, space ship shopping malls of the seventies and eighties began to lose their appeal in the nineties.

NK: Yes. For example, one of the weird things that’s happened in cities lately is that the boulevard loses its appeal and some rotten, little creaky street that is narrow enough not to be agoraphobic— like York in Highland Park— that type of street is becoming very appealing to people.

EM: Why is that?

NK: It’s more intimate, it’s a low yield cityscape. So now the low yield cityscape, either here or in lower Manhattan or Brooklyn or East London, all these cities are finding the very humble looking, former working class neighborhoods and reclaiming them, putting in fancy stores and restaurants and they still maintain this Heimlich quality. They have this skinny, spaghetti-like cityscape.

EM: It’s trading on the fantasy of the European cobble-stoned street or the village green.

NK: It’s this strange idea that the quartier is the new version of cosmopolitanism.

EM: But aren’t cities like Vegas still doing this but just from within. So for instance when you go the Paris hotel you see the trompe l’oeil sky on the ceiling and the buffet line is designed to look like Montparnasse.

NK: Or even Rodeo Drive has that kind of intimacy. The idea being to create intimacy out of immersion. And the new theme is immersing you in a small European village like one in Provence. And we are seeing parklets, like little parks, like mini parks cut into sections, like the one in Silver Lake. It’s a parklet. And they’re doing these little streams in the city constructed with benches around it. So we’ll see a more miniaturized, Farmer’s Market version of urban life.

EM: So is this like an urban digression into some country idyll? Like Heidegger returning to his hut?

NK: Urban digression. I like that. A lot of the issue is that people thought that scale would be the future, but with nanotechnology, with cell phones and the GPS-ness of life, it seems to have made people desire haptic connections with each other.

EM: So isn’t this ensconcing a further regression into some kind of interiority?

NK: Yes. I think they call it sociality rather than sociability. Where you run into someone across the room and they say, “Didn’t I see you at the such-an-such opening?” And your heart soars. I’m having an urban reality.

EM: But isn’t this condition urban-not-urban?

NK: Well, yes. But cities were always filled with one-third rural bumpkins. I know because my father was a bumpkin. One-third of the people, particularly from American cities, were either from the countryside because they were pushed in for jobs and also they were immigrants. So that, for example, parts of Brooklyn or parts of Manhattan looked just like Sicily. Like MacArthur Park still looks like Central America. So the ideas that cities were just urban and not conjuries of rural reinvention is also a bit of a myth. But the weird thing that happens is that the city finally gets some of these people in charge, these neighborhoods look less and less like [their ethnic roots]. So these places will look more and more rur-ban.

EM: A new neologism — rur-banism?

NK: There will be more and more urban digressions. More rur-banism. We’re going from cosmopolitanism to rur-banism. This is one of the trends that’s sort of interesting, this quartier version of cosmopolitanism from this collapse of national urban planning. It’s an adaptation, like growing a thicker skin in the winter. I hated the walled city phenomenon, but I don’t mind the rur-banism. The urban digression phenomenon. Because I grew up in small neighborhoods and I think in a way a city has always been two hundred neighborhoods that barely know each other and meet at the boulevards on the way to somewhere else.

EM: So Dorothy Parker’s famous quip that Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city is not necessarily a bad thing?

NK: No.

EM: We talked a bit about the aesthetics and economics of the motel, but I want to explore further how the motel relates to its surroundings, namely the suburbs and the highway. The motel is often backdropped by this horizontal world of the highway, and is usually represented as a generic, uncultured road-stop, as a repository for shiftless characters and transients, perhaps largely because it grew from a suburban rather than urban design. How important is the design of the motel in understanding the expansion of highway and car culture as a separate cultural experience from the urban? Is this lack of study an indicator of our continued prejudice of the urban experience as somehow more authentic than the suburban?

NK: Let’s start with one issue, urban versus suburban. It’s impossible to talk about roadside culture and make some distinction between suburban and urban without feeling neurotic. Suppose I told you that suburban is a twentieth-century word for a nineteenth-century concept based on a fifteenth-century concept. In other words, the word suburb actually captures very little, particularly if you look at the gentrification of downtowns and how similar to suburbs they’ve become. It’s just older buildings and a denser space. But the suburbs are getting pretty dense too. Big parking garages, big banks, and certain suburbs like Lakewood were actually built around big factories. The Glendale/Burbank area was a huge industrial hub. So let’s not worry about the word suburban for a while because it’s an unfair exaggeration. Just to clear the field when talking about the roadside.

EM: Well what about the urban and non-urban? Because there is a definite shared experience that we have when we either enter or exit a city on the highway, right?

NK: Well …

EM: I think it’s much more true that you know when you’re leaving a city on the East coast than the West coast, largely because of the different forms that suburbanization has taken.

NK: Yes. But also because when you have rural industries like farming or oil drilling—it seems unlikely that you’re going to have an oil derrick on 5th Avenue. I guess the distinction is that suburbs are less ethnographically mixed and cities are. Cities generally have this history of an industrial moment. But I think if you go through the categories of urban and suburban in Los Angeles, a lot of them don’t work so well. Edward Soja, in his postmodern geography, talks about how many freeway intersections became the locations of industrial growth. Where was most of the aerospace industry? Way out in the suburbs. And the movie studios? They weren’t on Hollywood Boulevard. They were out in the suburbs. When a lot of Los Angeles freeways were built out to the suburbs in the fifties, some places already had population and they allowed for a certain degree of growth. But not 10 times as much. So the worst traffic in Southern California is toward the suburbs. You drive toward Anaheim you might as well take a mule and slaughter it on the road so you can eat. So then if we look at the roadside, how the roads developed, they are usually associated with a kind of suburbanism, this culture of the roadside attraction. But we tend to give them a very noir look. We think of the roadside motel culture as being carney culture, a transient place with mobsters and grifters and whores and salesmen with a shoeshine and a smile, as Willy Loman used to say. We think of Willy Loman.

EM: Or, in a modern sense, we think of David Lynch.

NK: Yes. We have an urban paranoiac version of what we think is a suburban place. It’s not unlike Jim Thompson’s version of small town America. Mike Davis used to go to a lot of these places. I guess there is something funny and fanciful about these motels and I think some of them have a certain fifties modernist charm. We should save them, but if we do then they turn into some kind of hipster joint. Or it becomes this kind of steampunk copy of the original. We look at these little roadside joints and think they got lost in time as if they were stuck in a rerun of a Broderick Crawford TV show. And we sort of get charmed by that. We don’t want it completely erased by modernity.



D. J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. He also is a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times. He blogs at KCET UpDaily.


Erik Morse: Here’s the wonderful opening to James Clifford’s essay, Traveling Culture. I thought perhaps this was an appropriate epigram to our conversation about the history of the hotel in Los Angeles and its particular design of dwelling.

To begin, a quotation from C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary: "Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place. The relations of classes had to change before I discovered that it's not quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement, not where you are or what you have, but where you come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there."

Or begin again with hotels: Joseph Conrad, in the pages of Victory: "The age in which we are encamped like bewildered travelers in a garish, unrestful hotel." In Tristes Tropiques, Levi-Strauss evokes an out-of-scale concrete cube sitting in the midst of the new Brazilian city of Goiania in 1937. It's his symbol of civilization's barbarity, "a place of transit, not of residence." The hotel as station, airport terminal, hospital: a place you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary.

D.J. Waldie: The mid-nineteenth century marks the start of the ever-accelerating annihilation of space and the consequent dissolution of places into “no places.” Oddly, the critique of the regime of speed on which transience has depended since the perfection, at the end of the nineteenth century, of transcontinental railways and trans-oceanic liners is (as in Conrad and Levi-Strauss) most often framed in aesthetic terms. The products of transience, hotels, motels, terminals, etc., best suited to speed, are presented formally (“garish” for Conrad, lessons to be learned for Venturi and Brown) and not very often as the outcomes of economic choices, the reactions to a history that must be rejected, or the awkward assertions by marketers and promoters of the “new.” As Thoreau might have observed, you have a choice to take the Concord (when it still flew) or not. But as Henry Adams observed, the regime of speed, which has substituted itself for all other exercises of the imagination, allows no conscientious objectors.

EM: Since Holy Land is focused on your hometown of Lakewood, I must ask you if you have any particular memories of hotels or motels in the town? How integral was the tourist court or motor hotel in the “instant” development of Lakewood? Was there a disappearance of mom and pop motels as the expansion of hotel chains infiltrated the freeways linking Los Angeles to Lakewood?

DW: Motels do not figure much in the development of Lakewood, in part because the “instant” creation of Lakewood consumed most of the available space, and in part because the freeway network crosses Lakewood in only one, short corridor and that [the 605 Freeway] came relatively later.

EM: According to Holy Land, beginning with the land boom of the 1880s, Los Angeles’s various speculative settlements were yoked upon three things: the railroad, a water company, and a hotel. While we always hear about the first two in historical accounts, the inclusion of the hotel is a surprising addition. What can we make of this third necessity?

DW: The making of new places in Los Angeles during the boom years of the late 1880s, when dozens of new towns were platted, typically included the building of a wood-frame hotel at the center of the acres of empty lots that surrounded it. The hotel was a metaphor substituted for place and a guarantor that the vacuum of this non-town would soon be filled. In most instances, those towns failed during the economic depressions of the 1890s and only the hotel remained in the network of empty, unbuilt streets. In some cases, the hotel building was turned over to a church organization and became the start of a college, as in the case of Claremont. The components of the development “triad” in early Los Angeles — escape/railroad, sustenance/water, shelter/hotel — were essential to the sales pitch of the 1880s, but the image of shelter/hotel was to be replaced (if all went well) by an image of home. The progress of Los Angeles imposed domesticity on a distempered and alien landscape in which the image of the hotel, as we have seen, pointed toward liberation through forgetfulness. Since Los Angeles was founded on forgetting, the image of the hotel/motel renders the idea of home irrational.

EM: I’m interested in the central role the hotel plays in L.A. literature, Why is there such a recurring emphasis on the hotel both as an architectural space and a cultural experience throughout L.A. literature, more so than in other American regional or urban literatures?

DW: Setting aside the looming presences of hotels, spas, sanitariums, departure halls, and inns in European and American literature (which diminish an exceptionalist claim for any particular city), the dystopic mythology of Los Angeles asserts — against evidence — the city’s placelessness as a key determinant of its inauthenticity. Since zones of transition and temporary suspension in that literature are commonly metaphors (both high and low) for moral and psychological dissociation, the “no place” of Los Angeles checks into its hotels, inhabits its homes, and (of course) walks its “mean” streets as guarantor of the city’s absent authenticity. There is historical justification to the cliché of placeless Los Angeles (altogether a scene of transition and temporary suspension), since the city was an occupied zone on contested ground subject first to Mexican irredentism, then an uneasy Anglo metropolis in a vast Latino outback, a haven for tubercular Midwesterners, a place of exile for Dust Bowl refugees, and, finally, an ambiguous el Norte for today’s mestizo diaspora.

EM: What you are alluding to in your psychotopological response is the aura of phantasm or ghostliness that seems intrinsic to the experience of checking into a Los Angeles hotel. This Hollywood ‘Gothic’ aesthetic seems to only further mythologize the role of the hotel as a haunted or hallowed space. Where do you believe this connection between the hotel and death resides?

DW: As a “no place,” the hotel/motel room enforces forgetting: of habits and rhythms imbedded in the (recently abandoned) everyday, of burdens never understood as such, because they are those that circumstance commands. The moral imagination is necessarily in sympathy with everyday life and its geography. Willful amnesia (metaphorically, a series of empty motel rooms) breaks down this bond of sympathy. Even the worst of motels offers forgetfulness as its principal amenity. Forgetfulness even unto death.

EM: For all of the descriptions of L.A. as a sprawling, horizontal metroplex, there is an incredible emphasis on interiorizing the frontier throughout its history, so you have the eschewing of the train system for the automobile/interstate, the proliferation of the roadside motel, the increasing popularity of the Hollywood sound stage over exterior location shooting. What is it about Los Angeles that stimulates this constant struggle between the cultivation and Edenic pleasures of the outside world and the desire to capture and interiorize it?

DW: Because of the city’s Catholic past, its capture in war and fears of Mexican irredentism, its dread of race mixing, its speculative cycles of boom and bust, because of the seductive power of its extravagant sales pitch, which abstracted Los Angeles into a few simple elements and expanded those into an overwhelming image of desire, because Los Angeles in the twentieth century consciously sought to be a “white city” (with everything that name implies) and a purified engine of capital and culture, Los Angeles was disrupted from place.

Tellingly, Los Angeles turned away from memory and that turning away cast the shadow that remains the city’s “noir” double: the city of unmet desires, the disillusioned city that still naïvely buys its own illusions. Los Angeles, as one civic booster early in the twentieth century claimed, had “everything in the future.” Everything in the future and nothing for today, where we actually live.

This is the reason for the famous anxiety visitors have about this place. Do we live in a city of erasure on the brink of destruction, or is this a place where such circumstances don’t matter, where you can always and endlessly, through the imagination’s negative capability, edit out all the parts you find disturbing?

EM: In Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, he rather infamously compared Los Angeles to Tokyo by noting that both cities have an empty center, and thus, in their refusal to fulfill our sense of urban togetherness, have produced a profound topological dis-ease. The role of the hotel, as a temporary or transient center of placeless-ness has also long since suffered this same kind of architectural “inauthenticity,” largely due to modernist diatribes against the corporatization and stagnation of their form. How can we begin to rethink both Los Angeles and the hotel as places other than empty, as places perhaps of possibility or post-modern nodes of meaning?

DW: The closing of the suburban frontier in maximally built-out Los Angeles has ended a 120-year experiment in place-making on an almost unimaginable scale. And because of its notable failures, I’m grateful that it’s nearly over. Still, the making of Los Angeles was based on a remarkably durable consensus about the way ordinary people ought to be housed, beginning with turn-of-the-century beliefs about the power of a “home in its garden” to ameliorate the lives of working people, and ending in the 1960s with tract houses turned into an affordable, mass-produced commodity for the average Joes who worked at North American Aviation and other plants in the aerospace and defense industries.

What Los Angeles is — moderately dense and mostly suburban — other urban regions in America are going to be, even if their goal was to be something else. We had better consider imperfect Los Angeles without the perfection of its dystopic clichés if we are to understand the trajectory of other American places. Given the overwhelming preference of ordinary people for neighborhoods that look an awful lot like L.A. — single family homes on lots in a neighborhood of similar homes — maturing urban regions are beginning to look like L.A’s densified “island.” Regardless of race, income, or current housing status, 75 to 85 percent of Americans want to own a single family house with a yard on a block of similar houses connected to a community in which the resources of an ordinary life (a school, a church, a store, a friend) can be found.

Easy contempt for Los Angeles as the dystopic “capital of sprawl” has suspended realistic judgments about its complicated history as a planned region and L.A.’s adequacy to fulfill not-quite-middle-class desire. Longing built its mass-produced suburbs, post-Depression and post-war families filled them, a rough communitarianism backed by economic prosperity gave them confidence, and when the confidence drained out 30 years later, the departing Anglo majority was replaced by a new migration of Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and Caribbean islanders. They build communities (just as my parents did), seek jobs, and eagerly try to enter the middle class on the “island” of L.A.

Closing the suburban frontier will drive the making in Los Angeles of more, even denser, multi-ethnic and multi-racial neighborhoods for the homes of the newer waves of immigrant working people. Portland and other “islands on the land” will face the same issues soon, as their own suburban frontiers close.

In theory, I agree with Professor Alex Krieger of Harvard’s department of Urban Planning and Design, when he disparages the capacity of places to give a moral shape to working-class lives. But I also am a member of another faith, sustained daily by my habits in a mass-produced suburb that has resisted suburbia. I encounter at every step on my walk to work as a volunteer at my city hall the intersection of this place and my character. Small houses on small lots at a density of about eight units per acre on a flat grid of narrow streets bordered by trees give my racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood of working people the geography of home.


LARB Contributor

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South, and contributor to The New York Times, Vogue, Artforum, Art-Agenda, Sight & Sound, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Guardian, among others. He is also an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writer grantee, a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, and a contributor to Semiotext(e). He has just completed his third book.


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