Saturday, July 6, 2013

Los Angeles/Santa Monica

Welcome to California - we're bankrupt!

We didn't spend much time in LA.

When we visited Glasgow I thought it was a city with more history than it could maintain. Dozens of grand Victorian constructions disused and decaying. LA's road system felt like that. Not that it was in disuse (though we never saw a real LA traffic clusterfuck) but the feeling that the city has built itself a burden that, in less affluent times, it can't maintain.

You hear commentators talk about "America's crumbling infrastructure." When you drive around the roads of LA or parts of New Jersey, you realise how literally true this is. You get used to the constant ba-dump badump on the freeways, like you're travelling over speed-bump lines, or the rattling concrete slabs or worrying potholes. Maybe this is one reason SUVs are so popular - to insulate the occupants from the state of their roads; to prepare for the day they are just driving over potholes and rubble.

Nobody ever closes a road though. Trains, hospitals, buses can be closed even if they're still used, but a road is never deemed 'uneconomical'.

At the rental lot Amy unsuccessfully tried to find out which car got the best MPG while someone reversed into me. We drove out without a map and she meandered aimlessly (but competently) before seeing a sign for Santa Monica and going "I know that place! Let's go there!"

My first California beach town was notable for two things. First, the sharp drop down to the beach and the fancy beachfront properties - one looking something like a pink Barbie Dreamhouse. Apparently one season of America's Next Top Model contestants may have stayed here, or on Venice beach.

Second, the homeless. Apparently authorities from across LA county dump their homeless in Santa Monica, but after seeing more of the West Coast it seems a much bigger problem. The simply seem to be more vagrants and homeless people here than anywhere else I've been.

The architecture in LA was often quite pleasing, with squat, hispanic designs mixing with more conventional US American style buildings. Downtown, it's noticeable how much more modern the skyscrapers are compared to New York. Manhattan is still dominated by stone 1920s designs and flat-sided office blocks. LA probably starts with the mirrored-glass towers of the 1980s before postmodern design quickly begins splitting form from structure and the buildings morph into new geometries.

Travelling in LA made me think - anachronistically - of Hotline Miami. It was the unfamiliar shapes of the trees. At night I found them especially strange - tall trunks topped with a clump of foliage, their silhouettes looming above the landscape.

There was more unfamiliar nature in the Huntingdon gardens. Tiny Rufous Hummingbirds zipped about amid the trees and bushes. Although happy to flit between flowers or perch while you trained binoculars on them, it was never long before another hummingbird encroached on their territory and a high-pitched chase call.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


I don't think I've ever been anywhere like Heathrow Airport, and maybe I never will. Where else in a European country do you find such a large built-up area dedicated to a single enterprise? You enter the sprawl of roads, car parks, service buildings, vents, trains, coach stops, terminals, radar towers, and everything around you is centred on a single activity. I don't think even a nuclear power plant or oil refinery would match the scale - there's not the same system of businesses supporting them or trying to make money from the people who pass through.

As soon as you enter this huge system you're channelled and controlled. It starts well before the security line; the airport's transport system extends arms outwards. When you're on foot, it's not just the worry about being late that keeps you from deviating and wandering around the airport. Maybe the no entrance, no trespassing signs aren't everywhere, but you know you're not meant to stray - it's not what the airport's there for.

Past the security theatre, airports are modernist icons in a postmodern world. Futuristic international modernism has begat postmodern nowhere places. The business of moving people and things around is now distinctly old-fashioned; the wireless internet and LCD-screen ads are a facade over the top of this. (And perhaps they highlight the point that greater telecommunications make people travel more rather than less.)

My favourite airports (as I am a seasoned traveller) are those where the boarding tubes don't seal completely, or you disembark onto the tarmac rather than straight into the terminal - as you move between sterile, air-conditioned worlds it's a little glimpse and breath of the outside, and the place where you are.