|Still from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, 1972 (source)
Exchanging the sidewalk for the road, the flâneur stopped walking some time ago and began driving. As the American city changed, so did the figure of urban modernity. In his travel documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, the architect takes to the streets of LA in a car: ‘…freeway driving is interesting in itself, from up here, you see the most weird and extraordinary things and places you can hardly see from down below’. His voyeuristic gaze, framed by the rear-view mirror and steering wheel of his car, takes in the urban mess.
The car as the classic symbol of individuality serves to highlight the truly solitary condition of the flâneur. He consumes the city: an array of endless streets and infinite freeways running for miles. He drives alone, but amidst the traffic surrounding him. To Baudelaire, the flâneur was the ‘man of the crowd’. Refusing a possible isolation, for Banham, the flâneur becomes the man of the traffic. While Banham’s 1970’s documentary, reflects on the emerging car-centric culture of Los Angeles, it is clear that as of today, the city hasn’t changed and the flâneur drives on.
|Still from Samson and Delilah, 2009 (source)
Imagery of the road inhabited is, perhaps unwittingly, recurring in the recent Australian film Samson and Delilah. The protagonists, indigenous teenagers Samson and Delilah, live life amongst a scatter of derelict community settlements in central Australia. The inadequate condition of housing (largely due to the government’s continued, incoherent response) means life, with all of its complexities, spills outside. In the film, buildings exist in the background; it is on, and at the periphery of roads—wide, gently convex, empty—where we sense an activation of space.
Absent of solids and voids, how would have Giambattista Nolli mapped the networks of habitation in the Australian desert? This is a land of inversion; a vacuum of openness, in which the built environment is a frail intrusion. From a bird’s eye, the strongest human mark is the swath of roads which carve long, asymmetrical shapes across the terrain.
There have been extensive writings on viewing landscapes from the seat of a car, for example Tom Wolfe’s infamous labeling of the Las Vegas urban strip as the ‘incredible electric sign gauntlet’. However, what of a slow paced, introspective encounter with the road? In Samson and Delilah, the identity of the road is obscured: like double exposure it is at once harsh and relieving, intimate and vast. Wearing the mask of architecture, it is a place of constant occupation—of past times, daily ritual, speculation, journey and salvation.
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