Metropolis II and the Enduring Delusions of Car-Centric Cities

Metropolis II, a kinetic sculpture of a futuristic city by artist Chris Burden that will soon start operating for view by the public, raises some interesting questions about the role of cars in cities.

I saw the sculpture, with its elevated roads wrapping around skyscrapers and other structure, sitting still when I visited the museum over the winter break. It might be worth checking it out in action to see 1100 toy cars and 14 train sets whiz and wind their way through the buildings. Metropolis II is a cool contraption and interesting piece of art, like a matchbox car track, erector set, and lego city mashed together and pumped up to gigantic size.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to burden such a nifty assemblage with political or planning baggage. But the sculpture’s prominent position in a major museum is drawing lots of attention to the work and the possible future it represents.  The artist’s comments about Metropolis II place it in line with some earlier visions of a vertical, car-dominated Los Angeles that had real influence on the shape of the city today. And I think what Peter Plagens wrote about art critics engaging in urbanism when he reviewed Raynar Banham’s influential book Los Angeles: the architecture of four ecologies, still applies:

” if he wanted to run out and paint pictures of the Roller derby or the Stones it’d be O.K. because it’d be innocuous …  But when you get into architecture it’s big casino, real people’s real lives … and here we go with another strangling round of MacDonald’s, freeways, and confectioners’ culture palaces.”

In a YouTube video showing the nearly completed work, Burden commented: “I love hearing that the cars are going 230 miles per hour. That makes me feel very hopeful for the future. That’s about the speed they should be running. Not 23.4 miles an hour, which is what my BMW says I average driving around LA.”

Whether or ultra-fast robot cars are part of our future, when I saw the sculpture, I was reminded of plans from the 1930s to weave urban freeways into downtown Los Angeles by elevating them above local traffic and running them through buildings.

In 1937 the Automobile Club of Southern California conducted a survey of traffic in the region and blamed gridlock on the mixing of types of car trips (through trips vs. people on local errands pulling in and out of businesses and curbside parking); and the mixing of cars and pedestrians and streetcars and other vehicles on streets. “The solution of the problem of providing adequate facilities for through traffic will be found in providing a network of traffic routes for the exclusive use of motor vehicles over which there shall be no interference from land use activities.”

The club recommended construction of a network of what we would today call freeways connected by cloverleaf interchanges; the gradual replacement of curbside parking with parking lots and structures; the replacement of streetcars with  buses; and the construction of elevated roadways in downtown Los Angeles that would allow cars to drive rapidly over local streets and right through the 3rd floors of buildings. Looking back, it’s interesting to see how much of this vision was realized. This is partly because, when the federal Aid Highway Act was passed in 1956,  federal, state, and local officials had  to grapple with the question of how a new interstate system could interact with already existing cities. Traffic engineers had been playing with concepts of where to site and how to construct fast, grade-separated roads in cities for twenty years.  Through their influence in state transportation department they were able to dominate the design and construction of urban freeways, to the detriment of urban life to this day.

Some of the worst urban freeways in the United States were constructed elevated above surface streets. Although none bore through office buildings as conceptualized by the Auto Club, what is key is that futuristic visions of cars swooping through cities (especially the Futurama Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair) captured the public’s imagination and influenced major infrastructure projects for decades to come.

I hope that kids who see Metropolis II today are inspired to go home and build neat stuff, but don’t buy into the idea that a cool urban future requires faster and faster car traffic. To flip the 1937 recommendations I quote above on its head, the solution to many of our urban problems will be in providing good places and land use activities over which there is less interference from traffic. The task for today’s imaginative child, and for all of us, is to imagine and experiment with places with fewer and slower cars. So, by all means, check out Metropolis II. But also go see and play with artist James Rojas’ interactive model of Long Beach and think about how we shape the city and how it shapes us.

  • Burden also talked about how Metropolis II was representative of the end of an era, with the green shoots of new alternatives emerging within. I’m not sure if it’s intended to be such a pro-auto statement.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Interesting – I had only known Burden because of the famous piece in 1971 where he had his assistant shoot him with a gun from very close.  I hadn’t realized that he also did the piece with the street lights in front of LACMA (which I enjoy quite a bit) and that he seems to have a history of automotive-themed pieces, including one from the ’70s where he was crucified on a Volkswagen.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Burden

  • Anonymous

    Having just come from several cities where the same number of amenities are within 1/10th the distance (and easily walked to), if LA had cars that went 230 mph it would just mean that your closest grocery store would be 50 miles away. If nothing else, going that speed would require ridiculously well-maintained and enormous roads. If I recall correctly, something like a third of LA county is pavement already – what do you do when you’ve paved the whole southern half of the state and all you have left is blacktop? (Hopefully nuke the place and start from scratch).

    This is lunacy, and needs to stop.

  • the LACMA site says Burden intends the piece to reflect the stress of living in a modern city so yeah, there’s not automatically a pro-car bias. But his quote about wanting 230mph cars was either a joke or a threat :)

  • good point that the only benefit of speed is to allow (or require) distance.

  • He also designed and built a ultra light weight car that got 150mph http://www.ubuweb.com/historical/burden/index.html

    The fact he’s been shot and crucified for his art makes me feel better about my mild criticism..

  • Anonymous

    It’s not; after all I like being able to get from LA to London in 10 hours, but in a setting where buildings are spread apart precisely BECAUSE of the infrastructure (roads/parking) that’s designed to move people between buildings, increased speed is counterproductive. I’d rather ride a bike 10-15mph around a city that’s 5 miles in diameter than drive 20-30mph around a city that’s 15 miles in diameter and mostly parking lots and crowded freeways. (Recall that tripling the radius will increase area 9-fold)

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Today’s Headlines

|
The Source Tells All About Metro’s September 15th Fare Increases 210 Fwy Truck Loses Control, Smashes 3 Cars, Minor Damage to Gold Line Construction (LAT) Amtrak, Chris Burdens’ Metropolis, and California’s HSR Future (City Lab) Should High Speed Rail Tunnel Under Santa Clarita? (CA HSR Blog) LA Magazine Interviews LACBC Director Jennifer Klausner More on […]

A Warm Welcome To SBLA Summer 2014 Intern Aviv Kleinman

|
There is a new face at Streetsblog Los Angeles this summer. Our latest intern Aviv Kleinman grew up in Los Angeles and currently attends SUNY Binghamton. Here’s Aviv’s introduction in his own words: Since I was very young, I’ve had a strong affinity for transportation. With my wooden train set and any other toys and props I […]

Beutner, Garcetti, James, Perry and Greuel on CicLAvia

|
Before CicLAvia, Streetsblog reached out to the five major declared candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles in the March 2013 elections.  All five wrote responses of some sort, and they are listed below in the order in which they are received.  We asked the candidates to describe their day on Sunday, but not all were […]