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.

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