Prev: Beyond Blade Runner Up: Contents Next: Free Fire Zone


2. Scanscape

Is there any need to explain why fear eats the soul of Los Angeles?

The current obsession with personal safety and social insulation is only exceeded by the middle-class dread of progressive taxation. In the face of unemployment and homelessness on scales not seen since 1938, a bipartisan consensus insists that the budget must be balanced and entitlements reduced. Refusing to make any further public investment in the remediation of underlying social conditions, we are forced instead to make increasing private investments in physical security. The rhetoric of urban reform persists, but the substance is extinct. "Rebuilding L.A" simply means padding the bunker.

As city life, in consequence, grows more feral, the different social milieux adopt security strategies and technologies according to their means. Like Burgess's original dartboard, the resulting pattern condenses into concentric zones. The bull's eye is Downtown.

In another essay I have recounted in detail how a secretive, emergency committee of Downtown's leading corporate landowners (the so-called Committee of 25) responded to the perceived threat of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Warned by law-enforcement authorities that a black "inundation" of the central city was imminent, the Committee of 25 abandoned redevelopment efforts in the old office and retail core. They then used the city's power of eminent domain to raze neighborhoods and create a new financial core a few blocks further west. The city's redevelopment agency, acting virtually as their private planner, bailed out the Committee of 25's sunk investments in the old business district by offering huge discounts, far below market value, on parcels in the new core.

Key to the success of the entire strategy (celebrated as downtown's "renaissance") was the physical segregation of the new core and its land values behind a rampart of regraded palisades, concrete pillars and freeway walls. Traditional pedestrian connections between Bunker Hill and the old core were removed, and foot traffic in the new financial district was elevated above the street on pedways whose access was controlled by the security systems of individual skyscrapers. This radical privatization of Downtown public space -- with its ominous racial undertones -- occurred without significant public debate or protest.

Last year's riots, moreover, have only seemed to vindicate the foresight of Fortress Downtown's designers. While windows were being smashed throughout the old business district along Broadway and Spring streets, Bunker Hill lived up to its name. By flicking a few switches on their command consoles, the security staffs of the great bank towers were able to cut off all access to their expensive real estate. Bullet-proof steel doors rolled down over street-level entrances, escalators instantly stopped and electronic locks sealed off pedestrian passageways. As the Los Angeles Business Journal recently pointed out in a special report, the riot-tested success of corporate Downtown's defenses has only stimulated demand for new and higher levels of physical security.

In the first place, the boundary between architecture and law enforcement is further eroded. The LAPD have become central players in the Downtown design process. No major project now breaks ground without their participation, and in some cases, like the recent debate over the provision of public toilets in parks and subway stations (which they opposed), they openly exercise veto power.

Secondly, video monitoring of Downtown's redeveloped zones has been extended to parking structures, private sidewalks, plazas, and so on. This comprehensive surveillance constitutes a virtual scanscape -- a space of protective visibility that increasingly defines where white-collar office workers and middle-class tourists feel safe Downtown. Inevitably the workplace or shopping mall video camera will become linked with home security systems, personal "panic buttons," car alarms, cellular phones, and the like, in a seamless continuity of surveillance over daily routine. Indeed, yuppies' lifestyles soon may be defined by the ability to afford electronic guardian angels to watch over them. (In the meantime, these hard times are boom years for the makers of video surveillance technology. The leading manufacturer, a Swedish conglomerate, is now the official sponsor of the huge London marathon.)

Thirdly, tall buildings are becoming increasingly sentient and packed with deadly firepower. The skyscraper with a computer brain in Die Hard I (actually F. Scott Johnson's Fox-Pereira Tower) anticipates a possible genre of architectural anti-heroes as intelligent buildings alternately battle evil or become its pawns. The sensory system of the average office tower already includes panoptic vision, smell, sensitivity to temperature and humidity, motion detection, and, in some cases, hearing. Some architects now predict the day when the building's own Al security computer will be able to automatically screen and identify its human population, and, even perhaps, respond to their emotional states (fear, panic, etc.). Without dispatching security personnel, the building itself will manage crises both minor (like ordering street people out of the building or preventing them from using toilets) and major (like trapping burglars in an elevator).

When all else fails, the smart building will become a combination of bunker and fire-base. When the federal Resolution Trust Corp. recently seized the assets of Columbia Savings and Loan Association they discovered that the CEO, Thomas Spiegel, had converted its Beverly Hills headquarters into a secret, "terrorist-proof" fortress. In addition to elaborate electronic security sensors, a sophisticated computer system that tracked terrorist incidents over the globe, and an arms cache in its parking structure, the 8900 Wilshire building also has Los Angeles's most unusual executive washroom:

Tom Spiegel's office, in addition to the bulletproof glass, was designed to have an adjoining bathroom with a bullet-proof shower. In the event an alarm was sounded, secret panels in the shower walls would open, behind which high-powered assault rifles would be stored.

Prev: Beyond Blade Runner Up: Contents Next: Free Fire Zone