BoBo Brutalism in Pasadena

by Kieran Healy on March 22, 2004

I arrived in Pasadena (from Sydney) yesterday. Or possibly today. I’m still adjusting to jetlag, driving on the right and Los Angeles in general. The view of the mountains from the hotel is beautiful, at least in the photo in the hotel guidebook. Right now the smog makes them invisible. The area around the hotel has the usual collection of dull office blocks and carpark-like structures that turn out also to be office blocks. I’ve seen three buildings so far that are more than three stories tall, face the street on at least two sides, and have no windows at all: a Bank of America, a Target, and a Macy’s. I don’t have very high expectations when it comes to urban design, but these things look like the Simpsons’ Springfield Mall. They might as well have “Ministry of Truth” or “Central Reprocessing” written on the side. Is Pasadena particularly bad in this respect? Or has nine months away from the U.S. been enough for me to start paying attention to this kind of thing again?



yami 03.22.04 at 8:58 pm

Pasadena is certainly no worse than the rest of SoCal; I think you’ve been overly sensitized. The Target actually does have a few windows – you can sit in the snack bar and watch people walk to and from the parking lot, which helps move the architectural design experience from “Central Reprocessing” to “Central Product Systems”. Don’t forget that you’re supposed to be driving, not walking, when you experience these or any other buildings in Los Angeles.


praktike 03.22.04 at 9:09 pm

Hey, I like old town Pasedena … it’s the best of a sorry lot out there.


JoJo 03.22.04 at 10:45 pm

“The view of the mountains from the hotel is beautiful, at least in the photo in the hotel guidebook. Right now the smog makes them invisible.”

That’s not smog, it’s fog (locally know as “the marine layer”). We should not surrender to our preconceptions.


tdilts 03.22.04 at 11:36 pm

Please don’t leave Pasadena. It only gets worse.


yami 03.23.04 at 12:12 am

Old Town is a lovely pedestrian shopping area with narrow sidewalks and busy streets. If they could only find a better place to put the traffic on Colorado it’d be genuinely enjoyable. Meanwhile, for Pasadena civic charm, I’ll stick to City Hall and the older residential districts.


robbo 03.23.04 at 12:21 am

A second to the recommendation that you NOT leave the Pasadena/San Marino area — Azusa would rip your heart out through your smoking eye sockets…


vivian 03.23.04 at 12:21 am

Are you there for the mini-conference on global justice? I am terribly envious, will you blog from it, let us know how the big names and little respond to each other’s work? If there are any spontaneous tributes to Susan Okin? Sorry you don’t like the weather, but be glad that you’re in an invisible-but-temperate part oc California rather than, say, somewhere ice-bound. Just think how glad you’ll be to get back home…


Rajeev Advani 03.23.04 at 12:32 am

Seconding Jojo, it’s not smog. But I’d say that Pasadena is particularly drab and boxy compared to other areas of SoCal. I don’t think much of Old Town either; it just doesn’t feel very… cozy. My years of living there — and my months since of putting up with New York snobbery toward the area — have taught me that Southern California is easy to dismiss at first glance, but well worth a closer look.

One thing I still don’t understand is why SoCal is such a tourist attraction. Sure, there’s Disneyland and Hollywood, but the latter especially must be the greatest let-down sight-seeing monument out there…


Rana 03.23.04 at 12:48 am

It’s the environmental features of SoCal I find appealing, not the architecture (post 1970s, at least).

yami’s point about the buildings meant to be seen from the road is a good one; I remember reading some book on urban design (back when I was teaching said) that claimed that most of the large-scale, minimalist architecture was designed with the idea that it would be viewed at high speed from freeways — minimal time to make an impact, and all that.

If you can find older neighborhoods in which people actually live (look for trees and sidewalks!) Pasadena can be quite nice. Much of the area around the Huntington is lovely, for example.


SqueakyRat 03.23.04 at 2:23 am

Every time I come back to the US — usually from “old Europe” as Don Rumsfeld likes to call it — I go through a fairly long period when I can’t see America as anything but an architectural and cultural garbage dump.


David Sucher 03.23.04 at 3:56 am

But why the title “BoBo Brutalism”?


matt 03.23.04 at 3:57 am

Just imagine, sitting at a snack bar at target, watching the people go by! Ah, strip-malls.


Kieran Healy 03.23.04 at 5:13 am

But why the title “BoBo Brutalism”?

Well, the mall next to the hotel seemed BoBo, and the architecture seemed brutal.

But you tell me. I’m pretty jetlagged.


Brett 03.23.04 at 9:13 am

Why do folks consider SoCal a tourist attraction? Possibly because within 2 hours of travel you can swim in some of the finer beaches of the world from San Diego to Santa Barbara, or hike/ski in the mountains, and enjoy some of the spectacular desert vistas available such as Joshua Tree Nat. Park. The climate except for the smog is terrific. Of course the downside is the huge population pressure/traffic. And if you’re staying near Old Town, I wouldn’t be walking at night north of that area:-) Not too long back it was known as the “ghetto” and frequented by the bangers. Good luck:)


blockbuster video guy! 03.23.04 at 1:05 pm

Visit the huntington.

Somewhere in its glass cabinets you will find a gaudy poster from the Elizabethan Renaissance.
It is addressed to those brave souls setting out to explore the New World. “All the equipment and gear you might need, and at great prices, too!”

It’s not a movie without popcorn!

blockbuster video guy

, one that promotes the gear promoting all of the gear and equipment a for those planning a trip to the New World. that advocates poster from the Elizabethan Renaissance


David Sucher 03.23.04 at 5:09 pm

OK to the title, then.

But Southern California is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The settlements are by-and-large not particularly charming, but then there are very few in North America which are…But the natural landscape is pretty incedible.


aphrael 03.23.04 at 6:54 pm

David – i’m sure it’s a matter of taste, but the southern california landscape is nothing compared with other parts of california: in particular the soaring cliffs of the central coast, or the mist-shrouded forests of the north coast. :)


andrew 03.23.04 at 7:27 pm

You like LA? Try Houston. I dare you. Designers of rat cages show more concern for the asethetic sensibilities of their charges.


Mark 03.23.04 at 9:56 pm

I’m not a fan of Southern Californian by any stretch of the measure (when the best thing you can say about a place is that it has great weather, you aren’t saying much, and for my money the weather there is dull at best) Reyner Banham’s book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies did a lot to improve my view of the architecture there.


David Sucher 03.23.04 at 10:58 pm

Anyone who scoffs at Southern California’s natural beauty simply has not seen it or sees it only through the prism of conventional cant and cliche.


bennettsc 03.24.04 at 2:20 am

just got back from my first visit to Pasadena. Strikes me as what a more gentrified LA proper would be like. Pleasant town.

I think Easterners (I’m one, origninally) are fooled by the Califoria landscape. Because it’s a desert, it seems “emptier” than the lush, green Northeast, where outside of the cities you can find ample leaf cover.

I think SoCal definitely is uniquely beautiful. And LA is an interesting place overall – too bad they didn’t build the subway 50 years ago and develop accordingly. The problem is that, I’m told, unlike 20 years ago, you can’t hop on the freeway and go across town nearly as easily as you used to, which makes enjoying all the city has too offer that much harder.

But there’s still more to do there than in almost any other city or region. You can find all the usual cosmopolitan pleasures. Drive just outside the city to see what it used to be like, and if the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Barbara, or the country near Ojai isn’t beautiful to you, something’s wrong with you.

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