Philosophies of the City | paper topic

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BLASÉ IN LA: The Freeway and its Freedoms 



Urbanism at the Demands of the Automobile


An urban texture paved for the demands of the automobile has conditioned a

framework for the physical atomization of urban life. Los Angeles has developed such an

urbanity long before the tools were embedded by immaterial locative media. To this end,

geographic space and the sphere of media conceive a metropolitan region to operate in a

state of mobility through complete inertia.




IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU ARE HOME NOW (not “if you lived here you’d be home now”)



The freeway system in its totality is a single comprehensible space. It is a habitable media where the space between bodies is an indefinable medium of time and speed. As a result, driving is part of the urban conversation— such that the English complain about the weather, Angelenos complain about traffic. Thus, the very urban form of the city has configured Angelenos’ state of being—a particular relationship with geographic space, a detachment from human-to-human contact, and a perception of domesticity that moves beyond the walls of home. Coming off a freeway is coming in from outdoors. The ramp of the freeway has become the extension of the garage driveway. Exiting one’s home is not determined by stepping out of the door. The car engenders an interdependent relationship between mobility and domesticity, between active life and contemplative life—because to exit outdoors is, in fact, only decided as one disembarks the vehicle at any given final destination. The journey between places has become an extended sense of domesticity.


“And this psychological interpretation, for which the absence or presence of a public realm is as irrelevant as any tangible, worldly reality, seems rather doubtful in view of the fact that no activity can become excellent if the world does not provide a proper space for its excercise.” (Arendt.)


Excellence is performed from inside the vehicle. According to Arendt, personal glory can only be attained in the battlefield, to declare one’s existence and for it to be considered human it has to take place in the public realm. The human condition is given by the city and in Los Angeles it is a human condition of atomized living. Thus, human nature is manifested in car culture, the medium through which one can “declare his or her unique existence in order to be considered human.”


active life vs contemplative life

human nature vs human condition.

human condition: atomized living

human nature: car culture


For Arendt, Ancient Greek life was divided into two realms: the public realm, in which political activity was performed, and the private realm, site of property and family life. It was in the public realm alone where as first expressed by Aristotle, true freedom could be gained through “great words and great deeds” as personal glory could be attained in the battlefield.”

“declare his or her unique existence in order for that action to be considered human.” and can only take place in the public realm.





Every other city in the world also has to deal with self-segregation and commuter culture. But the mass influx of different cultures into an area so large means that Los Angeles is not so

much a city, but a continent, complete with different countries, cultures, and customs.


On the one hand, the freeway is only the mode in which such a region is connected. On the other hand, it is the demands of the private car that has conditioned the city to be conceived as a region. Within a region so large, it is inevitable that people live atomized lives. In a city paved for the wheels of the automobile, a citizen’s means of travel is what conditions this segregation.


“The development of a protective, rational barrier has a profound impact on individuals living in a metropolis.” Simmel






Less than 2% of the population ride public transportation that has nothing to do with the roads. There is a vast difference between the infrastructural layout of the freeway system and

the Metro line. Another kind of urbanity of atomized living emerges when we try to

compare car culture with the Metro sub-culture.


An urbanity of remoteness is further perpetuated by electronic media as Metro riders spend time connecting to others via smart phone rather than the person sitting next to them. And drivers are navigated by a GPS system rather than stopping at a local gas station to ask for directions.


-traffic signs vs train signs






“This “blasé outlook” is the consequence of the constant bombardment of the intellect, and leads to the creation of a populace that is largely apathetic. City life is full of new stimulations occurring at various frequencies and intensities, which excite the nerves to highest level of reactivity. However, prolonged exposure causes a sensory overload and exhausts energy sources. The resulting inability to react to new stimuli with appropriate levels of energy defines the blasé mind-set and is unique to metropolitan society.” Simmel


Cities don’t need to meet to be thought of as a region. Electronic communication has connected cities via virtual information technology. We need not move to travel. The urbanism of locative media is now what is conditioning atomized living. Because there is an urbanity to connectivity via technology, networks have given citizens a sense of place without any sort of physical encounter. This makes Los Angeles an even more physically detached, impersonal urban experience. Because while there is an urbanism about the network, there is also an urbanism about where it is taking place. (McCullough 29)


If media means remoteness and the place is even more so, then Los Angeles has achieved a state of mobility through complete inertia—moving without moving at all, sitting in the speeding car, clicking buttons on the smart phone. The framework of atomized living is in place and the technology is now embedding it. Los Angeles has already been operating in this atomized urbanity. Electronic media now allows everyone in the world to live the way Angelenos have been living for years.





“he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near”



Georg Simmel “The Stranger,” and “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Kurt H. Wolff ed. and trans., The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950), 402-424,


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), Chap. 2, “The Public and the Private Realm,” 22-78.


Banham, Reyner. “The Architecture of Four Ecologies” University of California Press; 1

edition April 2, 2001


Jenks, Charles. “The Heterogeneity of Los Angeles” in Heteropolis.


Klein, Norman. “Booster Myths, Urban Erasure” in The History of Forgetting. June 1997

Publisher: New Left Books


Soja, Ed. “Inside Exopolis: Scenes from Orange County” in Variations on a Theme Park.

(Sorkin, ed.) pp 94-122


Koolhaas, Rem. “Atlanta” in S,M,L,XL. Monacelli Press; Subsequent edition. 1997.


McCullough, Malcom. “On the Urbanism of Locative Media,” Places Journal, Vol. 18

#2, 2000


Cooper, Julian. “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” One Pair of Eyes. Produced by

Malcolm Brown. BBC Colour 1970


Bottles, Scott. “Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City”

University of California Press 1991



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