Once upon a time, if an architecture student needed a view of a faraway building or town, she’d head to the slide library, where thousands of thumbnail images—towers, houses, city blocks, famous landmarks—sat waiting to be sifted through.
These images were limited in quantity—students might have to fight over the same Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahn transparencies if they were writing similar term papers—as well as in quality. Slides rarely showed much other than buildings themselves, often in the same three-quarter view, so it could be hard to get a sense of the architecture’s environment.
One side effect of this: It reinforced prevailing narratives about a city’s design. In the 1960s, for example, many critics viewed L.A. as a mishmash of architectural styles, whose buildings still managed to sit distant and isolated from one another and the humans that used them. Looking at L.A. through a slide library, it would be easy to leave with that impression that the city was a stylistic and functional “failure,” compared to the streamlined density of a New York, Paris, or London.
That’s the story that led a group of young, fed-up Angelenos to hijack slide libraries in universities coast to coast in the 1970s, with images that focused on the play of L.A.’s built and living features. Armed with 35mm cameras and a Volkswagen microbus, David Greenberg and Ted Tanaka, two recent Arizona State University architecture grads (Tanaka later became a well-known architect), Roger Webster, a photographer, and Bernard Perloff, a PhD student in psychology, took to the freeways to capture the city’s unique architectural “ecology,” showing how buildings, streets, nature, and people (often young counterculture types) interrelated. Through colorful mail-order catalogs, they sold sets of the photographs printed as slides under the name “Environmental Communications” (EC).
Perhaps in the spirit of 1970s campus transformation, universities actually bought these images, mixing EC’s radically de-centered transparencies into their conventional collections. Imagine, slide one: A row of Victorian houses, perched primly on Bunker Hill. Click. Slide two: Two bikini-clad cyclists hang outside a Venice Beach dry cleaner in broad afternoon light. Click. Slide three: downtown’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in all its austere elegance. Click. Slide four: On a sidewalk bathed by a reddish street lamp, a young man with outstretched arms confronts a police officer.
Marcos Sánchez and Mark Wasiuta, co-curators of a major Environmental Communications retrospective (on view now through April 1 at LAXART, a contemporary art space in Hollywood), say the captions accompanying the images were also extraordinarily different than what libraries would normally receive. Slide pamphlets included super-detailed descriptions of how people moved through the city, at varying scales: to different parts of a bus bench or from the shade of one tree to another; how someone acted in a crowd.