Tag: Culture


Constructing the Edge

by Anthony Raynsford

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Architecture in a Turbulent Age

Book Review: Design on the Edge, A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California Berkeley, edited by Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell, College of Environmental Design, Berkeley, 2009.

In the late 1960s, U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design lay at the crossroads of two temporarily aligned forces: leftist radicalism and empirical social science. Some professors became, for a time, ‘participant-observers’ in a form of grassroots design process that precluded, indeed disdained, conventional architectural practice. Thus, in Design on the Edge Professor of Architecture Sym Van der Ryn recalls the famous People’s Park experiment, an impromptu occupation and landscaping of a vacant university-owned lot: “I brought my students to the site to watch like a group of anthropologists. (And, I admit, to goad folks on.) As a young maverick professor from the university, I was inadvertently named arbiter.” (p. 152)

This is but one of dozens of recollections recounted in this sprawling, centennial biography of architectural education at U.C. Berkeley. Part documentary history and part collective memoir, Design on the Edge ranges from 1894, when Bernard Maybeck taught the first courses there in descriptive geometry, to the early 1990s, when the Department of Architecture had assumed something close to its present form. With its 76 separate essays and historical documents, the book presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic array of narratives and sub-narratives, loosely ordered by chronology or theme. However, the bulk of the writing focuses on the critical quarter century from the 1950s—when architect William Wurster replaced the Beaux Arts curriculum with a modified Bauhaus approach and founded the present College of Environmental Design—to the 1970s, when the curriculum was re-vamped to accommodate the turbulent political and disciplinary shifts of the previous decade.

This also seems to have been the period when the Berkeley architectural curriculum was most “on the edge,” as the title suggests, of innovative approaches, interdisciplinary experimentation, and ideological debate. Many of the themes of this critical period will seem familiar to contemporary architectural education: the emphasis on “ecology”; the search for innovative technologies to solve social and environmental problems; and the belief in interdisciplinary approaches to architectural knowledge. For the historian sifting through the material in this book, one question becomes: whatever happened to these earlier iterations, and what lessons have been forgotten?

Mendelsohn and students: Well-known European Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, pictured here with his students, taught at UC Berkeley from 1948–1953. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGE KOSTRITSKY.

The stage for modern architectural education at Berkeley seems to have been set by the vision that William Wurster and his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, constructed for the future College of Environmental Design. Some of this background is nicely summarized by former dean Roger Montgomery’s posthumous essay, “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge.” Having arrived at Berkeley from MIT, Wurster brought with him a modernist belief in the efficacy of scientific knowledge in solving architectural problems, leading him “to appoint non-architects to his faculty and through them to establish sub-units with links to accrediting, evaluation, and most importantly, to the international community of scholars in that particular subfield or discipline, rather than architecture as such.” (p. 109)

Internationally famous housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, who came out of urban planning just at the moment when that profession was seeing itself as a version of applied social science, seems to have been particularly interested in bringing sociologists into the architecture program. Reading between the lines of the various essays that follow, one has a sense that the belief that scientific expertise could lead to a better built environment (meaning, variously, more cost-effective, healthier, more humane, more socially equitable) ran headlong into the problems of conflicting aesthetic, cultural, and political values. Cultural and urban geographer Clare Cooper Marcus, who taught within “Area E” or “Social Factors,” describes, somewhat bitterly, the rise and decline of this area as studio faculty members systematically failed to assimilate social scientific expertise and research into their studio assignments. Social scientists seem to have been exasperated that architects made what they deemed fantastic and unproven claims concerning the effects of their buildings on users, while design methodologists on the faculty cast doubt on the translatability of raw scientific data into design; in part, by pointing out that many of the decisions were inherently political ones, with potential winners and losers.

During the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty became increasingly ambivalent towards both technology and academic theory. On the one side, social scientists and socially concerned architects increasingly saw themselves as advocates for overlooked minority groups and the poor, and often employed scientific knowledge toward specific advocacy goals while becoming suspicious of (other) architectural theory. Revealing such activist ideals, Clare Marcus reproduces a departmental document that she co-authored in 1976 entitled the “Habitat Manifesto,” which concludes with the following emphatic denunciation: “The world’s problems are not going to stand idle while we theorize!” (p. 143)

Some professors attempted to escape “the system” in its various forms of alienation—the formal classroom, the construction industry, the architectural profession—and, in the process, rejected the technocratic and scientific assumptions of their colleagues. This was the path followed by Sim Van der Ryn after the People’s Park episode, which ended in a violent retaking of the university land. In 1971, he ran an experimental studio in which students collectively designed, constructed and lived in their own village, using found materials and recycled chicken coops, thus producing a studio equivalent of People’s Park in the semi-Arcadian rural space of Marin County.

Buckminster Fuller with faculty and students: Buckminster Fuller, pictured here (center), collaborated with UC Berkeley students and faculty on his “Fly’s Eye” project. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PROF. EMERITUS CLAUDE STOLLER.

At other times, this escape involved theorizing a return to an imagined pre-technocratic, in fact pre-Enlightenment, wholeness. This type of reaction, and the sharp critique it received from empirically minded colleagues, is illustrated in the exchange between architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, known today as a leading expert in Incan architecture, and Christopher Alexander, whose treatises have inspired a broad, popular following of non-architects who are alienated by architectural modernism. Protzen’s scathing review of Christopher Alexander et al’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, reproduced together with Alexander’s response, exposes a fissure between scientific detachment and neo-romantic calls for healing the rifts of modernity.

Protzen accuses A Pattern Language of being prescriptively rigid, essentially of being a pattern book, and methodologically unscientific, having no grounding in anything other than Alexander’s own cultural and subjective preferences. Alexander’s response is a critique of both scientific objectivity and cultural relativism. Sounding very much like a latter day Victorian critic of industrial modernity, Alexander intones: “In the great medieval period of Christian art and in the great period of Islamic art, the artists were able to express such immense feeling because they worked day after day, modifying what they did … able to come closer and closer to ‘the One’ …” (p. 177). From an empirical, scientific point of view, such statements amounted to nothing less than mysticism, veiling the cultural distinctions, material conditions, and political disagreements among actual users, designers and clients.

It is clear from such exchanges that the immense quantity of interdisciplinary work produced at the College of Environmental Design never led to any identifiable “Berkeley School” but rather to a fascinating set of opposing responses to the economic, political, and technological complexities of architectural practice. While the book as a diverse compilation of discourses makes no unified argument concerning the main episodes, legacies, or failures of the various Berkeley experiments, several moments seem to stand out. First, in the critical period of the late 1960s, there seems to have been an irreconcilable contradiction between the deeply anti-authoritarian, anti-professional ethos of the Counterculture and the ever more highly specialized expertise and methods developed by the various architectural researchers. Second, the reaction against modernism in the 1960s and 70s seems to have taken two opposing directions: towards an advocacy-based immersion in the social scientific study of various users and the development of an anti-modernist (including post-modernist), increasingly formalist design methodology.

Finally, the failure, implied in the book, of Berkeley’s utopian attempt to combine social science with social concern avoids what certainly seems to be at the political and economic center of this failure: namely, that the sophisticated research methods developed at Berkeley added yet another layer to the professional cost of architecture, a cost more likely today to be wielded by international corporations than by under-served community groups. A history has yet to be written on the legacy of the Berkeley experiments in the context of global, and increasingly corporate capitalism.


War Furniture

by Jason Weems

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body

The influence of husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames is ubiquitous in American culture and encompasses an array of expressive forms from architecture, interior design and furniture to the graphic arts, cinema, photography and educational exhibitions. Most well known, the Eameses’ chairs with their smooth surfaces and biomorphic contours have become signature forms of postwar California culture and icons of modern design.

Photograph of Eames Splint in Use, circa 1943. (Source: Donald Albrecht, World War Two and The American Dream, 1995, P. 60) Image Courtesy Of The Library Of Congress.

Surprisingly, the roots for these objects lay not in the sleek and optimistic postwar aesthetic that shaped the corporate office, airport, or suburban home, but rather in the carnage and injury of World War Two. Although Charles Eames had first experimented with molded plywood construction under the tutelage of Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan during the late Thirties, it was in wartime Los Angeles that the design duo embarked upon their first large-scale fabrication in that medium. 1 Their product was not furniture but leg splints. In 1942 the United States Navy commissioned the Eameses to produce lightweight plywood traction splints for use on warships. The splints needed to be strong and durable enough to hold up under stress, yet also sufficiently light and nimble to facilitate easy navigation of confined shipboard spaces. Most important, they needed to provide a stable armature for the wounded human body—whose integrity and function had been compromised by laceration, fracture, burn, and other physical traumas. Like their later furniture, the Eameses married their technological innovations in compound molding to their organic and functionalist design aesthetic in order to craft a splint whose support surfaces conformed to the natural shape and composition of the human body. By war’s end, over 150,000 leg splints had been produced.

Treated too often as a footnote in the narrative of their contribution to modern design, the splint in fact played a seminal role in shaping the Eameses’ design philosophy. 2 The splint project required the designers not only to focus on the human figure in a conventional way, but also to reframe their consideration of it in terms of damage and dysfunction. If modern design had heretofore treated the human body as an idealized abstraction, these conventions appeared suddenly inadequate in face of the raw corporeality of rendered flesh, shattered bones, and ruptured psyches. Rethinking the body as a once complete form now broken and compromised—a task that included Charles’s use of his own body in modeling and testing the splint—pushed the Eameses into a new mindset. If healthy bodies were culturally inoffensive, wounded and disabled physiques (then and still today) invoked feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, pity, distrust, and even humiliation and shame. The etiology of broken bodies, in other words, was as much cultural and psychological as it was physical.

Charles and Ray Eames (Evans Products Company, Molded Plywood Division, Manufacturer). Leg Splint. 1942. Plywood, 3 7/8″ × 42″ × 7 7/8″ Image Courtesy Of San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

Designing for these circumstances required the Eameses to bolster their usual attention to functionality and aesthetics with a new consideration: empathy. The Eames splint became a model of new ways of conceiving orthopedic devices, not only because of its innovation in materials and artistry, but also for the way that its anthropomorphized contours made it feel and look like an organic extension of the limb to which it attached. Just as the physical act of pulling traction returned the disfigured limb to normal form, the splint’s visual and tactile naturalism provided a psychological armature that stabilized the spirit. Unlike other splints that made little effort to deflect the artificiality of their materials and structure, and thereby mediate the divide between natural body and industrial prosthetic, the Eames design pursued the possibility of a more organic and empathetic interconnection of subject and armature. Cutting a new path through the technophilism of wartime research, their splint positioned the body—and more importantly, the subject—as the proper focus in the Man-Machine amalgam.


When the Eameses returned to peacetime projects at war’s end, they continued their concern for the needs of both mind and body. Though they did not pursue further design work with splints and prosthetics, their postwar furniture retained the substance of wartime lessons. Designed for normative (and idealized) bodies and standard spaces, the Eames chairs and lounges nonetheless retained an ethos of empathy. The Eames chair, for example, became a paragon of effective design precisely because of its deep adaptability to needs of the weary body. Its celebrated visual aesthetic, though rarely discussed in these terms, is perhaps best understood to be an outgrowth of this compassionate functionality.

Charles And Ray Eames Lounge Chair And Ottoman, Introduced In 1956. Photograph By Casey Marshall.

While there are limits to the correlations to be drawn between the desecration of wartime injury and the weariness of middle class bodies, the Eameses’ practices also have important implications for more contemporary understandings of disability design. In privileging the integrity of the body as their foremost criterion, they inverted a tendency in disability engineering to think primarily to the conditions of the technology rather than those of the human form and psyche. Likewise, their application of lessons learned from devising leg splints to designing furniture challenged the hierarchies, distances, and divergences that American culture usually asserts between normative and differently constituted bodies.

1. The literature on Charles and Ray Eames is too extensive to list here. The most thorough scholarly discussion on the topic is: Patricia Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998). For more focused consideration of the Eames chair, see the recent anthology: Martin Eidelberg, Patricia Kirkham, et al., The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design (New York: Merrill Press, 2006).

2. One account that does consider the splint’s production history in detail is the comprehensive Eames chronology: John Neuhart, Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames, Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames (New York: Henry Abrams, 1989), 27–35 passim. I also discuss the culture of wartime research in Los Angeles and its impact on the Eameses’ design philosophy in my forthcoming essay: Jason Weems, “Vision at California Scale: Charles and Ray Eames, Systems Thinking, and the Diminishing Status of the Human Body After World War Two” in Where Minds and Matters Meet: Technology in California and the West, ed. Volker Janssen (Berkeley: Huntington Library/University of California Press, forthcoming).


The Quotidian Patio

by Susan Straight

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

From Good Living to Decadence

The quotidian patio. A cement square or even a long narrow apron of concrete. An aluminum roof or green plastic, crenellated so when rain ran down in rivulets, children imagined they were inside a waterfall. Supports of wrought iron or aluminum, sometimes wreathed with molded-metal leaves or vines for decoration. To cook? A hibachi or small Weber barbecue, the coals glowing like red piles of shredded wheat. To sit? Plastic lawn furniture, or metal chaise lounges with oilcloth cushions that stuck to skin and sealed in the sweat on a hot day, even in the patio shade.

Almost every yard I visited in my southern California childhood had this patio. Every ranch house in every tract, my uncle’s in Chatsworth, my friends’ in Riverside, my grandmother’s mobile home in Hemet.

We spun skateboards in dizzying circles around and around the cement, or sat on the strapped-plastic rockers listening to adults who laughed and drank Sangria. The 1970s. A patio was quintessential California.

Not a veranda or gallery or wrap-around porch or screened-in front. The patio was carefree, outdoor living.


Not now. If judged by countless ads in newspapers and magazines and television shows, California currently aspires to The Outdoor Room. The Extension of the House.

This isn’t about jealousy. It’s a little about nostalgia. But it’s also about the environment, and what we think of when we think of outdoors, and living. Must we tame every inch of the land we own? Are we afraid to have nothing to do out there? Didn’t we used to go outside to escape the formality and cleaning and worry of inside?


The Outdoor Room has real furniture, and coffee tables, and rugs, and lamps, and gauzy drapes at the edge of a structure such as a gazebo or permanent trellis. Copper firepits once were de rigueur, but now coveted are actual (though gas-fired) fireplaces, built into masonry walls. Chandeliers or elaborate lanterns overhead are advertised as appropriate. And there must be an actual built-in bar and grill in an island clad in granite or steel, with tall stools along the bar, and even a small refrigerator or stovetop so you don’t have to go inside to cook.

In other words, it’s a kitchen, dining area, and living room—outside. Under a covering of some kind. More house. More to clean and furnish, even in rain and wind.

And the yard? Pools, yes, but also multi-level fountains, waterfalls, small putting greens near The Outdoor Room.


By pools I don’t mean the above-ground kind some people used to have in my old neighborhood, or the small plastic kind which some people have in the front yards of my present neighborhood. (We don’t need to talk about the infinity pools, which I’ve only been close to one time, and I still don’t understand how the water spills endlessly into the horizon because I was afraid to go investigate.)

Stay with the patio. The word patio comes from the Spanish, those lovely private courtyards which we still see in Spain, in Mexico, in Italy, and in many architectural layouts here in California—especially the Mission Revival or Spanish-style homes of the past. And think of the missions. Each one was designed around a patio, where the residents gathered to feel a cool breeze or night air, to be protected in a central enclosed area against raiders, to visit and eat and pray.

Visitors to the missions today can see the particular appeal, and why those Spanish friars and priests transported the idea of the patio to California. But the Native Americans already had their own outdoor gathering areas, which influenced the patios of the missions where they worked and cooked and did laundry—seldom voluntarily.


The various tribes in southern California had enramadas, outside spaces swept clean, shaded by wooden structures covered with palm fronds laid in a fringed pattern of shelter. Under these places they gathered daily and nightly, in the heat and in the cool. They tended firepits, sat on chairs and benches, wove baskets, and conversed. I remember sitting at San Juan Capistrano, in the patio, as a child, and thinking it the most beautiful place in the world. I remember travelling around America as a young adult and noticing what was different about the way people sat outside: porches in Minnesota and Massachusetts, screened against mosquitoes; verandas and galleries in Florida and Louisiana, with painted wooden floorboards and slow fans built into the wooden ceilings; fire escapes with one chair and a potted plant in New York City, which I thought the most exotic way to be outside back then.

But I loved my childhood patio.

On my own small brick-paved square in the backyard, under a wooden trellis tangled with wisteria, I still have a plastic-strapped rocker and the redwood picnic table my mother bought for her own first patio, a small cement rec-tangle attached to the back of her one-bedroom house in Glen Avon, California. I have a loveseat and coffee table as well—all-weather wicker from Kmart.


The magazines, however, show the elaborate, orchestrated Outdoor Rooms some Californians might love better, behind houses with cathedral ceilings and great rooms, screening rooms, and exercise rooms, eat-in kitchens and formal dining rooms. New tract homes advertised with up to six bedrooms and six bathrooms. And still another extension of formality and display seems necessary.

The quotidian patio may not be cool enough. But its simple elements can be cleaned with a quick hose-wash. And I’ve heard that Sangria, in an ironic and hip kind of winking way, is making a comeback.


Off the Grid

by Susan Straight
Photography by Douglas McCulloh

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Undercover independence

This is the state we’re in—the California that people love to jeer in a perennial way, the one they used to say would be “the first failed state!” with a certain glee. They are from most any other state, and they think we all live in The Hills of Hollywood-Malibu-Laguna, a fictional place where we get plastic surgery, drink endless lattes, and rise from our hot tubs to descend directly from our crumbling/fire-flood-prone/iceplant-laden cliff onto our own private beaches. But we are not the only state this season with budget impasses, with shutdowns and IOUs and intransigent politicians who will not bend, even when people are going hungry.

Taxes. That is what all the arguments seem to be based on. We are a state sorely divided by the issue of raising taxes. Here in Riverside County, Supervisor Jeff Stone (born in Los Angeles, raised in Anaheim) has called for secession! He wants to split the state into two entities—I would live in South California, which doesn’t even sound right. My own assemblyman, Ken Calvert (born and raised in Corona, worked at his father’s restaurant) is focused mostly on immigration, according to the frequent mailers I receive about securing the border.

But we won’t fail, contrary to the barely camouflaged derision of other Americans watching us, thinking we’re sinking fast because of taxes, immigration, and government.

Oh, government might be failing. At every level, our state—which was headed by Arnold S, born in Austria, but now by Jerry Brown, someone whose father was an icon to my own parents—is plodding toward Epic Fail, as my kids like to say. There could be no more perfect phrase with which to describe it.

But we’re not failing. We’re just off the grid, as people put it, and under the radar, in every way possible. Politicians don’t seem to know us or pay attention to how we’re living. We are invisible, and that’s fine with us, as long as we’re not epically failing. Many of our transactions are unfettered by taxation or representation. They are based in kinship and geography and loyalty, and bred from years of government indifference.

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

I live a few blocks from the hospital where I was born, in Riverside. Ah, the Inland Empire, the misunderstood, vaguely cinematic, desert-like place where we are all related to biker gangs (yes, The Hell’s Angels did begin here in Fontana) and only make the national news when we pass legislation limiting our backyard rooster ownership to two. I have four chickens, myself, one of which is a Mexican fighting hen I inherited from my brother, also born here. He was encouraged to raise fighting roosters by his neighbor out in the orange groves, Big José, born in Chihuahua. My brother was unable to teach his roosters to fight, because he loved them, so instead he taught them to sit on the couch beside him and watch NFL games while eating Doritos. The mother of some of those roosters lives in my yard now. Her name is Coco. I inherited her after my brother died in 2002.

Today, I bought extra tamales from Angel Jr., my tamale guy born in East LA, who comes Thursdays in his white truck with the compartment filled with varieties of homemade tamales. I’d been saving for a few years to put a brick path in my backyard; I’d recently given away the third-hand, metal swing set that my three daughters and countless friends had loved for years. The absence of the swing set, and two of my three daughters who grew up and left for college, left an ache in my chest, so I called my friend Luis, born in Corona, and he recommended Ofa, born in Tonga, who was now in the yard with his cousin and three nephews, laying brick.

I bought Angel’s tamales for the bricklayers because the previous day they’d requested shrimp burritos from Señor Baja, our local taco place. That’s why I love California. While Ofa and his relatives, born in Tonga and raised in Hawaii and now living in Ontario and Rialto and San Bernardino, who all speak Tongan among each other and English to me, ate lunch, I got in my car.

I left my hundred-year-old former orange grove farmhouse and drove down my street, past my neighbor S, born in Oakland, who is working as a funeral singer for our nearby Catholic church. I waved at another neighbor K, born in Riverside, who unloaded lumber; an elementary school teacher, he is doubling the size of his house. No McMansions in my neighborhood; his original wood-frame house is 650 square feet, and he’s building a second bedroom after twenty years.

I drove past the hospital where I was born, and then the new multistory building downtown where a giant metal dome, which cost $1.2 million, sits on one corner of the roof, looking exactly like a juicer for oranges. My neighbors find this hilarious since our city was once the citrus capital of the nation (in 1882, of the more than one-half million citrus trees in California, half were in Riverside) with the highest per capita income in America (in 1895, we had that distinction, due to citrus exports).

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

Riverside County’s reported unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation—16 percent—and has been for over two years. The foreclosure rate is one of the highest as well. But we have done this before—when our steel mill was disassembled and sold to China, when the Air Force Base was made into a reserve facility, and now, when the entire country remains in meltdown.

I drove to San Bernardino, past a towing yard where last year I retrieved my middle daughter’s Honda after it was stolen and stripped down to the frame. We put it back together with seats and door panels bought from Pick-A-Part, the locally famous junkyard where my ex-husband and his friends, all born in the same hospital as I was, scour cars for any particular item they need.

In San Bernardino, my mother, who was born in Switzerland, had her first job in 1955, at a Household Finance Loan company. Back then, she saw loans refused every day, because people didn’t have a steady salary, because they were the wrong color, because someone was in a bad mood. There was no subprime, no zero-down.

A few miles directly west of the red light where I stopped, my grandparents lived in Fontana after they immigrated from Switzerland in the 1950s. My grandfather, a former Swiss train conductor, worked for the Riverside Cement Company. My grandmother was a nurse for Kaiser Steel’s company healthcare program—Kaiser Permanente. It was one of the nation’s first HMOs when it began to offer industrial healthcare for California steel mill workers. My grandmother has told me stories of injured steelworkers during the 1950s being brought to a wooden building in the yard where she tended to them.

Back at my house, Ofa and his cousin and three nephews had finished laying bricks. Ofa’s cousin was a world-class surfer and rugby player, and he had just brought back from Tonga a long piece of sugar cane, which he balanced against my fence, built years ago by me and my neighbor J, born in Texas.

He told me, “Much better than American sugar cane. It’s soft. Better for eating.”

His wife was born in England. He met her when he played rugby there. Their son, born in Rialto, standing beside me, thought he was a ladies’ man and inquired about my daughters. On his forearm was tattooed KILLA. Ofa and his cousin and I, all in our forties, rolled our eyes at him.

Ofa sawed off a section of the sugar cane and handed it to me. It had five buds at the joints, shaped like tiny plump shields. Each bud will grow a new stalk after I plant it in the backyard, next to the lemon-scented ti grass given to me by Maria, the woman across the street, who was born on a rural farm in the Philippines and came here years ago when she married an American serviceman. The day she gave me the seedling-bunch of grass, she sat on my porch and told me a story about a woman in her village who turned into a dog at night, how she’d seen this woman transform.

On the other side of the sugar cane is my first navel orange tree, the kind originally planted by Eliza Tibbets, born in Cincinnati, who began the citrus industry in 1873 when she put into the Riverside ground (about six miles directly west of my home) two navel orange seedlings from Bahía, Brazil, sent to her by a USDA agriculturist in Washington, D.C.

We will not fail epically, in the backyards and driveways and parking lots of California. It doesn’t matter where we were born. The government will have little to do with it. We will make deals and give each other plants and fix each other’s cars and hand each other worn, creased dollar bills, and then tell a few stories before we go on our way.


The Antidote to the Trope State


To a greater extent than most other states, California has always been a trope state. Since the Gold Rush, and arguably before, its residents have imbued the place with unreasonable expectations. Those expectations served as the basis of the state’s first and most enduring trope: superabundance. The trope of superabundance was not based on pure fiction: indeed, up through the 1950s, the State provided enough mineral and material assets, enough dreamers, technicians, engineers, and artists, and enough money in its coffers, to make good on the promise of limitless opportunity for the majority of its residents.

But the 1970s introduced stark challenges to the trope. The passage of Proposition 13, the gut-wrenching job losses ushered in by global economic change, egregious violations of human rights and the skyrocketing rates of incarceration forced a new state narrative, which could easily be found in the corollary to the trope of suberabundance: catastrophism. Overstating the uniqueness and the extent of California’s calamity became a cottage industry for critics and scholars by the 1990s and it remains one of the State’s most thriving enterprises.

It the tropes of superabundance and catastrophism are inadequate as foundations for a coherent state narrative, one might reasonably ask, with what should we replace them? I would answer that we really have no need for a coherent state narrative, because any new trope will fail spectacularly to capture the complexity and dynamism and the place. Additionally, no one— perhaps with the exception of the occasional chamber of commerce executive—lies awake in bed fretting about not having access to a coherent narrative of the place in which they reside. A coherent state narrative provides no collective psychological or material benefits that can be measured.

I would submit that a better question to ask would be this: what are the core ideas that inform our lives in this particular part of the world at this general time? By showcasing high quality writing, the results of exacting but accessible research, and the work of California’s most creative thinkers, artists, writers, and performers, Boom is uniquely positioned to answer this question.

Josh Sides
Whitsett Professor of California History
California State University, Northridge


Subduction Zone


In Lawrence Levine’s essay “The Folklore of Industrial Society,” he explains that magazines, music, and movies are forms of popular culture that function in ways similar to folk culture. It is even “a form of folklore for people living in urban industrial societies.” Levine’s area of exploration, as is mine, is the Great Depression, and the state of California, (a term I use both geographically and descriptively).  California offered a fascinating trove of industrial folklore during that time, as it always has.

In a state in which political analyses are as common as sunny days, Californians are inundated with information about policy, pricing, legislation and law.  But Levine’s concept of expressive culture as an actual folklore we can record and study provides a necessary and fascinating entrance into the way the people who will live here, under that legislation, attempt to create and often recreate their lives.  It can tell what people see as “normal,” even in the most abnormal of times and trace the methods they use to achieve normal life. It can give us insight in to the reasons and routes people take to interrogating normative patterns that have been ingrained into society but never explained. It does not necessarily explain or predict how we will be living in the future, but it explains in rich ways how we came to live the way we are currently living. The songs people write, sing and download; the fashions they produce and parade; the various forms of communication to which they turn and innovate—all work to produce a deeper, richer history, one that goes beyond the surface to explore the lives of those who live, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “outside of history.”

When I introduce California literature in my classes, I use the metaphor of plate tectonics. In geology, one tectonic plate moves and subducts a second, with the second plate being forced under. Sometimes, the result is a volcano. Sometimes not. In this very loose metaphor, I point to the state’s long history of immigration, emigration, and migration. Over time, one race, or group, or class of people moves to or across the state, and a subduction zone occurs as the new converges onto the old. Sometimes a literary volcano occurs. Sometimes not.

Looking at this pattern of convergences and the new voices that have so often arisen from them allows us to see the various ways that people who live “outside of history” have made sense of a state whose shifting cultures continue to make it both dazzling and frightening.

Jan Goggans
Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts
University of California, Merced