It’s cliche to reference dinosaurs when describing the oil well pumps which are ubiquitous throughout the LA basin, but as a 5 year old obsessed with those prehistoric creatures, there was simply no other way to think about them. I grew up assuming that every place had oil, and along with it, herds of insouciant metal creatures slowly bobbing as they sucked it from the ground. Beyond the mere fact of their presence, though, the wells, pumps and derricks scattered throughout the landscape were rarely a topic of conversation. In this way, my youth mirrors the history of Los Angeles’s conflicted relationship with oil production described in Frank Ruchala’s “Crude City”, the third chapter in The Infrastructural City.
The discovery of oil in Los Angeles — at one time, local production met 20 percent of nationwide demand — catalyzed development of the region by ensuring manufacturers had a supply of cheap energy, spurring the development of the ports, and pumping cash into the economy. Yet Los Angelenos have refused oil equal billing with the other infrastructural triumphs of their city:
… while the Los Angeles aqueduct and the freeways are well documented and have become part of the city’s history, the region’s oil story remains relatively unknown. Although Los Angeles named what is arguably its most famous road, Mulholland Drive, after its chief water engineer, almost none of the region’s hydrocarbon history has been commemorated, much less remembered, even though Los Angeles is so identified with its consumption of petroleum products
“Crude City” is a tour of this contested history, full of fascinating anecdotes. Oil was not only a fuel powering production, but often the material of production. It became the asphalt paving Los Angeles’s roads and freeways, and the plastic spun into hula-hoops. But despite the prevalence of well pumps scattered about the landscape, the true scale of LA’s oil infrastructure was sequestered from public view.
Some facilities are designed to look like regular buildings, such as the thirteen-story Packard drillsite that completely overwhelms its surroundings on Pico Boulevard. Designed in the 1960s to look like a modern office building, the drillsite has done a remarkable job of remaining hidden. Supposedly, two vice presidents of a rival oil company once drove by the building three times before a police officer convinced them that it was really an oil site. The entire structure is made up of steel sound-proof panels. All drilling operations take place indoors, including truck loading and unloading. The massive height of the complex is used to mask the height of the drilling rig which completes the individual wells. The oil wells themselves are found in the basement level of the complex.
Consider the layers of subterfuge described by Ruchala above: this building is imitating other buildings, which are themselves imitating an architectural style; they are meant to conceal structures with incredible detail and character, by impersonating architecture which is meant to lend some measure of personality and character to spaces which would otherwise be devoid of it. It is a strange inversion of the modernist cliche “form follows function” — although almost purely theatrical, this urban theater is a highly functional response to our society’s contentious mental relationship with oil extraction.
This attitude, combined with strong legal protection of landowners’ rights, has made it more profitable for major producers to ship oil in from the Middle East, leaving the bulk of oil production to smaller companies: “each homeowner could (and sometimes did) start their own company by simply drilling an oil well. As a result over a hundred companies drain oil from underneath the city.” This level of granularity, combined with fluctuating (but generally high) real estate values has caused oil drilling to be perhaps the most ephemeral of LA’s infrastructures, its prevalence totally determined by market forces. Venice Beach might be the apotheosis of this trend. Founded at the beginning of the 20th century as a tourist- and recreation-focused beach town, residents struck oil in 1929. Within two years, the city was completely over-run with wells.
The relationship Los Angeles has with its oil offers an opportunity to reconsider our attitude toward the physical and cultural presence of urban infrastructures — both during their useful life, and after. Ruchala states that “oil is not only hidden in the city’s self-image, its full extent is hidden from sight.” Strongly influenced by the tenets of landscape urbanism, I tend toward advocating for more integration of our infrastructures and public spaces, for more exposure — but this can be highly distasteful to the public. So when does camouflage become the only appropriate tactic for operating in so highly a contested landscape as Los Angeles? I’ll be the first to argue we should be able to come up with better strategies for embedding vital infrastructures within our cities than disguising them as poor approximations of poor architecture, but perhaps the strength of the familiar is a strategy too powerful to be ignored.
A bit earlier in the essay, Ruchala describes this tendency towards hiding infrastructures as not only characteristic of Los Angeles — the Infrastructural City — but of the infrastructural city in general:
If the history of oil — and its disapperance — is unique to Los Angeles, the history of infrastructures vanishing is not. Infrastructural systems once integral to their urban regions and celebrated as beacons of modernity are forgotten as they age and begin to symbolize outmoded economic orders. Los Angeles’s oil infrastructure fits into this historical arc, erased as the region reconfigures itself. But as this essay suggests, this erasure erases Los Angeles as well. Without oil, the region would have turned out to be a far different place.
But why shouldn’t we accept that infrastructures, like ecologies, will shift and vanish? Many of us have a strong cultural (or perhaps philosophical) bias in favor of preservation — of ecosystems, of historic buildings, even, as Ruchala argues, of infrastructures. We argue strenuously about which things are worth preserving, but we argue much less about whether preservation as a default strategy is appropriate. Consequently, we default towards stasis and seek to avoid flux. But just as we’re discovering that this isn’t appropriate ecologically, might it also be inappropriate infrastructurally? Do we need to see the infrastructures of the past in order to remember them? Or, put another way: isn’t discovering that a certain swimming pool was the first oil derrick in Los Angeles more wonderful than turning that derrick into a museum?