Orion

from ORION MAGAZINEAugust, 2009

Mulholland's View Looking Down on the City of Angels

By William L. Fox

The most common way to become a god is to climb a hill and look down upon the world. It’s a human impulse that cuts across the sexes, all cultures, ages, and educational levels. People like to climb up to see where they live, where they’re going, where they’ve been. The aerial imperative is, of course, like any other tool. It can help solve problems as well as create them. The view from above, referred to grandly as Apollo’s Eye, but also more modestly as a bird’s-eye view, can make you humble and show you patterns never before imagined, just as it can give you delusions of grandeur.

This complicated and pervasive impulse to know our place is why Mulholland Drive—the fifty five-mile road that limns the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley—is so famous. Books and movies bear its name as a title, urban legends are created along its vistas, and everyone from celebrated architects to movie stars live along its winding route. The views that have made the road a desirable location to live is why driving Mulholland is to risk your life, as your gaze drifts inexorably away from the road itself to the panoramas across the twin grids of LA and the Valley, latticeworks that at night glow like the neural network inside your head. Cars have been known to fly as far as 150 feet from the road before landing on the ground 300 feet below.

Mulholland Drive runs along ridgetops east from the Pacific Ocean, crossing Interstate 405 at Sepulveda Pass not far from the Getty Museum, then continuing along the length of the Hollywood Hills to end at the Cahuenga Pass just northeast of the Hollywood Bowl. Near the ocean it’s bucolic, threading the fragrant chaparral and eucalyptus groves; as it progresses inland the environment dries out and the landscape becomes landscaping. Mulholland Highway, as it’s known in Los Angeles County, is interrupted by the sandstone ridges and arroyos of Topanga State Park. But where it’s paved as Mulholland Drive in the city proper, you can, given a car with sufficient horsepower, accelerate to more than seventy miles per hour before hitting a series of S bends. It’s possible to never really see the road itself, only the view—but it’s wise to remember the stories about airborne cars.

Mulholland was built by many of the same people who brought the Los Angeles Aqueduct to town, the pipeline that siphons water from the Owens River Valley more than two hundred miles to the north. Even as the city’s water engineer, William Mulholland, was overseeing the aqueduct’s completion in 1913, he was contemplating a road atop the Hollywood Hills, and his colleague H. Z. Osborn, the city engineer for street design, was pressing city hall to build a grid of wide boulevards to accommodate the booming number of cars. It wasn’t until the 1920s, however, when the population of the region tripled, that the congestion became so intolerable that Osborn would get his grid and the skyline road above it.

By the early 1920s, the LA Basin had been completely subdivided, and the San Fernando Valley was awaiting development. Many of the engineers who had worked on the aqueduct were by then employed by Osborn, and considered a highway along the hills a logical way to connect the roads that were already snaking up through the canyons of the Hollywood Hills. Their idea was to use the canyon roads to spur growth on the northern side of the hills, and a road named after the legendary engineer who had brought the water necessary for that growth would link them up. In 1924, a team of 411 laborers, equipment operators, and engineers began to build the first twenty-two miles of a narrow twolane highway above Hollywood. When the road opened later that year, the city took the day off and Mulholland was on hand to break a bottle of champagne at the gate. To drive the road named for him is to understand something about the local topology, which is to say the nature and growth of Los Angeles, that you just don’t get out on the flats: LA is the only major city in the world split by a mountain range, and what barely knits together the megalopolis is a road system that Mulholland Drive makes visible.

Mulholland and the canyon roads never became a popular route for travel between the LA Basin and the San Fernando Valley, as the Sepulvada and Cahuenga passes provided faster alternatives. Instead, Mulholland became known as the premiere scenic drive of Los Angeles, one of the few places where you could easily drive up high enough to see where you lived—in one of the largest horizontal cities in the world. Karen Halverson, precisely because she is an artist, focuses her camera and our attention on what we mostly miss while cruising the skyline. Almost every one of her pictures has the view in the background somewhere, but in each instance it’s the details in the foreground that frame and make the picture, that remind us the aerial view is not detached from the ground, but part of it. Her gaze is not that of Apollo, but that of a person anchored in the world, and one who sees both the intimate and the grand as an integrated whole.

Halverson grew up in the Northeast but attended Stanford in the early 1960s. The journey across the country en route to her degree in philosophy was the start of a lifelong fascination with both the desert and driving. During the 1980s, after earning graduate degrees from Brandeis and Columbia, she made frequent trips to the American West to photograph the landscape with 4 x 5 and 6 x 9 cameras, and she finally moved to Los Angeles in 1991. Soon after she arrived, she began driving and photographing Mulholland, inspired in part by David Hockney’s twenty-two-foot-long panoramic painting, Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio, which hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hockney created his enormous view during three weeks in 1980 from his memories of the daily drive to his Santa Monica studio from his house in the Hollywood Hills. It’s an encyclopedic bird’s-eye view of the route painted in his signature bright colors and highly graphic style that also captures the details of power lines, tennis courts, and swimming pools seen along the way. In the background is a street map–like grid of lines looking as if it were lifted from the Thomas Guide series, and meant to represent the views. When Halverson thought about working along Mulholland, her immediate idea was to use a panoramic camera.

Developers have sought to widen the road up to a four-lane highway, but the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Plan, adopted in 1992, has preserved much of the early twentieth-century feel of the road as well as the route. Halverson’s multiyear survey, itself a grid of horizontal photographs, embraces the roadside towers and street signs, the guardrails and water pipes. She reminds us that Mulholland passes under power lines as well as above them, that the road dips below the crest to wind beneath houses perched on the slopes above, that the road is not, our memory and Hockney’s painting notwithstanding, a monolithic and relentlessly elevated vantage point. Instead, it is embedded in the details of its terrain.

Halverson’s earlier work in the desert, pictures often taken of campsites at dusk, were both handsome and poignant in that they showed us scenes where nature was experienced from a car and artificially, even beautifully, lit by headlights. Her photographic survey of the Colorado River’s mainstem, done during the mid- 1990s, is likewise often ironic, juxtaposing human interventions with views of “natural wonders,” a public telescope at an overlook aimed at the river below. While at one level the irony is obvious— the frame of the photographer taking a picture of another optical device meant to excerpt from the wider view—at another level it’s less apparent. The Colorado River is now almost as much an engineered construct as Mulholland Drive, a series of diversions and managed reservoirs from Wyoming to Mexico—including the parts down which one pays a fortune to raft. Wilderness has always been a loaded concept in Halverson’s work.

The Mulholland photographs are less obvious in their effect. Nature and culture are often more subtly and quietly related. Looking at the pictures, one is struck by the amount of flowers and foliage along the way, from penstemon and cacti near the Pacific Ocean to bougainvillea fronting walled estates. After a while one realizes that the cacti are imported, the wild flowers deliberately seeded, the landscape as you drive inland increasingly managed for thousands of years by humans through are, hunting, shovels, earthmoving machines, and dynamite.

Mulholland the first time you drive it is all about the view, and the curves are a mighty temptation to slalom as fast as you can, which further attenuates your ability to comprehend the road itself. But the more often you drive it, the more you slow down to absorb the details. What Halverson’s photos reveal, then, is not just the nature of the road, but how we experience it, how we change our mind about it, how it changes our minds for us. And that, ultimately, is why it’s never going to be widened. It simply has too much to say as it is.