Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Volkswagen Beetle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Volkswagen Beetle. Show all posts

Saturday, June 23, 2012


As regular, or even irregular, readers will know, and not only from my previous post, I still have quite an affection for the old Volkswagen Beetle, and at this point in history that may be part of my ongoing affection for many dying (though not quite dead) forms: the printed map, vinyl, the novel, unshaven pudenda.

When I came to live in Los Angeles – about a decade ago now – there were still a lot of Beetles on the street, more than you ever saw in London, and way more than you saw in New York, the places I lived immediately before coming here.  It had a lot to do with the bad winters in those places, I’m sure.

And so when I arrived here, determined not to be part of the cliché that nobody walks in LA, I’d go walking, if not exactly randomly then certainly without much purpose, just looking at things, and I’d make a note of how many VW Beetles I saw.  Sometimes I even photographed them.  And when I got home I’d think, “OK, today’s was a 3 Beetle walk.  Yesterday’s was a 5 Beetle walk” and so on.   Unsophisticated stuff I know:  Walter Benjamin would have been saddened.

The number of Beetles in LA has declined significantly in the last decade, though there are still a surprising number, especially given that (unless they’re imported from Mexico) even the most recent of them is a over 30 years old.  I’ve always been most fascinated by the ones that have the most patina, that show the most signs of wear, age and ruin, but the truth is, I no longer look at (or for) Beetles quite as obsessively as I once did when out walking.

Last week my pal Anthony Miller and I went for a walk in the wild east part of LA’s downtown and although we weren’t strictly in search of Beetles, we came across rather more than we expected.  We stated at Sci Arc (that’s the Southern California Institute of Architecture), a college housed inside a quarter-mile long former freight depot, a building big enough that you do plenty of walking while you’re inside it, especially if you’re there looking for an exhibition and are too guyish to ask anybody for directions.

The exhibition sounded intriguingly inscrutable, and its title was “Ball-Nogues Studio: Yevrus 1, Negative Impression.”  The description read as follows:

        “Constructed from non-architectural artifacts, Yevrus 1, Negative Impression is a disposable architecture of literal references that calls into question the contemporary architectural vogue for digital complexity and abstraction. The cast impressions of 1973 Volkswagen Beetles and speedboats unite to form a strong structural whole that serves as a lookout tower in the SCI-Arc Gallery.
        "After studying a variety of objects within the Los Angeles suburban-scape, the designers selected the individual components for their iconic and structural potential, as well as their availability. Once chosen, the parts were digitally scanned in three dimensions and cast in biodegradable paper pulp using a proprietary technique the studio refers to as a "Yevrus"—the word "Survey" spelled backwards. With this work, the first in a series of experimental Yevrus projects, Ball-Nogues rethinks the purpose of the site survey. No longer seen as a simple tool for construction and engineering, the survey becomes an instrument for finding form, seeking structural stability and realizing iconic meaning.”

I’ll forgive you if you didn’t read all the way to the end of that, but there was a very cool image (below) that advertised the exhibition.  I imagined that the thing in the picture had actually been built as a life-size set, so that we could walk into it and around it, like a kind of Ed Kienholz art installation.

As we walked across the vast sea of parking lot that surrounds Sci Arc I couldn’t help noticing a glistening silver Beetle over across the other side.  It operated as a beacon.

And when we got up to it, we saw it wasn’t just painted silver, it was actually wrapped in some kind of silver foil, in order that (we concluded) a mold or several molds could be made, without sticking to the car itself.  That’s one of the molds sitting next to the Beetle, on the right.

 Encouraged, in we went, walked around in an aimless way for a while, and eventually stopped being guyish and asked directions from a man who looked a lot like an architect (black roll neck, spiky grey hair, ornate specs and a German accent) and so we found our way to the exhibition space.  And that’s when we discovered that thing in the picture was actually just a picture.  There was no walk-in Ed Kienholz-style set.  Were we disappointed?  Yes, but we cheered up at the site of the pod in very middle of the space.

Now, that pod, as perhaps you can see, is partly made of casts taken from a VW Beetle, the one outside presumably, colored some very interesting shades, assembled, and lit internally by fluorescent tubes.  It was by no means what we came for, or had expected, but there was no denying it was kind of cool.

So then, afterwards, when we went walking “properly,” we saw this very clean convertible on the street:

And there was this one apparently being used as part of a photoshoot: 

Looking for Beetles was not the main purpose, or even the highlight, of our afternoon, but somehow our perambulation had become a kind of Beetle walk.  Not one of the great ones; essentially just a 3 Beetle walk, unless you counted the casts, and I think it was probably best not to.

And above is a photograph of my fellow walker, Anthony Miller, looking Jonah-like, as if he's inside the whale, if there had been fluorescent tubes in there, and if the whale had been shaped like a Volkswagen.  Very little room to walk in there.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I may be a Hollywood walker, but the fact is, I walk wherever I am. And when I’m in a new place, say Guadalajara, having been invited there for the Book Fair, and have a few hours to spare, I set off walking, with only the vaguest idea of where I’m going or where I’ll end up.

I guess this is what top psychogeographer Guy Debord called “locomotion without a goal,” abandoning my usual walking habits and letting the environment draw you into what he calls the “unities of ambiance” that ripple through any city.

I never think this is as fancy as it sounds. You walk down the street and come to a junction where you have to turn left or right. You look in both directions and you take the one that draws you. As for what draws you, well, it may be an interesting piece of architecture, a fine old tree, an open space, maybe a bar. Now, as readers of my books will know, I'm at least as obsessed with Volkswagen Beetles as I am with walking. So when I see street that has a Volkswagen Beetle in it I head right for that unity of ambiance.

In my native England, Beetles are close to extinction. Even in Los Angeles, my current home, you see fewer and fewer all the time. But in Mexico, where they continued manufacturing the Beetle (or vocho as it’s known locally) until 2003, there are still plenty to see. And so I walked the streets of Guadalajara guided by the presence or absence of Volkswagen Beetles.

I found myself in an area of the city called Jardines del Bosque: literally Forest Gardens. I didn’t know it at the time, but the layout of the neighborhood was designed by the great architect Luis Baragan. There were inevitable planning problems and the full extent of his design was never realized. Even so, to walk these streets is to find yourself in a wonderful mid-century suburb, or perhaps a theme park: houses with flat roofs, hints of streamline moderne, marble tile and walls of gorgeous, vibrantly colored stucco. And in front of some of those houses, fine Volkswagen Beetles.

I suspect I walked the streets with an idiotic grin on my face, drinking it all in, so many streets, so many curious architectural elements, so many Beetles. And the streets had amazing names: La Luna, Nebulosa, Atmosfera, Cometa, Orbita, Astros. I thought how impeccably cool it would be if people asked you where you lived and you could say, “At the corner of Astro and Orbit.”

The Beetles were amazing too. Some of them were old, verging on classic, a few were customized, one or two were absolutely pristine; but the vast majority were workaday cars, and really not that old. Even so, it is in the nature of the Beetle that however similar they may all look, no too are ever precisely the same. This is their glory.

It’s always hard to know how to end a walk. You feel you need a climax, a resolution, a journey’s end, a perfect moment. But these things don’t occur to order, and nothing’s worse than trying to force it and falsify one. So in this case, after a couple of hours walking I decided I’d had enough fun and headed back to the hotel by the most direct route. But then, as I was getting close to the hotel I came across a small, slightly shabby, but stylish apartment block: white painted brick, stone facings, balconies with angular wrought iron railings. Right away I noticed there was a cool red Beetle parked in the street out front; but then I saw there was another one inside the yard of the apartment block, a faded yellow one. Then I spotted a black one up on blocks, and another that had started out bright orange and was now multicolored as various panels had been replaced.

I was in a kind of ecstasy. I hung around for a while hoping the owner of the cars might appear, although I wasn’t sure I’d have said him other than “Vochos hermosos.” He never did appear. Only a ginger tomcat strolled languidly between the Beetles, and soon enough I went on my way. Even so, there’d been a moment there when I’d had the sense that the streets of Gudalajara, maybe the whole world, had been arranged specifically for my benefit and pleasure. And even though I knew it hadn’t, to have that feeling, however briefly, is one of the things that makes walking, and life, worthwhile.