There was a time when oil promised only progress and ever greater human comfort. The technologies it made possible – air travel, plastics – were celebrated in the 1960s in lovable space-age buildings like the Theme Building in Los Angeles and pop industrial design by companies like Kartell.
But gradually we’ve learned that the lifestyle made possible by petroleum comes with a cost: oceans covered in floating plastic detritus and, most recently, an oil spill in the Gulf so horrendous and gut-wrenching that one can’t help asking the question posed by blogger Andrew Sullivan, “does not the sight of this wound in the deep sea prompt us to look again at the models we simply assume about life on this planet?. . . When do we ask ourselves: by what right do humans believe we can despoil the earth for every other species with impunity?”
Today’s show examines this quandary. It looks at our now bitter-sweet love affair with the oil-based lifestyle and asks, short of going back to the pre-industrial way of life, can we have our cake and eat it? The perplexing truth is we can’t, says materials “visionary” Chris Lefteri, there is no clean alternative that can fully replace oil. Petroleum permeates every aspect of our lives, says Sara Banaszak of the American Petroleum Institute, even areas that we think of as “green,” like hybrid cars and wind and solar farms. But Lefteri does explain where the future lies, in better plastics and in perceiving plastic differently, not as something disposable but to be given the respect of more “aspirational” materials.
The show also looks at an icon of the oil age: the LAX Theme Building, designed in 1961 by James Langenheim of Pereira and Luckman with a team that included Paul Williams and Welton Becket. This building means a lot to me personally: when I arrived at LAX on my first trip here in 1987, and looked up and saw the blue sky, the palm trees and the Theme Building, I was in love. That image sealed my view of LA and I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.
But that building, once so futuristic and now an elegant near-50 year-old having a major facelift, is also a monument to a time when oil seemed infinite, and problem-free. The show looks at the engineering challenges involved in the renovation with engineer Scott Markle and architect Millard Lee of Gin Wong Associates. But we also hear from Alastair Gordon, author of Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure about the jet age that transformed airports and rendered flying banale at the same as producing buildings that resembled flight.