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What does the future hold for Los Angeles?

New exhibit combs the records of the past for clues about how the city might adapt to the forces that shape it

LATBD exhibit
"L.A.T.B.D." features a detailed architecture model of the city's futurescape, built from robotically milled lime wood and 3D-printed plastic. (Photo/Stonehouse Photographic)

How can Los Angeles look to its past in order to shape its destiny? L.A.T.B.D., a new USC Libraries exhibition curated by architecture and design writer Geoff Manaugh, explores diverse narrative futures for the Southern California metropolis.

Manaugh, who writes the influential BLDGBLOG and is the author of a forthcoming book about the relationship between burglary and architecture, developed L.A.T.B.D. as the USC Libraries’ 2015-16 Discovery Fellow. Dean Catherine Quinlan established the fellowship in 2011 to showcase the library as a place where disciplines intersect and where artists and scholars engage library collections and people to make possible surprising discoveries and creative works.

“Geoff has taken the Discovery Fellow mandate and transformed this library space into an engine that generates speculative futures for the city of Los Angeles,” Quinlan said. “Through his work with librarians, archivists and our collections, and his collaboration with architects and designers, he’s re-emphasized the idea of the library as an interdisciplinary nexus, a physical place where such polymathic explorations can and should happen.”

Diverse narratives

L.A.T.B.D. combs the records of the past, from geologic strata to archival library collections, for clues about how Los Angeles might adapt to the forces that continue to shape it. Rather than imposing a single vision for the future, however, the exhibition incorporates elements of speculative fiction, game design and detailed architectural modeling to allow visitors to navigate diverse narrative possibilities.

Manaugh teamed with London-based architects Mark Smout and Laura Allen from the Bartlett School of Architecture to model the city’s futurescape out of robotically milled lime wood and 3-D-printed plastic. In one possible future, the model suggests, freeways will be reinvented as astronomical laboratories. In another, the city borrows structural engineering concepts from the design of supertall buildings to dampen seismic waves within the earth itself.

“The idea for L.A.T.B.D. came out of the not-insignificant challenge of discussing L.A.’s future — what the city will be next,” Manaugh said. “It is, after all, a metropolis whose very premise seems to be that it — and everyone living here — is undergoing some sort of deliberate transformation, and the best way to represent this seemed to be through an open-ended experiment with speculative fiction.”

A dream comes true

Over the past 10 months, Manaugh has met with a wide array of experts, including USGS seismologist Lucy Jones, filmmaker John Carpenter, astronomer E.C. Krupp and USC popular music scholar Josh Kun. His conversations with these forward-looking thinkers will form the basis for a companion L.A.T.B.D. book, which the USC Libraries plan to publish next summer.

Manaugh also consulted the USC Libraries’ unique archival collections.

Working in the archives at USC has been a dream.

Geoff Manaugh

“Working in the archives at USC has been a dream,” he said. The collections here span everything from the very foundations of the city and the science of its faults to the literary artifacts that play with and redefine LA’s identity. The USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship was an invitation to look backward into the forgotten ingredients of Los Angeles to see what might yet be constructed from those often overlooked bits and pieces.”

Manaugh — former director of Studio-X NYC at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation — is the second holder of the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship. In 2012, the first Discovery Fellow Margaret Wertheim spearheaded construction of a massive origami model of a three-dimensional fractal, the Mosely Snowflake Sponge.

Admission to the exhibition — on display in the first-floor Treasure Room inside Doheny Memorial Library through Jan. 31, 2016 — is free and open to the public during the library’s regular operating hours.

Additional funding for L.A.T.B.D. comes from USC Visions and Voices, University College London and the British Council.

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