Ground level

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

| This is the first in an occasional series of walking tours that The Times' architecture critic will be taking with writers, artists, designers and others who see the L.A. cityscape in unusual or provocative ways.On an L.A. wavelength* To urban blogger Geoff Manaugh, what sets the city apart is its history and status-free status. Really.

The 31-year-old writer Geoff Manaugh, who operates a website on architecture, urbanism and other topics called Bldgblog ( www.bldgblog.blogspot .com), announced to his readers several weeks ago that he'd been hired by Dwell magazine as a senior editor. Though Manaugh won't be giving up the blog, the news did mean that he'd be leaving Culver City, only a year or so after he and his wife arrived here from Philadelphia, and moving north to San Francisco, where Dwell is based.

It also meant that fans of Bldgblog would no longer be reading his observations about living in Southern California -- which, though infrequent, were reliably, entertainingly off-kilter and free of cliche. For Manaugh, whose blog carries a mouthful of a subtitle ("Architectural Conjecture; Urban Speculation; Landscape Futures"), everything is architecture and vice versa: Home Depots and their parking lots, space stations, passages in J.G. Ballard novels. If there is sometimes a little too much coverage of geology and underground tunnels for my taste, the posts are always filled with the kind of enthusiasm -- particular, idiosyncratic -- that any really good blog requires. Better tunnels than more renderings of the latest Libeskind condo tower.

And so just before he left town, I proposed that we arrange to meet, walk through the neighborhood near his apartment and talk about Los Angeles. For a while I've been wanting to arrange and chronicle a series of walking tours through Los Angeles -- not with famous architects or celebrities but with artists, writers, designers, even policy wonks who might offer some clues about how the city is arranged and what it means to live in a landscape that can seem so physically and psychologically elusive. And I thought there would be a certain appropriate irony in kicking off a series about the world's least-permanent major city by talking with Manaugh as he had one foot out the door.

On the surface, typical

We meet on the sidewalk in front of his apartment on Keystone Avenue, on a block crammed in near the bottom of the U formed by the intersection of Venice and Washington boulevards and Overland Avenue. His apartment sits at the back of one of those postwar buildings whose second story is raised on slender stilts -- distant, inbred relations of Le Corbusier's pilotis -- with room for parking underneath. Though Culver City is changing quickly, with restaurants and galleries popping up by the week, Manaugh says he was less interested in that emerging scene than the fact that he could walk to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

We start down his block, which is the kind you can find all over Southern California: running between major arteries but shady, quiet and in many ways suburban. Lined with oak trees that are more workmanlike than stately, it has a mixture of single-family houses and two- and three-story apartment buildings wrapped in pockmarked stucco. One house, near the corner, has peeling paint, several gleaming cars parked end to end in the driveway and a black shopping cart on the lawn.

Manaugh, who has short hair that was bleached when we first met but is now brown, is telling me about his teens and 20s. He went to college at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. He wanted to be a poet. At 19, he met Allen Ginsberg, and toured with him for a while in Europe, as one of his opening acts.

Manaugh went to the University of Chicago for a graduate degree in art history, and there met his wife, Nicola, who is British. They moved to London, where Manaugh worked briefly in architect Norman Foster's huge office. I ask him why he came to California.

"The classic reason: I had no family out here," he says. "In Philadelphia, I found it incredibly psychologically claustrophobic to be surrounded by family all the time, to be subject to sudden visits from my mother. She always wanted to take me out for lunch, and all these random things. It just drove me nuts."

We turn the corner onto Washington. The huge Sony Studios sound stages loom across the street -- another familiar piece of the cityscape, with its horizontal warehouse buildings and billboards massive enough to seem architectural.

Manaugh says he didn't search out a place to live in the shadow of the movie business. The location was serendipitous, though, in the sense that he writes frequently about the intersections between Hollywood and architecture.

The first time he visited Southern California, he says, "We landed on Christmas Day. There were no cars to rent at LAX. None. So we wound up in Hollywood without a car. On Christmas. And we just did not understand the scale of Los Angeles. We walked everywhere -- we actually thought we were going to walk from Hollywood to Century City, because we were going to rent a car there. On the map, it looks reasonable."

That might make a pretty good slogan for the city as a whole, actually: On the Map, It Looks Reasonable.

He goes on: "If you come out to Los Angeles, you have to be prepared to say, 'Hey, we're going to go somewhere, and we're going to drive, even if it takes 45 minutes to get to Hollywood.' You just have to accept the fact that this is a different landscape. Otherwise it's like that Situationist joke where they go walking through the city of London following, to the T, a map of Paris."

We walk into a Starbucks, buy coffees and sit down outside, at a rickety metal table in the shade, facing Venice Boulevard. I tell him that when I first read in his blog that he was moving to Los Angeles, I was surprised. More than any other, the theme that seems to inspire him is layering: the notion that cities are made up of -- and legible through -- complicated kinds of strata, some geological and others man-made, some above ground and others below. I figured L.A., with its horizontality and much-celebrated freedom from the weight of history, might not be his cup of tea.

"Actually," he says, "I love L.A., and in part because of the geographical circumstances over which the city exists. I love really dumb things like the tar pits. I love that there are oil derricks pumping away in the middle of the city. Southern California looks to me the way I imagine the Earth looked to the dinosaurs. It's full of weird, gymnosperm-like trees and ferns. It's a Jurassic landscape."

And that means he thinks of L.A. as a historical place?

"Yes! Not in the human history sense but in the sheer sense of Earth time. And as dumb as that may sound, I feel that you can actually see it -- you can see it in the species of trees and in the natural landscape. In the Grove, for example, where the shops have methane meters, because gas is leaking out of the tar deposits."

We walk back toward his apartment, along surprisingly crowded sidewalks and past a hulking SUV with a license plate reading "00 MPG." We pause at the intersection of Washington and Keystone. At the northeast corner sits a collection of building-sized satellite dishes, crammed like huge barnacles on a small pier. They are responsible, Manaugh says, for sending most of Sony's programming to China. He turns in the direction of his apartment building.

"They send the signals basically in this direction, so the whole time we've been living here there's been this constant stream of movies and TV shows going above our heads as we sleep, across the Pacific."

On the other side of the street is what appears to be a typical surface parking lot, hemmed in by a low wall and holding four or five cars. Manaugh tells me it's actually leased by Sony: a soundstage, in effect, disguised quite successfully as a place to park.

With distance, growing fonder

"It's a catch basin," he says, with typical enthusiasm about the urban crevices that most of us overlook, and using a term that seemed to come straight out of a John McPhee essay, "for Sony's real-estate overflow." And with that he goes back to join his wife packing boxes.

A few weeks later, once Manaugh is settled in his new apartment in San Francisco's Cole Valley, I check Bldgblog and discover that he has posted a longer, more enthusiastic reflection on Los Angeles than he ever wrote while he was living here. Not to jump to any conclusions about how Manaugh is enjoying his new job or Northern California, but the entry has the passion, and the tone, of a report from forced exile. It's easy to read it, at least in part, as a criticism of San Francisco, a smaller and in many ways a more conservative city, despite its progressive reputation, than Los Angeles.

"No matter what you do in L.A.," Manaugh writes, "your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang -- or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you're fine: that's just how it works. You can watch 'Cops' all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass -- or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both . . . .

"Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it's bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don't matter. You're free."

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