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A New Installation Gamifies the Future of Los Angeles

Always “becoming something else” is an essential part of L.A.’s urban DNA.

Like any city, Los Angeles has taken on various forms throughout its history. What was once a small Mexican town now sprawls in every direction as the entertainment capital of the world, resembling from an aerial view a gigantic circuit board.

Building on archives of the city’s past at the University of Southern California (USC), the new exhibition LATBD imagines a future vision of Los Angeles. In a sense, LATBD gamifies the city. In a library on the USC campus, the installation features 3D models, interactive text, one-off game boards designed by David Mellen, and historical artifacts, all arranged so that viewers can construct their own visions of future Los Angeles.

Conceived and created by collaborators Geoff Manaugh, Mark Smout, and Laura Allen (the latter two of the architectural design firm Smout Allen), LATBD uses materials, artifacts, books, and ephemera “hidden way deep in USC libraries” as the building blocks of this imaginative future Los Angeles. Manaugh, a Los Angeles-based writer and futurist, tells GOOD that the trio began by asking themselves the following question: “if all these things preserved in the archives represent what L.A. used to be—where L.A. came from and what used to be here—then could we also use those same objects to talk about where L.A. might be going next or what sort of city it could still become?”

“The question of the future is particularly interesting in Los Angeles, and it always has been,” says Manaugh. “Thinking about the future is part of the very narrative of L.A. For example, how the city will survive into the future at all, given its chronic lack of a reliable large-scale water supply and the inevitability of earthquakes, both large and small, isn’t just idle speculation here.”

The notion of future transformation explored in LATBD is helped along, as Manaugh muses, because L.A. is a city, culturally speaking, that seems built on the premise of “becoming something else.”

“People move to L.A. specifically to change something about their lives or even explicitly for the purpose of reinventing themselves as stars,” he says. “That’s one of the clichés of the city: that everyone here is playacting at being someone else, essentially road-testing alternative future versions of themselves.”

Manaugh sees this concept of “becoming something else” as sort of the mutant DNA of Los Angeles. He and the Smout Allen principals wondered what this notion might mean on an architectural and narrative level. “The name of the exhibition, obviously, is also a reflection of this,” says Manaugh. “It’s a Los Angeles that is always yet to be determined.”

Manaugh says he has admired the work of Smout and Allen for a decade, and the idea of working with them on this was just too good to pass up. Because their work has always been focused on unstable landscapes or shifting ground conditions where designing architecture is very challenging, and, despite the fact that they live in London, Manaugh felt they were the perfect fit for a Los Angeles-based project.

“The overall idea with this was not for them to create one architectural model that we could then sort of take out around the city to try to convince someone to build, as if we had some vision of the future that we want to sell to City Hall or to a developer,” he says. “Instead, the idea was to give architectural shape to many different potential scenarios that we came up with for how Los Angeles might change in the future.”

LATBD Tarot card

The resulting 3D models demonstrate such things as how L.A. neighborhoods might try to fortify themselves against future earthquakes. In LATBD, the trio proposed building huge underground pendulums that would act as seismic counterweights for the city, while at the same time imagining that this seismic energy could be turned into a potential source of renewable energy.

“To make a long story short, we wanted to literalize the idea of a game about the future of Los Angeles,” Manaugh says. “This meant that, in addition to the narrative themes that you can see in Smout Allen’s models, I also got to work with a local designer named David Mellen to produce actual game boards, featuring old archival photos from the USC collection laid out like a dice game.”

Manaugh says the point of it all was to play with the idea that the future of Los Angeles is subject to competing interests.

“Different people and different groups often want very different outcomes for the city,” he adds. “In other words, this means that L.A., even on a regular day, is already a game, a landscape fought over by different strategies and intentions, and we thought that a series of L.A.-themed game boards made specifically for the exhibition would be a nice way to communicate this idea.”

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