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COLUMN ONE

L.A.'s intimate stranger

A German tourist has a passion for the city's architecture. His website is a defining portrait of buildings that most locals take for granted.

April 11, 2007|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

ELEVEN years ago, a German tourist named Martin Schall arrived in Los Angeles, armed with a guidebook, a camera and a traveler's vision of the city. He was at the end of a long road trip along Route 66 and had parked his rental car on the Sunset Strip, close to the House of Blues.

Schall paid a scalper $30 for a ticket to a Marc Cohn concert, found a hotel nearby and made plans to visit the city's tourist destinations, including Hollywood Boulevard and the beach.

But it was raining. He got befuddled by the freeways. And at some point, he ended up downtown.

Schall was awed by the skyscrapers. He visited the Wells Fargo museum, rode Angels Flight and ate at the Grand Central Market. And he aimed his camera at the city's more unfamiliar sights: the twin cupolas of the Terminal Annex building downtown, an ornate yet graffitied doorway along 6th Street, and a colorful mural at Olvera Street, which he reverentially calls El Pueblo.

His photos were not the normal tourist's fare. Instead of stock shots of amusement parks, sunsets over the ocean and celebrity haunts, Schall focused on a moodier, more eclectic L.A. There were few people in them -- just the shapes and shadows of the city.

It was 1996 -- a few years after the L.A. riots and long before downtown's revival. To Schall, though, Los Angeles was full of promise -- "a place where you can look into the future like in a crystal ball and be your own fortuneteller."

When he got home to Stuttgart, Schall decided to share this vision of Los Angeles with a few friends. He posted a handful of photos to a simple website. But he thought there was more to see, and share. So he made plans to return.

In the last 11 years, Schall has visited Los Angeles 10 times -- mostly in February or November, when he thinks the light of the city is particularly good.

And in that time, he has gone from tourist to architectural maven. His website, you-are-here.com, has become the ultimate online collection of photos documenting the city. It now includes more than 1,700 images of what Schall thinks makes Los Angeles great.

The website has made Schall a celebrity in the urban design world. Building owners beg him, via e-mail, to include their buildings on his site. And preservationists and other architectural aficionados use it as a bible of L.A. architecture.

But only a small number of his fans realize Schall is not a native Angeleno, an architect or a professional photographer -- but rather a German oil and gas engineer whose evenings are spent toiling away on the website from a sleek, sparely decorated loft in Kornwestheim, just outside of Stuttgart.

"It's one of those situations where, in many ways, it takes someone from the outside to know and appreciate a place best," said Ken Bernstein, manager of the Los Angeles Planning Department's historical resources office. "I don't know anything about [Schall], but he is clearly someone who has a deep appreciation and insight for Los Angeles."

IN Schall's online Los Angeles, buildings dominate, and cars and people are infrequent. There are no dirty streets, no homeless people.

"That's everywhere in the world," he said, "and I don't want people to say, 'That's L.A.' "

Instead, Schall targets his camera at an eclectic mix of buildings for which he finds particular affection: an intricate green-and-yellow Victorian residence in Angelino Heights, a Googie-style coffee shop in Glendale, the brightly stuccoed elementary school of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy west of downtown.

Schall walks most of the time -- covering up to six miles in a day -- or takes public transportation. He rarely goes inside buildings, preferring to shoot exteriors, which he usually finds much more interesting. He is neurotic about avoiding awkward sight lines and tries to shoot pictures between lampposts -- otherwise, "I get angry when I get home and see them."

Schall's photographic idiosyncrasies date to when his parents gave him his first camera at age 12. "When I look at my old pictures," he said, "it's always the same: buildings and empty streets. No people."

At home in Germany, Schall shoots similar photos, and even posts some on a back page of the you-are-here website. But his true obsession, he freely admits, is Los Angeles. His goal, he said, is to see every square inch of the region, and to photograph most of it.

In the time he has been visiting the city -- always alone, always in pursuit of his photos -- Schall has grown from a 29-year-old just out of university to a 40-year-old with a slight paunch and a receding hairline.

He has become a father. (The only year he missed, he said, was when his son, now 8, was born.)

He has married and divorced -- his frequent visits to Los Angeles being "one of the reasons" the marriage fell apart.

"She hates downtown, urbanism. She doesn't like to go to cities," Schall said.

Schall hasn't brought his new girlfriend with him to Los Angeles either.

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