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Building The BLDGBLOG Book: Questions for Geoff Manaugh

I've mentioned my affection for Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG before (tempered only by the painful/sublime sensations that impossibly brainy and/or gorgeous architectural speculations tend to set off in my synapses), as well as my anticipation for his long-promised BLDGBLOG Book. (He was also kind enough to contribute an appreciation to Omni of J.G. Ballard, one of his guiding spirits, after Ballard's death in April.)

The book turned out to be as delicious as hoped, with Geoff clearly enjoying and exploiting the physical capabilities of the book as much as he does the digital potential of his blog. I made sure we included it on our Hidden Gems list in our Best Books of the Year So Far feature this summer, and in lieu of a better description, I'll just paste in my blurb from that page right here:

Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG is an endless one-man font of curiosity, speculation, and juxtaposition about what the architecture pros like to call our "built environment": the spaces we build for ourselves and, just as interestingly, the stories we tell about them. Now Manaugh has re-engineered his conjectures into a gorgeous object that is very much a book but that thinks (with links) like a blog, about things like abandoned sewer tunnels, Soviet sleep labs, and Mars bungalows. Build a new room in your brain.

Geoff has had a busy, bihemispheric summer, but he took the time to answer a few questions about the new book (I think he was in Italy when I sent the questions, and returned his answers from Australia). By the way, he's been posting some of the fruits of his time in Australia as an instructor at Urban Islands, a weeklong architectural studio in Sydney, with stunning examples of his students' work here, here, here, and, breathtakingly, here. You've always been very aware of the relationship between architecture and books, so when you were faced with the practical mission of turning BLDGBLOG into a book, how did you shape your ideas into the architecture of a physical book?

Manaugh: The book presented more opportunities than limitations, as far as organizing my content goes. If a book is really just a way to structure your writing, then it lends itself extremely well to the development of longer-term thought processes--and that was particularly good news for me, in the sense that BLDGBLOG returns again and again to certain themes. A book meant that those themes could finally be woven together in one place.

In other words, things I'd written about underground exploration--or climate change--back in 2006 might have been updated by posts I wrote later that year, or in summer 2007, or even later, in spring 2008, and so the book allowed me to take threads like that and bring them together. Only I had an opportunity to rewrite them for a new context and to add a dozen previously unpublished sections written specifically for the book. It was a bit like someone who's only been given enough space to assemble doll houses suddenly finding literally acres of space in which to explore the construction of new rooms and hallways--imagine the mazes of space you could build then!

So the structure of a book was actually good news--to find that I could really develop things in one location (without having to wait six months between posts). You also pay attention to the idea of built structures as having narratives of their own over time. Michael Cook, the intrepid sewer explorer you interview (and whose gorgeous tunnel photos you feature) in the book, puts it this way, "I think every piece of infrastructure--every building--is on a trajectory, and you're experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life." And I love those (to me) hilarious paintings you include that Joseph Gandy made in the early 1800s of the ruins that the buildings of his architect friend John Soane would become. Do working architects think beyond the moment of creation often enough?

This definitely depends on which architects you’re talking about--but, in a general sense, I would say absolutely not. Especially on a material level. I’d say the overwhelming majority of buildings that look great on architecture blogs, or on computer screens at the office, are then constructed out of materials that age so terribly that, within a decade, the very structures that were meant to look like tomorrow actually look like sad reminders of yesterday. Buildings that are supposedly so cutting-edge when they’re first constructed look like moldering antiques within five years--et alone 10,000!

Part of this, I think, is a much larger issue in architecture today, which is that architects far too often build what is appropriate for them, within the contexts of their own intellectual development and building careers, and not within what might actually be best for a site, or a city, or a civilization. Which means that you and I get to live inside evidence of architects working something out for themselves. And by the time their buildings are thoroughly rain-stained, and the paint has started flaking, they’ll have moved on to something else. We’re stuck dealing with the leftovers, paying exorbitant maintenance fees on someone else’s dream. The wider culture tends to tell stories about architecture (like about everything, I guess) that are organized around the Great Creators: the Gehrys, the Wrights, the Pianos (the Howard Roarks). Your stories, by contrast, are much more impersonal--if there are any heroes they are as much the people who explore their environment--the Michael Cooks. Where do people fit into your designs?

Manaugh: Well, I don’t have that many designs as such--being a writer--but I think the everyday users of buildings are almost always more interesting than the actual creators of those spaces. For instance, what do janitors or security guards or novelists or even housewives--let alone prison guards or elevator-repair personnel--think about the buildings around them? What do suburban teenagers think about contemporary home design, when their own bedrooms are right next door to their parents--or what do teenagers think about urban planning, when they have to drive an hour each way to get to school? These sorts of apparently trivial experiences of the built environment are often far more important to hear about than simply learning--yet again--how a certain architect fits him- or herself into a self-chosen design lineage.

So perhaps we should stop talking to Frank Gehry and start interviewing valet parkers in Los Angeles--or crime novelists, or SWAT team captains. They all have an opinion about the built environment, and about the way that cities function, but no one tends to ask them what those opinion might be. Speaking of narratives and buildings, there are some speculative novelists you mention frequently, like Ballard and China Mieville (and our own Mr. VanderMeer), who are clearly kindred spirits as world-imaginers. Are there other novels that you consider "unacknowledged architectural masterpieces," as you describe Kafka's The Trial? Can you even write good fiction without taking architecture into account?

Manaugh: Definitely. I also mention Patrick McGrath and Rupert Thomson in the book, and I think books like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy are also hugely impressive in their imagining of the built and natural environments.

Films like Ghostbusters are also very, very architectural – for instance, there’s that amazing scene in the jail cell when they’re all going over floor plans of the haunted building – and I often say that haunted house novels are a near-universally overlooked form of architectural writing. There are things by Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King that should be on almost any architectural syllabus--and that’s before I even mention prison-break films or bank heists. Those are both architectural to an almost absurd degree. In fact, the bank heist and the prison break together might form the architectural scenario par excellance.

Having said that, though, I also think it’s important--possibly far more important--to go back the other way, and to look at myths and even religious texts for architectural ideas. An obvious example is the Tower of Babel--but there’s also Asgard, from the Norse myths, and there are all those dam-building projects from Gilgamesh, and, as I write in The BLDGBLOG Book, there is King Aeolus’s artificial cave complex from The Aeneid.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for exploring how ancient mythology might be more interesting, from a spatial and intellectual standpoint, than just about all of today’s so-called architectural criticism. Maybe it’d be more interesting to talk about King Arthur than about Frank Lloyd Wright--or maybe we should simply find a way to bring those two together.
And speaking of speculation, your interest in architecture is often in what could be built (or even what really couldn't be built but is still fun to think about), rather than in critiquing what actually exists on the ground. So many of your sentences start, "What if..." or "Perhaps...". What's the relationship between imagining buildings and what actually gets built? Does one even need to lead to the other? (I think here of a line I came across in another interview you did: "Genuinely liking something--an idea, a design--doesn’t mean you have to build it.")

Manaugh: One way to look at this touches on why I like Los Angeles so much: the thing with L.A. is that almost literally no one thinks it actually works. Almost no one will tell you that L.A. is a well-designed city or that it can’t possibly be improved upon because it’s already so perfect.

But that’s why I love living there: every time someone with no connection at all to architecture gets stuck in a traffic jam, they’ll start thinking about alternatives: you know, “if there was a highway here, all of us wouldn’t be stuck at this intersection,” or “if these buildings could be moved over there then we could all just drive straight through and there’d be no more traffic”--and so on.

Those are both driving examples, obviously, but my point is simply that everyday people tend to be almost constantly imagining alternatives: alternative ways of building the city, alternative ways of getting to work, alternative ways of designing houses, etc. L.A. all but requires you to imagine alternatives--and so everybody in L.A. is a kind of proto-urban designer.

My basic point is just that there are millions of interesting speculative ideas out there, with people reimagining what their cities could be, but the problem is precisely that no one is building them. Architects are too busy proving that they’ve read Le Corbusier, and people who have never studied architecture are somehow meant to be impressed.

In any case, one final point here: I don’t mean to be too hard on architects, because what has always amazed me about architecture is that it is, by definition, the act of imagining alternatives. You see an empty site--and so you imagine it as something else. You imagine what it could be. Or you see a house you don’t like--and so you come up with alternative plans, perhaps for a renovation or even a replacement.

So architecture is always a way of speculating about what might be here in the future--and it’s not inaccurate to say, then, that architecture is its own peculiar form of science fiction: architecture is always a way of envisioning our world transformed into something else. Finally, the ideas, the possible futures, that you speculate about--I have to confess, many of them give me the willies: using the L.A. basin to reengineer famous weather events, giant warehouses filled with sound waves that alter crop genes. And I can't tell--do they give you the willies too? Or just a Ballardian pleasure in imagining them? Or some of both?

Manaugh: Sometimes these ideas do genuinely freak me out! But they’re always just ideas. Luckily, I’m not a consultant for the U.S. military or a junior executive with an international extraction firm--because then many of these more outlandish ideas (tectonic warfare, by weaponizing the earth’s tectonic plates, or a plan to bury hole cities beneath artificial glaciers) might gradually become real.

Usually, though, the sheer exhilaration of thinking something that I didn’t think yesterday wins out. In the end, that’s probably why I do this: to keep myself thinking things that I’ve never thought before, and to share those ideas with others. I can’t overstate how fun that is.


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