Interview: Geoff Manaugh

Geoff Manaugh is the creator of architecture website BLDGBLOG, as well as the author of the New York Times-bestselling A Burglar’s Guide to the City and The BLDGBLOG Book. His writing has also been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Cabinet, The Atlantic, and many others.

Your newest book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, studies architecture the “way a burglar would,” in order to learn more about the discipline. Analogous to the example of the burglar, what do you think urban planners and designers can learn from nomads or migrants?

While I don’t think there is an exact overlap with burglary, both burglars and nomads do share the tactic of looking at how rules, whether it’s zoning or actual property lines, can be undercut or used against their intended purpose. Burglars reveal that some people approach buildings very differently than how an architect might expect them to; and, when looking at borders, you’ll find that people will use the landscape in ways that figures of authority wouldn’t have anticipated. When you study how people actually use space, in other words, you see how even the best-laid plans are often thwarted.

The border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is noted by a line of deforestation. The Korean DMZ is a de facto wildlife preserve. What have been some of the most interesting ecological and architectural phenomena you’ve researched that have been sparked by this type of political demarcation?

I like those examples, although it’s also interesting to look at how nation-states step beyond their territories to try to regulate global effects on the environment, such as deforestation in the Amazon. Countries that don’t own land in that region nonetheless will advocate for how the land there should be controlled. Another example is water, including how aquifers often span international borders. In that case, geopolitics actually extends into this invisible, subterranean realm.

You recently discussed the implications of virtual reality on larger urban zoning issues on your BLDGBLOG beginning with legal actions taken against Pokemon Go. If legal bounds are drawn in the virtual plane, how do you see architects and urbanists interacting with such zones?

There are a lot of aspects to this. For one, there is an analog interaction with digital technology. One can simply design the facade of a building so that it acts more like a virtual billboard. Reports from the home building industry also suggest that families are now reacting against the open house plan by creating labyrinthine homes with more walls and more rooms, to allow for more privacy and more screen time. It’s an interesting economic indicator of how architecture is being changed by people’s digital habits.

At the same time, the propagation of electromagnetic signals can be harnessed by architects to enable better access to Wi-Fi and cell phone signals, or alternately, to deny access to those things. There was a project recently from Joseph Grima’s group Space Caviar, in which they designed a house that could function like a Faraday cage, shutting off electromagnetic access in different rooms.

Finally, there’s geo-fencing, in which, once you cross a particular threshold or border, technology doesn’t work anymore. You see that at the White House: the airspace around it has been geo-fenced so it’s impossible to fly drones there.

There’s something really compelling and strange about that. It’s also worrisome and ominous that someone could set limits on your technology without you knowing, whether it’s your phone, a handgun, or a camera. Imagine going to a political event and the video function on your iPhone suddenly doesn’t work. These virtual, electromagnetic, or otherwise augmented spaces are subject to design, and architects, police forces, and political authorities can take advantage of that.

Your research combines a variety of ecological oddities, obscure histories, and sci-fi speculations in order to subvert the way people think about what design can do. Are there certain urban design practices or firms that you follow that take the same type of outsider approach to their interventions on the landscape?

There’s definitely interesting work out there in terms of architectural research—people like Keller Easterling to Benjamin Bratton to Liam Young are producing work that crosses a lot of boundaries. The problem is that, once you step into the market-oriented world of architectural design and production, clients aren’t necessarily happy to underwrite that kind of research, and you often have to continue on your own. The sad but interesting reality is also that, if you’re trying to find theoretical implications of advanced design work, it’s often hidden in plain sight–people designing huge entertainment complexes, casinos, or stadiums, places that have enough money to test out unproven technology that might not be very high-tech in a few years but is cutting-edge right now.

In our current age of ecological crisis and flux, how do you see traditional notions of cities tested and redefined?

Like Rahul Mehrotra (see interview inside) was saying, there are aspects of sustainability and ephemerality that are incredibly important in an urban project. At the same time, one of the risks of a “pop-up” culture is the sense that we can always move on to take advantage of better conditions elsewhere. It’s tempting to believe that there’s always another place to go. It’s interesting to look at nomadic urbanism on an avant-garde cultural level, but it can sometimes just be sprawl by another name. Cities would do well to figure out how to take advantage of the circumstances that they find themselves in. The promise of a particular US urbanism has always been vampiric–once we’re done with this place we’ll go somewhere else. It’s different from what Rahul is advocating, but mobility can also be dangerous–like the idea that we have to get to Mars before climate change sets in. Why fix where we are now if we can simply move somewhere new?

How do you define a border?

A border is the definable limit where one condition becomes another. Whether it’s visible is not part of the definition, but something happens at a point of transition, whether it’s a legal transition, a thermal, political, or barometric one. It’s where a turning point occurs.