Interview with Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG)

What are some of the events and interests in your life that led up to BLDG BLOG?

There are two separate tracks that came together. One was the appeal of having an outlet for writing that didn’t require me to go by way of a gatekeeper. The notion of having a blog was a really great thing, especially at that phase of the internet. It is an outlet that is still very useful for writers or designers who are looking to differentiate themselves or to find an audience for the stuff they write or design. We are at different phase of the internet right now. People seem to think that Facebook or Twitter is enough, but I think having a blog is still a very useful way to have an online portfolio for everyone to see.

I was interested in archaeology, science fiction movies, war and the military; in the middle of all that is architecture. It seemed like a great way to write about these topics and to explore the things I was interested in. You can take pretty much any topic and find architecture in it, then you can start writing about that and fold it into the envelope of architectural writing. The things I wanted to be reading simply didn’t exist, and so I wanted to write what I think other people should be writing and combine that with a way to develop a portfolio of writing online.

What are some of the multidisciplinary partnerships you’ve gone into, and what are some of the most interesting results of those partnerships?

For me, Architecture itself is interdisciplinary. I didn’t study architecture and so working with architects is in and of itself a cross disciplinary experience. My own background is more in archaeology, art history, and English. I have done a lot of work for stratigraphers in terms of writing essays for books or writing things for exhibitions that they put on, doing sort of collaborative work whether its aerial cartography of industrial landscapes, such as mines or quarries, or if it’s cartographers exploring landscapes of abandonment, like ruins and even foreclosed houses after the financial crash.

I wrote a book that came out last year called A Burglar’s Guide to the City. I got to speak with everyone from burglars to bank robbers to FBI agents and police. That was a great way to discuss architecture and the city from a really different point of view, which was the point of view of people that want to take advantage of architecture or abuse the city, or who want to police the city or secure architecture environments against crime. That’s led to the world of security, the world of policing, and recently the world of tv and film. My book got optioned by CBS Studios to be turned into a tv show and a couple articles I’ve written have also been optioned. Trying to figure out what is not just narratively interesting but what is cinematically interesting has been a compelling challenge. Working with architects, doing exhibitions for cartographers, working with people in the world of security and policing and then people in the world of tv and film, all of those have been really exciting.

Did you have any changes in your own ways of thinking about architecture by investigating the book?

On one level I was already interested in those things which is why I was interested in writing the book in the first place. I do think that the research did change my way of looking at how cities are organized. In particular, how police operate within them and how police even change cities. Police have quite the influence on the type of ordinances that get passed or the ways in which cities are regulated. It felt like peering behind the curtain and seeing how cities are actually run and operated. It’s not by architects. It’s by people who are in the political world, or in the policing world, or for that matter criminals who instigate those changes.

In terms of just everyday security, whenever I talk about this I always assume that within a week I’m going to get burglarized – I’m going to get punished for saying this kind of thing. I definitely am a little bit more conscious of everyday security for both my own apartment or my hotel room or personal possessions. All those things are now at the forefront of my brain in a way that they weren’t before.

Is there exciting work on the horizon right now?

My wife, who is also a writer, writes about science and food at the New Yorker. She and I are co-authoring a book that is about the history and future of quarantine. Quarantine is basically medical isolation. If you look at it from that point of view, quarantine is about building or maintaining a spatial system that separates one thing from another, which is an architectural topic. We were looking at quarantine all the way from the black death where quarantine might last 5, 10, or even 15 years. The research starts with quarantine but you can find yourself writing about everything from how hostile the design is, how the rights of citizens are constitutionally guaranteed, to how cities are shaped. I’m pretty excited about that project and that comes out in 2018.

What are some of the things you would advise architects to think about?

I find that architects rarely have friends outside of the industry. They only know about other architects or architectural publishing. I really urge architects to try to get out of that bubble because the people who actually use buildings are the people who are going to be either hiring architects or for that matter not hiring architects. Don’t only hang out with other architects, even if that means making sure that at least once a week you’re doing something not architectural. I think that it’s so easy to fall into that trap of working 14 hour days in the office or studio and just forgetting that there is an outside world. I would strongly urge everybody to get out of that and try to find where there’s stuff happening. If you speak to archaeologists, or if you talk to police officers, or if you talk to set designers in movies, or if you talk to horror novelists you’re going to find everyone has some sort of take on the built environment. Even if that doesn’t translate directly into a building at the very least it might give you some interesting ideas to think about on your next project.

Are there any books that aren’t about architecture that you think architects should read?

One example is called Survival City by Tom Vanderbilt which is a really interesting look at the built landscape of the cold war in the united states. It’s somewhere between a travel log and an architectural history of war during the 20th century. It’s an example of how you can write about architecture without only writing about architecture.

Who is your favorite architect and why?

I’ve always been drawn to the work of Lebbeus Woods, even though many people would say he’s not an architect and that he is just a designer. One thing I always liked about Lebbeus was that his work had a lot of symbolic potential. By focusing on landscapes of conflict, whether it was because of war or because of an earthquake, I think Lebbeus used architecture as a way for human beings to ground themselves in a world that was uneven and trying to shake humans off. I thought that used architecture to its fullest extent. A lot of the buildings that I’m most excited about predate the world of modern celebrity architects. Everyday stone chapels in the countryside of Europe are examples of really interesting vernacular architectures that I find pretty compelling. I don’t think that’s a very popular answer these days, but I think that kind of lost vernacular architecture is really exciting and often overlooked.