Unsolving the City: An Interview with China Miéville

The work of novelist China Miéville is well-known—and increasingly celebrated—for its urban and architectural imagery.

In his 2000 novel Perdido Street Station, for instance, an old industrial scrapyard on the underside of the city, full of discarded machine parts and used electronic equipment, suddenly bootstraps itself into artificial intelligence, self-rearranging into a tentacular and sentient system. In The Scar, a floating city travels the oceans, lashed together from the hulls of captured ships:

They were built up, topped with structure, styles and materials shoved together from a hundred histories and aesthetics into a compound architecture. Centuries-old pagodas tottered on the decks of ancient oarships, and cement monoliths rose like extra smokestacks on paddlers stolen from southern seas. The streets between the buildings were tight. They passed over the converted vessels on bridges, between mazes and plazas, and what might have been mansions. Parklands crawled across clippers, above armories in deeply hidden decks. Decktop houses were cracked and strained from the boats’ constant motion.

In his story “The Rope of the World,” originally published in Icon, a failed space elevator becomes the next Tintern Abbey, an awe-inspiring Romantic ruin in the sky. In “Reports Of Certain Events In London,” from the collection Looking for Jake, Miéville describes how constellations of temporary roads flash in and out through nighttime London, a shifting vascular geography of trap streets, only cataloged by the most fantastical maps.

And in his 2004 novel Iron Council, Miéville imagines something called “slow sculpture,” a geologically sublime new artform by which huge blocks of sandstone are “carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”

BLDGBLOG has always been interested in learning how novelists see the city—how spatial descriptions of things like architecture and landscape can have compelling effects, augmenting both plot and emotion in ways that other devices, such as characterization, sometimes cannot. In earlier interviews with such writers as Patrick McGrath, Kim Stanley Robinson, Zachary Mason, Jeff VanderMeer, Tom McCarthy, and Mike Mignola, we have looked at everything from the literary appeal and narrative usefulness of specific buildings and building types to the descriptive influence of classical landscape painting, and we have entertained the idea that the demands of telling a good story often give novelists a more subtle and urgent sense of space even than architects and urban planners.

Over the course of the following long interview, China Miéville discusses the conceptual origins of the divided city featured in his recent, award-winning novel The City and The City; he points out the interpretive limitations of allegory, in a craft better served by metaphor; we take a look at the “squid cults” of Kraken (which arrives in paperback later this month) and maritime science fiction, more broadly; the seductive yet politically misleading appeal of psychogeography; J.G. Ballard and the clichés of suburban perversity; the invigorating necessities of urban travel; and much more.

[Image: China Miéville, photographed by Andrew Testa, courtesy of the New York Times].

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BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with The City and The City. What was your initial attraction to the idea of a divided city, and how did you devise the specific way in which the city would be split?

China Miéville: I first thought of the divided city as a development from an earlier idea I had for a fantasy story. That idea was more to do with different groups of people who live side-by-side but, because they are different species, relate to the physical environment very, very differently, having different kinds of homes and so on. It was essentially an exaggeration of the way humans and rats live in London, or something similar. But, quite quickly, that shifted, and I began to think about making it simply human.

For a long time, I couldn’t get the narrative. I had the setting reasonably clear in my head and, then, once I got that, a lot of things followed. For example, I knew that I didn’t want to make it narrowly, allegorically reductive, in any kind of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make one city heavy-handedly Eastern and one Western, or one capitalist and one communist, or any kind of nonsense like that. I wanted to make them both feel combined and uneven and real and full-blooded. I spent a long time working on the cities and trying to make them feel plausible and half-remembered, as if they were uneasily not quite familiar rather than radically strange.

I auditioned various narrative shapes for the book and, eventually, after a few months, partly as a present to my Mum, who was a big crime reader, and partly because I was reading a lot of crime at the time and thinking about crime, I started realizing what was very obvious and should have been clear to me much earlier. That’s the way that noir and hard-boiled and crime procedurals, in general, are a kind of mythic urbanology, in a way; they relate very directly to cities.

Once I’d thought of that, exaggerating the trope of the trans-jurisdictional police problem—the cops who end up having to be on each other’s beats—the rest of the novel just followed immediately. In fact, it was difficult to imagine that I hadn’t been able to work it out earlier. That was really the genesis.

I should say, also, that with the whole idea of a divided city there are analogies in the real world, as well as precursors within fantastic fiction. C. J. Cherryh wrote a book that had a divided city like that, in some ways, as did Jack Vance. Now I didn’t know this at the time, but I’m also not getting my knickers in a twist about it. If you think what you’re trying to do is come up with a really original idea—one that absolutely no one has ever had before—you’re just kidding yourself.

You’re inevitably going to tread the ground that the greats have trodden before, and that’s fine. It simply depends on what you’re able to do with it.

BLDGBLOG: Something that struck me very strongly about the book was that you manage to achieve the feel of a fantasy or science fiction story simply through the description of a very convoluted political scenario. The book doesn’t rely on monsters, non-humans, magical technologies, and so on; it’s basically a work of political science fiction.

Miéville: This is impossible to talk about without getting into spoiler territory—which is fine, I don’t mind that—but we should flag that right now for anyone who hasn’t read it and does want to read it.

But, yes, the overtly fantastical element just ebbed and ebbed, becoming more suggestive and uncertain. Although it’s written in such a way that there is still ambiguity—and some readers are very insistent on focusing on that ambiguity and insisting on it—at the same time, I think it’s a book, like all of my books, for which, on the question of the fantastic, you might want to take a kind of Occam’s razor approach. It’s a book that has an almost contrary relation to the fantastic, in a certain sense.

[Image: The marbled intra-national sovereignties of Baarle-Hertog].

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, it’s as if The City and The City simply describes an exaggerated real-life border condition, similar to how people live in Jerusalem or the West Bank, Cold War Berlin or contemporary Belfast—or even in a small town split by the U.S./Canada border, like Stanstead-Derby Line. In a sense, these settlements consist of next-door neighbors who otherwise have very complicated spatial and political relationships to one another. For instance, I think I sent you an email about a year ago about a town located both on and between the Dutch-Belgian border, called Baarle-Hertog.

Miéville: You did!

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious to what extent you were hoping to base your work on these sorts of real-life border conditions.

Miéville: The most extreme example of this was something I saw in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, where a couple of poli-sci guys from the State Department or something similar were proposing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the case of Jerusalem, they were proposing basically exactly this kind of system, from The City and The City, in that you would have a single urban space in which different citizens are covered by completely different juridical relations and social relations, and in which you would have two overlapping authorities.

I was amazed when I saw this. I think, in a real world sense, it’s completely demented. I don’t think it would work at all, and I don’t think Israel has the slightest intention of trying it.

My intent with The City and The City was, as you say, to derive something hyperbolic and fictional through an exaggeration of the logic of borders, rather than to invent my own magical logic of how borders could be. It was an extrapolation of really quite everyday, quite quotidian, juridical and social aspects of nation-state borders: I combined that with a politicized social filtering, and extrapolated out and exaggerated further on a sociologically plausible basis, eventually taking it to a ridiculous extreme.

But I’m always slightly nervous when people make analogies to things like Palestine because I think there can be a danger of a kind of sympathetic magic: you see two things that are about divided cities and so you think that they must therefore be similar in some way. Whereas, in fact, in a lot of these situations, it seems to me that—and certainly in the question of Palestine—the problem is not one population being unseen, it’s one population being very, very aggressively seen by the armed wing of another population.

In fact, I put those words into Borlu’s mouth in the book, where he says, “This is nothing like Berlin, this is nothing like Jerusalem.” That’s partly just to disavow—because you don’t want to make the book too easy—but it’s also to make a serious point, which is that, obviously, the analogies will occur but sometimes they will obscure as much as they illuminate.

[Image: The international border between the U.S. and Canada passes through the center of a library; photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. “Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering,” CLUI explains. “Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”].

BLDGBLOG: Your books often lend themselves to political readings, on the other hand. Do you write with specific social or political allegories in mind, and, further, how do your settings—as in The City and The City—come to reflect political intentions, spatially?

Miéville: My short answer is that I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

But the point is, those riffs don’t reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn’t end the thing. That doesn’t foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do—but neither, really, is the text itself.

So I’m very unhappy about the idea of allegoric reading, on the whole. Certainly I never intend my own stuff to be allegorical. Allegories, to me, are interesting more to the extent that they fail—to the extent that they spill out of their own bounds. Reading someone like George MacDonald—his books are extraordinary—or Charles Williams. But they’re extraordinary to the extent that they fail or exceed their own intended bounds as Christian allegory.

When Iron Council came out, people would say to me: “Is this book about the Gulf War? Is this book about the Iraq War? You’re making a point about the Iraq War, aren’t you?” And I was always very surprised. I was like, listen: if I want to make a point about the Iraq War, I’ll just say what I think about the Iraq War. I know this because I’ve done it. I write political articles. I’ve written a political book. But insisting on that does not mean for a second that I’m saying—in some kind of unconvincing, “cor-blimey, I’m just a story-teller, guvnor,” type-thing—that these books don’t riff off reality and don’t have things to say about it.

There’s this very strange notion that a writer needs to smuggle these other ideas into the text, but I simply don’t understand why anyone would think that that’s what fiction is for.

BLDGBLOG: There are also very basic historical and referential limits to how someone might interpret a text allegorically. If Iron Council had been written twenty years from now, for instance, during some future war between Taiwan and China, many readers would think it was a fictional exploration of that, and they’d forget about the Iraq War entirely.

Miéville: Sure. And you don’t want to disavow these readings. You may think, at this point in this particular book, I actually do want to make a genuine policy prescription. With my hand on my heart, I don’t think I have ever done that, but, especially if you write with a political texture, you certainly have to take readings like this on the chin.

So, when people say: are you really talking about this? My answer is generally not no—it’s generally yes, but… Or yes, and… Or yes… but not in the way that you mean.

[Image: “The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing…” Photo courtesy of the NYPD].

BLDGBLOG: Let’s go back to the idea of the police procedural. It’s intriguing to compare how a police officer and a novelist might look at the city—the sorts of details they both might notice or the narratives they both might pick up on. Broadly speaking, each engages in detection—a kind of hermeneutics of urban space. How did this idea of urban investigation—the “mythic urbanology” you mentioned earlier—shape your writing of The City and The City?

Miéville: On the question of the police procedural and detection, for me, the big touchstones here were detective fiction, not real police. Obviously they are related, but they’re related in a very convoluted, mediated way.

What I wanted to do was write something that had a great deal of fidelity—hopefully not camp fidelity, but absolute rigorous fidelity—to certain generic protocols of policing and criminology. That was the drive, much more than trying to find out how police really do their investigations. The way a cop inhabits the city is doubtless a fascinating thing, but what was much more important to me for this book was the way that the genre of crime, as an aesthetic field, relates to the city.

The whole notion of decoding the city—the notion that, in a crime drama, the city is a text of clues, in a kind of constant, quantum oscillation between possibilities, with the moment of the solution really being a collapse and, in a sense, a kind of tragedy—was really important to me.

Of course, I’m not one of those writers who says I don’t read reviews. I do read reviews. I know that some readers were very dissatisfied with the strict crime drama aspect of it. I can only hold up my hands. It was extremely strict. I don’t mean to do that kind of waffley, unconvincing, writerly, carte blanche, get-out-clause of “that was the whole point.” Because you can have something very particular in mind and still fuck it up.

But, for me, given the nature of the setting, it was very important to play it absolutely straight, so that, having conceived of this interweaving of the cities, the actual narrative itself would remain interesting, and page-turning, and so on and so forth. I wanted it to be a genuine who-dunnit. I wanted it to be a book that a crime reader could read and not have a sense that I had cheated.

By the way, I love that formulation of crime-readers: the idea that a book can cheat is just extraordinary.

BLDGBLOG: Can you explain what you mean, in this context, by being rigorous? You were rigorous specifically to what?

Miéville: The book walks through three different kinds of crime drama. In section one and section two, it goes from the world-weary boss with a young, chippy sidekick to the mismatched partners who end up with grudging respect for each other. Then, in part three, it’s a political conspiracy thriller. I quite consciously tried to inhabit these different iterations of crime writing, as a way to explore the city.

But this has all just been a long-winded way of saying that I would not pretend or presume any kind of real policing knowledge of the way cities work. I suspect, probably, like most things, actual genuine policing is considerably less interesting than it is in its fictionalized version—but I honestly don’t know.

[Images: New York City crime scene photographs].

BLDGBLOG: There’s a book that came out a few years ago called The Meadowlands, by Robert Sullivan. At one point, Sullivan tags along with a retired detective in New Jersey who reveals that, now that he’s retired, he no longer really knows what to do with all the information he’s accumulated about the city over the years. Being retired means he basically knows thousands of things about the region that no longer have any real use for him. He thus comes across as a very melancholy figure, almost as if all of it was supposed to lead up to some sort of narrative epiphany—where he would finally and absolutely understand the city—but then retirement came along and everything went back to being slightly pointless. It was an interpretive comedown, you might say.

Miéville: That kind of specialized knowledge, in any field, can be intoxicating. If you experience a space—say, a museum—with a plumber, you may well come out with a different sense of the strengths and weaknesses of that museum—considering the pipework, as well, of course, as the exhibits—than otherwise. This is one reason I love browsing specialist magazines in fields about which I know nothing.

Obviously, then, with something that is explicitly concerned with uncovering and solving, it makes perfect sense that seeing the city through the eyes of a police detective would give you a very self-conscious view of what’s happening out there.

In terms of fiction, though, I think, if anything, the drive is probably the opposite. Novelists have an endless drive to aestheticize and to complicate. I know there’s a very strong tradition—a tradition in which I write, myself—about the decoding of the city. Thomas de Quincey, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair—that type-thing. The idea that, if you draw the right lines across the city, you’ll find its Kabbalistic heart and so on.

The thing about that is that it’s intoxicating—but it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit and it’s paranoia—and it’s paranoia in a kind of literal sense, in that it’s a totalizing project. As long as you’re constantly aware of that, at an aesthetic level, then it’s not necessarily a problem; you’re part of a process of urban mythologization, just like James Joyce was, I suppose. But the sense that this notion of uncovering—of taking a scalpel to the city and uncovering the dark truth—is actually real, or that it actually solves anything, and is anything other than an aesthetic sleight of hand, can be quite misleading, and possibly even worse than that. To the extent that those texts do solve anything, they only solve mysteries that they created in the first place, which they scrawled over the map of a mucky contingent mess of history called the city. They scrawled a big question mark over it and then they solved it.

Arthur Machen does this as well. All the great weird fiction city writers do it. Machen explicitly talks about the strength of London, as opposed to Paris, in that London is more chaotic. Although he doesn’t put it in these words, I think what partly draws him to London is this notion that, in the absence of a kind of unifying vision, like Haussmann’s Boulevards, and in a city that’s become much more syncretic and messy over time, you have more room to insert your own aestheticizing vision.

As I say, it’s not in and of itself a sin, but to think of this as a real thing—that it’s a lived political reality or a new historical understanding of the city—is, I think, a misprision.

BLDGBLOG: You can see this, as well, in the rise of psychogeography—or, at least, some popular version of it—as a tool of urban analysis in architecture today. This popularity often fails to recognize that, no matter how fun or poetic an experience it genuinely might be, randomly wandering around Boston with an iPhone, for instance, is not guaranteed to produce useful urban insights.

Miéville: Some really interesting stuff has been done with psychogeography—I’m not going to say it’s without uses other than for making pretty maps. I mean, re-experiencing lived urban reality in ways other than how one is more conventionally supposed to do so can shine a new light on things—but that’s an act of political assertion and will. If you like, it’s a kind of deliberate—and, in certain contexts, radical—misunderstanding. Great, you know—good on you! You’ve productively misunderstood the city. But I think that the bombast of these particular—what are we in now? fourth or fifth generation?—psychogeographers is problematic.

Presumably at some point we’re going to get to a stage, probably reasonably soon, in which someone—maybe even one of the earlier generation of big psychogeographers—will write the great book against psychogeography. Not even that it’s been co-opted—it’s just wheel-spinning.

BLDGBLOG: In an interview with Ballardian, Iain Sinclair once joked that psychogeography, as a term, has effectively lost all meaning. Now, literally any act of walking through the city—walking to work in the morning, walking around your neighborhood, walking out to get a bagel—is referred to as “psychogeography.” It’s as if the experience of being a pedestrian in the city has become so unfamiliar to so many people, that they now think the very act of walking around makes them a kind of psychogeographic avant-garde.

Miéville: It’s no coincidence, presumably, that Sinclair started wandering out of the city and off into fields.

[Image: Art by Vincent Chong for the Subterranean Press edition of Kraken].

BLDGBLOG: This brings us to something I want to talk about from Kraken, which comes out in paperback here in the States next week. In that book, you describe a group of people called the Londonmancers. They’re basically psychogeographers with a very particular, almost parodically mystical understanding of the city. How does Kraken utilize this idea of an occult geography of greater London?

Miéville: Yes, this relates directly to what we were just saying. For various reasons, some cities refract, through aesthetics and through art, with a particular kind of flamboyancy. For whatever reason, London is one of them. I don’t mean to detract from all the other cities in the world that have their own sort of Gnosticism, but it is definitely the case that London has worked particularly well for this. There are a couple of moments in the book of great sentimentality, as well, written, I think, when I was feeling very, very well disposed toward London.

I think, in those terms, that I would locate myself completely in the tradition of London phantasmagoria. I see myself as very much doing that kind of thing. But, at the same time, as the previous answer showed, I’m also rather ambivalent to it and sort of impatient with it—probably with the self-hating zeal of someone who recognizes their own predilections!

Kraken, for me, in a relatively light-hearted and comedic form, is my attempt to have it both ways: to both be very much in that tradition and also to take the piss out of it. Reputedly, throughout Kraken, the very act of psychogeographic enunciation and urban uncovering is both potentially an important plot point and something that does uncover a genuine mystery; but it is also something that is ridiculous and silly, an act of misunderstanding. It’s all to do with what Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, called kute korrespondences: “hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken.”

The London within Kraken feels, to me, much more dreamlike than the London of something like King Rat. That’s obviously a much earlier book, and I now write very differently; but King Rat, for all its flaws, is a book very much to do with its time. It’s not just to do with London; it’s to do with London in the mid-nineties. It’s a real, particular London, phantasmagorized.

But Kraken is also set in London—and I wanted to indulge all my usual Londonisms and take them to an absurd extreme. The idea, for example, as you say, of this cadre of mages called the Londonmancers: that’s both in homage to parts of that tradition, and also, hopefully, an extension of it to a kind of absurdity—the ne plus ultra, you know?

BLDGBLOG: Kraken also makes some very explicit maritime gestures—the squid, of course, which is very redolent of H.P. Lovecraft, but also details such as the pirate-like duo of Goss and Subby. This maritime thread pops up, as well, in The Scar, with its floating city of linked ships. My question is: how do your interests in urban arcana and myth continue into the sphere of the maritime, and what narrative or symbolic possibilities do maritime themes offer your work?

Miéville: Actually, I think I was very restrained about Lovecraft. I think the book mentions Cthulhu twice—which, for a 140,000 or 150,000-word novel about giant squid cults, is pretty restrained! That’s partly because, as you say, if you write a book about a tentacular monster with a strange cult associated with it, anyone who knows the field is going to be thinking immediately in terms of Lovecraft. And I’m very, very impressed by Lovecraft—he’s a big presence for me—but, partly for that very reason, I think Kraken is one of the least Lovecrafty things I’ve done.

As to the question of maritimism, like a lot of my interests, it’s more to do with how it has been filtered through fiction, rather than how it is in reality. In reality, I have no interest in sailing. I’ve done it, I think, once.

But maritime fiction, from Gulliver’s Travels onward, I absolutely love. I love that it has its own set of traditions; in some ways, it’s a kind of mini-canon. It has its own riffs. There are some lovely teasings of maritime fiction within Gulliver’s Travels where he gets into the pornography of maritime terminology: mainstays and capstans and mizzens and so on, which, again, feature quite prominently in The Scar.

[Image: “An Imaginary View of the Arsenale” by J.M.W. Turner, courtesy of the Tate].

BLDGBLOG: In the context of the maritime, I was speaking to Reza Negarestani recently and he mentioned a Russian novella from the 1970s called “The Crew Of The Mekong,” suggesting that I ask you about your interest in it. Reza, of course, wrote Cyclonopedia, which falls somewhere between, say, H.P. Lovecraft and ExxonMobil, and for which you supplied an enthusiastic endorsement.

Miéville: Yes, I was blown away by Reza’s book—partly just because of the excitement of something that seems genuinely unclassifiable. It really is pretty much impossible to say whether you’re reading a work of genre fiction or a philosophical textbook or both of the above. There’s also the slightly crazed pseudo-rigor of it, and the sense that this is philosophy as inspired by schlocky horror movies as much as by Alain Badiou.

There’s a phrase that Kim Newman uses: post-genre horror. It’s a really nice phrase for something which is clearly inflected in a horror way, and clearly emerges out of the generic tradition of horror, but is no longer reducible to it. I think that Reza’s work is a very, very good example of that. As such, Cyclonopedia is one of my favorite books of the last few years.

BLDGBLOG: So Reza pointed me to “The Crew of the Mekong,” a work of Russian maritime scifi. The authors describe it, somewhat baroquely, as “an account of the latest fantastic discoveries, happenings of the eighteenth century, mysteries of matter, and adventures on land and at sea.” What drew you to it?

Miéville: I can’t remember exactly what brought me to it, to be perfectly honest: it was in a secondhand bookshop and I bought it because it looked like an oddity.

It’s very odd in terms of the shape of its narrative; it sort of lurches, with a story within a story, including a long, extended flashback within the larger framing narrative, and it’s all wrapped up in this pulp shell. In terms of the story itself, if I recall, it was actually me who suggested it to Reza because it has loads of stuff in it about oil, plastic resins, and pipelines, and one of the characters works for an institute called the Institute of Surfaces, which deals with the weird physics and uncanny properties of surfaces and topology.

Some of the flashback scenes and some of the background I’ve seen described as proto-steampunk, which I think is highly anachronistic: it’s more of an elective affinity, that, if you like retro-futurity, you might also like this. At a bare minimum, it’s a book worth reading simply because it’s very odd; at a maximum, some of the things going on it are philosophically interesting, although in a bizarre way.

But foreign pulp always has that peculiar kind of feeling to it, because you have a distinct cultural remove. At its worst, that can lead to an awful kind of orientalism, but it’s undeniably fascinating as a reader.

BLDGBLOG: It’s interesting that depictions of maritime journeys can maintain such strong mythic and imaginative resonance, even across wildly different cultures, eras, genres, and artforms—whether it’s “The Crew of the Mekong” or The Scar, Valhalla Rising or Moby Dick.

Miéville: The maritime world in general is an over-determined symbol of pretty much anything you want it to be—just fill in the blank: yearning, manifest destiny, whatever. It’s a very fecund field. My own interest in it comes pretty much through fiction and, to a certain extent, art. I wish I had a bit more money, in fact, because I would buy a lot of those fairly cheap, timeless, uncredited, late 19th-century, early 20th-century seascapes that you see on sale in a lot of thrift shops.

You also mentioned Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby themselves I never thought of as pirates, in fact. They were my go at iterating the much-masticated trope of the freakishly monstrous duo, figures who are, in some way that I suspect is politically meaningful, and that one day I’ll try to parse, generally even worse than their boss. They often speak in a somewhat odd, stilted fashion, like Hazel and Cha-Cha, or Croup and Vandemar, or various others. The magisterial TV Tropes has a whole entry on such duos called “Those Two Bad Guys.” The tweak that I tried to add with Goss and Subby was to integrate an idea from a Serbian fairy-tale called—spoiler!—“BasCelik.” For anyone who knows that story, this is a big give-away.

Again, though, I think you have to ration your own predilections. I have always been very faithful to my own loves: I look at my notebooks or bits of paper from when I was four and, basically, my interests haven’t changed. Left to my own devices, I would probably write about octopuses, monsters, occasionally Tarzan, and that’s really it. From a fairly young age, the maritime yarn was one of those.

But you can’t just give into your own drives, or you simply end up writing the same book again and again.

[Image: Mapping old London].

BLDGBLOG: Along those lines, are there any settings or environments—or even particular cities—that would be a real challenge for you to work with? Put another way, can you imagine giving yourself a deliberate challenge to write a novel set out in the English suburbs, or even in a place like Los Angeles? How might that sort of unfamiliar, seemingly very un-Miéville-like landscape affect your plots and characters?

Miéville: That’s a very interesting question. I really like that approach, in terms of setting yourself challenges that don’t come naturally. It’s almost a kind of Oulipo approach. It’s tricky, though, because you have to find something that doesn’t come naturally, but, obviously, you don’t want to write about something that doesn’t interest you. It has to be something that interests you contradictorally, or contrarily.

To be honest, the suburbs don’t attract me, for a bunch of reasons. I think it’s been done to death. I think anyone who tried to do that after J. G. Ballard would be setting themselves up for failure. As I tried to say when I did my review of the Ballard collection for The Nation, one of the problems is that, with an awful lot of suburban art today, it is pitched as this tremendously outré and radical claim to say that the suburbs are actually hotbeds of perversity—whereas, in fact, that is completely the cliché now. If you wanted to do something interesting, you would have to write about terribly boring suburbs, which would loop all the way back round again, out of interesting, through meta-interesting, and back down again to boring. So I doubt I would do something set in the suburbs.

I am quite interested in wilderness. Iron Council has quite a bit of wilderness, and that was something that I really liked writing and that I’d like to try again.

But, to be honest, it’s different kinds of urban space that appeal to me. If you’re someone who can’t drive, like I can’t, you find a lot of American cities are not just difficult, but really quite strange. I spend a lot of time in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s a nice town, but it just doesn’t operate like a British town. A lot of American towns don’t. The number of American cities where downtown is essentially dead after seven o’clock, or in which you have these strange little downtowns, and then these quite extensive, sprawling but not quite suburban surroundings that all call themselves separate cities, that segue into each other and often have their own laws—that sort of thing is a very, very strange urban political aesthetic to me.

I’ve been thinking about trying to write a story not just set, for example, in Providence, but in which Providence, or another city that operates in a very non-English—or non-my-English—fashion, is very much part of the structuring power of the story. I’d be interested in trying something like that.

But countries all around the world have their own specificities about the way their urban environments work. I was in India recently, for example. It was a very brief trip, and I’m sure some of this was just wish fulfillment or aesthetic speculation, but I became really obsessed with the way, the moment you touched down at a different airport, you got out and you breathed the air, Mumbai felt different to Delhi, felt different to Kolkata, felt different to Chennai.

Rather than syncretizing a lot of those elements, I’d like to try to be really, really faithful to one or another city, which is not my city, in the hopes that, being an outsider, I might notice certain aspects that otherwise one would not. There’s a certain type of ingenuous everyday inhabiting of a city, which is very pre-theoretical for something like psychogeography, but it brings its own insights, particularly when it doesn’t come naturally or when it goes wrong.

There’s a lovely phrase that I think Algernon Blackwood used to describe someone’s bewilderment: he describes him as being bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city. It’s a completely everyday, quotidian thing, and he might walk past it ten times, but he doesn’t—he can’t—recognize it.

That kind of very, very low-level alienation—the uncertainty about how do you hail a taxi, how do you buy food in this place, if somebody yells something from their top window, why does everyone move away from this part of the street and not that part? It’s that kind of very low-level stuff, as opposed to the kind of more obvious, dramatic differences, and I think there might be a way of tapping into that knowledge, knowledge that the locals don’t even think to tell you, that might be an interesting way in.

To that extent, it would be cities that I like but in which I’m very much an outsider that I’d like to try to tap.

• • •

Thanks to China Miéville for finding time to have this conversation, including scheduling a phone call at midnight in order to wrap up the final questions. Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley, who transcribed 95% of this interview and offered editorial feedback while it was in process, and to Tim Maly who first told me about the towns of Derby Line–Stanstead.

Miéville’s newest book, Embassytown, comes out in the U.S. in May; show your support for speculative fiction and pre-order a copy soon. If you are new to Miéville’s work, meanwhile, I might suggest starting with The City and The City.

Computational Mythologies: An Interview with Zachary Mason

[Image: “Homer, the Classic Poets,” by Gustave Doré, from Canto IV of The Inferno].

Novelist Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey has been described by The New York Times as “dazzling… an ingeniously Borgesian novel that’s witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive.”

As Slate’s John Swansburg describes it, the book is a fictional anthology of “Homeric apochrypha—versions of the Odysseus story that circulated in the time before Homer but were left out of the epic as we came to know it.” Yet “Mason’s enterprise never devolves into a mere high-concept exercise,” Swansburg adds. And I agree: the book’s constantly shifting short narratives offer a kind of stratigraphic road-cut straight to the contested origins of Western mythology, where a storm-wracked, war-torn archipelago is ceaselessly crossed by a homesick husband fighting to return to his family—only Mason has taken these elements and cross-wired them, creating a dreamlike, parallel landscape of new heroic sequences, echoes, and myths.

In the following interview, Zachary Mason speaks to BLDGBLOG about his book; its use of the archipelagic landscapes of ancient Greece for new, combinatorial ends; the algorithmic templates underlying much of his fiction; his current work on Artificial Intelligence; the future of automated construction technologies, including 3D-printing, a theme explored in Mason’s most recent work; other possible narrative directions for further rewritings of The Odyssey (including a version set in the Caucausus Mountains, with, as Mason describes it below, “a huge system of unreliable, unmapped and essentially creaky rope-bridges strung up between the peaks”); and much more. We spoke by phone.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s own retelling of The Odyssey].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with one of the most memorable images in the book, that of “Agamemnon’s Fortress.” Could you describe that briefly?

Zachary Mason: In that chapter, the Greeks, having no building materials except for the timbers of their ships, and expecting the siege to last a long time, have excavated their forward base in the sand in front of Troy.

This chapter has the structure of a fairy tale, or something out of the Arabian Nights. It starts with Agamemnon’s sense of helplessness; for all his armies and his heroes he can’t take a single city, which leads him also to reflect on the extent of his ignorance, so he calls together his three wisest counselors and, not being one for half-measures, asks them to explain, essentially, everything in the world. Three times he asks them, and each time they come back with a denser and perhaps pithier solution, and with each iteration more time passes.

The underground base becomes first a city, then a network of cities, that keep getting deeper as the old cities crumble and are used only for storage chambers and secret passages, and, all this time, Troy is only about half a mile away.  By the end of the story Troy has been abandoned, so there’s no further reason for the Greeks to be there, but they still are, and they’re still digging deeper.

Part of what I was doing was taking the structure of a fairy tale—often there are three questions, animals, obstacles or what have you—and making the progression between the iterations exponential, rather than constant, so there’s a drastic acceleration.

Also, there’s something fascinating about this improvised, temporary, and quite uncomfortable underground base becoming permanent and entrenched, and going ever deeper, starting to dominate the lives of the residents with its deranged logic. It’s reminiscent of an ants’ nest, or the World War II eras quonset huts still in use at SRI.

BLDGBLOG: Or Kafka’s “Burrow“, another story of tunneling. What I like about the image is its dichotomy between the aboveground walled fortress of Troy, with its stone walls and permanent streets and houses, and its long-term sense of history, compared to the underground maze of the invading Greeks, constantly turning this way and that and digging deeper into the earth. It’s a nice juxtaposition.

Mason: Troy is the absence of possibilities, in a sense; it’s just there and the Greeks can’t do anything about it, no matter how much they try. In the sand, though, there are infinite possibilities, all of them fairly useless.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: You also describe how, when the sand walls collapse, the Greeks implement laws that say the soldiers can’t excavate or uncover things that have been buried. They’re forced to avoid their own past, in a sense, and keep digger new tunnels. It’s like a legislatively enforced amnesia, or a living archive that refuses to excavate itself.

Mason: I liked the idea that they would become trapped by their own superstitions: prevented from doing the rational thing—as far as planning went—and obliged by this unfortunate belief to keep digging themselves in deeper.

In a way, it’s the opposite of amnesia, if you think of the collapsed chambers as preserved. As though we were forbidden to repair collapsed or damaged buildings on the surface, and cities become theme-parks of stratified decay.

BLDGBLOG: There’s another image in the book that really caught me: Ilium, “death’s city,” full of “uncountable mausoleums” and constructed from bones. “The high walls of Death’s city became the ubiquitous background of the Greek’s dreams,” you write.

Mason: In that chapter Troy has become Death’s city, and it is implied that all of Hades is contained within its walls. I imagined Death’s city as a place of levels, reaching down forever; it goes so deep, that not even its inhabitants have seen all of it, which somehow seems to gel with the way the representation of Death as an object of obsessive focus.

In this story, Menelaus eventually defeats and overthrows Death, and though he intends to destroy his city, but he end up doing no more than taking Death’s place, and adding new levels to the already infinite levels of the city.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious, pulling back a level, how a particularly evocative city description or landscape description can, in and of itself, achieve something on a narrative level that other rhetorical devices often aren’t able to or have a harder time accomplishing. It interests me, for instance, that if your book was set in a very different place or geography—in central Illinois, say, wandering from town to town—those facts alone, before characterization even kicks in, would hugely affect the mood or tone of the story. Part of the imaginative appeal of The Odyssey itself, I would say, has a lot to do with the archipelagic landscape it takes place within; if Odysseus had just wandered around the Caucasus Mountains, from peak to peak, instead of island to island, then the story’s cosmic overtones—wherein each island is its own micro-cosmic world, with its own sequences of experience—would have been achieved only in a quite different rhetorical way.

Mason: [laughs] I’m imagining The Odyssey set in Illinois—how the Trojan War would be a fight for one particular bit of plain amidst otherwise completely identical expanses of plain, and how that would add a sense of futility to Odysseus’s homeward journey—he weeps when he finally sets foot on Ithaca, which is fifty hectares of absolutely undistinguished farmland.

Here’s an idea: set The Odyssey in the Caucasus, but with a huge system of unreliable, unmapped and essentially creaky rope-bridges strung up between the peaks. The valleys are full of bandits, and hardship, and take a long time to navigate—but, though the ropes are faster, no one knows quite why they’re there, or their connectivity. Then you’d have something that feels at least a little like The Odyssey.

A nice thing about islands, as opposed to regular old landscape, is that they seem completely knowable. With an island, one could have a clear view of all of the elements in play in whatever narrative, and of the island’s history, and of the full significance of everything. One’s understanding of a continent is necessarily hand-wavey, and things are probably changing faster than one can keep track of them.

There was an older version of the Lost Books—or, at any rate, another book that ended up getting folded into what eventually became the Lost Books—which was going to be much more explicitly geographical. Every story was going correspond to an island, and the elements of those islands would be specified by a combinatoric system. I made up a table of elements, and I was duly working my way through the possible combinations, but it turned out to be very, very difficult to make this work; I couldn’t finish it, though you can still see echoes from time to time.

I think art tends to turn out best under moderate constraint; the combinatoric system was probably a little too strong. But I kind of like the way the character of the old, never-quite finished book shows up in the Lost Books (there’s actually more than one unfinished ghost-book lurking in the Lost Books), because its interesting when there are multiple patterns that partially describe, in this case, a book, but where none of them completely describe it. Its a little like complexity theory—too much order and you get banal rigidity, but too little and you get chaos, and the interesting things are on the boundary between the two.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: Are you drawn to things like the Oulipo, or other sorts of literary games?

Mason: I’ve always been drawn to Oulipo. I have one life in math and science, and another in literature, so Oulipo is compelling as the intersection between the two. On the other hand, Oulipan games don’t always work. There are a few products of Oulipo that are brilliant, and some that are interesting, and more that are the literary equivalent of musical scales.

The book was, in its original conception, intensely Oulipan, but I couldn’t get it work that way, so I ended up relaxing the constraints I had imposed on myself, lest I end up with something that felt like a sterile exercise rather than an organic whole.

So you might say that, for me, Oulipo is a good starting point but not a good finishing point.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: Is the final sequence of chapters arranged for narrative effect, then, or is it based on some other sort of underlying structure or combinatorial path?

Mason: In an early version of the book I did use an algorithm to order the chapters. In those days, each chapter was associated with a handful of keys—broad themes like “time” and “the gods” and “revenge” and so forth. I wrote a program that used simulated annealing to order the book in a more-or-less optimal way, where optimality was defined as maximizing the number of overlapping keys between adjacent chapters. The intent was to produce an ordering where there was always a strong sense of continuity between chapters, but where the nature of that continuity varied with every boundary.

In the end, I didn’t like the ordering the algorithm produced, and realized that there were actually other rules I wanted to follow, some of which didn’t lend themselves to formalization, so I ended up arranging the chapters by hand. I try to alternate long and short chapters, and its good when adjacent chapters rhyme, thematically; also, the book now starts off by establishing the kind of recombinatoric game I’m playing with The Odyssey, and then, as you get toward the end, that pattern breaks down, and you get all sorts of strange things—The Odyssey interpreted as a chess manual, for instance.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: The chess manual chapter—“Record of a Game”—is fantastic. Could you describe that chapter briefly and explain its conceit?

Mason: “Record of a Game” is a chapter that explains how The Iliad is not, in fact, an epic, but an ancient chess manual. This chapter explains that chess radiated out from India and took on locally idiosyncratic forms in most Indo-European cultures; in ancient Greece, it assumed a form in which the pieces, rather than being faceless icons, are strongly individuated. There were a few particular games that were considered to embody everything that was worth knowing about the game, and chess masters had to memorize those games precisely. Various mnemonics were added to make this task easier and eventually, to the uninitiated, the records of these games came to seem like heroic narratives, which was aided when the mnemonics were misinterpreted as epic clichés—Thetis being “trim-ankled,” Achilles “fleet-footed” and so forth.

A lot of the book is about interpreting The Odyssey as a code, so that Homer’s text is understood as a distortion of some underlying signal, and it is that signal, under various assumptions, that one is trying to infer. “Record of a Game” is perhaps the most extreme example of this, in that it explains away almost everything about The Iliad.

The coda to this chapter explains that The Odyssey is a sort of fictive chess manual, describing the motion of the pieces after the game has finished and the players have departed, in which the Odysseus piece is trying to get back to its home square. So it a sort of second-order game.

BLDGBLOG: Interpretation, here, becomes a form of paranoia—more an act of invention than one of reading.

Mason: There are some aspects of The Iliad that lend themselves almost eerily to this kind of interpretation—like the famous catalog of ships, which is also famously boring. In “Record of a Game,” it’s explained that the catalog of ships is properly understood as a description of the opening in a chess game.

Then there are all the lists of killing—this warrior slew that warrior, and that warrior slew this other warrior—which is not, I think, hugely interesting in itself, but, if you look at it as a series of exchanges in the middle game, begins to make sense sense.

On the other hand, Homer has been what one might call exhaustively interpreted. You can sit alone in your living room and make up the craziest, most implausible theory about Homer that you can, and then go to Google, you’ll find that some serious person with solid academic credentials has dedicated his career to espousing your preposterous theory.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] Like Shakespeare wrote Homer.

Mason: Exactly.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: If that’s the case, do you see your own book as participating in, and thus continuing, this sort of interpretive culture? Or is it more of a parody?

Mason: It’s a bit of both. I was certainly aware of the exhaustive interpretation of Homer, and I guess I thought of the Lost Books as enabled by that, and somehow setting a cap on it, by being the logical culmination and maximum expression of this tendency. It’s as though I was saying, “You call that interpretive chaos? I’ll show you interpretive chaos!”

That said, I wasn’t trying to put Homeric interpretation out of business or make any big, stomping academic points. It just seemed like this tradition both suggested and licensed a really fun thing to do with the book.

And then, The Odyssey seems to lend itself uniquely to this kind of remixing, in that it’s compelling at almost any granularity. The way its written is compelling in the details, but, at a coarser level, what one might call its language of imagery is powerful. The Odyssey retains considerable power even when reduced to a plot synopsis, which isn’t true of many books—a plot synopsis of The Inferno or Lolita is unlikely to be hugely interesting. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road might come close, but, really, it just has a single image. As I say this, it occurs to me that many Borges stories would still be compelling as a single paragraph precis.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: Stepping back a bit, your author bio refers to you as an Artificial Intelligence researcher, but I’m curious what that actually means.

Mason: The first thing to notice about AI is that there isn’t any; in some sense, there’s been no real progress in the field. We don’t know much more about the computational character of cognition than we did in 1950. So I, like a number of people, am interested in trying new ways of approaching the problem. New kinds of computational models of perception and language are, I think, one promising path.

A particular interest of mine is computational models of design. Design problems are kind of a sweet spot, insofar as they offer deep domain richness, but they don’t too much background knowledge, which is very difficult to handle, computationally. You just need models of artifacts, and the way those artifacts are interpreted.

One of the problems with A.I. is that interacting with the world is really tough. Both sensing the world and manipulating it via robotics are very hard problems, and solved only for highly stripped-down special cases. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, work well because maneuvering in a big, empty, three-dimensional void is easy—your GPS tells you exactly where you are, and there’s nothing to bump into except the odd migratory bird. Walking across a desert, though—or, heaven help us, negotiating one’s way through a room full of furniture in changing lighting conditions—is vastly more difficult.

BLDGBLOG: Saying this purely as a dilettante, it seems like there are at least two models of Artificial Intelligence. One of them is about spatial navigation, as you say, but another is more textual, or language-based. This latter version touches on things like the Turing Test, of course, but also on things like the text-mining industry, where they’ve developed intelligent software programs that can read through hundreds of thousands of pages in a flash and find the keywords or phrases that you’re looking for—which is different from a Google search.

Mason: Text-mining is well and good, but there’s a sense in which it’s not A.I. The programs don’t understand the text in any meaningful way. They manipulate it statistically, and, in that way, they’re able to accomplish things that appear intelligent—but there’s no actual comprehension.

You can take text analytics and that sort of thing up to a certain point, and you can get some pretty impressive results—Google works well—but there’s a hard boundary that you’re not going to be able to cross if you don’t have a full-fledged model of cognition.

Nobody’s figured out how to make that model, so there are hard limits on how far things like Google and text analytics can go. This is tacitly understood, for the most part (though I’ve spoken with some Googlers who have seemed guilty both of hubris and of not understanding A.I.’s history), but it’s bad business to admit it. So, when they say their algorithms are intelligent, or that their algorithms understand the text and so forth, its just fatuous marketing-speak.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious how all this comes together in The Lost Books of the Odyssey. So far, we’ve talked about combinatorics, allegories, Artificial Intelligence, and the Oulipo, and I know that, for me, there were moments while reading the book when it felt almost as if a program had been fed certain narrative parameters—cave, cyclops, Odysseus, boat—and the remixed results became the Lost Books, as if it were the output of a demented A.I. program. Were you hoping to use the book itself as a model for computational literature?

Mason: There was a time in my life when I would have been very happy to have it suggested that my work was the output of a demented A.I. program—

BLDGBLOG: I meant that in a positive way!

Mason: A counter-question for you is: do you think you would have thought that if my bio hadn’t said that I worked with A.I.?

BLDGBLOG: Perhaps not. But, on another level, especially with a book like yours, doesn’t the author bio become a deliberate way to frame the book’s contents? It helps to flavor how a book is received and interpreted.

Mason: That’s a fair point. In fact, in the first edition of the book, I used a fake author bio. I claimed to be an archaeo-cartographer and paleo-mathematician at Magdalen College, Oxford, the holder of the John Shade Chair. Note that archaeo-cryptography and paleo-mathematics don’t exist as disciplines, and John Shade is a character in a Nabokov novel. I was perhaps unreasonably pleased with this trick, not least because much of the book is about endless recursions of false and manipulative identity—so it seemed to fit, rather than being arbitrary hijinks.

I was persuaded to use a real biography for the FSG edition, and have since regretted it. My author-bio says I do A.I., because I thought it was an interesting hook, but it seems to color the way people approach the book now, and not necessarily in desirable ways. On the whole, I’d like the book to be read without reference to my biography. Perhaps I should really have gone beyond the bounds of the plausible and claimed to be a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and that I now teach creative writing at a small Midwestern liberal arts school.

I’ve been sufficiently cranky about this that I’ve considered saying that, in fact, I’m just a writer, but there’s another guy with the same name as me who is a computer scientist specializing in A.I. We met because we have similar gmail addresses, and sometimes get each other’s mail. He was kind enough to read an early draft of my book, and, being a Borges fan, like disproportionately many well-read scientists, wondered how differently the book would read if it had been written by an A.I. guy. I thought that sounded like a good hook, and ran with it.

But, to answer your question more directly, I certainly wasn’t going for anything overtly combinatoric, or at least not after the book’s very earliest days.

It sounds like you’re reacting to my preoccupation with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an interminable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infinitely far away. There’s the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irresistible song; there’s the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis.

I feel like these images are responsible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the particular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. I wanted to work directly with these primes, to present them in as powerful and stripped-down a way as possible, and to explore how they could interact, and how they could combine to make new forms. I suppose this kind of minimalist, reductive aesthetic does has a mathematical flavor.

[Images: Illustrations by Willy Pogány for The Adventure of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy, Padraic Colum’s retelling of The Odyssey].

BLDGBLOG: In the more recent fiction that you sent me, you’ve been exploring quite strong architectural and urban imagery. I’m curious to hear more about how urban imagery, in particular, features in your more recent fiction, and other ways that urban and architectural descriptions are being foregrounded in your work.

Mason: I sent you some fragments of a book, tentatively titled Void Star, in which architecture does feature rather prominently.

The book is set in the murkily indefinite future. Technology has improved, and robotics works much better, so much so that it has become a cheap, boring technology, and construction robots, in particular, are ubiquitous—they’re essentially 3D printers scuttling around on insect-like legs. Right now, researchers are taking the first steps toward building robots where you can set them loose and they’ll assemble complicated structures—often, interestingly, mimicking the control principles used by social insects—and I thought how interesting it would be, and how different the world would look, if these things ever actually work.

Today, anybody can go to Home Depot or its equivalent and buy the materials to build a shed; but construction, on a large scale, is very expensive and reserved for wealthy organizations. It’s a rare privilege to actually get to build something. If these robots exist, then architecture is democratized: anyone with a few bucks can build a structure to whatever specifications they like.

Once you have that, cities start to metastasize and grow. Favelas and other improvised and illegal shadow cities become marvelous, growing layer upon layer, like coral reefs.

Another architecturally salient aspect of Void Star is that, in the book, A.I.s exist, but they’re not like anyone expected. They’re intelligent but not human; in fact, their minds and perspective and languages are so different that people can’t really talk to them—they’re much more like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris than Commander Data, the Terminator, Agent Smith, or HAL. Despite this, they can still be useful—in design tasks, for instance. They write most of the world’s software, and do it very quickly—the amount of code in the world increases by many orders of magnitude, but nobody knows how it works. Software development becomes a process less of hacking code than establishing some sort of shared understanding with these strange, essentially foreign intelligences.

The A.I.s also design buildings, and they think so fast, and with such breadth, that their designs are more complete than is otherwise possible. Buildings become much more complicated, and better thought-out—in a sense, absolutely thought-out. The A.I. might consider, say, the light and the acoustics at every spot in the building at every time of day and every day of the year, and the kinds of relationships that you could then create between the experiences at these different locations. Also, because the machines have such fine-tuned control of the way buildings are constructed, they can implement design motifs that go down almost to the molecular level. In buildings as they are, there is, inevitably, unarticulated matter—a girder is just a girder, concrete is just concrete—but the machines could make their artifacts fractally ornate at every level. They would, in some sense, be complete artifacts.

It will be an interesting world.

• • •

Thanks again to Zachary Mason for taking the time to have this conversation. Pick up a copy of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, meanwhile, which came out in paperback last month, and see what you think.

Ruin, Space, and Shadow: An Interview with Mike Mignola

[Image: From a cover by Mike Mignola for Hellboy: The Storm, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

For half a decade now, I’ve been an avid fan of the work of Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, the B.P.R.D., and Abe Sapien, among many others, including, most recently, the new series Witchfinder and Baltimore. When my wife and I moved back to California last August, the heaviest boxes were the ones I’d stuffed full of graphic novels by Mike Mignola, which I’ve been hoarding whenever money allows. It’s become an addiction: the incredible old castle interiors and snowbound mountain landscapes of Conqueror Worm, the Mesoamerican design motifs emerging like mazes from pitch black walls of shadow in Seed of Destruction, the graveyards of ships wrecked on rocks before coastal citadels in Strange Places, and all of it shot through with Mignola’s dark sarcasm and humor.

Mignola’s work outlines an endlessly captivating world, somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Norse epics, Dracula—as rewritten by Jules Verne—and the Discovery Channel. Equal parts archaeology and horror fiction, Indiana Jones and The Thing, heretical mythology and conspiracy science, once Mignola’s work digs its plot lines and landscapes into you, it seems impossible to shake.

The buildings, terrains, and spaces Mignola’s plots take place within are equally extraordinary: there are remote, factory-like castles north of the Arctic Circle, wired floor-to-ceiling with arcane laboratory equipment; maritime plagues and New England shipwrecks; intelligent geological formations in space, larger than planets, signaling down to Army radar stations at the end of World War II; abandoned mines and ruined churches; Mayan fragments mounted on the luxurious, candlelit walls of Alpine mansions; Nazi conspiracies and fallen astronauts; derelict Victorian houses wrapped in fog on the coastal moor.

In addition to his prolific work as a graphic artist, Mignola has served as a visual consultant on three films by Guillermo Del Toro, each better than the previous: Blade II, Hellboy, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. With Christopher Golden, he is co-author of the recent novel Baltimore; he has drawn covers for Conan the Barbarian, X-Men, Aliens versus Predator, Superman, and dozens of others; and his Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, was republished in 2010.

[Image: A cover by Mike Mignola for B.P.R.D.: The Warning, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

Mike Mignola recently talked to BLDGBLOG about his interests, including H.P. Lovecraft, wartime landscapes, and houses on the verge of collapse, with a specific focus on what it means to draw spaces of horror and mythology. We spoke by phone.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’ve long been interested in how people outside of the architectural world use buildings, landscapes, cities, and other spaces as a way to frame mood or character. Your own work, from Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. to Abe Sapien and Baltimore, is full of ruined churches, old battlefields, houses with flooded basements, warped floors and empty attics, and other straightforwardly Gothic landmarks. What draws you to these particular building types and locations, and how do these settings then affect your plot lines and characters?

Mike Mignola: Well, I am unapologetically old-fashioned in my use of Gothic settings. Ever since I was a kid, when I read Dracula, I’ve just loved those kinds of places.

I have never done a story in a shopping mall because, even if I’m not drawing it myself, I don’t want to see somebody draw a shopping mall. In the Hellboy world, and in other things I’ve done, those places almost don’t exist. When I do Eastern Europe—and I’ve been to Eastern Europe, and I’ve seen the shopping malls and the god-awful housing projects and things, and there are horror stories that take place in there, I have no doubt—but I gravitate toward the classic, clichéd, spooky places, whether they truly exist in this world or not.

But that’s the world I want to live in, and it’s the world my characters live in.

[Images: (left) A cover from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt; (middle) from the cover of Rex Mundi by Arvid Nelson and Juan Ferreyra; (right) a cover from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt. All artwork by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: Beyond shopping malls, I’m curious if there are other sorts of anti-Mignola settings, so to speak—places where you just could never set a story, even if it’s just a bank in London.

Mignola: I’m not going to do any stories that I don’t want to draw—and, for the most part, those are places that also just aren’t particularly interesting for me to write about.

It’s interesting, because the spin-off book from HellboyB.P.R.D.—is written by another writer. I have some involvement there, but the books are written by somebody else. You look at that book now, and the current storyline takes place in a trailer park. It’s entirely made of the places I have no interest in writing about—but the other writer doesn’t have my overwhelming love of the Gothic. He’s a much more modern type of writer, so we differ on our choice of locations.

But, now, a haunted bank? You know, that would be cool—but it would have to be a really, really old bank. And preferably a bank that’s been abandoned for a bunch of years, so you have cobwebs and things. I just like those old, spooky settings.

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus and Abe Sapien: The Drowning, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: There’s a maritime undercurrent in much of your work, including Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and, of course, the plague ships of Baltimore. It’s a kind of maritime Gothic—a world of shipwrecks and sea monsters and lighthouses on foggy coasts.

Mignola: Shipwrecks are great—but ships in general, even when they’re not wrecked, as long as they’re old school sailing ships, are wonderfully Gothic. I don’t know that I’ve done a lot of stories—if any stories—with ships that are 20th-century ships. I like the romance and the spookiness and the tragedy that goes with that old time sea travel. Those stories pertaining to ships are huge. I love them. They’re a big genre within ghost story fiction.

One of my favorite authors—a guy named William Hope Hodgson—most of his career, or a large chunk of his career, was writing supernatural ships-at-sea stories. There’s a romance in that old school, Gothic-y way to the world. And, basically, everything I love, I try to bring into my work. This world, or these different worlds that I’m creating, are entirely made of stuff that I love and think about.

Everything that I’m a fan of, I want to put into these worlds.

[Images: Photos by Fred R. Conrad, courtesy of The New York Times].

BLDGBLOG: Last summer, construction workers uncovered the remains of an old ship buried in the mud beneath the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, and some of the photos later printed in the New York Times, taken by Fred R. Conrad, were like something straight out of a Mike Mignola story. In some ways, it seemed like the perfect opening scene for a film version of Abe Sapien or for Hellboy 3—as if beneath, or even inside, the island of Manhattan we find this rotting, Gothic, semi-forgotten maritime history.

Mignola: Yeah, you know, I love history. I’m not a scholar—I’m not an historian—but it’s mostly because I just don’t have time. There’s too much other stuff I’m trying to keep on top of. But I love that sense of the buried past.

[Image: From Hellboy: The Wild Hunt, written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie; art by Duncan Fegredo and Patric Reynolds. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: I want to go back to the idea of setting. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a setting that you’ve devised for a certain storyline simply doesn’t work for Hellboy, say, so you have to use—or even invent—another character, or an entirely different plot, in order to use the architecture? In other words, how does setting—that is, how can architecture—affect plot and characterization, and vice versa?

Mignola: Well, part of the Baltimore series we’re doing now takes place on a World War 1 battlefield. I love that setting. It’s wonderfully rich in horror and drama—but it’s really hard for me to do a Hellboy story that takes place on a World War 1 battlefield. I could do it, and I’ve done stories like that, where it’s a time travel -slash- dream kind of thing—in fact, in an upcoming issue of Hellboy, I do have another character who I’ve tied to World War 1—but, to do it right, you need a World War 1 story.

So I came up with the Baltimore novel—and, now, the comic—to address that.

There’s also Victorian London, which I love. I came up with a Hellboy story once where he kind of time-traveled back to Victorian London—it seemed a little goofy to me—but I knew that I wanted to do Victorian London, so it was just a question of making a character who functioned in that world.

In a lot of cases, though, I am creating characters in order to see these places—these times, these settings. But, from the very beginning, I’ve known what kinds of stories I’ve wanted to do—so it’s also a question of finding the character who belongs to that world, as an excuse to draw that world.

[Images: Preview spreads from Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels. Art by Ben Stenbeck, story by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics. If this gets you hooked, purchase the book].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about your work method, as far as nailing the details of these settings and landscapes. Do you travel a lot, watch a lot of movies, look at lots of photographs, talk to archaeologists—or it is really just an act of imagination?

Mignola: It’s a little bit of everything. I do watch a lot of films—which is great for getting the voice and the general character and the atmosphere—but I tend to come up with stories that are not super-specific to particular locations.

If I’m doing Victorian London, I’m not trying to do that story for a scholar of Victorian London. In a way, I say that this is more like a 1940s film version of London—in other words, I want to do at least the level of research that you’d see in an old Hollywood film. So I’ve given myself a little distance from reality with that.

But, as I say, I do like history. If I’m doing something specific, I’ve got a ton of reference books here in the studio, and I’ll try to make sure I get some of the names right and some of the dates right, if I’m referring to specific things. But, for the most part, I tend to shy away from plotting stories that are going to require a lot of very specific, historical research.

In Witchfinder, where I’m doing Whitechapel—well, I’ve been to Whitechapel. But I’m writing about 1880s, or maybe 1870s, Whitechapel, and I want it to seem like the real thing. So I did a little bit of homework on the East End. But the trouble with doing research for this stuff is that you start finding so much material that’s interesting, after you’ve already plotted the story, and you think, oh, I want to use this, and I want to use this, and I want to use this—well, uh oh, too late.

In terms of specifics, a little bit of dialogue, a little bit of color, a little bit of flavor, will give any story a certain amount of authenticity, but I’m not looking to make giant plot points out of that kind of stuff. It’s just background. Most of my buildings, and most of the things I do stories around—when I’m drawing these things, I’m trying to create objects, buildings, ships, whatever, with a particular background. I want it to feel like there is more to the story than can be told.

But, yes, you know, I have traveled a bit—and people love to think that what I’m doing comes from lots of traveling, and from talking to old monks and that sort of thing—

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Mignola: —and I have spent more time in Prague than I ever thought possible. But, other than a story I haven’t yet done—about a haunted couch—there are no experiences I’ve had that I’ve turned into stories. And the couch wasn’t haunted, you’ll be glad to hear; I think it was just infested with some kind of Eastern European insect.

For more exotic locations—like I did a story once set in Malaysia. It was entirely because I’d read a description years ago of a particular kind of Malaysian creature—a vampire—and I just knew I was going to do that story someday. But I needed pictures of Malaysia; I needed to do Malaysia research. That went back and forth for years, until, one day, I stumbled upon a book that just had really good photos of Malaysia. And that was it. It was the same with Norway: it was just a matter of some guy at a convention coming up to me with a book once that had great photos of Norway.

You know, I’m constantly looking for visual references. Story-wise, I’ve got all that stuff in my library—but I can never have enough photo references. There are still stories that are waiting to be told until I have the right references; and there are certain stories that I decided to set in a location just as an excuse for me to draw a particular place or building.

For instance, I did a story a couple of years ago called “In the Chapel of Moloch.” It was designed to take place almost entirely inside an old chapel. But the story wasn’t set in any particular location; it was just a matter of going to the books I had and looking for a building that would be fun to draw, or for a city that would be fun to draw, and I happened to have a book on Portugal. It had these great photos of decrepit hill towns, and a couple really good pictures of an old chapel. There was nothing about the story that was specific to Portugal—it was just that Portugal would be fun to draw. It was a nice, exotic location that I had never drawn before. And that’s usually how it works.

[Images: From Hellboy: In the Chapel of Moloch by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: Stepping away from the idea of setting, I’m also interested in how you populate your stories with this constantly shifting catalog of sinister, yet natural, creatures: amphibians, frogs, worms, apes, gorillas. What is it about these particular species that works so well in terms of developing your mythological world?

Mignola: Well, I think monkeys are funny—that’s the easiest answer there. I don’t really love monkeys—but they’re kind of fun to draw. Something I always say is: monkeys always work. [laughter] People just like to see monkeys show up in these stories. I think it’s the absurdity of it.

In one of the first issues of Hellboy, I showed a 1940s scientist. I was drawing a bunch of scientists in a room, and one guy was actually just a severed head in a jar—but that wasn’t enough. The picture needed something else. So I drew a giant gorilla towering over them, with these Frankenstein-like bolts sticking out of his neck.

Oh—and you know what? Go back even earlier than that. Go back to one of the try-out stories—one of the teaser stories—before I even started the Hellboy series. It was a Frankenstein gorilla about to stick a needle in a girl’s neck—and, not that I stole the image from pulp magazines, but it’s such an old, clichéd, pulp magazine image. Making it a Frankenstein gorilla probably took it one step further, and made it my own, but it’s just… it’s funny. It’s so absurd it’s funny.

So, yeah, I use monkeys. And monkeys are usually the animal you associate with animal-testing. For instance, there’s another story where Hellboy’s blood is being extracted—and what are you going to inject Hellboy’s blood into? A rat? A rat just isn’t as much fun to draw turning into a giant hell-rat—actually, that’s not a bad idea—but it would be much more fun to take a monkey and turn it into a big demon-monkey, which is what I did.

As far as frogs and other amphibian stuff—that, again, is a reference to this kind of H.P. Lovecraft worldview where anything from the ocean is scary. Frogs, in a Lovecraft sense, are associated with some kind of unknowable world. They’re not from the ocean, but they’re also not from, you know, the woods. Where do they come from? And why are they always out there… chirping, or whatever the hell it is that frogs do? Lovecraft also uses birds that way—and birds are great—but I have a harder time drawing birds than frogs.

In the very first issue of Hellboy, I did a sequence with frogs in it, and it just sort of stuck. I established it early. Frogs will be my kind of icon characters; when frogs show up, you know something bad’s going to happen. They become symbolic of this kind of evil that’s always running around in the background.

And then things just tend to snowball. You know, you hear about something like a “rain of frogs,” which happens periodically for whatever reason—it’s one of those weird phenomena that gets written about—and, I thought, well, let me have a little bit of that kind of action. I mean, that’s a weird thing and it’s got a kind of authenticity to it: there’s something about it that’s unnatural, yet supposedly it does really happen. And I like that.

But I think you’ve put more thought into these questions than I have into why I do these things!

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Abe Sapien: The Drowning and B.P.R.D.: War on Frogs, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: No, this is fascinating. It’s great to hear how you work. You mentioned H.P. Lovecraft: I’m curious to hear what you think it is about the Lovecraft universe—about the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft—that remains so appealing. In fact, it actually seems to be increasing in popularity today.

Mignola: For me, the monsters in Lovecraft are… you know, they’re fine. But what’s really appealing to me is his antiquarian sensibility. It’s the old houses in Rhode Island. It’s the fact that the guys are all scholars and they’re researching things, and there are references to different editions of this book or that book, and this edition is in that library, and a Latin translation of that book is in this other library. He writes about smart guys who spend a lot of time in libraries—and I love that.

His stories are set in a time when people are still wearing suits everyday. They even have upturned collars and things like that. There’s just a wonderfully old-fashioned, scholarly antiquarian feel to the stuff. It bridges the gap between modern horror and the old, classic M.R. James ghost stories—Lovecraft just added bigger monsters. Instead of some shadowy thing that skitters along the wall, it’s a giant octopus in space that makes people go crazy.

But it’s his obsession with old buildings, and shuttered windows, and climbing into church steeples—it’s his locations. I just love that.

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Hellboy: The Storm and B.P.R.D.: King of Fear, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: As well as things like abandoned fishing towns in New England, with collapsing wharves and moonlit salt marshes and that sort of thing.

Mignola: That’s actually one of my dream projects: to sit around and do half a dozen paintings of those towns. To do a series of drawings that’s just called Arkham, and it’s all about these buildings in creepy old coastal towns where the walls are falling over and they have these wonderful leans.

[Images: Covers by Mike Mignola, from Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead and Hellboy: Double Feature of Evil, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics].

BLDGBLOG: That brings us back to the idea of architecture and the role that architecture plays in your work. What brings you to draw a certain building or structure—and what do you add or exaggerate to make it more your own?

Mignola: [laughs] Well, once upon a time, when I started all this stuff, the one thing I didn’t want to draw at all was buildings. Because, growing up in California, buildings to me were an exercise in using a ruler and perspective, and shit like that. I just had no interest in drawing that kind of stuff.

It was only after having lived in New York for a while, around really old buildings—where you see that, actually, this building’s kind of sagging and that building’s kind of leaning against the other building next door and this chimney looks like, if those three wires weren’t there, it would all fall over, and that fire escape is at some odd angle—that’s when I really started to love architecture.

It’s one of those things that is still evolving in my work, as I become more and more comfortable drawing that sort of stuff: my buildings lean more.

Right now, I’m drawing an old house, and the house is leaning one way, the fence is leaning another way; I’m working from photo references, as I love to do, but I’m able to exaggerate it, and say, yeah, okay, this building’s kind of crooked in the photo, but let’s lean it way the hell over there. Let’s throw a couple of sticks out of it this way. Let’s make the building next door look like it’s about to fall over. And let’s make everything dark.

It’s really one of my favorite things to draw these days: old, crumbling architecture.

[Image: From “The Whittier Legacy” by Mike Mignola, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics; originally published in USA Today].

BLDGBLOG: Is there a particular building in your recent work that stands out this way?

Mignola: I recently did an 8-page story for USA Today called “The Whittier Legacy.” I said I was going to keep it simple for myself; I would set it almost entirely inside a house, in the dark. The way the story’s structured, we’re not going to spend a lot of time drawing furniture, little details, and things like that; it could just be an old, derelict house.

The most work that went into that story was going through my references and finding a really good house that would be fun to draw. I happened to have a book on Victorian houses that had a lot of really good texture to them and really nice angles, with things jutting out at weird angles. With the way I use shadow, it’s really important to me to have some sort of structure where things are going to be jutting out at different angles—because you can say, okay, if I light it on this side, that bit’s going to be in shadow; but if I light it on that side, then this is going to be in shadow. A square? You get light on one side and black on the other.

But if it’s a square with other things sort of jutting at you out of the shadows, and if you put a big porch on it, and, you know, it’s a derelict place so it’s all sort of sagging the way those old places start to do—then that’s a really good day for me, being able to draw stuff like that.

• • •

Thanks to Mike Mignola for taking the time to talk—and for producing so many awesome comics. Thanks, as well, to Jim Gibbons, Jeremy Atkins, and Scott Allie at Dark Horse Comics for their help with the images. If this interview piques your interest, consider picking up some of Mignola’s work for yourself.

Counter-What?: An Interview with Jeffrey Inaba

[Image: Parachute or shelter? Mode of escape or method of dwelling? From Volume 24].

This summer, while leaving New York City to return to Los Angeles, and on the occasion of Inaba publishing his recent book World of Giving, with Katharine Meagher, and editing the 24th issue of Volume—to be released next week at an event in New York—I decided to catch up with him about those two publications, about the state of architectural criticism in an age when everyone is being, as Inaba says, “nice,” and about the philanthropic potentials of design today.

[Image: From Volume 24].

In World of Giving, Inaba writes that “Giving permeates human activity. It is present always and everywhere.” What exactly is giving, though, if it is both economically ubiquitous and socially universal?

“Giving,” Inaba suggests, “is any act that improves the capacity of another person. A gift can be as little as a nod of encouragement, or as great as taking a bullet for a friend.” And, while the motive to give might involve self-interest—that is, “help is extended to others in order to receive a benefit for oneself”—this is no reason to dismiss a human impulse toward true generosity: “We suggest that to undermine acts of giving with accusations of self-interest is overly simplistic. The potential positive feedback that flows to the giver is just as integral a part of the dynamic of giving as the positive benefit that flows to the receiver.”

[Image: From World of Giving].

The complicated laminations of gifts on top of gifts—the worlds of nonprofits, NGOs, philanthropic organizations, and even everyday friends—creates its own social universe, with its own structures, its own unspoken rules, and, as Inaba and Meagher explore, its own architectural implications. Indeed, the latter half of the book specifically explores the spatial effects of the so-called gift economy, looking at the “architecture aid” of groups like Architecture For Humanity, the Gates Foundation, Christopher Alexander, John Turner and the World Bank, Hassan Fathy and the Aga Khan Development Network, and many more.

These examples of “improving the capacity of others,” as Inaba phrases it, through better homes, streets, workplaces, and sites of social gathering, is part of the larger overall dynamic of aid capital.

Aid Capital is our term for the power of giving. It is the sum of other resources like economic capital (money), political capital (governmental and institutional sway) and human capital (people’s time and energy) composed together with the specific desire to increase the capacity of others.

What’s particularly interesting here—and this is the dilemma of all philanthropic acts—is that gifts bring with them certain functional assumptions: for instance, at the most basic level, that the thing being given is actually of benefit to the recipient. One U.N. official might think, for instance, that all you need to do to rescue a certain city from poverty is establish a strong banking system or a robust highway network, while another presumed expert might think that all you need are active churches, tight-knit families, and access to modern medicine. Yet another might think the whole thing comes down to building stock, or public infrastructure, or women’s education, or affordable laptop computers.

But what all of these “gifts” have in common is that they are actually the projection of a political ideology—a vision of how that target society is meant to function. They thus come with contextual requirements that often exceed the bounds of any specific act of philanthropy and depend upon the acts of other organizations to operate at all. So while a gift is often inspired by the generous recognition of a state of need in the future recipient, that same gift is also a projection of how a certain giver thinks the recipient should be living. A “gift” risks becoming the implementation of the giver’s own politics.

[Image: From World of Giving].

A few years ago, for instance, I had a brief but interesting conversation with Zach Frechette of GOOD magazine about how differently the idea of “doing good” can be interpreted by different people—that is, what giving can mean for them. Many people, for instance, might think that traveling from village to village to promote abstinence-only sexual education is “good,” and that passing out condoms is literally the very definition of moral irresponsibility. Others, of course, might beg to differ. In another context, an urban planner might think that tearing down slums and replacing them with wine bars and luxury condos—even with tower blocks—is a clear-cut urban “good.” But at what point does a gift become the strategic imposition of your own politics? When does your idea of good become something more akin to a burden, a setback, a limit unloaded onto others?

How do we deal with the problem of goods and counter-goods, so to speak, gifts and counter-gifts and the complex assumptions they entail?

In any case, Inaba’s and Meagher’s book presents itself as a glossy—and not inexpensive—research dossier, which I think has limited its reception to the world of architectural academia. But if it had been released as a standard trade paperback by a mass-market publisher like Random House, then I think World of Giving would actually sell remarkably well.

My own interest in the book’s ideas finding a larger audience is part of what initially motivated me to record the following conversation.

[Image: The cover from World of Giving].

BLDGBLOG: In the most basic sense, where did the World of Giving project come from? What inspired it? What were you hoping to achieve by focusing on the nature of philanthropy and its architectural manifestations?

Inaba: This came out of research that we first did for the Donor Hall installation at the New Museum in New York. We wanted to think about the larger dynamics of aid, as well as the global system of philanthropy, and to research the role that architecture can play in it.

But, in looking at the topic and thinking it through, we ended up in a very different place than we expected—and we discovered that the topic of giving is much more fundamental than the people who were already covering it seemed to indicate.

Before you can even begin to talk about aid—in the form of philanthropy or in the form of support provided by the government—we had to look at the most basic dynamics of giving, even why people give from one to another in the first place. Once we started to look at that, we found a slightly different story that spanned from the human dynamics of giving all the way down to the delivery of that aid in whatever form.

On the one hand, for example, there’s architecture, urbanism, and other forms of physical aid, and, on the other, there is the delivery of what we call aid capital, aid that is given in forms that are less immediately material, such as education or policy support.

[Images: From Donor Hall by INABA Projects, courtesy of the New Museum].

BLDGBLOG: One of the things I found interesting in the Donor Hall project is its inclusion of groups like Hamas—that is, groups listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government—as philanthropists. If Al-Qaeda rebuilds your town after a devastating flood—as in Pakistan—then it, too, in terms of that specific example, becomes a “philanthropic” organization. Donor Hall hints at this kind of parallel economy of gift-giving—another, darker branch of philanthropy that makes its money from off-radar markets and financial practices. See the work of Loretta Napoleoni, for instance. But this analysis is actually missing from the book. Did you deliberately exclude this shadow-philanthropy, so to speak, or did you perhaps lose interest?

Inaba: What was important to us with the Donor Hall was to present to people the range of organizations that give—which includes militias and informal operations, rather than just governments and official institutions. Even with organizations like Hamas, they realize the importance of providing a social and civil infrastructure for the place where they live. Our point was simply that many organizations understand the importance of providing support on the local level—but, with the book, rather than it being an inventory of all the different kinds of organizations that exist, we wanted to focus on the intentions and the mechanisms.

In that sense, the book is a more fundamental look at giving itself, and not just an overview of the range of the various organizations that give. Giving is often more of an entering-into-collaboration. From the donor down to the people who administer the gifts or grants—via the people who supply the local capital that permits purchase orders to be filled or subcontracts to be signed, and then further on to the people who actually do construction work—a gift is very often just the kicking-off of a much longer process.

And it’s not only the giving of aid, in whatever material a way that might be. It’s also about what we call aid capital—the ability to preserve and increase the capacity of another person. That capacity goes far beyond immediate material benefits, to the knowledge that comes with a gift, to the skills that might be picked up because of it, and to the ability of that recipient to then increase the capacity of others.

[Image: From World of Giving].

BLDGBLOG: In the book, you write that “Aid Capital is our term for the power of giving… with the specific desire to increase the capacity of others.”

Inaba: Yeah, aid capital is something that’s very different from, say, political capital or social capital or monetary capital, in the sense that it’s relatively infinite. With political capital, if one garners favors from certain peers and then cashes in those favors at a certain point, while there is an immediate gain as a result of it, that capital has been spent. Whereas when aid capital is exercised, it goes toward helping a recipient in some way: the aid capital is never exhausted or fully spent.

For instance, a person’s volunteer hours will lead to something that might be built as a result—but that person might also then learn how to build better buildings from the experience, and pass that knowledge on to someone else, or to the entire community, or they might learn the management skills necessary for future projects, thus bringing in more people, and more opportunities for training, and so on. The ability for aid capital to build upon itself is something that, in a sense, means there’s no terminus point for giving.

BLDGBLOG: You specifically cite the case of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that chooses its recipients based not on those people’s real needs but on whether or not they are responsible enough to take care of what Habitat For Humanity gives to them. In other words, they are chosen based on their ability to become stewards of the gift.

Inaba: We focused on groups like Habitat For Humanity not because we specifically endorse what they do over other organizations, but because they are very illuminating organizations to describe. We thought it was interesting, for instance, that the recipients of assistance from Habitat For Humanity, as you say, wouldn’t necessarily be considered people in the most urgent or dire need, but rather people who have the capacity to support continued payments on a house. In that regard, the recipient of a “gift” from Habitat For Humanity would be someone who could usefully occupy the house, live there, and benefit from it—but also, because they are financially sustainable, offer reassure to the volunteers who actually constructed it that their effort has not been in vain.

The decision of who receives a gift has as much to do with building up a support infrastructure of people who will work on and build these houses, as with considering the social consequences of aid and its ability to build upon itself in the community even after the act of giving itself is over.

BLDGBLOG: This restricted nature of a gift—the conditions a giver might impose on future recipients—seems to deserve more attention, in that regard. This past winter, for instance, after the Haiti earthquake, groups like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders began specifically asking that donors not limit their gifts only to Haiti—that so much had been given already (and we saw this same situation with the Asian tsunami in 2004) that limiting your gift only to Haiti would actually be too generous, in a sense. Those gifts would actually be needed elsewhere. So there is also the category of the unrestricted gift: the act of true generosity, we might say, one without a specified destination.

Inaba: There’s actually a phenomenon called aid congestion, where the delivery of aid is not something that happens instantaneously, and it’s something that can discourage people from giving at all.

What we try to explain in the book is that the delivery of aid is very complicated. It deals with urban challenges we’re not always familiar with—like how to get resources into a city when all the infrastructure of that city has been incapacitated—and the gift itself has to be constantly transformed and processed before it arrives at its target.

Given the complexity of it all, giving is almost bound to be a very frustrating thing for people. They hear, on the one hand, that there are organizations being set up that might be fraudulent, and, on the other, that their gifts might actually be mismanaged—that there might be a large amount of money that then gets siphoned off to other causes elsewhere. Or there are even cases where very effective organizations are simply crowded out by other organizations, all of which are hoping to supply aid.

BLDGBLOG: Giving becomes a kind of competition.

Inaba: One of the more interesting reasons why giving becomes so complicated, though, is that, at every stage in the delivery process, the material nature of the assistance is forced to change. It goes from someone who wants to give dollars to someone who might process or exchange that money for, say, the payment or international transportation of goods—which then becomes the delivery or receiving of goods at a regional center, and then at a local center, which then becomes paying for people to unload the goods, or store them, or assemble them.

Essentially, it’s the transformation of an abstract, often monetary gift into something that is more immediately deliverable. For instance, transferring water from a large container into a truck, and then again into a smaller container: there is a constant transfer or transformation of the gift itself.

At each level, there is an exchange—and every exchange has to be negotiated.

BLDGBLOG: I’m reminded again of the earthquake in Haiti: within about 24 hours of the disaster, UPS began offering free shipment to Haiti for any package less than $50. In essence, UPS was donating its infrastructure and expertise —it was donating the logistical expertise of delivery itself In fact, in World of Giving, you actually describe an official relationship between the United Nations and DHL, where a kind of public-private collaboration between those organizations allows the U.N. literally to deliver aid in a way that would have been impossible without the flexible infrastructure and on-site administrative knowledge of DHL. DHL and UPS here could be seen as infrastructures-for-hire—or to be donated, as the case may be. It’s private-sector expertise being put to use in the service of public gain.

Inaba: What interested us specifically with DHL was also the knowledge that their individual workers have, in terms of setting up a local delivery center. The logistics of how to operate a warehouse is a very specific kind of knowledge: where things should come in; where they should be stored; how, and in what order, they should go out.

This kind of expertise can also be highly local to the area that has been affected. For instance, after something goes out of the warehouse, the way in which it is delivered in a region—and even the way packages are addressed there—is something that DHL would understand better than, say, an official at the U.N.

So this is not a question of the delivery of economic capital, but of intelligence.

[Image: DHL in action; from World of Giving].

BLDGBLOG: That touches on the spatial nature of giving in a literal sense—here, the spatial layout of a warehouse and the different local geographies in which those warehouses function. But what about the larger architectural interest of the book? Architecture kicks in about halfway through, I might say. How did your interest in architecture-as-gift arise?

Inaba: On one hand, we really wanted to do something that was along the lines of a spatial/formal analysis of giving—on the level of city planning, on the level of housing in the developing world, and on the level of building. But we also wanted to understand this larger, logistical sense of space.

BLDGBLOG: One example that stuck out to me was the idea of the “roof loan society.” Charles Abrams, as you write in the book, saw “backyard stockpiles of weathered building materials” as “frozen assets” that could be put to use for the benefit of the larger community. Wood, cinder blocks, electrical wiring—this unused surplus was a kind of Home Depot in waiting: it was sitting around and not doing anything, though it could and should serve as the basis for local employment and future housing initiatives.

Inaba: We never really hear about Abrams—or about many of the figures in the book—within the world of architecture. They’ve been absorbed into a different context: of nonprofits, international cooperation, and so on.

BLDGBLOG: They’ve been absorbed by a larger political narrative?

Inaba: Well, it’s the scale of development, or the developmental context, that makes it political.

In this sense, the book is a reflection on our earlier work with the Guide to Shopping. The shopping book was an attempt to address a specific political moment, a moment when high affluence—when acquisition and material gain—became central to the collective psyche and shopping essentially became the sole element through which urban development occurred.

The Giving book marks a different era, one also of high affluence, but we wanted to say that giving, too, has an impact on urban development.

The Guide to Shopping was relatively apolitical—it looked at shopping from a relatively neutral standpoint—but that was very much an assessment of the situation. It was a critique that shopping had become the terminal activity of urbanism. The value of the book was that it could explain specific instances of the relationship between the activity of shopping to the way the city developed, including the invention of new building typologies.

But that’s just some background to what you’ve asked. Basically, we didn’t want to judge the particular ideologies or political ideas that architects have in terms of making proposals or delivering aid. In the section that describes the different architects—including Abrams—what we wanted to do was make clear the ideological intents of those architects and to be as specific as possible about the differences that exist between them—between each other, but also between what those architects once said or thought and what those architects now believe and practice.

The book is not politically judgmental on the level of the architects’ visions; more importantly, though, it is political in its description of the larger system of giving.

[Image: From World of Giving].

BLDGBLOG: One other thing I think is interesting here actually ties back to an interview you did last year with Chris Anderson of Wired magazine. You discuss what Anderson calls the “reputation economy,” and how so much now depends upon constructing and maintaining a good reputation. Where this intersects with World of Giving, though, is where the value of your gift rises along with your reputation—and where people who are willing to receive your gift can also rise or fall depending, again, on the reputation your organization has. Think, for instance, of someone who accepts a grant from the Department of Defense, as opposed to someone who accepts a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts: those are two very different organizations, and their generosity comes with, for many people, quite opposite political implications. My point is simply that the philanthropic economy—the gift economy—seems to offer a nice corollary to the reputation economy that you discussed last year with Anderson.

Inaba: Yeah, that’s exactly it. One’s reputation increases with your ability to increase the capacities of others—but there’s always the question of how exactly you operate or what exactly you offer.

[Images: From the index of World of Giving].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, the index for World of Giving is actually one of the most interesting parts of the book. It’s a collection of small photographs that document things like plastic tarps, tent structures, water filtration equipment, and so on—the actual objects through which aid programs operate and the ingredients that become recombined into things like refugee camps and emergency housing. It’s a material catalog of giving.

Inaba: With the index, we wanted to show the materials, tools, and objects of giving. However, we wanted people to see how these things now exist alongside new and improved aid materials—from blankets to buildings—but also things like dynamite, mine sweepers, packaging, boots, different forms of tents, power generators, etc.

What we wanted to say was that there is already a design language for giving—and that the design of these things has to do with shipability, weatherproofing, compartmentalization, the economic use of materials, and things that are designed for different durations of use.

We wanted people to be aware that there’s a high degree of design that already exists within the different institutions of giving. That’s something we can add to—but also something we can learn from, when we work within architecture as a larger practice.

[Image: The table of contents from Volume 24].

BLDGBLOG: Let’s talk about Volume 24, the most recent issue of the magazine, which you edited. In your opening essay, you describe the overarching themes of the issue as follows: “At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era.” Further, “With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community.” First off, where does this issue overlap, if at all, with World of Giving?

Inaba: One of the connections between this issue of Volume and the World of Giving book is where we see countercultural values emerging today.

For example, there’s what we’ve come to call the Nice Economy. Part of this is the recognition that one form of giving has now become pervasive, and that’s the sharing of things in various formats—whether it’s sharing songs, text, movies, personal thoughts, or what have you. Giving in exchange for something else—bartering and trading—is very much an activity that comes out of ideas of community and sharing—but this has now become so dominant that it’s no longer a counterculture. It’s more of an expectation than an ideal, and it bears more scrutiny.

[Image: From Volume 24].

BLDGBLOG: And the Nice Economy is what, exactly?

Inaba: What we’re calling the Nice Economy emphasizes consensus, polite concurrence, and the idea of positive reinforcement, as well as making sure that people can work well as a group to the extent that one’s own behavior is not overbearing or doesn’t diminish the potential of group dynamics.

There are many popular writers today talking about how this, in general, is a good thing: people are typically kind and good, and they do things like sharing. But it’s almost become a necessity now, in terms of one’s professional life. If you’re anything but nice, it becomes a liability. This is true even to the extent that, a few years ago, being critical—even being an asshole, in terms of commenting on a blog—was common, but it now seems to come with the sense that your comments could get back to you.

So the idea is that being nice has transformed from a thing that was more of an ethos into something that is more like a professional expectation—whether it’s in business, economics, politics, or what have you. I mean, clearly this is better than if we lived in a world where everyone’s an asshole! [laughs] But it’s something that requires assessment, because it has consequences.

On the other hand, it also merits assessment in the sense that one wouldn’t now want to see a counter-reaction to this—to the Nice Economy—where it’s thought that being critical or being negative or being objectionable is, in and of itself, constructive. But nor should being nice simply be accepted as the status quo.

BLDGBLOG; [laughs] My wife’s former job—for a nonprofit in San Francisco—actually required her to attend weekly meetings where she and the rest of the staff would receive “the gift of criticism.” It was actually called that. I don’t think those meetings were very popular. But what it means to “be nice”—and, of course, what it means to “be critical”—really needs to be defined more closely here.

Inaba: Yeah. I think this requires an attitude that is neither one that attempts to be enthusiastic or find positive attributes in everything, nor one where immediately being counter to something, or in opposition against something, in disagreement with something, is in and of itself to be rewarded.

BLDGBLOG: Does the Nice Economy, as you phrase it, risk squeezing criticism out altogether? In other words, we should all just get along and be nice to each other. Or do you see a new, potentially more interesting type of critique emerging from this? For instance, you now also have to add to the discussion; you have the tools now to show that you can build or create something, and it’s no longer enough just to complain or tear other people’s things down.

Inaba: That’s a good question. In some ways, it’s a question of responsibility: for your criticism to be useful now, a greater, more comprehensive, more coherent, and more productive form of critique seems necessary. I think that’s the very thing that we ourselves are trying to grapple with here. In calling this issue Counter Culture?—with a question mark—it’s as much a question mark to ourselves about how to operate. How can you produce something that is not oppositional or contrarian for the sake of it—and how can you respond constructively, not just with a kind of superficial positivity?

I just want to reiterate quickly that if the Giving book is about the importance of generosity, and of understanding forms of giving, from a very basic human level to the way that giving works between governments, then what we want to make clear is that we present those mechanisms in very constructive terms. It’s the negative side of this, on the other hand, that we’re calling the Nice Economy. We want to be precise in looking for ways to transform or take advantage of the Nice Economy, as a way to validate ideas of giving, but not to continue the Nice Economy for its own sake and thus diminish the act of a gift.

[Image: From Volume 24].

BLDGBLOG: Something that also seems to come up in the issue is a larger shift from the Whole Earth Catalog-era of do-it-yourself analogue counterculture to the countercultures of today, which are almost invariably equipment-intensive. Today’s countercultures—at least the ones most openly celebrated—are usually electrically dependent and quite high-tech. The question here would seem to be: are these really countercultures at all, then, in any real sense, or are they simply the continuing industrial expansion of the west? Are you a member of a counterculture or are you simply an emerging market for high-tech products (no matter how you might use or abuse them)? I think it’s instructive to juxtapose the off-the-grid fantasies of back-to-the-land 1960s hippies with the heavily mediated, high-tech equivalents of that today—it’s been a fairly extraordinary shift, yet it’s only been 40 years.

Inaba: Yeah, yeah. The Whole Earth Catalog was something that was deeply influential to the back-to-the-landers, and it certainly can be understood as a prototype for the internet, in the sense that it produced a knowledge network that was accessible and helped share information between interested parties.

But I think we take it for granted nowadays that social and political situations can only be improved by propelling ourselves forward through advances in technology. An interesting counter-example is something that McKenzie Wark brings up in his essay for the issue. He points out that the Romans—and, to a certain degree, the British—actually narrativized an end-game for their own empires, whereas we’re still caught in a post-Sixties idea of social transformation through technology. In other words, we can’t visualize our own end because we assume that we will simply change ourselves—and solve our problems—through technology. That narrative assumption—that technology will necessarily resolve all of our current problems—is something Wark wants to polemically question, and he points out that there’s a value to thinking about how to wind things down.

In the realm of architecture, I think what’s been really interesting is exploring the assumed connection between psychedelics—like the taking of LSD and the experience of being under the influence of LSD—and the aesthetics of psychedelia. There’s an assumption that the kind of patterns and colors of psychedelic spaces were very much intended as representations of a psychedelic trip. That’s something we take as a given, even today.

However, I think that Jason Payne makes an interesting point in his piece for the magazine. For him, a more appropriate corollary would be architecture that’s introverted. That is, something that is introspective rather than a thing that’s expansive. As a psychedelic, LSD might be seen as something that’s more internalizing—and, in that sense, in Payne’s view, it might be that the more acidic architecture would actually be something like Peter Eisenman’s House X or, in fact, any of Eisenman’s House projects.

BLDGBLOG: So, in Payne’s view, the architecture of LSD would be the solipsistic world of mathematical introversion—represented here by Peter Eisenman—and not the technicolor world of hippie tents and pop-up cities found up in the hills of California? That’s fascinating.

Inaba: In some ways, even the synthetic quality of Eisenman’s architecture—the technological expertise of it—is similar to the synthesized nature of LSD.

[Image: House X].

BLDGBLOG: There’s a great moment in Daniel Pinchbeck’s book Breaking Open The Head where he describes the architecture of a very bad trip; in this particular scene, Pinchbeck takes a highly synthetic hallucinogen and he ends up thinking that he’s trapped in a room without doors or walls—but what’s funny is that his description of it almost sounds like a building designed by Zaha Hadid. It’s seamless, alien, and impossible to escape. [laughs]

Inaba: The specific comparison Payne tries to make is that, if acid was the drug of choice in the 1960s, and if acid was about introspection, then, by extension, it might be more accurately associated with an architecture that explores its own internalized discourse. For his own part, King associates himself with the 80s/90s and with Ecstasy; that drug experience, he thinks, is more conceptually extroverted, and those feelings and sensations of extroversion became a dominant operative term for his generation of architects.

I think what’s important about this is that it’s based on a questioning of the historical truths that we assume between certain kinds of sensibilities and the aesthetics that come out of them. For example, acid trip = psychedelic imagery. Payne’s idea that this equation can be challenged is nice—but it also seems interesting as a method, because what he sees as being important for his generation of designers is not so much concept-based architecture but what he calls an architecture of affect.

In other words, he’s interested in sensation; he’s interested in the synaesthesia of what something looks like and what its materiality might be—what happens if you privilege feeling over concept. I think it’s that methodology that allows Payne to reassess a previous era of architecture—to say that Eisenman’s architecture is acidic—but also that allows us to be informed about the way that contemporary architects are working.

[Images: From Volume 24].

BLDGBLOG: Alistair Gordon’s recent book Spaced Out documents a kind of psychedelic vernacular—hippie enclaves, bubble architectures, parachute-pavilions, paisley walls, irregular room layouts, lots of incense, proud displays of body hair, and so on. Does a focus on this by now fairly clichéd design language play any part in the magazine?

Inaba: Alistair actually wrote a contribution for us. He tries to illustrate the extent to which the psychedelic aesthetic—the way he sees it—has penetrated into mainstream culture. In that sense, his piece is a precise restatement of what he says in Spaced Out: that psychedelic architecture was a kind of evolved vernacular. It was consciously working outside the domain of the professional discourse, and that was exactly its virtue.

We also talked with Chip Lord, from Ant Farm. I think, for us, what’s interesting about Ant Farm is the question of how architects can integrate new media into their work. With them, the fact that they’d always been interested in broadcasting their work really came to an apotheosis with the development of videotape technology. Video meant that they could incorporate broadcasting directly into the realization of their work, so everything from their “Clean Air” project in Berkeley onward deals with media to a certain extent—using media as a way to telegraph information.

In fact, with projects like “Media Burn,” Ant Farm not only enabled media to participate in their work directly, they also facilitated a critique of that work through new media like video. In that sense, it’s not just an enthusiastic embrace of a new technology; it also allowed Ant Farm’s work to act as a collective lens for interrogating the medium and for interrogating the way in which information is broadcast.

As rebellious and as confrontational as the work might be received today, I think there’s a reflective aspect to it that goes unnoticed.

[Image: From Volume 24].

BLDGBLOG: The inversion of that, of course, is that something that would have been considered quite radical thirty-five or forty years ago would actually be a fairly tame example of multimedia today. For instance, today you can be watching a movie on your iPhone while texting somebody—while walking to work, while surrounded by LED screens on the sidewalk, while playing a game by Area/Code or checking in on foursquare, and so on. If, forty years ago, Archigram had proposed exactly that same scenario as a kind of design provocation—a way of deliberately overloading and inhabiting urban and architectural space—then it would have been considered pretty mind-blowing for its time. But today it’s just our everyday streetscape. It’s as if every child alive today with access to an iPod is already more avant-garde than Archigram.

Inaba: That’s something we’ve been trying to think out with this issue: the broader idea that there isn’t a counterculture at all today, because there isn’t anything monolithic enough to oppose. Things are so diversified now, in terms of an overall intensification of interests and experience, and there are so many different media in which one can work, that a multiplicity of platforms of expression are now allowed—or even expected.

In that sense, there is an anxiety among many people today—including architecture critics and writers—that there needs to be something to oppose. There needs to be something to be counter to.

We maintain that this anxiety stems from the fact that there is a mainstream, and it is so deeply imbued with countercultural values—like sharing, concern for the environment, and forming new communities—that such a dominant logic of niceness is paradoxically difficult to resist or oppose. Because the prevailing values of nicety are, in a way, beyond repute, maybe it limits the potential of a future counterculture?

[Images: From Volume 24].

BLDGBLOG: I might even say that you now have the tools to create or produce whatever it is that you wish someone else had done—be it a film, a novel, a building, a design studio, or whatever—and the real value now is in actually seeing those things through to completion. Just go ahead and do it: do cool things; offer an alternative; create something; demonstrate the shortcomings of others not through criticizing and complaining about them but by doing something more interesting than they can do.

Inaba: For us, it’s more that the mindset of the Nice Economy encourages diversion, in terms of platforms and media. We’re more distributed now in what we can do, in the technologies that we have available to us, and in the forms that we can choose to use.

It’s harder now to see the immediate value of what it means to be oppositional—of what it means to form a counterculture, and in what it would mean to be mainstream. That’s one of the overarching themes of this issue: finding new ways to solve and address problems without being nostalgic for a different era.

* * *

Thanks to Jeffrey Inaba for taking the time to have this conversation—and to Nicola Twilley for helping to transcribe it.

Leviathan: An Interview with Richard Mosse

[Image: “C-47 Alberta” by Richard Mosse].

Photographer Richard Mosse, originally from Ireland, is a graduate of the Yale MFA program in photography, as well as a recipient of a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts. This Fellowship has funded Mosse’s ongoing and extraordinary series of travels around the world.

Readers of BLDGBLOG will recognize his work from its previous appearances here—whether that’s the air disaster simulations of a year or two back or the full interview with Mosse about his, until then, unpublished photographs of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

Having worked together all Autumn as part of the quarantine studio here in New York, Mosse and I coordinated another interview, via email, about his most recent solo exhibition. That show, called The Fall, features photographs of extremely remote airplane crash sites, with often partially dismantled or disintegrated wrecks disappearing into an uninhabited landscape; Mosse compares these structures to the Arctic shipwrecks and ruined forest abbeys of painter Caspar David Friedrich. The images will be on display for only two more days—closing Wednesday, 23 December 2009—at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery.

[Image: “C-47 Yukon” by Richard Mosse].

In the following interview, Richard Mosse discusses the visual representation of catastrophe; conceptual links between terrorism, advertising, and photography; the 2006 disappearance of pilot Steve Fossett; surveillance subcultures along the U.S./Mexico border; the short fiction of J.G. Ballard; and Werner Herzog’s film Fata Morgana.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start off with a fairly practical question: how do you actually locate these plane wrecks, many of which received no media coverage at all?

Mosse: These photos are the result of months of online research, skimming forums, YouTube videos, Google Earth, Flickr, emailing wreck chasers, and cold-calling bush pilots. I’d even surf the web for jpegs of plane wrecks, then bring this information into Google Earth in the hopes of finding tiny silhouettes of downed planes. I was searching for accidents so disintegrated and remote to civilization that they only really exist in the virtual imagination of transient and anonymous online communities. Others had become landmarks, a destination for the intrepid to come and leave their trace.

Like 19th-century survey photography, it became a process of charting the unknown—but it’s also a kind of picaresque quest narrative. I think the work has echoes of the poète maudit, the immoral artist figure who will go to any extreme, transgressing any boundaries in pursuit of the ultimate aesthetic experience.

[Image: “C-47 Crows Nest Pass” by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Abstractly speaking, was it that idea of trespassing and transgression—photographing something that terrifies so many people and that so few people actually witness or see—that drew you to this project?

Richard Mosse: I’m fascinated by contemporary art’s ability to point to the limits of experience, making visible what can’t otherwise be represented. Photography, meanwhile, is supposed to be rooted in the world of things, as it carries an actual physical memory of the world at a specific time and place. Between these poles, I think photography has a unique potential to represent human suffering—which is, after all, something that cannot be represented. I cannot literally feel your pain; you cannot adequately express that pain. Pain is an essentially private affair, yet it is something experienced by all of us. Starting from these basic ideas, I’m hoping to find a better way to describe the catastrophe. By this I mean a totalizing concept of warfare, disaster, the battlefield—the things that define our era but which have become increasingly abstract, impersonalized, invisible, simulated and global.

So how is the catastrophe popularly represented? Through terrorism. Terrorism is a gesture of advertising; it’s a literary act, a form of representation, before all else. Its aim is not primarily to kill, but to capture the popular imagination through killing. It’s for this reason that I’m drawn to the air disaster: there is no finer, more succinct, more international, and more culturally loaded expression of the catastrophe than a plane crash. An airliner in vertical descent is a spectacle of modernity’s complete failure. It is horrifying, but also aesthetically powerful—and it’s for these reasons that terrorists covet the air disaster. I feel that photographers, who work in close proximity to advertising, can enter the terrorist’s symbolic order and violate the same taboos.

Like the catastrophe, the air disaster is virtually impossible to represent. After the Continental crash near Buffalo last year, I traveled immediately to the site. It was totally inaccessible. In only a few hours, various authorities had come together to form a kind of firewall around the event; it had become opaque with layers of jurisdiction.

[Image: “727 Santa Domingo” by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: How did you manage to get near the wreckage?

Mosse: The plane had crashed into a suburban neighborhood, and state troopers were waving down the traffic about a mile or so from the site. I parked up in the woods nearby, slung my camera and tripod in a shoulder bag, and trespassed through people’s backyards in the hope of being taken for a resident. I was able to walk almost to the crash site itself, about 100 yards from the wreckage, where I stood and watched the disaster bureaucracy arrange and rearrange itself while body bags were carried out.

Unable to get any closer than that, and with no clear line of sight, I looked for some trace of the disaster violating this residential idyll and found police tape slung around trees whose branches had been broken by the crash. I set up the tripod and within about twelve seconds the veil had closed in. First came the local officers, and then the Feds. They kept me there for about an hour, ran my name and social security number, and threatened me with arrest.

I began to understand this larger project as a kind of deferral: I started to look sideways at the air disaster through older wrecks, forgotten relics in the middle of nowhere. There are layers of deferral here which attempt to access a crystallization of themes surrounding the air disaster. Control. Remoteness. Archaeology. Time. Environment. Form. Scale. Quest. The hidden. Taboo. In making these images, I’m aiming towards something aligned in spirit with Caspar David Friedrich‘s painting, Das Eismeer: spatial remoteness becomes temporal remoteness, and the forgotten plane wreck is swallowed by the primeval landscape.

[Image: Das Eismeer (1823-24) by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: Friedrich’s Arctic shipwreck brings to mind a pretty incredible video that you’ve put together, called Leviathan. It features wrecked airplanes emerging from, or being dropped into, the sea. Can you tell me more about that project?

Mosse: I met an extraordinary Dutchman out in Thailand who is known in wreck-chasing circles as the Dakota Hunter. Once an advertising director for a cigarette company, the Dakota Hunter ventures into the world’s remotest places to salvage the wingtips of C-47 Dakotas, which he then ships back to the Netherlands to be sandblasted and turned into luxury tables for boardrooms and executive offices. He very generously tipped me off about a Thai-organized project sinking Dakota aircraft into the waves off Phuket. These aircraft were vintage American military bombers (and Sikorsky attack helicopters) from the Vietnam War that had been donated to the Thai Army upon America’s withdrawal from Saigon. They had been flown by the Thai Air Force until they could fly no longer, and have since lain rusting in the jungle.

But the diving clubs of Phuket, struggling to re-stimulate the dive-tourism industry as well as the coral reef environment that had been virtually wiped out by the recent tsunami, came up with the idea of sinking these decommissioned aircraft onto the ocean floor.

I pulled this footage from Thailand together with a second video showing the 2009 US Airways crash in the Hudson River. In this piece, I became fascinated by themes of tourism, disaster, globalization, the military-industrial complex, and history. But most of all, I’m drawn to the aesthetic power of the air disaster, and the majesty of watching airplanes be submerged and re-emerge from water, like a kind of baptismal rite. The sea has a wide array of psychoanalytic and mythic associations which I feel produce sparks of meaning when they coincide with the airplane’s modern form.

You can watch an unfinished version of the film below. This was shot and edited by Trevor Tweeten, with coloring and post-production by Jerome Thelia, and sound by Martin Clarke. Please note that this piece is not yet finished; it’s just an early draft.


BLDGBLOG: You’re not a pilot yourself, meanwhile, so getting to these sites must have required a tremendous amount of assistance. Can you tell me a bit more about the people who helped you visit—like the Dutchman in Thailand—and the process you had to go through to get to these places?

Mosse: I actually had to abandon one trip to see a wreck in a high mountain pass because of bear-paw prints in the snow! On my return trip, I brought a local fellow with a shotgun. I asked him whether he’d ever had an encounter with a bear, but he wouldn’t tell me, saying that he’d give me an answer after we reached the wreck and were making our way back down the mountain. Once I’d finished making the photograph and we’d started for home, I asked impatiently for an answer. He told a fabulous story of being charged by a five hundred pound grizzly who picked him up in her jaws and flung him like a ragdoll. Lucky for him, he managed to fire a shot at the bear while it was coming at him, saving his life. He showed me the wounds on his shoulder and forearm.

That trip was by all-terrain vehicle—with a few hours of heavy walking through snow—but, on other forays, I’ve hired a helicopter. I had a choice of pilots in a town in the Yukon, and decided to go with the Swiss pilot, thinking he’d be safer. But he totally failed to find the wreck and flew me to the top of a mountain range where we sallied out into the snow to frown at the horizon. I made a second attempt the same day with a different pilot, one who had lived there all his life. He took me straight to the wreck and suggested many others. Always shop local.

Another pilot dropped me into a swamp, way out in the Yukon wilderness. He left me there alone and flew off to refuel. I had to wade up to my armpits in the swampy water for hours, apprehensive that the helicopter would never return. But my fears were forgotten when I discovered that an animal, perhaps an otter or a mink, had built a nest out of reeds in the shelter of the belly of the plane wreck, and birds had propped their nests in holes in the back fin.

[Images: (top) “C-47 Beaver Creek” and (bottom) “C-47 Snag” by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: What about particularly unexpected or surreal plane wrecks?

Mosse: The tail of an old Nazi Junkers was discovered while dredging a lake in northern Finland. I suppose nobody knew what to do with it, because it was simply dumped in the car park of a supermarket, in the same sort of place that joyriders might abandon a burned out car. I like to imagine the local people driving carefully around the old Nazi tailfin, and it becoming a well-known attraction in the region.

There’s also a crashed Cold War bomber that has been salvaged from the Icelandic wastes and is now used as a garden shed. And, in Sicily, the remains of an Alitalia disaster were propped proudly on the roof of a scrap merchant’s shed. Sadly, this monument no longer survives.

But scrappers are not always the plane wreck’s enemy. At 13,000 feet in the Patagonian Andes, there’s an old Curtiss Commando which has been neatly cannibalized leaving only the cockpit. In the winter, flamingoes migrate to this freezing and inhospitable salt lake in northwest Argentina to mate.

[Image: “Curtiss Commando Patagonia” by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: When Steve Fossett, the aviator, disappeared over Nevada last year, there was a huge technological effort to find his plane again—people using Google Earth from all over the world, for instance, to spot the wreckage. It became a kind of landscape challenge. Did the enormous response to that air disaster, or even the public’s use of satellite surveillance technology, have any influence on your project?

Mosse: The hunt for Fossett’s wreck on Google Earth reminds me of a group of webcam vigilantes who I discovered while shooting on the Mexican border. These anti-immigration volunteers spend their free time monitoring footage from live border cameras situated in the Sonoran Desert or overlooking the banks of the Rio Grande River. I’ve encountered these surveillance camera rigs in the middle of absolutely nowhere along the US-Mexico border. The project, BlueServo Virtual Borderwatch is a public-private partnership described by Justin Hall as “an innovative real-time surveillance program designed to empower the public to proactively participate in fighting border crime.”

I’m intrigued by the idea of people logging into, and staring at, live webcam views of an unchanging landscape on their home computers. What drives people to do this? I suppose it’s the same lure that draws people to Google Earth. These are both a pursuit of the real within—and through—simulacra, and you are apprehending the world as if it were a computer game. That is enormously empowering, because the tools at your disposal are extremely powerful. You can go virtually anywhere without putting yourself at risk.

But, ultimately, it’s a form of entertainment: you’re consuming a representation of the world—one that’s been produced—and not representing the world for yourself.

[Images: “Miss Piggy Churchill” 1 and 2 by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: In J.G. Ballard’s fiction, there is often a character who is a wounded aviator—someone who’s been in a minor plane crash or car accident, has a ruined knee, and can never fly again. They are exiled on the earth, so to speak. Ballard sometimes included lost aviators in his fiction: amateur pilots who have taken on the air of Arthurian knights flying pioneer missions into the skies of undiscovered worlds. Does this romance or mythology of the figure of the pilot—not the airplane—have any role in your interest in photographing crash sites? There’s even someone like Amelia Earhart, whose disappearance only amplified her already global fame.

Mosse: Certainly. Since I was a boy, I’ve been haunted by Ballard’s story of a journalist visiting the site of an air disaster in the Mexican mountains. But I’m also thinking along the lines of Robert Smithson or Bas Jan Ader: the artist heading out to his death in the wilderness, like the protagonist at the end of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, whose body disappears into a ghostly fog on a drifting boat.

[Image: From Fata Morgana, directed by Werner Herzog].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, is there a crash site that you really want to get to but either haven’t had the time to visit or the wreck might even just be a rumor, an urban legend?

Mosse: That would have to be the plane wreck in Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana. It was like an epiphany for me when Herzog’s lens comes across this ruin in the Saharan desert; he examines the twisted form as if it were a sculpture in the landscape, like the Sphinx. I immediately pressed rewind and watched the scene again and again, swearing to myself that I would retrace his journey south through Algeria to search for the ruin. But it’s impossible to find.

• • •

Be sure to read BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with Richard Mosse: Saddam’s Palaces. Mosse’s solo exhibition The Fall closes on 23 December 2009.

Plants Without Borders: An Interview with Sara Redstone

[Image: 55 of Europe’s most common plant pests in a wall poster found via the Scandinavian Fishing Year Book].

Sara Redstone is Plant Health and Quarantine Officer for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, home of the world’s largest collection of living plants. In addition to screening and isolating all incoming or outbound plant material, she is currently overseeing the design and construction of a new quarantine facility for the gardens.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I visited Redstone at Kew, where we drank tea outside the Orangery café. Over the course of nearly two hours, we talked about the impact of current and potential pest outbreaks, the ecological risks of open E.U. borders and global trade, and the complicated governmental infrastructure of plant protection. In addition, we touched on what plant quarantine at Kew actually looks like, in terms of the functional and technical challenges involved in Wilkinson Eyre Architects‘ design for a new Quarantine House. Along the way, we covered plant smuggling, invasive species, and the potential to create a Sudden Oak Death super-strain.

[Image: A diseased pear from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection].


• • •

BLDGBLOG: What do plant quarantine measures encompass—invasive species, plant diseases, or even genetically modified organisms? And who is in charge of enforcing plant quarantine in the UK?

Sara Redstone: Plant quarantine at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is concerned with controlling plant pests and diseases, to protect our living collections and the wider environment. In the UK, a number of different structures govern plant import restrictions, monitor invasives, and issue licenses for quarantine and for genetically-modified organism—GMO—research. The rules for working with GMOs are laid out and policed by the Health and Safety Executive, but issues that relate to plant health, quarantine, and potential pests and diseases of plants are actually monitored and controlled by an organization called FERA (the Food and Environment Research Agency), which is a new agency within DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

It can get quite complicated! Different organizations deal with plant health issues depending on where the plants grow and what they are. Unfortunately, the type of information you can get online relating to plant health and quarantine is not always very user-friendly. For example, inquiries about plant health, imports, and restrictions in Scotland go to the Scottish Office, but in England they either go to FERA or the Forestry Commission, depending on the type of organism. Licenses to operate quarantine facilities depend on what type of material you are quarantining (plant or animal), the purpose of raising such material (to grow the plant itself or to grow potential pests or diseases), and various other factors. Meanwhile, GMOs fall under the Health and Safety Executive, as I said—but inquiries about GMO regulations go to DEFRA.

Ordinary members of the public quite understandably find this very confusing.

Edible Geography: What are some of the most worrying issues facing you in terms of plant pest control?

Redstone: One particularly nasty tree pest, which is also a potential human health hazard, is the Oak Processionary Moth. Kew is just one of many locations in southwest London that has experienced this pest. Like the Browntail and other moths, during various stages of their life-cycle the caterpillars are covered in really brittle hairs that have a toxin in them. It can give you a nasty rash and may cause breathing difficulties or affect your eyes on contact.

The moth came into the UK as eggs on imported trees from Holland—and the challenge we face is that we don’t typically quarantine trees from northern Europe. There is no legal requirement to quarantine material from within the EU, but the pest is widespread in the Benelux countries and in Germany, and it is increasing its range on the mainland.

[Images: (left) The Oak Processionary Moth, pictured in a 2007 Daily Mail article titled: “Gardeners are mercilessly hunting down moths with hairspray and flame-throwers.” (right) Tree infested with Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars. Photo taken by Ferenc Lakatos, University of West-Hungary; found via the Centre for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health’s Bugwood Network].

What happens is that many Dutch, Belgian, and German nurseries raise trees and shrubs in southern Europe, in areas such as Italy, where the Oak Processionary Moth is already established. The climate and local conditions promote better growth than can be achieved in northern areas, so you get bigger plants faster. They then move the plants back north to grow them on the nursery for a period of time, to get the right shape, etc. This kind of movement of plants has resulted in a lot of pests increasing their range and moving northwards.

Once a pest is established in a those northern mainland European states, there’s no way to prevent it from spreading to the others—because there are no real boundaries. There are no geographic features that are going to prevent them from moving, and there are no trade barriers that are going to stop them, either.

Although Britain is an island, everything is very much geared toward free trade; unfortunately, quarantine is usually secondary to trade. Most people involved in pest & disease control and quarantine will tell you that we like to employ what we call “the precautionary principle”—but, for political and economic reasons, governments don’t always choose to operate that way.

One of my concerns is that we know about these tree movements on the European mainland, and we know that the Citrus Long-horned Beetle, for instance, is now fairly well established in the Lombardy district in Italy—which is not that far from some of the major tree-growing areas in Tuscany. But what’s going to prevent those Long-horneds from spreading to northern Europe, given the movement of plants, and then coming over to the UK?

We’ve already had an instance where infested Acers were grown in China, shipped over to mainland Europe, and then sold in the UK. The beetle has a long larval phase—two to three years when it is undetectable by normal means, though I understand stethoscopes are now being used by some plant inspectors in an effort to detect larvae feeding. Usually the only way to detect them is finding the emergence hole in the tree base—or finding the adult beetle, after the fact. Were all the infested trees found? Were all the beetles present in the consignment destroyed? We don’t even know where all those plants have gone. It’s really bad news.

[Image: Sample “Plant Passport” from DEFRA’s Plant Health Guide to Plant Passporting].

BLDGBLOG: What sort of measures are in place to deal with these threats?

Redstone: Material that comes in from the European Union is generally uncontrolled. There are “Plant Passport” regulations that apply to certain types of plant, but there’s no record of exactly what plant material is moving and where it’s from.

For instance, even if it says it is from, say, Holland, it doesn’t mean that that material originated in Holland. It may have arrived via Holland in a container ship from China.

Different countries have different standards for quarantine and plant health. You can understand that, in some countries where it’s really a struggle to make a living, different rules apply. There is an organization called the International Plant Protection Committee (IPPC), which makes recommendations—but there is a real lack of shared standards for plant quarantine.

One thing that would be really useful now would be a series of suggested blueprints for quarantine buildings. For example, quarantine houses in places like the tropics can be relatively simple: mesh-screen, poly-tunnel-type structures with restricted access are fine. You don’t always have to use chemicals to sterilize things—in the tropics, you can use heat. Even in the UK, we can quite often use solar gain in our glasshouses to sterilize an area, provided we know what we’re trying to kill. The same methods have been used for years in agriculture; farmers will put polythene over an area of land, and then rely on the sun to sterilize the soil.

[Image: Healthy and diseased plants in a side-by-side comparison, via the USDA Agricultural Research Service].

Edible Geography: Here at Kew, what is it that you are quarantining? Why does Kew need a quarantine house?

Redstone: We use plant quarantine—isolating, screening, and treating plants—for incoming and outgoing plants where we’ve determined they may be a risk associated with their movement. For example, if we want to repatriate material to a country as part of a conservation project, the last thing we would want to do is inadvertently introduce a new pest or disease; so we isolate and treat plants before moving them, to reduce that risk to an absolute minimum.

At present we’re in the process of planning a new quarantine facility. Our intention with the new building is that all plant material that is sent to Kew and to our sister-garden, Wakehurst Place in Sussex, will come to this one point—our new “plant reception”—regardless of its origin. This means we can improve our data capture; we can make sure that all incoming material is compliant with the necessary legislation; we can do an initial inspection; and, if we think there’s a risk, we can also do the isolation and screening.

England is not like the United States, where the USDA maintains the plant quarantine service. If, say, the New York Botanical Garden requests plant material from us, they will send us an import permit and shipping labels, and the labels will direct those materials to the USDA quarantine service, who then send the material on. But we operate quite a different system in the UK and European Union.

What happens here at Kew is that we have a licensed quarantine facility, which is approved by FERA and licensed by DEFRA. This gives us the ability to quarantine plant imports that come to the gardens from outside the European Union.

[Image: UK Phytosanitary Certificate, via the Plant Health (England) Order (2005)].

These usually fall into two main types. One is the type of material that comes in with a phytosanitary certificate.

If, for example, somebody went to Costa Rica and they wanted to bring back material from a botanic garden there, they would arrange for all the necessary permissions, but they would also arrange for an inspection by a representative of the national plant protection organization there. If the plant material was free of pests and diseases, it would be issued with a phytosanitary certificate. Normally, that’s only valid for two weeks—so there’s quite a short window of time in which the plant can travel. Once material reaches Kew, it then has to have another inspection—because, at the time it was inspected in Costa Rica, there may have been no visible signs of pests or diseases, but, in the time it takes to reach the UK, something might have developed. So that’s one kind of material that is received into quarantine.

The other type of material we receive into quarantine is what we call “natural source,” or “wild-collected,” material. We operate under a Letter of Authority to import wild-collected material whose movement would normally be prohibited or controlled. An example of that kind of material would be vines from Kyrgyzstan. Their movement is strictly controlled because, in the European Union, vines are a really important crop. You’ll find the same thing in most countries: a lot of cereal crops are controlled, for example, because they can have such a dramatic impact on the horticulture and agriculture of a country.

[Image: Kudzu-infested forest; photo courtesy John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever quarantine controlled or banned plants, such as kudzu or marijuana, to prevent them from entering the country?

Redstone: We wouldn’t normally consider that quarantine. It’s more a case of restricting access of non-authorized people to those plants, or restricting the release of non-native species into the environment. When we quarantine plants, it’s not to do with excluding a particular plant type so much as excluding the diseases or pests that those plants might be harboring.

Invasive plants like kudzu (Pueraria montana) aren’t banned, although we have a few species like Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which are illegal to intentionally allow to spread to natural areas.

I’m not sure whether UK authorities would prevent specific plants being imported. Marijuana (Cannabis sativa), whether in THC-containing forms or hemp, requires a Home Office license to produce and process.

We do also provide a service for UK customs authorities. If they make a CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) seizure, we have a department here that will go out to help identify the plant and tell them whether it’s been wild-collected and if it’s of conservation value.

Edible Geography: Can you give any examples of outbreaks that have happened while you’ve been here?

Redstone: We haven’t had any outbreaks here due to failure of quarantine. The impact of an outbreak on our collection could be very serious, particularly if it involves a known quarantine organism where the only sensible treatment is to destroy the plant material. That could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds to eradicate. It could also threaten rare species, restrict people’s access to the collections, and prevent us from supplying material for research to our own labs and to other botanic gardens.

We have had a couple of recent pest outbreaks in the UK. I’ve already referred to our ongoing Oak Processionary Moth problem. The interesting thing is that when that outbreak happened, the moth wasn’t even recognized as a quarantine organism and it wasn’t clear which government department was going to manage it.

The problem with all of these things is that it’s so much easier to prevent an outbreak than it is to deal with one that’s already in progress. Unlike in the U.S., where you seem to be more geared up to a rapid response once something has been identified, it takes us a long time in the UK and we need more resources in place to do the monitoring and undertake control.

One issue, for example, is making sure we have the right chemicals in place. It’s not enough to do a risk assessment; we also need a list of specific, recommended control measures. And if the recommendation is, for example, “Use this particular chemical,” then we need to make sure that somebody in the UK is able to supply it.

[Image: West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s pest collection, via the Massachusetts Introduced Pests Outreach blog].

BLDGBLOG: What’s involved in thinking through the design of a new quarantine facility?

Redstone: One of the design challenges is to make sure that we not only meet current legislation, but that we also anticipate some of the changes that might need to happen. Global trade and climate change are having an impact already.

Even trying to decide the scale of our building is a challenge: we want to build-in flexibility, and we don’t want to hamstring the organization in the future. At the same time, we have to be able to afford to run the facility!

What we know from the experience of others is that there have been lots of examples of institutions where they’ve spent vast sums of money—tens of millions of pounds—on creating fabulous infrastructure, but it has then been so expensive to run that they haven’t been able to operate it. We can’t afford that. That’s not what we’re about at Kew.

On the other hand, to contain pests and diseases, we need to assess the risks associated with every single plant movement. As a result, over the past few years we’ve routinely quarantined material that there’s no legal need to quarantine. However, we’ve felt that there was a practical need and a moral obligation to quarantine seed material that comes from, for example, California, or from other states where we know there’s a really severe problem with Sudden Oak Death. Particularly with the understory material, we’ve germinated it all in quarantine and grown it on so that we can screen it. The last thing we want to do is introduce Sudden Oak Death—particularly the American form, because there’s an American and a European strain, and the concern is that the two will meet and produce a super-strain.

The other factor is the human resource. It’s not enough just to have a building: you need to have people who are trained and who understand how to operate it.

[Image: Bay leaves showing symptoms of infection by Phytophthora ramorum, the “causal agent” of Sudden Oak Death. Photo courtesy D. Schmidt, Garbelotto Forest Pathology Lab, UC Berkeley, via the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute].

Edible Geography: Quarantine is always a question of time. How do you decide how long to grow these understory plants, for example, before you can determine whether they are healthy or sick?

Redstone: That’s all part of the risk assessment process. I work with our local inspector and an excellent scientific support team at FERA to make those kinds of decisions. For example, the inspector might look at a batch of seedlings and say: “That group hasn’t grown very well—but this group is fine, and they’ve reached three months and we can see that they’re still healthy.” What he might then say is, “The healthy ones can move on”—and he’ll do me a release certificate—“but those other ones ought to stay for a little bit longer.” Or he might say: “I don’t like the look of that first group: destroy them.”

This is always decided on a case-by-case basis—which is very different from genetically-modified organisms, where there are fixed containment levels. What we’ve done with our new building is use the containment levels for GMOs as a guideline when talking to potential suppliers. For example, in terms of treating our water waste, we’re saying to them that we need an equivalent for containment level 3. That means we’re looking at steam-sterilizing all our liquid waste. We’ll take off the solid fraction, and that will be dried and incinerated—or it will be sent through the autoclave—but the liquid will all be steam-sterilized.

The other thing is that all the technology we use needs to be proven and validated. For example, I know of some places where they use an ultraviolet system for treating water, but there are potential problems with that, because if you have high levels of organic matter in the water, things can, in fact, survive. We just can’t take that risk, because it might result in us not getting a license. And if you put an awful lot of effort—and millions of pounds—into doing something, then it would be an awful shame to fail just for the sake of wanting to try something new and cool.

[Image: Proposed façade for the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre architects].

Edible Geography: Where does the innovation and experimentation in quarantine design take place, if not in designing a new facility?

Redstone: That’s the problem—it doesn’t. It’s the kind of thing that somebody somewhere should do so that we can test new systems. The trouble is that resources are usually limited in this area and facilities tend to be expensive both to build and operate well. Usually you can’t afford to experiment.

We do test our systems once they’re in place, of course. With the steam-sterilization system that we’re planning to install, we’ll be regularly inoculating it with particular organisms and then testing the processed material to make sure it works. It’s simple, but it’s effective.

I’ll show you the plans as they stand now. [unfolds plans] In the scheme as it stands, we have a reception area which will receive all plant material that comes into Kew: seeds, bulbs, shrubs, trees, everything—whether it’s from the EU or not.

[Images: Site plan for the new Quarantine House at Kew, showing the proposed site (marked with red, top) and the proposed floor plan of the new structure (bottom). Courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

Edible Geography: What sort of volume is that?

Redstone: Kew receives, on average, between three to five and half thousand accessions a year, and an accession can be quite a large group of plants—it needn’t necessarily be a single plant, if they’re all genetically identical.

The material will then be processed via the inspection area and then either go into the licensed facility (medium and high containment pods) or into the unlicensed large specimen store. The large specimen store’s primary function is to enable us to hold, monitor and, if necessary, treat or destroy trees, shrubs and other plants originating from within the UK and EU.

The large specimen store is basically what we call a high hat. It has a solid roof, which can be shaded, and insect-proof sides. The insect-proofing is aphid proof, so it’s not particularly small—it’s around the 1mm² mark.

Adjoining the store will be the licensed quarantine facility, which will be split in two: high containment and medium containment. Both spaces will be governed by the licence issued by DEFRA. Both units have air cooling—though they each use a different cooling method—and they’re going to be kept at negative air pressure.

We also have to build in systems to allow for a failure in the power supply. As we’re on the edge of a flood risk zone, the building itself will sit on top of a concrete raft and the plants will be on benches. That will give us quite a lot of leeway as far as any risk from flooding goes. As added protection we also intend to have slots at the doorways; we can then put in barriers and reinforce them with sandbags, in the case of a serious flood. I also want to have an operating procedure that says, if we get advanced warning that there’s going to be a really catastrophic flood event, we’ll load everything in the incinerator and destroy it. Frankly, if that happens, most of London is going to be completely stuffed—so there’ll be bigger problems to deal with!

At the entrance to the licenced area, we’re putting in a cold lobby. It will be kept at 0ºC and it will have a freezer for lab coats. People will put on lab coats before they go into the medium and high containment areas and put them back in the freezer when they come out, where the coats will be sterilized. There will also be an air-circulation fan so that, if anything like seeds or pollen has got stuck to people, it will be blown off into the cold.

[Image: “Gradations of Containment” in the proposed floor plan for the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

Edible Geography: Will there be chemical showers as well?

Redstone: No, that would be considered excessive, to be honest. It’s all about assessing and managing risk proportionately. We’re not a research facility raising pests or diseases for experimentation, so the risks are somewhat less. We have an emergency shower in case somebody’s been contaminated, during pesticide spraying, for example, but our working procedures and precautions like the cold lobby and freezing of lab coats should provide the appropriate level of bio-security.

At every stage, we’re assessing and trying to minimise risk. If we received particularly precious seeds that I thought might harbour a problem, what I would look to do is send them to the seed bank so that they can X-ray them and we can weed out the bad guys straight away, to be destroyed. We also use external treatments – for example, peroxide or other chemicals. Apart from anything else, peroxide is great because it can help trigger germination and is biodegradable.

With everything, you have to give it a bit of thought first. Which is why we say to staff, for goodness sake, please don’t turn up on the doorstep with plant material. We need advance notice so we can risk assess the material.

Other parts of the facility include the loading bay, where there’ll be some storage, the incinerator area, and the inspection bay.

[Image: Wall detail and section of the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

BLDGBLOG: What do you do with the output from the incinerator?

Redstone: The ashes are usually incorporated into the soil heap. It doesn’t go into the compost because it blows around; instead, we usually dig it into the soil piles, so it doesn’t go to waste and it is recycled.

The facility also includes a potting area, which contains a small chemical store and a water-treatment area. And there are going to be insectocutors everywhere!

One important design feature is that the plant room is entirely separate, so that the only way people can enter is through that external door. This means that anyone coming to do maintenance on the electrics or whatever doesn’t have to go through any of the quarantine procedures, because they don’t have access to any other part of the building. It’s human nature to prop open the door if you’re feeling warm—but that sort of thing just can’t be allowed to happen inside the licenced areas.

Edible Geography: How will the temperature-control system work?

Redstone: For the individual zones within the greenhouse, each “pod” will have its own small unit climate control panel on the outside of the house, which will control air circulation, fans, and fogging. We’re going to use fogging not just to control relative humidity, but also, in part, to control temperature gain. It’s quite an effective way of modifying the temperature without huge energy input. And we’re going to use external shading—rollers in tracks—because that’s more efficient than internal shading. Although this is the UK, you may be shocked to hear that heat is the biggest problem we have in maintaining the right kind of environment for our glasshouses.

There’s going to be limited lighting because we’ll be either propagating material or maintaining material—we’re not trying to promote lush growth. There will also be a central computer that controls all the zones, and my intention with the new one is to have direct access from my mobile phone and home computer.

One of the intentions with the new building is to minimize energy costs as much as possible. The building also needs to be capable of being operated by only a few staff—it mustn’t be labor or energy intensive!

For plants that have really critical temperature requirements at the lower end of the spectrum—for example, we had some orchids in from Patagonia—it’s hard to provide those kind of environmental requirements reliably through a glasshouse system. So what we’re going to use is a couple of growth cabinets with lighting, because we feel that’s the most cost-effective solution to that particular headache. We’re also hoping to use rainwater harvesting for part of our irrigation system, and we’re trying to use the most energy-efficient materials.

One of the vendors we’re considering makes quarantine houses using curved polycarbonate sheets. You get a lot of lengthways expansion with polycarbonate sheets, and the curve helps accommodate the expansion and contraction, while maintaining a really good seal. The other thing I like is that we can pump air through a cold water spray and then actually circulate it up and over the curve of the structure, which can give a much more even temperature regime across the bays.

[Image: Curved polycarbonate sheets for glasshouse construction, courtesy Unigro].

BLDGBLOG: I see the facility has been designed by Wilkinson Eyre. How is working with them going?

Redstone: Well, the design isn’t finished yet. The final version will be designed and built within the restrictions we’ve incorporated—we are really getting into this now, I think. It’s quite different from anything else they’ve done and the combination of very specific needs, with a lack of specific technical guidelines, makes it a challenging and interesting exercise. We want the building to look attractive, but containment and functionality are its key priorities.

The other interesting design feature is that there’s a five-meter exclusion zone around the building—a completely solid surface with no plant material. We arrived at that measurement through discussion with the Plant Health and Safety Inspectorate, and it’s important to have a clearly marked exclusion zone. Although the old quarantine building began its life being relatively isolated, pressure to use every available square metre of behind-the-scenes space for support activities at Kew means this is no longer the case. We’ve located the new building so we can make use of some of the existing roadway as exclusion. That way we’re not wasting space, and we’re closer to some of the services.

This particular layout also enables us to add on another block, if we need to in the future.

[Images: Proposed elevations—from the NW, NE, SE, and SW—of the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

Edible Geography: How many plant pest & disease quarantine facilities are there in the UK?

Redstone: A lot of universities have small quarantine facilities, often used for GMO work or raising pests & diseases rather than specifically quarantining plants. Rothamsted have a really excellent facility for experimental work. Central Science Labs at the FERA headquarters in York also have quarantine facilities.

Edible Geography: Does the Royal Horticultural Society have one?

Redstone: No, not that I’m aware of. The National Trust doesn’t have specific quarantine facilities either—although, having said that, they have been working very hard on biosecurity issues, triggered, as they will tell you, by outbreaks of Sudden Oak Death in their collections in the West Country. They have taken stock of the situation and realized that they, like many organizations across the UK, needed to improve current practices. I think it says a lot for the organization that they have been so open and self-critical.

The head of this program for the National Trust is Ian Wright, a head gardener from a Trust property in Cornwall. He realized that through lack of resources, budget challenges, and other difficulties, we’ve moved away from basic good practices: cleaning your materials, cleaning your boots, sterilizing your blades, all those kind of things. For example, if you bring in new plants, you should keep them isolated for a period of time, just to make sure they’re clean—but we seem to have lost a lot of those good habits.

So Ian has worked with David Slawson from FERA to produce a lot of information, as well as posters like this. [unfolds poster] These would go up inside potting sheds, to remind people that quarantine doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be something as simple as a poly-tunnel, or an area behind a shed, where you keep things separate. Containment can be as simple as remembering to wash your boots and wash your hands—basic good hygiene.

In fact, one of the things that we’ve been encouraged to think about by DEFRA is providing a limited commercial service, because there are so few plant quarantine facilities in the UK. This new quarantine facility at RBG Kew will be quite a major one, relative to what’s available in the UK. The thing I’m really excited about is the fact that we’ll have the capacity to control more tightly the stuff that comes in from the European Union and around the UK. That’s increasingly important.

[Image: The National Trust’s “Clean Leaf” plant quarantine poster].

Edible Geography: Did you have any qualms about the decision to locate such a major quarantine facility in the middle of one of the world’s greatest collections of rare and valuable plants?

Redstone: We are in a vulnerable location, in a number of ways. We’ve done a major environmental impact assessment, and even looked at the option of having it off-site, but that in itself created major problems. One of the real issues is that it’s not enough just to have the building; you have to have the human resource.

It also makes sense to have a quarantine facility where the movement occurs. We’re not just accessioning new plant material—we’re also doing quite a bit of repatriation. I think it’s really important that we should be able to return safe material to its country of origin, especially if it’s seriously endangered or on the verge of extinction. We have to be able to hold our hand on our heart and say, “It’s clean, there are no problems, and your only challenge will be making sure it grows and that something doesn’t eat it or squash it.”

It’s not just for stuff coming in—it’s for stuff we’re sending out that quarantine is crucial, too.

BLDGBLOG: How do you interact with the Millennium Seed Bank? Do you quarantine seeds for them?

Redstone: No, they have a quarantine area in their own lab for seed material. However, if they want to grow any controlled or prohibited seeds—for verification by herbarium staff, for example—then that has to be done within our facility. So they can examine seeds, but if they want to germinate them and grow them on, then they have to come here.

[Image: Electron micrograph images of seeds. (top) Lamourouxia viscosa; (bottom) Franklin’s sandwort, conserved at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Photographs by Rob Kesseler and Madeline Harley, via the The Guardian].

Edible Geography: You mentioned that, in the UK, there isn’t a system where the government gives you the approved quarantine facility plans and you follow them to the letter. How can you be sure your design will qualify for the appropriate license?

Redstone: Well, that’s the case for plant quarantine—the system for GMOs is very different, and I don’t know how animal quarantine operates. In our case, I have constant contact with my colleagues in FERA who will be involved in evaluating the new build plans. If they have an issue with a particular system, they’ll let me know.

For example, I had an inspector on site yesterday who asked, “Have you thought about the door seals? I know that these are really good doors but, to get a good seal, what you want is a little up-stand at the bottom of the door for the seal to butt up against.” It’s all sorts of small details like that.

The difficulty with the project from my point of view has been to make sure it gets enough time and attention now—because I know that if I’m still here when it gets built, my ongoing sanity is going to rely on having made the right choices so that we can physically manage the building. I think that, for projects that are very specialized, like this one, the people who are going to use the buildings often don’t get enough time to actually sit and evaluate what the building needs to do.

Edible Geography: Just writing the brief for it must have been quite a challenge!

Redstone: To say the least. Version 10 got issued about three weeks ago. My biggest worry is that I’ve missed something. There’s just no wriggle room.

Edible Geography: Did you take any of your ideas for your plan from other facilities that you’ve seen?

Redstone Yes. I actually persuaded them to employ a colleague from Rothamsted, Julian Franklin, as a consultant. He is a major quarantine nerd—not only is he really knowledgeable about the plant side of things, but he’s obsessed by technology, so he can tell you that so-and-so needs to be at this many atmospheres, or amps, or whatever. He’s been a real find.

In fact, one of the risks of a project like this is that there are very few experts around—and, especially in the current climate, there are lots of companies who are desperate for work who may claim expertise they don’t really have.

BLDGBLOG: You said you need to avoid innovation at all costs, but is there any aspect of the facility that will be genuinely new or unprecedented?

Redstone:: Nobody’s built a screening house quite like ours, I don’t think, but it’s really just an adaptation of things that we’ve seen done elsewhere. Ultimately, it will all be technology that’s been used elsewhere, but perhaps not in quite the same way. Other facilities have air showers, for example, but most of those haven’t also had a cold lobby. We are combining things—but we’re also trying to play safe.

[Image: Air Shower diagram, via the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)].

Edible Geography: What is the old quarantine facility like—and what will happen to it once the new building is completed?

Sara Redstone: It’s a modified commercial glasshouse, about twenty-five years old. It wasn’t specifically designed as a quarantine house: it has no automatic shading, and controlling the internal climates reliably can be a challenge. The water here is very hard, as well, so the building has had a lot of issues with equipment.

The new facility should be operational by late autumn 2010. This time next year, we’ll be thinking about doing the smoke tests and the pressure tests and so on. And once stuff has been screened in the new facility, it will go into the old house and be held there for short periods of time until it goes onward to the display houses.

[Image: A fairly standard list of materials that must be declared at the border and potentially quarantined to prevent the import of pests and diseases; this particular brochure is Canadian].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious about what happens off-site—for instance, if there is an outbreak somewhere in the Midlands or up in Yorkshire, do you have a field quarantine unit of some sort who can rush out and seal the place off in situ?

Redstone: Not yet, that I know of. You’d need to talk to DEFRA and the Non-Native Species Secretariat who monitor and deal with invasive alien species, or IAS. There is a working group working on developing a protocol for a rapid response against non-native species—NNS—but I’m not sure if they have agreed the way forward.

If the outbreak relates to plants then you’d have to notify—depending on what the host and pest or disease is—either FERA or the Forestry Commission. If the organism isn’t quarantine-listed, then a pest risk analysis (PRA) and other detailed work may be required, and this can take some time to do thoroughly. Depending on where the outbreak is and what it is, there’s then also the need to identify who will attempt to eradicate it and how—and where the resources will come from.

What we really need to do is make everybody aware of the dangers of moving plants. It doesn’t matter if you’re a business or an individual.

I had a person tell me recently that they deliberately altered their suitcase so that they could bring back cuttings from their holidays overseas without being detected. People get very confessional—when they hear what my job is, they have this urge to tell me about all of the plant material they’ve brought through customs without declaring, or all of the farms they visited overseas and didn’t mention on their immigration forms. It’s my worst nightmare.

There have been outbreaks of quite serious pest problems in botanic gardens and plant collections. These have probably, according to the experts at FERA, been the result of things like exotic flower arrangements or of bringing in fruits from around the world to explain to children about plants. Those routes need to be cut off, as well.

Individuals can sometimes be ignorant of the impact they could have by smuggling—in fact, sometimes they don’t even realize that they are smuggling—plant material into and out of the country. We’ve got a bit of money as part of the project to actually do some interpretation on site. I’m hoping that we can do quite a lot to explain to people the risks of moving plant material, and the impact of plant pests and diseases, by having signage in the display houses and in public areas on site.

For example, did you realize that there’s a risk, when you’re moving plants that have soil around the roots, of introducing a pest called the small hive beetle, which can eradicate honeybees? Bees are getting a lot of press at the moment—for very good reason—and so one of the things I’m hoping we can do is use that sort of example to show that the consequences when you smuggle that plant back from your holiday, or when you bring back a jar of local honey, or wax candles, or a wooden sculpture, may be more far reaching than you realize.

If you put things in context, most people are responsible enough not to flout the rules—I hope. We’re all in this together—we all share the same planet.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Until Proven Safe: An Interview with Krista Maglen, One Million Years of Isolation: An interview with Abraham Van Luik, Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

Until Proven Safe: An Interview with Krista Maglen

[Image: Airfield at Guantanamo Bay converted for the quarantine of 10,000 Haitian migrants; via Wikimedia].

Krista Maglen is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University, where her research explores the nature of infectious disease prevention, including quarantine, during the latter part of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

In her published work, which includes “‘In This Miserable Spot Called Quarantine’: The Healthy and Unhealthy in 19th Century Australian and Pacific Quarantine Stations” and “‘The First Line of Defense’: British Quarantine and the Port Sanitary Authorities in the 19th Century,” she focuses on the interrelationships between quarantine defenses, economic traditions, and medical restrictions on immigration.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Maglen about the ways in which different economic and cultural forces have shaped the practice of quarantine in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss the absence of a design philosophy for quarantine, quarantine’s potential for political misuse, and the differences between quarantine and other forms of incarceration.

• • •

Edible Geography: What led to your interest in quarantine?

Krista Maglen: My original interest was immigration, and I was looking at the way that immigrants had been restricted from coming into Britain for medical reasons. I had some assumptions about how that process occurred, but I realized it wasn’t as straightforward as in the U.S.A. or in Australia. When I looked a bit more deeply, I realized that this was because of the relationship that Britain had towards quarantine.

There is a long-standing opposition to quarantine in Britain, which meant that when Britain started to enact restrictions on immigration and immigrants, it was quite difficult, because those restrictions use many of the same mechanisms and much of the same language as quarantine. Both of them are designed to exclude certain groups of people, and they’re very closely interrelated.

That intersection between immigration and quarantine was where I began—and then I started to see all these amazing things about quarantine. It doesn’t only relate to medical and public health policy, or even just to immigration policy—it’s also very bound up with economic and political policy, as well. It is both shaped by, and a tool of, these larger geopolitical forces.

[Image: Map of the Australian Quarantine Service].

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in your understanding of the relationship between quarantine and the construction of national borders.

Maglen: Quarantine differs very much depending on where a country is in relation to a disease source or perceived disease source. Australia, for example, has actually historically had one of the strictest quarantine policies, even though it’s so far away. Quarantine became a very big deal there. First of all, there’s a perceived proximity to Asia, which in the West has traditionally been seen as this great source of disease—the “Yellow Peril.” Quarantine is also a way to draw a line around White Australia, racially, just as much as it is to draw a line around the notion of a virgin territory that doesn’t have the diseases of the rest of the world.

Britain has a different relationship to quarantine because its borders are much more fluid. It can’t have borders as rigid as somewhere like Australia, for lots of different reasons: because of its empire; because it relies on maintaining open borders to let trade flow; and because Britain is itself quite undefined, in a way. It’s a composite of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The borders of Britain are much more fluid, so quarantine takes a different form there and has a very different history.

Edible Geography: You’re now based in the States, where I would assume quarantine is different again?

Maglen: Yes, exactly. Quarantine is closely tied to immigration in the United States: Ellis Island was a quarantine processing site, as well as an immigration processing site. Until the 1920s, immigrants arriving into the United States came into facilities that were also quarantine stations, and also places where you could isolate people for disease control reasons. Part of the processing of who can and can’t get into the United States is always about quarantine—what bodies are seen to be diseased and undesirable.

[Images: Asian immigrants arriving at the Angel Island immigration station, San Francisco, and a man quarantined at Ellis Island; courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

Edible Geography: That raises an interesting question: By looking at a particular country’s quarantine regulations, can you construct in reverse what that country wishes it could be, or imagines it is?

Maglen: I think you can. Quarantine borders—just like national borders—are seeking to draw a line between us and them, inside and outside, desirable and undesirable, and so on. The United States is interesting because it has land borders as well as sea borders. The defining of a biological border, and its role in defining a national border, becomes more complex on land.

Edible Geography: Could you discuss the design of quarantine facilities and the way that also varied from country to country?

Maglen: When you’re thinking about quarantine, one really important thing to keep in mind is that there is a distinction between quarantine and isolation. Quarantine is a word that’s used quite freely. The way it’s used quite often now is to refer to the isolation of sick and infected people. But quarantine more accurately refers to the isolation of anyone who’s deemed to be a risk. That means that you can have perfectly healthy people in quarantine—and being held in quarantine for quite a long time.

One difference is that, in Australia, the quarantine facilities are designed to house all quarantined people—people who are sick and people who are healthy, but have either been in contact with an infected person or have come from somewhere that’s perceived to be an infected place. Australian quarantine stations have an isolation hospital—which is separated, but still part of the main facility—and then they have a big dormitory for all the healthy people who are having to be quarantined as well.

In Britain, the facilities that are set up are almost exclusively for the reception of sick and infected people. They’re really isolation facilities rather than quarantine facilities. Britain has a long history of taking the stance that quarantine is completely unnecessary, because you’re perfectly able to look after healthy people who may have been in contact with an infection if you have a public health system within the country, and that system works properly. From the 1870s or so onwards, Britain says that they’ve got the best sanitary system in the world, so they don’t need to worry about quarantine. Even today, there’s an argument made in Britain along very similar lines, which says that people arriving into Britain potentially carrying tuberculosis shouldn’t be excluded from the country or put into any type of isolation—they just need to be monitored within the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS, in this argument, has everything that is needed to control the spread of tuberculosis from immigrants to the population of Britain, so you don’t need to exclude immigrants on a medical basis.

[Image: “Testing an Asian immigrant” at the Angel Island immigration station, San Francisco; courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

BLDGBLOG: Does some of the difference in attitudes towards quarantine stem from different national political traditions and notions of individual human rights? For example, do the British have a stronger history of arguing for the right to resist involuntary government-imposed detention?

Maglen: It’s an interesting question but, in my research, I haven’t found much of that. Quarantine is much more closely tied to economic political traditions. Britain has a tradition of economic liberalism and free trade, which requires, to a great extent, open borders. Trade requires ships to come in and out, and those ships carry people.

Of course, discussions about human rights and individual liberty are a little bit beyond my period—but everywhere, even now, the argument is made that there are times and instances where individual liberty has to be given over to the greater good. Quarantine, in that argument, is just one of these instances where an individual’s liberty has to be curtailed in order to protect the broader community.

Something that was talked about a lot in the nineteenth century, and still now, is the difference between quarantine and other sorts of incarceration. Quarantined people might be perfectly healthy—they’re not necessarily physically or mentally ill—and they don’t really fit into the normal categories of people with reasons to be incarcerated.

What’s interesting about quarantine is that it assumes that people have the potential to cause harm without having to prove it; it presupposes guilt, in a way.

There’s a quotation from the Australasian Sanitary Conference in 1884 that I think captures a very important aspect of quarantine. It says, “Quarantine differs from a measure of criminal police in this respect: That it assumes every person to be capable of spreading disease until he has proven his incapacity; whereas the law assumes moral innocence until guilt is proven.”

Quarantine is really one of the singular instances in a liberal democracy where it’s possible for the state to incarcerate somebody without proven guilt. It’s a complete inversion.

What I’ve found in my research—which is focused on the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, so I can’t speak for today—is that most people who were quarantined agreed in principle with their incarceration and with quarantine. They believed that it was a just thing for them to be quarantined—in principle. They often talk about that at the very beginning of their period of quarantine. Once they’ve been placed into quarantine, it all seems quite different.

So, in theory, people believe in quarantine—but when you’ve been sitting for two months in a facility that often isn’t very well-equipped for people to live there, because they’re set up just for the occasions they might be needed, and often they’re not very nice or comfortable places to be, things seem very different.

One of the things that comes across consistently in people’s quarantine experiences is boredom. They complain about the accommodation and the food, and they get sick of the people they’re quarantined with—all those very normal human responses.

[Image: Medical inspection station at Ellis Island. The 1891 U.S. immigration law called for the exclusion of “all idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,” as well as criminals. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

Edible Geography: Following on from that, I’m interested in hearing more about your research into the experiences of the quarantined, but also about the experiences of those who were doing the quarantining. Are there recurring similarities or differences between those two points of view? And are there changes in the perception of their experience over time, or residual stigma, post-quarantine?

Maglen: The question about residual stigma is really interesting. My research hasn’t uncovered anything that reveals anything about that. If there was residual stigma, people aren’t talking about it. Not that I can find, in any case.

As I argue in my article, “In This Miserable Spot Called Quarantine,” it seems that quarantine is set up to deal with the singular problem of keeping people who are a potential risk away from the rest of the community. How that then works itself out in practice is really an afterthought. You put in place a facility, whether it’s on an island, a remote peninsula, or a huge moored boat, and you put in place the regulations that govern how a long a ship or people are supposed to stay in quarantine—but that’s about it. People are put there and forgotten about until it’s time for them to be released. Something that people who are being quarantined and people who work in quarantine both have in common is that most of them express great frustration at this.

It’s a “What do we now?” kind of thing: we’ve all got to sit around and wait, but there’s probably not sufficient accommodation for people, and we’ve been given these really crappy rations, and there’s no way of getting away from the other people held there.

[Image: Isolation Section, Sydney Quarantine Station].

Edible Geography: It’s as though the only design philosophy that exists for quarantine is keeping people away. You get a community that isn’t designed to function; it’s simply designed to contain. It’s a place that’s not designed as a place. It’s designed as a non-place.

Maglen: Exactly—that’s a perfect description. It’s designed as somewhere to deposit people temporarily—although, in some cases, that meant several months–but that’s about it. We just shut the doors and leave.

That’s what’s really great about reading the personal sources and stories of people who were in quarantine, because none of the official sources or government agencies see quarantine as anything other than a way to solve a problem. They don’t see it as individuals with their liberty being curtailed and their economic autonomy being frozen. They don’t see any of these problems; they’re just looking at the larger public health issue. It’s more of a macro view of disease control rather than a micro view of individual people’s lives.

[Image: A “Quarantine Act” banner from the Torrens Island Quarantine Station collection, held by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra].

BLDGBLOG: Talking about quarantine stations as a place simply to dump people reminds me of a bit of the architectural criticism of refugee camps. Refugee camps are often criticized as being nothing but utilitarian: built with no concern for community, culture, or how people will live once they’re placed there. Have you found other spatial types that are similar to quarantine facilities—whether that’s refugee camps or supermax prisons—where the same types of psychological and cultural issues emerge?

Maglen: Absolutely. The places I have studied that are similar are detention centers for asylum seekers in Australia.

There was a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrived in Australia; they were put in horrible camps out in the middle of the desert until they could be processed. There was an assumption that if you were a “proper” refugee, you would have stayed in the refugee camps, in wherever it was that you were from, and waited until your application had been processed. You would have been given a visa saying that you were a refugee, and then you would have come to Australia on a plane and gone through the immigration line with the requisite stamp in your passport. This is obviously ridiculous—the life of a refugee doesn’t usually work that smoothly.

In any case, people who arrived in boats—or any way they could—in Australia and who didn’t have a refugee stamp in their passport—or a passport at all—were put in detention centers for long periods of time, sometimes years. The psychological problems that occurred amongst people who were isolated and detained in these places for that long were enormous. Not only were many of the people already psychologically damaged by the experiences that had led them to become asylum seekers and refugees, but they were then put into these temporary camps and isolated in the middle of nowhere.

The difference, however, between that example and people who have been put in quarantine, or people who are put in solitary confinement in prisons and so on, is that quarantine has a time limit. It’s limited, by definition—although, of course, it can be continued and extended. In fact, one of the problems of not setting quarantine facilities up properly is that you then get situations where poor design can lead to unnecessary extensions to the period of incarceration. So, for example, if I have been in quarantine for 15 days of a 20 day quarantine incarceration—with only 5 days left until I am released—and then you are newly placed in quarantine with me, if we are not adequately separated, I will have to start the 20 day quarantine period all over again—making my total quarantine 35 days. This is because I have been freshly exposed to a suspected disease source—you—and so my previous quarantine is rendered useless.

Quarantine facilities, therefore, need to be able to separate instances of exposure in order to avoid compounding the duration of incarceration. However, poor design of quarantine facilities—created essentially, as we said before, only to keep people away from the broader community and with little thought given to internal structures—has, at times, resulted in quarantines that have, unnecessarily, lasted for months.

Even so, there is always a limit with quarantine. First of all, epidemics only have a limited lifespan. Secondly, quarantine periods often have something to do with incubation periods, although the relationship is not as direct as you might think.

So, to speak to your question, I haven’t seen any long-term residual damage inflicted by quarantine, strictly as quarantine. When quarantine is strictly about disease, it doesn’t have the same kind of psychological effects, because you know that, in two months or so, you’re going to be let out. When quarantine is tied to other ideas, or when it becomes a way of keeping a particular class or race—or whatever category of people—outside, it quickly shades into something else.

[Image: View through the perimeter fence at Port Hedland Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Western Australia, June 2002, from the Australian Human Rights Commission].

Edible Geography: If quarantine has an end date, then surely it doesn’t actually function to exclude people from a country. In that case, is the point to use quarantine as a way of reinforcing prejudice and social hierarchies, so that people know their place, as it were, before they even come in the door?

Maglen: Quarantine can do that. It can also be designed as a way to dissuade people from wanting to try to come to your country in the first place. Quarantine is also very much about reaffirming models and stereotypes within the community: to create a feeling that “everybody knows that people from a particular country or region are dangerous, because look, the government has to quarantine everybody from there.” It gives a seemingly scientific backing for ethnic or racial prejudice.

An example of that is people from Haiti being quarantined by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, because of the risk of HIV and AIDS. You can read much more about this in Howard Markel’s book, When Germs Travel. There’s a really interesting chapter in there called “No One’s Idea of a Tropical Paradise: Haitian Immigrants and AIDS.” In it, Markel talks about how Haitian immigrants were being quarantined off-shore because they might be HIV-positive, and how that just re-confirmed—and put a government stamp on—prejudices against Haitians as being a dangerous and untrustworthy people.

That raises another very interesting point about quarantine: it can manipulate the public’s understanding of a particular disease. A disease might not be transmissible person-to-person, or it might not be highly contagious, but the imposition of quarantine automatically implies that there’s a person-to-person mode of infection (in the sense that, if I was sick and I stood in the same room and breathed on you, you would get sick). Quarantining people with HIV/AIDS implies that just coming into contact with them will expose you to infection.

Edible Geography: It seems, then, by virtue of being a practice of detention, quarantine can be misused very easily.

Maglen: Absolutely. It’s not just because it’s a practice of detention, but because quarantine, unlike isolation, is about keeping people who are deemed to pose a risk to public health separate. They’re not known to be a danger, but they’re judged to be a risk—and it’s that idea of risk that can be very easily manipulated. Risk could mean that they’re carrying a pathogen, or it could be that the place that person has come from is deemed to be diseased. It’s a very loose and dangerous term.

Edible Geography: What direction is your research taking now? Are you still exploring aspects of quarantine, or has it led you on to somewhere else?

Maglen: At the moment, I’m working on a book to develop my work on quarantine in Britain. I’m particularly looking at the border, and the idea of British ports being in-between spaces—spaces that are much more fluid than their American or Australian equivalents. I’m using that idea to examine the reasons behind the difficult relationship the British have with quarantine and immigration control, and also to explore how Britain sees itself within the United Kingdom and its former empire. I’m hoping to show how looking at immigration and quarantine can help us understand what’s happening in Britain as a nation and why it behaves as it does, both internally and internationally.

In the future, I want to continue looking at quarantine, but I want to move back to looking at Australia, and in particular, the Western Pacific. The French, British, and German imperial forces came in and tried to divide the islands up between them, even though the island populations had a long history of moving around in completely different patterns. I want to look at how disease control and quarantine were then used by the imperial powers as a way to control that movement of people.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik, Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik

[Image: Yucca Mountain, Nevada; courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy].

Abraham Van Luik is a geoscientist with the U.S. Department of Energy; he is currently based at the nuclear waste-entombment site proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Yucca Mountain, a massive landform created by an extinct supervolcano inside what is now Nellis Air Force Base’s Nevada Test and Training Range, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the controversial site chosen by Congress for the storage of nuclear waste. Its political fate remains uncertain. Although the Obama Administration has stated that Yucca Mountain is “no longer… an option for storing nuclear waste,” Congress has since voted to continue funding the project—albeit only with enough funds to allow the licensing process to continue.

[Image: Resembling some new breed of Stargate emerging from the Earth, the tunnel-boring machine at Yucca Mountain reaches daylight; view larger! Courtesy of the Department of Energy].

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Van Luik about the technical nature of nuclear waste storage and what it means, on the level of geological engineering, to quarantine a hazardous material for more than one million years.

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BLDGBLOG: How did you start designing a project like Yucca Mountain, when you’re dealing with such enormous timescales and geological complexity?

Abraham Van Luik: You start with a question: how do you perceive the need to isolate a material from the environment?

I think most people would begin to answer that by looking at the nature of the material. Wherever that material is currently, we make sure that there is either a thick wall or a deep layer of water to protect the people working around it. That’s what’s being done at a reactor: when spent fuel comes out of a reactor, it’s taken out remotely with no one present, and put into a water basin that’s deep enough that there is no radioactive shine from the spent fuel escaping out of that water. If the pool is getting full, after five years or so of cooling, then the utility company will take the material out of the pool—remotely manipulated from behind leaded-glass windows—and put it into dry storage. Dry storage uses very thick steel and concrete. And there it will sit until someone disposes of it, or until it’s reprocessed.

Now, in most countries, what they have done next is asked: What geology would be very good for isolating this material from the environment? And what geologies are available in our country? The Swedes have gone to their granites, because their whole country is basically underlain by granites. The French looked at granites, salts, and clay, and decided to go with clay. The Belgians and Dutch are looking at clay and salts; and the Germans are looking at salts right now, but also at granites and clay. The Swiss are looking at clay, mostly, although they did look at crystalline rock—meaning rock with large crystals, like granite, gabbros, and that kind of thing. But they decided that, in their particular instance—since the Alps are still growing and slopes are not all that stable over hundreds of thousands of years—to look instead at their deep basins of clays close to the Rhine River as a repository location. We’re all looking to isolate this material for about a million years.

In the U.S. we did a sweep of the country, looked at all the available geologies, and we decided that we had many possible sites. We investigated some, which basically involved looking at what we knew from geological surveys of the states, and then we made a recommendation to go look at three of the possibilities in greater detail. There was then a decision process: it went from nine sites, to five, to three.

At that point, Congress stepped in. They started looking at the huge bills associated with site-specific studies—excavation is not cheap—and they said: let’s just do one site and see if it’s suitable. If it is not, then we’ll go back and see what else we can do.

So that’s how Yucca Mountain, basically, was selected. It was a cost-saving measure over the other two that were in the running for a repository. Those were a bedded salt site in Texas and a basalt site—a deep volcanic rock site—in Washington State.

But all three were looked at, and all three were judged to be equally safe for the first 10,000 years—which, at that time, was the regulation. Since the selection of Yucca Mountain, the regulation has been bumped up to a million years, which is pretty much where the rest of the world is looking: a million years of isolation.

[Images: Views inside the tunnels of Yucca Mountain; top photo by Rick Gunn for the Associated Press].

Now, the reason that you want to isolate this material for a million years is that the spent fuel—meaning fuel that no longer supports the chain reaction that keeps reactors making electricity—contains actinides. These are metal elements, from 90 to 103 on the Periodic Table, most of which are heavier than uranium (which is 92). Actinides are generally very slow to radioactively decay into smaller atoms—which then decay more rapidly—and some of the actinides actually do remain hazardous for a million years and beyond. The trick is to isolate them for that length of time.

At Yucca Mountain we took the attitude that, since we basically have a dry mountain in a dry area with very little rainfall, we would use a material that can stand up to oxygen being present. The material we selected was a metal alloy called Alloy 22. Our design involves basically wrapping the stainless steel packages, in which we would receive the spent fuel, in Alloy 22 and sticking them inside this mountain with a layer of air over the top. What we know is that when water moves through rock or fractured materials, it tends to stay in the rock rather than fall—unless that rock is saturated. Yucca Mountain is unsaturated, so water ought not be a major issue for us at Yucca Mountain—yet it is.

We have to worry about future climates, because, right now in Nevada, we are in a nine year drought—and, basically since the last Ice Age, we have been in a 10,000-year drought. 80% of the time, if we look a million years into the past, we have, on average, twice the precipitation we have now. Most of the past is—and the future will be—wetter and cooler. Which is nice for Nevada! [laughs]

In any case, we tried to take advantage of the natural setting, as well as take advantage of a metal that stands up very well to oxidizing conditions. That is how, in our safety analyses, we showed that we are basically safe for well beyond a million years—if we do exactly what we said we would do in that analysis.

[Image: An engineer stands inside one of the tunnels in Yucca Mountain; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Other countries have decided not to go in a similar direction to us. The only other country that’s contemplating a similar repository to ours is Mexico. All the other countries in the world are looking at constructing something that is very deep—and under the water table. If you go under the water table deep enough, there is no oxygen in the water, and if there is no oxygen than the solubility of a sizable number of the radionuclides is a non-problem. Many are just not soluble unless there is oxygen in the water.

Going that deep then allows those countries to use a different set of materials, ones that last a long time when there is no oxygen present. For example, the Swedes are using granite—so are the Finns, by the way, and the Canadians, though the Canadians might decide to go for clays. With the granites, the older they are, the more fractured they are, and they can’t predict a million years into the future where the fracture zones are going to be. So they have chosen a copper container for their spent fuel; copper is thermodynamically stable in granite. In fact, copper deposits naturally occur in granite. They then wrap a very thick layer of bentonite clay around the container, which they put in dry. When that clay gets wet, as it will do eventually, it expands. When there is a fracture zone that is created by nature, the clay will basically decompress itself a little bit, fill the fracture zone, and you will still have a lot of protection from that clay layer. It’s a similar set up with salt or clay repositories, they eventually close up against the waste packages. Nothing moves through clay or salt very rapidly.

Those are basically the three rock types that the whole world is looking at in terms of repositories.

So you can rely more on the engineered system or more on the natural system. Either way, it’s the combination of the two systems that allows you to predict, with relative security, that you’re going to isolate a material for well over a million years. By that time, the natural decay of the material that you’ve hidden away has pretty much taken care of most of the risk. In fact, by about half a million years, most of the spent fuel is less radioactive than the ore from which it was created. That’s a wonderful argument—but the spent fuel still isn’t safe at that point. You still need to continue to isolate it, just as you don’t want to live on top of uranium ore, either. It’s a dangerous material.

In a nutshell, that’s our philosophy of containment.

[Image: Yucca Mountain diagrammed; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in how you go about testing these sorts of designs. Do you actually build scale models, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hydrological models, or do you rely on lab tests and computer simulations, given the timescale and complexity?

Van Luik: What we do is safety assessments that project safety out to a million years. What I used to say to my troops, when I was a manager of this activity, was: “Safety assessment without any underlying science is like a confession in church without a sin: without the one, you have nothing to say in the other.”

To collect the science needed to make credible projections of system safety, we have dug several miles of tunnels under this mountain; we’ve done lots of testing of how water can move through this mountain, if there was more water; and we’ve done testing of coupons of the materials that we want to use. These tests were performed using solutions, temperature ranges, and oxygen concentrations that we think are representative over the whole range of what can be reasonably expected at Yucca Mountain. Those kinds of physical tests we have done.

We have also utilized information from people who have taken spent fuel apart in some of our national laboratories and subjected it to leaching tests to see how it dissolves, how fast it dissolves, and what dissolves out of it. We have done all of that kind of testing, and that’s what forms the basis for our computer modeling.

One thing we have not done, and can’t do, is a mock-up of Yucca Mountain. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s too complicated, too large, and too long a time-scale.

[Image: Yucca Mountain, courtesy of Wikipedia].

In compensation for that spatial- and time-scale difficulty, what we have done is looked for similar localities with uranium deposits in them, like Peña Blanca, Mexico, just north of Chihuahua City. There, we have rock very similar to Yucca Mountain’s rock, and we have probably a 30-million year old uranium deposit—quite a rich one—that was going to be mined until the price of uranium dropped considerably. We’ve studied that piece of real estate—it has roughly similar rock, sitting under similar conditions except for more summer rainfall—and we’ve looked at the movement of radioactivity from that ore body. From that we’ve gained confidence that our computer modeling can pretty much mimic what was seen at that uranium site.

We’ve looked for natural analogues of other possible conditions—for example, the climate at Yucca Mountain during an ice age. We’ve studied six or seven sites that mimic what we would see during a climate change here.

And, in terms of materials, there are some naturally occurring materials that have a passive coating on them. We’ve studied metals found in nature that are similar in the way they act to the metals that we are using for our waste packages.

So we have gone basically all through nature looking for analogous processes—but none are exact matches for Yucca Mountain. It’s going to need something more unique than that. I think the same is true for every other repository being contemplated.

We have worked in cooperation with fourteen other countries through the European Commission’s Research Directorate in Brussels, and the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, to compare notes on natural analogues and discuss what is useful and what is not for which concept. All these countries are doing the same kind of thing: looking at natural occurrences that are hundreds of thousands, if not hundreds of millions, of years old.

In some cases, the natural analogues we’ve studied are billions of years old. We’ve looked at the Oklo mining district in Gabon, Africa. We studied several occurrences in that mining district where, for the last few million years, ore bodies have been subjected to oxidizing conditions, because uplift of the land brought them above the water table. We’ve looked at these natural reactor zones, which were active two billion years ago when the earth was much more radioactive than it is now, to see what we could learn about the movement of radioactivity in an oxidizing zone. We can use that data for corroborating the modeling of Yucca Mountain.

On top of all that, we have the problem of unlikely volcanic events, as well as strong earth motions from equally unlikely seismic events, at Yucca Mountain. These are problems you won’t have at most of the other repository sites being considered in the world. To study that, we brought in expert groups with their own insights and models to evaluate what the chances are, from a risk perspective, of a volcanic event actually interrupting or disrupting the repository. They also looked at the possibility of a very large ground motion adding stress and causing eventual failure of one or more of the waste packages. Although volcanic events are highly unlikely—as are very large ground-motion events—they must be factored into our analyses, based on the likelihood of their occurring over a one-million year time span.

We have basically done all safety-evaluation analyses from the perspective of the things that could happen, given the nature of this geologic setting. Looking at analogues for processes in nature has given us confidence that what we expect to see at Yucca Mountain is what we have seen nature produce elsewhere. These are indirect lines of evidence that support us—but we have also made a lot of direct measurements and observations, as well as testing in laboratories of materials and processes, to make sure that we’re on the right track.

The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed our research and our situation, and they’ve agreed that we have predictability for about a million years. That judgment influenced the EPA, who then gave us a standard for a million years.

[Image: “Coupons” of metal tested for their long-term weathering and resilience; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: Could you discuss the material selection process in more detail? I’d like to hear how you found Alloy 22, for example. Also, when my wife and I visited Yucca Mountain a few years ago, we were given a black glass bead at the information center—what role does that glass play in the containment design? Finally, are the materials you’ve chosen specifically engineered for the nuclear industry, or are these simply pre-existing materials that happen to have the requisite properties for nuclear containment?

Van Luik: No, the materials are not specifically engineered for the purpose of nuclear containment.

Let’s look at Alloy 22 first. We looked at the whole range of what is commercially available, in terms of pure metals and metal alloys. We also looked at things like ceramic coatings. There are some very, very hard ceramic coatings that, for example, are used on bearings for locomotives. There are also ceramics that the military uses on projectiles to penetrate buildings. There are some very good ceramic materials out there, but we had a problem with the predictability of very, very long-term behavior in ceramics. That’s why we decided to go with a metal; a metal will fail by several different corrosion mechanisms, but not by the breakage that is typical of ceramics.

One of the things that the metals industry has been doing—for the paper-pulp industry, for example, which creates the worst possible chemical environment you can imagine—is that they have been developing more and more corrosion-resistant materials. One of the top of the line of these corrosion-resistant materials was Alloy 22. We tested it alongside about six other candidates in experiments where we dripped water on them, we soaked them in water, and we had them half in and out of water, with varying solutions that we tailored for what we would expect in the mountain over time. The one that stood out—the most reliable in all of these tests—was Alloy 22.

The black glass that you saw is not something that the waste is wrapped in. This material will be made at Hanford and maybe at Idaho, too—and at Savannah River they are making that black material right now. It’s an imitation volcanic glass—a borosilicate glass—in which radioactive materials are dispersed. Material would be released from that if the waste package breaks, and if the material is touched by water or even water vapor. It would then start to alter, and as it alters it would start to release the radioactivity inside. So what you and your wife were looking at was basically a glass waste-form. We don’t make it here—that’s how radioactive waste will be delivered to us from the Defense Department and Department of Energy. We will receive it in huge containers, not as beads.

We also have little pellets of imitation spent fuel, similar to pencil lead in color, to show visitors what the fuel rods look like inside of a reactor. The fuel rods are ceramic, coated on the outside with an alloy.

[Image: Nuclear fuel rods].

Edible Geography: Could you walk us through the planned process of loading the waste into the mountain, all the way up to the day you close the outer door?

Van Luik: Sure. The process, depending on whether Yucca Mountain ever goes through, politically speaking, will be as follows.

From the cooling pools or dry storage at the reactor, we’ve asked the nuclear utility companies to put their spent fuel—or waste—into containers that we have designed and that we will supply to them. The waste will be remotely taken out of whatever container it is in now, put into our containers, which are certified for shipping as well as disposal, and then we would slide those containers onto trains. We want to use mostly trains—we try to avoid truck use.

Rail shipping containers currently in use are massive—some approaching two-hundred tons fully loaded. The trains would bring the containers to us and then we would up-end them remotely and take the material out in a large open bay—all done remotely, again. If it comes in the shipping cask that we have provided, we will be able to put it directly into the Alloy 22 and stainless steel waste package and weld it shut. Then, with a transporter vehicle that’s also remotely operated, we would take it underground and place it end-on-end, lying down in our repository drifts. That’s what we call the tunnels; tunnels without an opening are called drifts. We would basically fill the drifts until we get to the entrance, put a door on, and then move on to the next one. That’s the basic scheme of how this would be done. Everything is shielded, of course, so that people are not exposed to radiation; workers are protected, as well as the public.

[Image: The “drifts” inside Yucca Mountain; view larger. Courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: How many containers could you fit inside a single drift, and how many drifts do you actually have in the mountain?

Van Luik: The drifts are each about 600 to 800 meters long. They vary a little bit, depending on where they are in the mountain. We will have 91 emplacement drifts—with an average of about 120 waste packages, set end-to-end, in each drift—to take care of the 70,000 metric tons that we are authorized to have. If we receive authorization to have more than 70,000 metric tonnes, then we’re prepared to go up to 125,000 metric tonnes of heavy metal. That metric tonnage figure doesn’t represent the total weight that goes into the mountain, by the way—it means that the containers have the equivalent of that many tonnes of uranium in them. In other words, 70,000 metric tons is about 11,000 containers that weigh about ten metric tons each, so it’s a huge amount of weight. Each container contributes a significant amount of weight in itself: the steel and the Alloy 22 are very heavy.

In terms of what the repository would look like, if built, it would be a series of open tunnels, one after the other, with a bridging tunnel that allows the freight to be brought in on rail. Everything is done remotely. The 40km of tunnels would all be filled up at some point, and then we would seal up the larger openings to the exterior, but leave everything else inside the mountain unsealed.

This is very different, by the way, from every other repository in the world, which would tightly compact material around the waste packages. We want to leave air around the waste packages, because of our situation. We have unsaturated water flow, rather than saturated flow, and as I’ve mentioned, water does not like to fall into air out of rock—it would rather stay in the rock, unless it’s saturated and under some degree of pressure (such as from the weight of water above it). So if we put something like bentonite clay around our packages, that would actually wick the water from the rock toward the waste packages—which is a silly thing to do if you’re trying to take advantage of an unsaturated condition.

[Image: An engineer uses ultraviolet light to analyze water-movement through rocks; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: What process have you designed for sealing the exterior door? Does that also require a uniquely secure set of material and formal choices?

Van Luik: Sealing the repository wouldn’t happen for at least 100 years, so what we have done at this point is basically left that decision for the future. We have done a preliminary design, which uses a heavy concrete mixture—as well as rock rubble for a certain portion—to seal the exits from the main tunnel that goes around and feeds all the smaller tunnels.

The idea is that these openings have nothing to do with how the mountain itself functions, because the mountain is a vertical-flow system. Coming in from the sides, as we are, has nothing to do with how the water behaves in the repository, or with the containment system we’ve designed. So we just want to block the side exits and make it very difficult for someone to reenter the mountain—to the point where they would basically be much better off reentering it by drilling a whole new entryway beside one of the old ones that’s filled in.

Then there are going to be about seven vertical shafts for ventilation that will be sealed at the time of final closure. Those will be filled to mimic the hydrological properties of the rock around them; we don’t want them to become preferred pathways of water, because those will point directly into the repository.

So there are two different closure schemes for the two different types of openings: three large entryways that will be completely sealed off to prevent reentry, and seven ventilation shafts that will be filled with materials that have been engineered to mimic the hydrological properties of the rock around it.

[Image: A diagram of hypothetical water-movement around the waste packages at Yucca Mountain; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: And the ventilation shafts are required because the material is so hot?

Van Luik: Yes. Once we put the waste in, we want to blow air over it by drawing in air from the bottom and blowing it out the top to take heat away until we shut off the vents for final closure. The idea is to take enough heat out of the system so that, when we close it, it doesn’t exceed our tolerances for temperature.

Edible Geography: Is there any chance that having such a large amount of heavy material at Yucca Mountain could actually pose a seismic risk for the region?

Van Luik: When we selected this particular location, we looked very carefully at faults. But you’re right: if you get beyond a certain amount of weight, as under a growing mountain range, you do start shifting things in the ground. If you build something right on a fault line you can probably change the frequency of vibration at that location, and maybe aggravate the earthquake that’s eventually going to happen.

However, even if we fill this repository to 125,000 metric tons, that is only something like .01% of the weight of the mountain itself. Plus, we are surrounded by two major faults, on both sides of the mountain, and even though there’s movement occasionally on those faults, the block in the middle—where Yucca Mountain sits—is like a boat, riding very steadily. It’s been like that for the past twelve million years, so we don’t see that it’s going to change in the future.

That said, we are in an area that’s moving all the time. The entire area now is moving slowly to the northwest, and the basin and range here is still growing—the distance between Salt Lake and Sacramento is already twice what it was twelve million years ago, and they will continue to be pulled apart. We’re well aware of the consequences of basin and range growth, and the possibility that the faults Yucca Mountain is sitting next to could be active again in the future. We factored that in. In fact, it’s those earthquakes that might actually lead to failures in the system that would allow something to come out before a million years—otherwise nothing would come out until beyond a million years.

But you can’t put enough weight in that mountain to change the tectonic regime in the area.

[Image: Future warning signs scattered across the Yucca Mountain site, part of “the monumental task of warning future generations“; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: Of course, once you have sealed the site, you face the challenge of keeping it away from future human contact. How does one mark this location as a place precisely not to come to, for very distant future generations?

Van Luik: We have looked very closely at what WIPP is doing—the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. They did a study with futurists and other people—sociologists and language specialists. They decided to come up with markers in seven languages, basically like a Rosetta Stone, with the idea that there will always be someone in the world who studies ancient languages, even 10,000 years from now, someone who will be able to resurrect what the meanings of these stelae are. They will basically say, “This is not a place of honor, don’t dig here, this is not good material,” etc.

What we have done is adapt that scheme to Yucca Mountain—but we have a different configuration. WIPP is on a flat surface, and their repository is very deep underground; we’re basically inside a mountain with no resources that anybody would want to go after. We will build large marker monuments, and also engrave these same types of warnings onto smaller pieces of rock and metal, and spread them around the area. When people pick them up, they will think, “Oh—let’s not go underground here.”

Now if people see these things and decide to go underground anyway, that becomes advertent, not inadvertent, intrusion—and we can’t protect against that, because there’s no way to control the future. All we’re worried about is warning people so that, if they do take some action that’s not in their best interest, they do so in the full knowledge of what they’re getting into. The markers that we’re trying to make will be massive, and they will be made of materials that will last a long time—but they’re just at the preliminary stage right now.

What I have been lobbying for with the international agencies, like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency is that before anybody builds a repository, let’s have world agreement on the basics of a marker system for everybody. Whoever runs the future, tens of thousands of years from now, shouldn’t have to dig up one repository and see a completely different marker system somewhere else and then dig that up, too. They should be able to learn from one not to go to the others.

Of course, there’s also a little bit of fun involved here: what is the dominant species going to be in 10,000 years? And can you really mark something for a million years?

What we have looked at, basically, is marking things for at least 10,000 years—and hopefully it will last even longer. And if this information is important to whatever societies are around at that time, if they have any intelligence at all, they will renew these monuments.

[Image: Aerial view of Yucca Mountain; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: What kinds of projects might you work on after Yucca Mountain? In other words, could you apply your skills and a similar design process to different containment projects, such as carbon sequestration?

Van Luik: I think so—if we ever get serious about carbon sequestration. I don’t know if you know this, but we laid off a lot of people here because there were budget cuts, and many of those people, because of the experience they had with modeling underground processes, are now working on carbon sequestration schemes for the energy sector and the Department of Energy.

No matter what happens to Yucca Mountain—whether it goes through or not—dealing with spent fuel and other nuclear waste will still be a problem, and that’s the charter that was given to our office. What I’m hoping is that, as soon as Yucca Mountain gets completely killed or gets the go-ahead, I can go back to what I loved doing in the past, which was to look at selecting sites for future repositories.

One repository won’t be enough for all time; it will be enough for maybe a hundred years, at the very most. You have to plan ahead. As long as you create the nuclear waste, you need to have a place to put it. Even if you reprocess it—even if you build fast reactors and basically burn the actinides into fission products so that they only have to be isolated for 500 years rather than a million—you still have to have a place to put that material. Even if we can build repositories less and less frequently, we will still be creating waste that needs to be isolated from the environment.

BLDGBLOG: You mentioned that your favorite pastime was looking for repository sites. If you had the pick of the earth, is there a location that you genuinely think is perfect for these types of repositories, and where might that location be?

Van Luik: My ideal repository location has changed over time. When I worked on crystalline rock, like granites, I thought crystalline rock was the cat’s meow. When I worked for a short time in salt, I thought salt was the perfect medium. Now that I have worked with the European countries and Japan for the past twenty-five years, learning of their studies of various repository locations, I’m beginning to think that claystone is probably the ideal medium.

In the U.S., I would go either to North or South Dakota and look for the Pierre Shale, where it grades into clay: there, you get the best of both worlds. I have been quoted by MSNBC, much to the chagrin of my bosses, saying that, if I were to get the pick of where we go next, that’s where I would go. They really didn’t like that—I was supposed to praise the Yucca Mountain site. But let’s get real: Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress. We have shown that it’s safe, if we do what we say in terms of the engineered system. But it was not chosen to be the most optimal of all optimal sites, the site-comparison approach was taken off the table by Congress. As long as a chosen site and its system are safe, however, that is good enough.

Our predicted performance for Yucca Mountain, lined up to what the French are projecting for their repository in clay, and next to what the Swedes are projecting for their repository in granite, shows about the same outcome, over a million years, in terms of potential doses to a hypothetical individual. We’re safe as anybody can be—which is what our charter requires. We told Congress in 2002 that, yes, it can it be done safely here—but it’s going to cost you, and that cost is in Alloy 22 and stainless steel. Congress said OK and it became public law.

[Image: Map of repository sites across the United States; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: Are any countries actually using their repositories yet?

Van Luik: They’re getting very close to licensing in Finland and Sweden. Those are going to be the first two. We have a firm site selection in France, which means that they’ll be going into licensing soon. Licensing takes several years in every country. In fact, we’re in licensing now, except we had a change of administration and they’ve decided that they really don’t want to do Yucca Mountain anymore. They want to do something else. They have every right to make those kind of policy decisions—so here we are.

No one is actually loading high-level waste or spent nuclear fuel into a repository yet. We have our own repository working with transuranic waste from the Defense program, in New Mexico, and both the Swedes and the Finns have medium-level waste sites, which are basically geological disposal sites, that have been active for over a decade.

The Swedes and Finns have a lot of experience building repositories underground, and their situation is interesting. The Swedes are building a repository under the Baltic Sea, but in granites that they can get to from dry land. When there is a future climate change, however, there’s going to be a period when the repository area will be farmable; it will be former ocean-bottom that is now on the surface. Their scenario is that, at the end of the next ice age, you might actually get a farmer who drills a water-well right above the repository.

The Finns actually have a very pragmatic attitude to this. They have regulations that basically cover the entire future span, out to a very long time period—but they also say that, once the ice has built up again and covered Finland, it won’t be Finland. No one will live there. But it doesn’t matter whether anyone lives there or not: you still have to provide a system that’s safe for whoever’s going to be there when the ice retreats.

We—as in the whole world—need to take these future scenarios quite seriously. And these are very interesting things to think about—things that, in normal industrial practice, you never even consider.

The repository program in England, meanwhile, went belly-up—because of regulatory issues, mostly—but it’s coming back, and it’s probably going to come back to exactly the same place as it was before. That’s a sedimentary-metamorphosed hard-rock rock site at Sellafield, right by the production facility. No transportation will be involved, to speak of. That’s not a bad idea, but they had to prove that the rock was good. The planning authority rejected their proposal the first time, so they dissolved the whole waste management company and now the government is going to take over the project; it’s not going to be private anymore. In the end, the government takes over this kind of stuff in most places because the long-term implications go way beyond the lifetime of one corporation.

If there’s any country that’s setting a good example for waste disposal, it’s Germany. They’re the only country I know of who have the same kind of regulations for hazardous waste and chemical waste as they do for nuclear waste. There are two or three working geological repositories for chemical waste in Germany, and they have been working for a very long time. They’re the only ones in the world. The chemical industry in the U.S. has basically said, no, no, don’t go there! [laughs]

[Images: Like a scene from Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado“—as rewritten by the international chemical industry—hazardous materials undergo geological entombment].

But I think Germany is right: if one thing needs to be isolated because it’s dangerous, then the other thing—that never decays and is also dangerous—needs to be treated in the same way. The EPA does have a standard for deep-well injection of hazardous waste—they have a 10,000-year requirement for no return to the surface. That was comparable to what we had here, until the standard for Yucca Mountain got bumped up to a million years by Congress. But with some chemicals, regulations only require a few hundred years of isolation—that’s all. Those things don’t decay, so that doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, I applaud Germany for their gumption—and they’re very dependent on their chemical industry for income. It’s not like they’re trying to torpedo their industry. They’re just saying: you have to do this right.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin

[Image: An emergency hospital ward in Kansas during the 1918 flu].

Dr. Georges Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and former Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; there his responsibilities included updating the state’s quarantine laws in response to the threat of bio-terrorism. Dr. Benjamin is publisher of both the American Journal of Public Health and The Nation’s Health.

He is also co-editor, with Laura B. Sivitz and Kathleen Stratton, of the 2005 report Quarantine Stations at Ports of Entry: Protecting the Public’s Health. That report consists of more than 300 pages of policy guidelines for how the United States can operate, maintain, and even expand its network of national quarantine stations. The very idea of a national quarantine policy, let alone phrases like the international “Quarantine System,” can inspire, at the extreme, all manner of conspiracy-laden theories—including the specter of fully militarized, FEMA-administered concentration camps on U.S. soil. In reality, however, “today’s quarantine stations are not stations per se, but rather small groups of individuals located at major U.S. airports. Their core mission remains similar to that of old: mitigate the risks to residents of the United States posed by infectious diseases of public health significance originating abroad.”

A jurisdictional map of CDC quarantine stations is available online, complete with informational PDFs ready for download.

[Image: Map of the CDC’s U.S. quarantine stations].

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Dr. Benjamin about the APHA’s policy recommendations for pandemic flu quarantine, about the role of eminent domain in the medically-motivated seizure of private property, and about the architectural challenge of designing dual-use facilities for public emergencies.

• • •

Edible Geography: I was interested to read the American Public Health Association’s flu policy recommendations from 2007—in particular, to see the APHA’s emphasis on mental health support for people held in quarantine. What led to that being included in your official guidelines?

Dr. Georges Benjamin: If people are going to be confined for some time within a facility, then you want to make sure that you’re identifying those people who are already being treated for mental health issues. You want to make sure they’re getting their therapy and their medications, and you want to deal with any issue that might occur when someone has to stay alone under that level of stress.

Remember that someone who is quarantined is different from someone who is isolated. Quarantined people aren’t sick; they’re people who may get sick. They’re people who have been exposed to a disease but who are not physically ill. In many cases of voluntary quarantine, people are being asked to stay at home by themselves, or to stay self-isolated, and we need to make sure that someone is paying attention to them. We want to identify people who are not able to handle being by themselves or being in a relatively confined space—even if it’s inside their own home.

We were also concerned about making sure people have the basic needs of life: food, water, access to medical care, and access to social services. You want to make sure that you’ve addressed whatever those needs might be. All of these things were part of our package for people who might be quarantined.

BLDGBLOG: Who were the specific constituencies that called for those guidelines, and did anyone try to push you in another direction?

Dr. Benjamin: These guidelines come from our members. A lot of these discussions started way back when we were talking about smallpox, rather than pandemic influenza. We were thinking seriously about the idea of having people stay at home and be isolated, if they’re ill, or quarantined should there be a terrorist attack.

No one actually has access to smallpox now, but we were going out and vaccinating people against a potential terrorist threat, anyway. So we started having these discussions around the idea of whether or not you really needed to reinstitute large-scale—primarily voluntary—quarantine. In addition, we were talking about the risk of a pandemic.

Then, as you know, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. You had people there who, by virtue of the fact that they ended up in the Superdome, did not have all of the things they needed. Certainly a lot of that stuff had been planned for, but it hadn’t been done as robustly as it needed to have been—and, obviously, they had more people in there than they could take care of.

Our thinking, based on that experience in New Orleans, was: in an emergency situation, how do you make sure that people have what they need? And, quite frequently, the mental health needs of people are something that matters in every kind of large-scale public health emergency—whether that’s a tornado, a hurricane, the flu, or an event where large numbers of people have died. It’s one of those things that people don’t really think about ahead of time, unless you remind them to think about it.

Our recommendations don’t just apply, by the way, to the people who are confined; there are huge stresses on the people who are managing those events. The EMTs, the paramedics, and the public health personnel who are all actually managing things can be really challenged—and you have to pay attention to them, too.

[Image: Sample covers of the American Journal of Public Health; design by Kropf Design].

BLDGBLOG: The APHA has also written about who exactly should have the authority to make decisions about who goes into quarantine and why. Can you talk us through your policy on that issue?

Dr. Benjamin: First of all, we try to guide by the least restrictive policy possible—and, to the extent that someone can be voluntarily in quarantine, that’s our first principle. Voluntary quarantine and the least restrictive quarantine possible is what we think is the most important way to start.

Simply giving people the facts about a disease process and keeping them well-educated and well-informed long before you’re going to need to take any action is the best policy. We, as an association, along with our colleagues in the federal agencies, have been trying to talk to the public about what the risks are for various diseases. How do you catch a disease—and how do you not catch it? How you protect yourself? How do you protect your loved ones? Usually, armed with this information, most people will follow the basic recommendations.

However, to the extent that you have to have compulsory quarantine—because you have someone who is continuing to put people at risk—then that is imposed, in the United States, by public health authorities. They have powers, mostly at the state and local level: those powers give them the authority to incentivize people not to put others—or themselves—at risk. In some cases, they can do that by having the police authorities act; in other cases, they have to go to court first. It depends on the individual jurisdiction.

In most cases, federal authorities’ powers end at the borders of the nation and then at the borders of each state. They can deal with issues across state lines, in some cases, and, of course, at our national borders and at ports of entry; but most of these quarantine authorities rest at the state and local health officer level.

BLDGBLOG: Has any of that legislation been revised in light of SARS, H1N1, or even the anthrax attacks?

Dr. Benjamin: There has been a national effort to modernize our public health laws. A lot of them were written years and years ago.

For instance, I was a state health official in Maryland from 1995 to 1999, and I was the secretary of health in Maryland from 1999 to 2002. During that time we began a process, which we finished when I was secretary, to update and modernize our laws. We had started talking about it before 9/11, but after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks , we realized that biological terrorism was a significant risk, and we really worked to strengthen the public health laws.

To give you an example of the kinds of changes and updates we made: we worked to put in some additional patient protections. The law at that time gave the health secretary enormous police powers to hold and to quarantine individuals—but there were no rights or rules for those individuals, or regulations about what they needed to receive while they were in confinement. The assumption was, of course, that they would get reasonable support and care—but we felt it was very important to guarantee that.

So we worked with several members of our advocacy community to strengthen the authority that the health officer had, and to make the authorities that I had at the time, as secretary of health, much clearer. But, on the same token, we were writing in protections. We guaranteed people due process. We guaranteed that, if we had to forcibly confine someone, then they would get medical care, social services, and social supports that they actually need. We put that in writing.

Other states around the nation have begun doing the same thing. There have been some public health law centers set up through various foundations, and they have also been working very hard to strengthen the various laws. There was a model public health law—I think it was produced with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and several of the public health groups working with them. That law was then shared with all of the states and their elected officials, and it was used as a template through which states could look at their own laws and see how they matched up to the model.

Some states simply took the model and implemented it, exactly as it was written; some took pieces of it out; others took it and said, no, compared to the law we currently have, ours is better and we like ours. Either way, it served as a useful catalyst for people to begin looking at their own public health laws—not only in terms of the authorities that the public health officer had around isolation and quarantine, but also about reportable diseases, which diseases ought to be reported, and how, and who should do the reporting. There were also things that we added around patient protections, citizen protections, and due process. And there were sections that meant to clarify existing law, based on case law in the state, or nationally.

That work has been going on since late 2001, and it continues to this day in a variety of formats.

[Images: Hong Kong’s entire Metro Park Hotel was put under quarantine for seven days after an H1N1-positive Mexican tourist stayed there in May 2009; “psychologists were on standby,” we read. All photos courtesy of the China Post].

BLDGBLOG: In terms of these public health laws, where can quarantine occur? It was interesting during the SARS outbreak in Toronto, for instance, to see that hotel rooms were simply repurposed as temporary quarantine facilities.

Dr. Benjamin: Quarantine can occur anywhere—that’s the short answer.

Remember that quarantine is basically telling someone who has been exposed to a disease, even if they haven’t come down with that disease, to stay away from others, and to stay somewhere that we can observe them and see if they get sick. Functionally, that can occur anywhere—as long as you have the support that you need, and as long as you’re not kept somewhere where other people will be at risk. For someone who’s quarantined, a hospital is probably not a good place for them, because there are sick people in that hospital and, in any case, the hospital will usually need those beds.

Let’s say I travel to England for a business meeting, and there’s a big infectious disease outbreak. They’re not quite sure what it is, but I could theoretically have been exposed. They don’t want me to travel back home because they don’t want me on an airplane; I could expose people on that airplane. So they ask me to stay in my hotel room, and to get room service. That’s probably a perfectly reasonable request—as long as you know that, in everybody who’s had this disease, it shows up within 48-72 hours. It might be very inconvenient, but, in the interest of public health, somebody could ask me to do that. Now, there are issues around the air circulation in the hotel, and whether or not that’s appropriate—but let’s just assume that it is. From the APHA perspective, that request would be fine, particularly if you have somebody who can call and check on you a couple times a day and make sure that you’re not getting sick in the hotel room.

Now let’s say this happens at a wedding party taking place at a small hotel. For all practical purposes, if everybody at that hotel had been at the wedding, it would be reasonable to ask everybody to stay at that hotel—and, actually, they wouldn’t even have to stay in their rooms. They could be out and amongst each other, as long as they were fully informed about the symptoms that you get when you start to come down with whatever this disease process is. If those symptoms start to show, those people would then self-isolate, call public health authorities, and tell them, “I’m in my room, and I’ve got a cough and a fever, and I didn’t have that yesterday.”

If it turns out that this disease process is something mild, and we know you can take care of it there in the hotel room, then we’d probably just say, OK, isolate yourself in the hotel room. Before, you were able to get up and walk around the hotel—no big deal—but now you have to stay in your room. We’ll have the concierge send up your meals, and we’ll give you some Tylenol for your temperature. If it was something like H1N1—or some other viral illness that we knew is susceptible to antiviral agents—then we may very well give you antiviral agents, too. Of course, we’d also have the hotel doctor come up and see you. However, we would still ask you to stay in your room. That’s a voluntary isolation, now, within a quarantine facility, because you’ve been separated from everybody else.

The people who run the hotel, on the other hand, could say that they really don’t want this sick person staying in the hotel, for whatever reason. We’d then actually ask you to come out of the hotel; we’d come pick you up; and we’d take you to someplace else where people are being held and provided with medical care. At that point, you’re in isolation. It could be a hospital; it could be another facility. It could be a hotel; it could be a home. It could be anyplace where they’ve designated that as an isolation point. Again, in most cases it would be voluntary.

So it depends—these examples show that quarantine could take place anywhere, in a variety of forms.

[Images: (left) Reporter Will Weissert, quarantined in China, receives his lunch sealed in a plastic bag; (right) Weissert’s wife receives a medical check-up in the hotel room].

BLDGBLOG: Things like eminent domain and the government seizure of private property—these legal issues surely play a role in quarantine guidelines?

Dr. Benjamin: You’re right—and we’ve had long discussions about those issues.

For example, let’s say we have to isolate people due to a very severe disease process. In most cases, when people are sick enough, they need to, and are willing to, go to a hospital—but one of the challenges we’ve found is that hospitals don’t want to be known as the “X-disease hospital”: the SARS hospital, the swine flu hospital, the smallpox hospital. There’s some history there—in the United States, it began with places that became known as tuberculosis sanatoriums. If the public begins to shun a place because they’re afraid of catching a disease that has somehow been associated with that hospital, then it takes that hospital out of business—even if you only have one or two cases.

We saw this during the anthrax attacks at hospitals where somebody had been exposed, in whatever way, to anthrax. Even though we know anthrax is not a contagious disease, we had patients who were very concerned—at OBGYN services, in particular. Pregnant women just wouldn’t go to that hospital. As it turns out, we only had a very few cases of anthrax, but the press got onto this, and they publicized the fact that a person with anthrax had been at this particular hospital. Then that hospital had patients who were concerned about going there. So, of course, what we had to do was get on TV ourselves and say: “No, no, you don’t need to worry about that. It’s not contagious. That’s not how you get anthrax. You can still go there; you can still deliver your baby there.” But reassuring the public is sometimes very difficult. In many cases, it’s more about fear than anything else.

The other piece of this is that, if you have a disease outbreak that is so widespread that you have lots of sick people, then it’s unlikely that you’ll have only one hospital impacted. One of the fallacies of people worrying about their hospital being the SARS hospital, or their hospital being the smallpox hospital, or the flu hospital, is that, in most cases, those diseases are so infectious that lots of cases are already in the hospital environment. They’re in the ER, in the outpatient clinics, etc. One hospital might have an intensive care unit, and the very sick patients may end up in that unit—but the other hospitals in the area will end up taking care of the outpatients. The likelihood of only one hospital being the hospital with a particular disease process, and being stigmatized because of that, is very low.

There are exceptions, of course: let’s say you’ve got a research hospital and it has a novel therapy, and the only way to get that novel therapy is by going there—well, that hospital is going to end up with a disproportionate number of those patients. That’s one of the communication issues that hospital is going to have to manage with the public.

Now, to your question, many of the public health laws do have statutes that allow for the taking of stuff. In Maryland, for example, the state can confiscate your facility—and it’s not just your facility: it could be your pharmaceuticals; it could be your box of syringes. If the state declares an emergency, and it has the authority of the law and it goes through the proper procedures, then, yes, it can confiscate things.

But what we did in Maryland was we clarified a few things: firstly, that you would be compensated. We thought that was very important to put in. We also wanted to make sure that it requires extraordinary efforts to make it happen. In Maryland, for instance, a disaster has to be declared by the governor, and there’s a legal process that one has to go through in order to confiscate someone’s stuff.

A lot of the plans in the U.S. for where we’ll put sick people raise some interesting issues. For example, some of these plans say that if we need to expand bed-space beyond the hospitals, then we need to use schools, gymnasiums—anyplace where you have a wide-open ward. Of course, there’s a big debate going on about whether those are the best places for these folks—and the reason for that debate is that they’re not built as health facilities. You couldn’t put your sickest people there. You might be able to quarantine people there—people who are well enough to get up and wash their hands and go to the bathroom, etc.—and you might be able to put people there who are moderately ill, but you couldn’t put very sick people there. It’s simply not set up as an intensive care unit.

The other thing to remember is that, even though you’ve got a disease outbreak going through your community, you still have the other, baseline disease processes. There are still heart attacks and strokes and people with seizures and kids with fever unrelated to the flu or unrelated to the infectious disease going on. You still need beds for people at ICUs for heart attacks, and you still have to treat cancer. The management challenge is to make sure that local providers don’t set up a process, of either isolation or quarantine, that deprives them of the resources they need to maintain their ongoing health system.

Edible Geography: Where are the gaps, as you see it, in public preparations for quarantine?

Dr. Benjamin: There are a couple of things I can think of right away. There’s the public education aspect that we and our colleagues are continuing to work on—there’s always more that could be done there.

The other thing is that we need buildings and facilities that have multiple uses. When you build hospital emergency rooms, for example—and it’s been fascinating watching this shift occur—we’ve gone from a situation where people had individual rooms in the ER to open-bed concepts. But what you need is flexibility. You need facilities flexible enough to accommodate multiple purposes.

You remember I talked about a gym being utilized as a potential quarantine spot? Well, some of the issues that get in the way of that are that there are not enough electrical outlets. You can’t bring up walls to partition the place in a way that easily allows you to isolate one group and quarantine another. There also isn’t the plumbing, and there probably aren’t enough bathrooms. You’ve put a lot of people together who may have a disease—and now you have a problem, because not everybody can wash their hands. We’re all using hand sanitizers today, and they’re wonderful, and they work; but, frankly, good old soap and hot water is the best thing to use.

Then again, most elementary schools were designed for little people, and now you’re about to put a bunch of adults in there; they might not have as many soap dispensers as you need, or the bathrooms are too large, or the toilets are too low, or there aren’t enough sinks. Or, again, maybe the sinks aren’t in the right place: they’re not by the bedside where infection-control needs to occur.

Building an environment that thinks about these other potential uses is extremely important, for places like hotels or gyms or the other big spaces that might be used to hold a bunch of people. And, by the way, quarantine is only one need for those things: as part of our overall public health preparedness, we have to look at putting people up because of a hurricane, or floods, or a tornado, or a big infectious outbreak.

The single-center principle means that a place needs to be flexible enough for large numbers of people, and in which you can have adequate infection-control, adequate toilet facilities, and adequate food facilities so that everyone can eat.

If we build places that do those kinds of things, then they’ll meet all the needs for isolation, all the needs for quarantine, and all the needs for housing people in an emergency.

[Images: Shuhei Endo’s “tennis dome/emergency center” (left), photographed by Kenichi Amano, next to the New Orleans Superdome, post-Katrina].

BLDGBLOG: That actually reminds me of some stadiums in Japan that were built both as sports stadiums and as earthquake-disaster centers. There’s food and water stockpiled in the basement, the entryways are sized for emergency vehicles, and so on. How would you recommend this sort of architectural adaptation, on a policy level?

Dr. Benjamin: We wouldn’t have much trouble convincing the presidents of universities today, who are already challenged with a disease process big enough to affect the whole student body. In the United States right now, with H1N1, the number of sick kids is big enough that they’re having to manage those kids on campus. For a disease process in which people are going to be sick for five or seven days, it’s unrealistic to send them home once they’ve shown up on campus. Colleges are having to deal with accommodating them right now. You can bet that, at least on college campuses in the United States, they would be very sensitive to this idea of dual-use facilities, because there’s an operational need for it.

The second thing is, if I was trying to do this, I would be working directly with architects and engineers, convincing them of the need to do it and then letting them sell it. They can say how best to do this, in a way that does not obstruct the primary purpose of the facility. We don’t want to interrupt anyone’s football games, but at the moment, everyone says, yes, we can put people here but it’s only going to happen once or twice in my lifetime, when the truth is that, if you design it that way, then you could use it much more frequently for that purpose. You could get dual-use out of it. Getting the people who design these places to tell us how to do it, in an appropriate and cost-efficient manner, and then having them make the case to the owners and users, so that they know that this is value added to their facility: that’s how I would get this message across.

Then I would talk to elected city and state officials about ways they could leverage tax-payer dollars to get these dual-use facilities built. Let’s say I’m in city government and I have someone coming up to me wanting the city to put up tax-payer dollars to support the building of a football stadium or a basketball stadium or a new school. If I get this additional bonus—this dual-use that helps my emergency-preparedness—I’m more likely to want to use taxpayer dollars to support it. Increasingly, as you know, private sector guys are coming to the government and asking for fiscal support to build these facilities. If tax-payers are going to be paying for things, then the city or the community needs to get something out of it.

I can tell you that a lot of work had to be done to fix and clean the New Orleans Superdome—but if you had built it so that it could be much more functional in an emergency situation then you would have had less damage. And from an image perspective, a dual-use sports facility now has much more of a public value.

That’s my personal view, not the Association’s view; but I think it’s an effective argument.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond

[Image: A mobile biosafety containment apparatus in a simulated medivac exercise, via the CDC].

Jonathan Richmond is director of Jonathan Richmond and Associates, Inc., a private biosafety consulting firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. He founded the company after nearly 35 years with the Centers for Disease Control.

The firm has a particular expertise in “facility design” for biosecure environments, with a strong emphasis on international biosafety education efforts. Richmond has worked on projects with NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization Biosafety Program, to name a few, and he has participated in supervisory visits to the remote bioweapons labs of the former Soviet Union.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Richmond about his firm’s work, about the technical specifics of biosafety, about the difference between biosecurity and quarantine, and about his own professional history.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First of all, what exactly is biosafety? How is the term most commonly defined?

Jonathan Richmond: Biosafety is focused on issues related to microorganisms that cause diseases of humans or animals—and, if not the microorganisms themselves, the toxins that those organisms might produce. Achieving biosafety relies on a combination of the facility in which you’re going to work—that is, the engineering controls; the personal protective equipment that you’re able to wear; the medical surveillance programs that you’re involved with; whether you can be immunized against the disease agent, and so on—and then the practices and the procedures that you follow while you’re doing the work. The latter, ultimately, is perhaps the most important and most critical thing.

BLDGBLOG: Can you explain the difference between quarantine and biosafety?

Richmond: Quarantine is typically defined, or set up, when you have somebody who is already ill and you want to keep them from spreading their disease to other people. Our containment recommendations usually involve a range of biosafety practices, including quarantine. Some examples of that, of course, are all of the plans right now for the H1N1 swine flu. If you look at any of the websites that are talking about the precautions or procedures in college settings, for example, one of the things they emphasize is hand-washing—which is a practice or procedure that you can do to prevent the spread of a bug—but most go on to suggest that, if you are ill, then you should stay in your room. That’s a form of self-imposed quarantine.

We saw quarantine go into effect on a very large scale with the SARS virus outbreaks, primarily in SE Asia and Canada: there was an absolute need to isolate the people so that they did not spread the disease further.

Edible Geography: There seem to be different levels of biosafety. Someone staying in their dorm room is not biosecure, for instance; it’s just a form of social isolation.

Richmond: Yes, but that’s typically what one would do: keep the person isolated, either at home or, in the case of SARS, in hotel rooms, because they didn’t have appropriate isolation units in the hospitals.

It depends, I suppose, on the extent of a disease outbreak: how many people are actually infected? In a normal hospital setting, if you have only a single case, that person would be set up in what’s called an isolation area or isolation room. But as you get overwhelmed with cases, public health takes on other aspects, including trying to keep people quarantined in their own homes.

This was the standard set-up back at the turn of the last century. People would get various diseases going through the community, and public health people would go around and put a quarantine sign on your house. You were unable to have visitors; you weren’t supposed to go out. That’s basically the way things were contained.

[Images: Biosafe labs and research facilities].

BLDGBLOG: Beyond these social and behavioral safeguards, what about the actual design of biosafe spaces?

Richmond: We look at four different levels of biocontainment.

Level one is basically no containment. Level one is for working with microorganisms that aren’t known to cause human illness. This is the kind of laboratory that, for example, you might see in a high school, or in an introductory course at the college level—even a lab that’s doing E. coli studies at your local sewer plant. It’s not much of anything at all, except simple behavioral guidelines—like don’t stick things in your mouth!

Level two is for working with microorganisms that are generally circulating in the community. Those are things that may cause illness; they’re probably the childhood diseases that everyone experienced early on, or that you’ve already been vaccinated against. In these particular laboratories, there’s a lot of emphasis on such things as hand-washing, wearing gowns, and wearing gloves. The facility itself is relatively simple; it’s more like a hospital laboratory. In the scope of things, this is where 90% or more of microbiological work is done. These labs are throughout the country and around the world.

With level three laboratories you begin to see some extraordinary engineering controls. These laboratories are the ones that are designed to work with microorganisms spread by the aerosol route. Level two are for ones that are spread by contact. At level three, you would see the engineering controls that give you things like directional-inward airflow. You would be looking for special filtration on exhaust air that’s leaving the labs. People would work inside biological safety cabinets, which are designed to protect the worker, to protect the product that you’re working on, and, indeed, to protect the environment – the micro-environment of the lab or the external environment. Those are really quite sophisticated in their design and in their operation. There is where a lot of work on, for instance, tuberculosis takes place in this country. A fair number of the organisms that are being considered as potential agents for bioterrorism are worked with at level three.

Then the level four laboratories are super-containment labs. They’re called maximum containment labs. These are labs where people would ordinarily wear a positive pressure suit while working—so they would have air supplied to them. The diseases they’re working with are the ones for which we really don’t have any vaccines and that, for the most part, we really don’t have any method to cure you if you get ill. These are the really dangerous pathogens—things like Ebola viruses, Marburg viruses, smallpox, etc.. At level four, you have bladder gaskets around the doors and you take chemical showers when you come out so that your suit gets decontaminated—and then you take that off, and you take a regular shower (which you generally would do at level three, also).

A lot of attention is also paid to the liquids at level three and four—collecting these and decontaminating them, either through chemical means or through heat treatment. Anything that comes out of a level three or four lab has to be decontaminated. Small objects—things like the used clothing, small animal carcasses, and used laboratory equipment—would be run through steam autoclaves. That will sterilize things. But the large volumes of liquid effluent that you might get, say, from showers, would be collected in a very large tank, typically directly underneath the laboratory, and then heat treated or chemically treated with chlorine. Heat treatment means that you take it up to very high temperatures for certain designated periods of time before you can then cool it down and release it into a sanitary sewer.

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to hear about two or three specific projects that you’ve worked on in the past. How did those projects foreground questions of biosafety or quarantine in an interesting or perhaps unexpected way?

Richmond: I used to work at CDC, and CDC is the only place in the United States—indeed, it’s one of only two places in the world—where you can work with smallpox virus. Smallpox was eradicated back in the 1970s and, at that time, a lot of work was done to make sure that any smallpox still held in laboratories was either destroyed or sent to CDC.

But the other laboratory where smallpox can be worked on is at an institute called Vector, out in Russia. It’s in Siberia. I had an opportunity to visit that particular laboratory a number of years ago, to see how our Russian colleagues had their containment system set up. This was so we would could compare it to how we have things set up in the U.S.

I was one of the very few Americans who were ever allowed inside that containment facility; it was an honor to go there and it was extraordinarily interesting.

[Images: From artist Luke Jerram’s extraordinary Glass Microbiology project].

Edible Geography: What differences did you notice in their set-up?

Richmond: The Vector labs, like so many things in Russia, are built on a much larger scale than in the U.S. Buildings seem to be bigger there, and the general way they do things—things are just bigger.

At the time I was there—and this would have been in the mid to late 90s—the control systems for things like airflow, which is so critical in these labs, was basically handled on a laptop computer in the U.S. Over there, however, it was all controlled by this big bank of flashing lights, and they had two or three people who simply sat there all day long and watched the flashing lights, making sure that they continued flashing. Their technology was not as far advanced.

Also, the suits they wore were of a slightly different design—but they accomplished the same thing. I actually thought it was a pretty good suit.

I’ve also had a chance, in the past, to work with NASA, as they began to think about sending people to Mars. If you remember, back when we sent people to the Moon, there was a concern that the astronauts might bring something back from outer space. Although they built some pretty robust facilities for it, the way they handled it was not quite the way we would do it today. In fact, I had a chance to visit the NASA facility where all of the moon rocks are stored. I was able to get inside the laboratory and fiddle around with some moon rocks.

But the work for the future was looking at new issues. It started with a straightforward question: what happens if we bring samples back from Mars? In that case, there was a dual concern. On the one hand, if the samples that came back happened to have an infectious agent in them, then we wanted to make sure we could protect the workers—and that’s pretty much the same way you would protect the workers in a level four facility.

But the other thing that NASA wanted to be very sure of was that we did not contaminate the samples with normal earth microorganisms. Because then you could say: oh, look, we found life on Mars! When, in reality, it was something that had been introduced once the sample got back.

So we got to talk about design concepts where you would have the same biosafety technology that we have here, such as negative air pressure, to prevent any organisms from escaping the facility. On the other hand, we would normally use positive air pressure to keep bugs out of a system, say, in a facility where you’re developing of vaccines or drugs. So we had to come up with a dual system that would allow for both positive and negative air pressure at the same time.

[Image: The returning Apollo astronauts relax inside their Airstream trailer/quarantine station, and their highly regulated route back from the moon].

Edible Geography: How did you manage that?

Richmond: The concept designs that we developed used cabinets. Biological safety cabinets come in three basic formats: class one, two, and three. The class three cabinets are hermetically sealed devices; your arms go into the cabinet in these big gloves that are sealed to the cabinet itself. What the designers came up with was that, since the cabinet is normally operated under negative pressure, they put a second layer around the cabinet, and that would be under positive air pressure. You could do it other ways, obviously, but that was the one we came up with.

This design challenge then got extended by a project that we worked on through the National Academy of Sciences. They were thinking ahead to the point where the question became: How would we protect the astronauts if they went to Mars? How could we set up a laboratory there? That was very interesting, to learn about the geology and the geography of Mars, and to learn about some of the issues that we would have to deal with there.

For example, one of the biggest problems is the dust that just covers the surface of Mars. Regolith, they call it. If you’re running any kind of air-filtration system, it would very quickly clog if you had a dust storm going on.

Finally, I also had the opportunity to build a level three biocontainment laboratory in Africa—and that posed some very interesting questions. For the most part, in these developing countries, you don’t have all the things that we might expect to have, like running water or a reliable source of electricity. So the question there was: How do you design around those limitations?

Edible Geography: When you were working with NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, did concerns with quarantine also run the other way—in other words, quarantining materials from earth that we send to Mars, so as not to contaminate Mars?

Richmond: Yes. In fact, there’s a very interesting position in NASA; it’s called the Planetary Protection Officer. The person I met at the time who was Planetary Protection Officer was probably a combination of an engineer and a biologist—I don’t know what specific background he had. But that person oversees, and provides certain controls on, what is sent out from earth and what is returned to earth.

There are different criteria for this. For example, if a rocket is just going to go out, and there’s no intent for it to land anywhere—if it’s just going to send back information—then there’s less concern for what’s called “forward contamination.” But if we were to land that rocket on Mars, on an asteroid, or anywhere else, then there are things that we need to set up in order to sterilize a spacecraft before it can go.

Then, if it comes back, there are even more concerns. We spent a lot of time talking about how we could bring a rocket back from Mars. For instance, could it land on earth? Would they have to eject a capsule and parachute it down into the desert somewhere? How exactly could we do this? There was a lot of thought given to that.

The whole issue of quarantining samples, and bringing them back, also came up when the European Space Program wanted very much to be part of any Mars sample-return mission. In that case, if we can safely transport a sample from a containment lab somewhere in the U.S. to another lab in Europe, then could we also transport a subset of that sample to another country—say, to England—so that they could work on it over there?

We actually have developed some very robust mechanisms for the transport of infectious materials, globally, so I think the application of those same kinds of technologies to NASA sample-return missions would help assure us that we aren’t contaminating something that we’re shipping—or it wouldn’t break open and contaminate the world. The Andromeda Strain, you know.

BLDGBLOG: Is there a regulatory body that determines international standards of astronomical quarantine? For instance, what if China were to bring back a sample from Mars, but scientists in the U.S. thought it should be quarantined? How would this be regulated or enforced?

Richmond: Whether there’s such an agency or not, I don’t know. But I’ve been doing a lot of work in China recently, and in southeast Asia, and they are very concerned about biocontainment. They have pretty much adopted the same standards that we have in the U.S. The CDC’s book on biocontainment has actually been translated into at least seven languages, and it has pretty much become the accepted standard around the world.

So I think if you started to play around with something that you were bringing back from outer space… It’s such a small community of people, and they all have the same concerns. I am not terribly worried about the possibility of disagreement there.

[Image: Biosafety cabinet and suited worker].

BLDGBLOG: I’m very interested in your own career trajectory, and in the nature of the private company that you’ve founded. Could you talk about the market niche—private biosafety consulting—that you stepped into with this?

Richmond: It was a pretty logical next step, when I left CDC after about 35 years of biosafety work, because I just have a wealth of knowledge and I didn’t want to let it all disappear. I’ve done a lot of publishing, and I’ve got a lot of stuff out there; but there’s a lot more to it that just comes from experience.

So we set up a very small company just to provide these services—either working with architects and engineers in the design phase, or even in the commissioning phases, or auditing the labs once their built, to make sure that they’re actually functioning the way they were intended.

We also do a lot of teaching for the people who work in the labs, and for the people who support the labs, to make sure that they understand how to work safely. It’s been very interesting to be out and about.

When I was at CDC, I also had lots of international travel experience. That means I’ve been able to work with ministers of health in different countries, or to work with them through different agencies.

Shortly after I retired, I spent three months at the World Health Organization working with them on developing their biosafety program. I was there about two weeks—maybe three weeks—when they said, listen, we have a SARS laboratory-acquired infection in China. We want you to go and investigate it. That was really neat, to be on the ground, doing that kind of work.

Edible Geography: So in that case, you were investigating a biosafety failure?

Richmond: Yes—we were looking to understand how it occurred. Was there one thing—or two things, or six things, or a convergence of things—that allowed for this to happen?

That’s actually something that we often do in the field. Every institution that has experienced a laboratory-acquired infection spends a lot of time trying to determine what went wrong so that we can spread the word. Was it a failure of equipment? Was it a failure of procedure? What exactly happened?

This, incidentally, is the model that was established by Arnold Wedum, who is considered to be the father of biosafety. Back in the 1940s, Wedum was a physician at Fort Detrick, Maryland; at that time they were studying offensive biological warfare. He had a small team of people and, any time something went wrong, they would spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened. What was it that allowed for an agent to escape from the tube or from the centrifuge? That work continues today, following the same guidance document, in order to figure out what’s going on.

Edible Geography: How did you first get started in this field?

Richmond: Years and years ago, when I first started, I was at a place called the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. That’s located just off the tip of Long Island. We did a lot of what if? scenarios there—not just about Plum Island itself. For example, we were once talking about foot-and-mouth virus: how do you contain it? And how do you eradicate it?

It was an incident like that that got me out of the lab as a full-time virology researcher and into the field of biological safety. We had a breach of the containment at Plum Island back in the 1970s, and the director came to me and he said, “Richmond, we need a biosafety officer—would you like to be that?” And I said, “What’s that?” [laughs] Because the term biosafety officer really had not been coined until 1976 or thereabouts, at the Asilomar Conference in California, where the first recombinant DNA research was presented as scientific fact. The scientists there got quite concerned—almost frightened, I suppose—not knowing what this research was going to be lead to. They called for a moratorium on this type of work until the director of the National Institutes of Health could assure them that it was safe. It took about a year of research at NIH before they came up with the guidance document about biosafety levels.

But, in this document, it said that if you’re going to do this type of work then you need to have a biosafety officer. That’s how we got things started.

[Image: The H5N1 “bird flu” virus].

BLDGBLOG: As far as your current work goes, who, for the most part, is your clientele? In other words, are you working mostly for private firms or for state-affiliated clients?

Richmond: It’s some of everything. We’ve done a lot of work in Brazil. Brazil has built a very robust biosafety program over the last dozen years. I’ve done perhaps 20% of my work in southeast Asia—a lot of work in Singapore and China. In Singapore it’s all quasi-governmental, because of the nature of their dictatorship. And in China—who knows what it is. [laughter] But most of the work I’ve done there has been with CDC China—the equivalent of the CDC in Atlanta.

I also work with private industry—companies that say, hey, we’re doing this kind of work and we need someone from the outside to come by and take a look, to make sure we’re meeting the standards. Back in 1996, a program started at CDC that, by its very nature, fell into my lap. That was to look at what has been called the “Select Agent Program,” which is a bunch of microorganisms that have the potential for being used in biowarfare. Laboratories that are working with these agents have to be registered with the CDC or with the Department of Agriculture—or with both, depending upon the agent. In order to get that registration, or to keep that registration, they have to be inspected by CDC or USDA roughly once every three years. There’s a growing concern that some of these labs are not going to pass the inspection. So they contact me to do a pre-CDC inspection—we just help them to clear up the things that might stand in the way of getting, or not getting, their approval. That’s the kind of work that we do.

The stuff I like to do the most, though, is teaching. Getting out there and teaching people what we call the principles of biosafety—and, how, once they’ve learned those, they can get out and start teaching them to other people in turn.

To give you an example: in the mid-90s we did a program in Brazil called a “Course for Multipliers.” We had one representative from each of the seven federal laboratories, and one from each of the twenty-three state laboratories, and we gave them all a week of training. We gave them materials—Powerpoint presentations and books, all translated into Portuguese. Over the next three years, they went on to train 4,000 more people. That’s why I say that they have taken to this big time.

We’ve also done training in China, and we’ve been working with Pakistani and Indian folks, first of all to get biosafety associations started there but also to do some training. The Pakistanis have since started a biosafety association; the Indians are planning to, but they haven’t actually done so yet.

Edible Geography: Finally, what issues, innovations, or trends for biosafety do you see looking into the future?

Richmond: That’s an interesting question. A few years ago, the United States set out to build more containment laboratories. This actually started before 9/11, as we tried to get more hospitals to have their TB work done at level three, rather than at level two. But, then, of course, after 9/11, a lot of money got pumped into the system, and there have been a whole bunch of labs built since then, both level three and level four.

However, I also think we’re going to see more international growth of the field. I have a project I’ve been working on for the last five or six years now, trying to see if we can establish a standard for biosafety professionals that would be recognized globally. The World Health Organization recognizes 196 different countries, and probably only 20 of them have what you would consider a reasonable biosafety program.

I think we’re going to see this gradually grow. Our concept of the world is shrinking all the time, in terms of how quickly we can move and how quickly agents can move around. And these little bugs don’t carry passports and they don’t honor borders, and we have to be vigilant. We have to take a look at whatever’s coming down the pike next. The avian flu and, now, the H1N1—and who knows what it will be next year. But there’s more and more international cooperation on this kind of stuff, and I think it’s wonderful.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes

[Image: A ruined dock at the Philadelphia Lazaretto; photo by David Barnes].

David Barnes is associate professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he focuses on medicine and public health. His most recent research project involves the Philadelphia Lazaretto, a 19th-century quarantine station located on an island in the Delaware River.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Barnes about the origins and history of the now-abandoned Lazaretto, including ongoing attempts to preserve the site today. In the process, our conversation covers the legal nature of Colonial-era quarantine, the cultural impact of epidemic disease, and the psychological effects of involuntary medical isolation,

[Image: The Philadelphia Lazaretto, via Wikipedia].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: How did you first get into the study of quarantine, and specifically of the Philadelphia Lazaretto?

David Barnes: The history of quarantine was actually not my idea of a burning historiographical problem. In fact, I was working on two completely different projects when I first saw the Lazaretto—but the sight of it just really stuck in my mind. I decided to read everything that had been written about the history of this place—but I soon found that essentially nothing had been written, in a city where it seems like half the buildings in Center City have two or three books written about their history. This is the oldest surviving quarantine facility in the Western hemisphere, and the seventh oldest in the world—and almost nothing has been written about its history.

BLDGBLOG: Why do you think it’s been so overlooked?

Barnes: I don’t really know. I don’t have a good answer for that, even though I’ve asked myself that question many times. It’s possible that it’s just an accident, and the right person at the right time simply hasn’t come along. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that the history of quarantine is a large, robust subfield of the history of medicine. Generally, historians have written about specific diseases or specific outbreaks; in many of those works, quarantine figures only fairly marginally.

[Image: Philadelphia’s abandoned Lazaretto as it now stands, photographed by David Barnes].

Edible Geography: Can you describe the Philadelphia Lazaretto, and tell us something of what you have found out about it?

Barnes: Sure. The first law relating to quarantine in Pennsylvania was signed by William Penn in 1700, in response to an epidemic of yellow fever in 1699 in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was founded by William Penn and his gang in 1682, of course—so yellow fever wasn’t far behind. But quarantine itself was not a systematic policy until later in the eighteenth century.

Sometime around 1743, the Pennsylvania colonial government bought an island at the mouth of the Schuylkill River, where the Schuylkill meets the Delaware near Fort Mifflin (which was also built around the same time). It was called by various names: Fishers Island and Province Island, and then later it became known as State Island. It’s just northeast of where the airport is today.

I should say that I’ve developed a little bit of a pedantic pet peeve about the word quarantine, because people use quarantine to refer to what I call isolation. Whenever there is the threat of swine flu or whatever other contagious disease, there are always various policies or proposals to isolate patients or isolate the households of patients or infected people—in other words, impose some form of voluntary or mandatory house arrest or hospitalization somewhere. To me, that’s not quarantine, that’s isolation. Quarantine, in the strict sense, refers to trying to prevent a disease from entering a community from the outside: basically, the interception and detention of vessels, vehicles, cargo, people, or whatever, for a period of time. That’s what quarantine is to me.

Anyway, in the 1740s, Fishers Island/Province Island was bought by the colonial government of Pennsylvania, and structures were built for the accommodation of vessels, passengers, cargo, and patients. Those structures are occasionally referred to as the Lazaretto, though it’s usually referred to as the Marine Hospital. Occasionally you’ll see it referred to as the Pest House, or just Province Island.

Quarantine was enforced on a sporadic basis at that location for the rest of the eighteenth century. As the city grew, the inhabited part of the city got closer and closer to the island. What was a pretty remote location in 1740 was not that far away at all from the city by the 1790s, and it was not at all hard for people in the city to have contact with people at the marine hospital. So you have friends and relatives trying to make contact with people undergoing quarantine; you have merchants trying to pick up their cargo from ships undergoing quarantine; you have people passing messages back and forth… It was just not very hard for Philadelphians to get there and to have contact with people under quarantine, even though it was against the law.

Then comes 1793. There was a devastating epidemic of yellow fever that year, the likes of which had not been seen before. The best estimate is that ten percent of the city’s population died in two months. A huge percentage of the population fled. Basically, anyone who had anywhere to go, left, including many of the doctors. It was a calamity.

By then, the United States was an independent nation, and its capital was Philadelphia. The Federal Government was sitting here, the Supreme Court, the President—they were all there in Philadelphia. They mostly hightailed it out of town, too, and the national government was brought to a standstill.

The scenes of devastation that are written about in letters and surviving testimony are absolutely heart-wrenching. It was terrifying, it was gruesome—but it was also heroic, poignant, and inspiring, because some people didn’t leave. Some people selflessly volunteered to tend to the sick, and to help keep the city going in the midst of an emergency. Dr. Benjamin Rush—a titan of American medicine—stayed, and he cared for patients from before sunrise to long after sundown. Of course, he also bled them profusely and gave them huge doses of what was, essentially, mercury—he was a controversial figure because of his treatment methods.

Others, including a community of free blacks in Philadelphia, led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, organized groups to take patients to Bush Hill, the emergency hospital that was set up in the city, and to provide clothing, food, and care for the sick people and their families. It was believed by many that black people were immune to yellow fever; the idea was that, because blacks were native to tropical climates, they were immune to tropical diseases. But, of course, that was not the case, and many blacks did die in that epidemic.

So there are stories of heroism, and stories of tremendous suffering. The reason I’m going on at length about 1793 is that I have come to believe that this experience was nationally formative. I think there was sort of a 9/11 effect, for lack of a better term, that took place after a catastrophe like that. There were many other yellow fever epidemics, in many other port cities, but 1793 in Philadelphia was, in a sense, like Ground Zero. It was something that nobody believed could happen; it was in the capital; it was just unimaginable.

The yellow fever went away with the first frost, as cooler temperatures arrived—but what is perhaps most terrifying of all was that it came back. It didn’t come back in 1794 or in 1795, but it came back especially severely in 1797, 1798, and 1799. A deep trauma, I think, was inflicted by those recurring epidemics. Clearly, quarantine at the Marine Hospital was not protecting the city against disease.

[Image: A painting of the Philadelphia Lazaretto, “probably by Frank Taylor, noted Philadelphia illustrator, ca. 1900,” Barnes notes].

BLDGBLOG: It’s interesting that the Marine Hospital was not a bio-secure facility in any modern sense; it was simply geographically isolated enough to function as a site of quarantine. Its medical usefulness was undone by urban sprawl.

Barnes: Exactly. The reason the hospital was there in the first place was because it was on the river. Ships could anchor there conveniently. Most importantly, though, it was far away from the city. It’s not as though the air on Province Island was especially healthful or clean—it was just the distance from downtown Philadelphia.

However, by the 1790s, it was clearly not working. Many people believed it was simply too easy for those undergoing quarantine to have contact with people from the city. There are countless stories of violations of the quarantine laws—people leaving ships or people coming on board the ships.

The Board of Health of Philadelphia was established in response to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. It started meeting in 1794, and it quickly determined that the city needed a better quarantine facility—one that was farther away and that had much more rigorous enforcement.

[Image: An aerial view of the Philadelphia Lazaretto, ca. 1929].

BLDGBLOG: Did that come with any constitutional issues, as to whether or not the Board of Health was violating the rights of the people it held in quarantine? How much of that sort of discourse was there at the time?

Barnes: There wasn’t much discourse about infringement of liberties, at least in the way we would see it today. However, the Board of Health was always politically controversial. There were controversies about the division of powers between the state and the city authorities, and there were always arguments about the extent of the Board of Health’s power.

Complaints by individual people who were enduring the unpleasant experience of quarantine usually did not take the form of complaints about their rights being violated. Rather, it was that they had other things to do. It’s boring; they need to be somewhere else; it’s interfering with their business; it’s interfering with their lives and it’s taking too long. Those sorts of more mundane, less philosophical complaints predominate.

On the other hand, there are constant complaints about the way that this authority was used—that the Board of Health was overdoing it, or overreaching, or interfering excessively with commerce. In fact, “interfering excessively with commerce” is the number one complaint I’ve found.

In any case, in 1799 the Board of Health chose and bought a new location on Tinicum Island, which is the site of the Lazaretto that I’m studying—the one that is still intact today. That site was roughly twelve to fourteen miles from the city proper. It was much more remote, and nobody lived nearby. The new Lazaretto they built there was a state-of-the-art facility—there was nothing like it anywhere else in North America and possibly even the world. They opened it in 1801, and it operated continuously until 1895.

Edible Geography: What does “state-of-the-art” mean for a Lazaretto at that time? What design rubric or template were they using?

Barnes: That’s a really good question. One of the main things was its size. It’s a ten-acre site, and the main building is huge. Today, it still looks like a very large, very stately building. It’s even, I would say, beautiful.

In terms of outbuildings, there was a separate two-story house for the Lazaretto physician, and another separate two-story home for the Quarantine Master. There were bargemen’s quarters and a watch-house right on the edge of the river. There was a United States Customs Facility right next door with a large warehouse for the storage of cargo undergoing quarantine. There were also smaller outbuildings like a kitchen and a barn, or carriage house.

Interestingly, the main gate to the Lazaretto site still survives—it’s a gorgeous, ornate, wrought-iron gate that’s a little bit overgrown with vines now. That was where all transactions with the outside world took place. You had to get written permission from the Board of Health before approaching the gate of the Lazaretto. In other words, all relatives and friends visiting those who were undergoing quarantine, or visiting those who lived and worked at the Lazaretto, had to get permission simply to approach the gate.

Then there was another hospital that was sometimes called the Dutch hospital, or the smallpox hospital. It was a fairly decent-sized, two-story building, built in 1804-5 on the northwestern corner of the property. It does not survive today.

Basically, it was a very expansive facility. It had the ability to house a large number of patients and to provide for the daily needs of the crew and passengers undergoing quarantine. I certainly don’t think it operated any differently, medically-speaking, from other hospitals or quarantine hospitals of the time. It was fairly well-staffed with full-time employees, at least during the quarantine season. The quarantine season varied. For most of the nineteenth century, the season was, by law, June 1st to October 1st—but the Board of Health could declare an early start or a late finish to quarantine. In really bad years, where there were lots of epidemics, or reports of epidemics, in various geographic regions, the quarantine season could last all year.

I think it’s really the size and extent—the staffing and capacity—of the Lazaretto that made it state-of-the-art at the time.

[Image: Photo by David Barnes].

BLDGBLOG: How exactly would one preserve the Lazaretto today—would you be preserving only the buildings themselves, or could you somehow preserve, even recreate, the experience of quarantine? Further, at what stage of its life would the Lazaretto be most usefully preserved—as it was built in 1801, or as it was closed down in 1895?

Barnes: All excellent questions. I’ll take your last one first.

The site did change over time, but it didn’t change all that much. The grounds certainly changed—gardens and ornamental hedges were planted. The most detailed surviving description of the site that I’ve been able to find is from a newspaper article in 1879. It’s a very, very detailed description of the buildings and grounds. We also have a gorgeous watercolor, but it’s undated; the best guess of the archivists and curators who have studied it is that it’s from the middle of the nineteenth century. That doesn’t tell us much, but you can make some educated guesses based on the way the people are dressed in it. We also do have some photographs from the 1880s and onwards.

Interestingly, the site and the buildings later went through several incarnations. It became the summer home of the Philadelphia Athletic Club—so it was a summer resort retreat for the wealthy elite of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Athletics baseball team, which are today the Oakland A’s, played at the Lazaretto. They played on the northern half of the grounds. There are even some depictions of it laid out as a baseball field. Then, beginning around 1920, it was the first seaplane base in North America—an aviation training school for seaplane pilots. That’s what it was for most of the twentieth century.

As far as preservation goes, I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent thinking about this. My own fantasy is of a great historic site and museum. The site has unparalleled historical significance. Various people have called it Philadelphia’s Ellis Island—but, in some ways, I think it’s more significant than Ellis Island. Ellis Island has tremendous historical significance because of the volume of human cargo that passed through there. The sheer number of people who passed through Ellis Island is huge, as is the number of Americans today who can trace their ancestry back through the inspection station there. But Philadelphia’s Lazaretto is a century older—as well as completely different. It was the quintessential nineteenth century institution. To me, it’s a no-brainer that this would be a destination.

Having said that, it costs money to preserve and save historic sites. It costs a lot of money to restore the buildings and the grounds, and to maintain them. And museums, with a few exceptions, are not doing all that well; they don’t generally tend to pay their own way. It’s not a no-brainer financially, by any means.

The latest proposal I’ve heard is that the outbuildings could be dedicated to historical interpretation, and the main building itself would be dedicated to commercial office space. It’s all still up in the air.

[Images: Out-buildings on the grounds of the Philadelphia Lazaretto, photographed by David Barnes].

Edible Geography: Your work suggests that quarantine is quite an overlooked dimension of everyday life in the early United States—as well as something of a forgotten chapter in the immigrant arrival experience. Why is that?

Barnes: Well, it was an unpleasant fact of life—that’s really the best way that I can put it. In one of the papers I’m writing about this, I call it “a most unloved institution.” Really, nobody liked quarantine at all. Merchants, of course, hated it—their cargo spoiled, time is money in business, and this was a huge delay, a waste of time, and an obstacle to commerce.

Everybody on board a ship couldn’t wait to get to their destination. Whether they were immigrants, as many of them were, or they were engaged in commerce—or simply visiting—everyone was desperate to arrive. They’re so close to getting there—but then they’re detained. They can write letters—but they can’t get off the ship unless they’re very sick and have to be taken to the hospital. Many refer to complete and utter boredom, and to impatience—sometimes even to fear of getting sick. After all, you’re trapped on board a filthy ship with filthy people who have been confined together for weeks at a time. They are, in a sense, imprisoned on this vessel. All they can do is write letters and complain.

The paradox for me, historically, has been: how did quarantine survive so long, even into the twentieth century, when everybody hated it so much? Crews and captains hated it, passengers hated it, and doctors denounced it. Many doctors, throughout most of the nineteenth century, said quarantine was completely worthless, and that we should be devoting our attention to cleaning up our cities instead, because it was sanitation that would prevent epidemics. Other doctors didn’t go quite so far, but they did complain that quarantine was enforced arbitrarily and needlessly aggressively.

As to the experience of quarantine itself, I have only scattered bits of testimony. One of the letters I’ve found was from a Philadelphia-based merchant in 1804; I think his name was John Reynolds. I’ve found several letters that he wrote to his mother and sister in Philadelphia from the Lazaretto, where he was undergoing quarantine.

In each letter he says, “I hope to be liberated from here in a few more days.” And in the next letter, written five days later: “I cannot wait to escape from this place of my captivity.” He’s impatient. He’s not complaining that his rights have been violated; he’s just desperate to get out of there.

In one letter to his sister, he says, “It has been so long since I’ve been on shore. It has been so long since I have been home. I am dying to see some of those Pennsylvania beauties. You must introduce me to some as soon as I arrive.” This was in a letter to his sister.

It gets lonely where you’re trapped in this sort of sardine can!

Edible Geography: On average, how long were people held there?

Barnes: There is no general rule. The length of time varied from a day to two weeks, or even more. On occasion, vessels were detained for 30 days.

What’s interesting about the enforcement of quarantine is that there were three objects of detention: the vessel, the cargo, and the people on board. They were often treated very differently. I have lots of examples of vessels detained, and their cargo allowed to go on, but the people were kept on board. I have many other examples of the people being allowed to go, but the cargo being considered very dangerous and having to be cleansed and purified, usually by means of fumigation or with some kind of disinfectant spray.

Really, though, I think at the heart of quarantine is the idea of the cleansing power of time. The passage of time alone will make certain things better. If there is something dangerous in the vessel or in the cargo, it will declare itself within a period of time—or it will simply burn itself out. It can’t last indefinitely. Further, everybody knew from experience that things were fine after the first frost, so you would never detain any vessel, cargo, or people longer than the first frost.

[Image: Painting of the Lazaretto attributed to T. Barnea (undated); 
courtesy of the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia].

BLDGBLOG: There’s an interesting point to be made here vis-à-vis long-haul travel to extremely distant destinations. If a place took long enough to get to, in an era of wind-powered ships, quarantine wasn’t often necessary; any disease on board would already have burned itself out, as you say, by the time of arrival. But when steam-powered ships came along, and, then airplanes, people could arrive before a disease cycle came to its natural end—so quarantine stations became necessary. In other words, an entire class of architectural structures comes into existence because of the lengths of certain journeys or the types of transportation involved.

Barnes: That’s fascinating. Time is crucial in quarantine—and there is always a negotiation about how long is long enough. There was a tug of war, for instance, between the Lazaretto physician, who was the leading authority on the site, and the Board of Health, whose dictates that physician was required to obey. But you also had to factor in news reports of epidemics on various Caribbean islands, and you had to factor in the testimony of the captain and crew about what the health status of their port of origin—whether there were any illnesses there, what broke out during the journey, and if anyone had died. But is the captain reliable, or is he known to be a liar? And you also had to inspect the passengers and the crew physically. All of these were factors in the quarantine decision.

Time will always be a critical element of that calculus.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.