Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford

[Image: Thermal scanners at the Seoul international airport; photo by Jung Yeon-Je for Reuters, via Time].

Alison Bashford is Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science, as well as Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney. Her work has examined the politics, culture, and spaces of quarantine at a variety scales, from immigration law and geopolitics to the design of nineteenth-century hospitals. She is the author of Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, and co-editor of both Contagion: Historical and Cultural Studies and Medicine At The Border: Disease, Globalization and Security, 1850 to the Present.

[Image: Map of Lawlor Island Quarantine Station, showing 1st and 2nd Class accommodation].

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Bashford about the ways in which quarantine can both define and blur borders, the use of vaccination scars as health passports, and quarantine’s role in enforcing social hierarchy and racial prejudice.

• • •

Edible Geography: To start with, how did you become interested in quarantine?

Alison Bashford: I got to quarantine through my early work on the concepts of purity and pollution. My first book, Purity and Pollution, was about how ideas about clean and dirty spaces and clean and dirty bodies, and the separation between them, came into being in the nineteenth century in the context of hospitals, and the discovery of germs, and so forth. After that first book, I started studying infectious disease management on a larger scale. I fairly quickly moved into looking at maps of early quarantine stations and the division of pure and polluted spaces there, as well as the various diseases that were managed that way.

My work is not always focused on Australia, but I quickly realized there was quite a particular Australian history to be sorted through here. Many diseases that have been endemic and epidemic in other parts of the world, such as cholera, never even arrived in Australia. In Australia, the quarantining of the entire continent came to be important in terms of keeping diseases out, but it was also symbolically incredibly important as part of the project of producing White Australia. I gradually realized what a rich history there was in terms of thinking about the racializing of the new nation in 1901 as, essentially, a public health project.

After that, I became very interested in island spaces as well—places where people with various diseases were quarantined in a much more permanent way. Amusingly, I live right next to the quarantine station in Manly. I’d written about quarantine for a long time—long before I lived there—and it’s just been terrific, living on the place that I was writing about for so many years.

[Images: (top) The North Head Quarantine Station, Manly, Australia; photo by Nicola Twilley. (bottom) Spa treatment at Q-Station hotel retreat, Manly, Australia].

Edible Geography: It’s interesting what they’ve done to the quarantine station at Manly, in terms of turning it into a luxury hotel. The afterlife of quarantine stations is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

Bashford: Yes, absolutely. The developer gave me a good tour around it just before it opened. It was extraordinary listening to him talk about the concept of putting a day spa on the site of the old hospital buildings, which is where the most infected were kept.

[Image: As Egypt and Sudan gained their independence from Britain, the border between the two countries was determined by drawing a straight line from the sea through Wadi Halfa, a quarantine station on the Nile (which is now an underwater archaeological site due to flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam)].

BLDGBLOG: A great deal of your work examines the political nature of quarantine and the relationship between quarantine and the border. I was particularly struck by the fact that, in some cases, the biological border has preceded the national border, as in the case of the line between Egypt and Sudan.

Bashford: A lot of historians have written about borders, but I think what’s sometimes overlooked is that this temporary line, marked by quarantine practices that maintain a disease on one side of the border and not the other, is often the earliest sign of what later becomes a national, territorial border.

This is also the case with regional borders. The boundary between the nineteenth-century Orient (as the Near East used to be called) and Europe was the place where cholera was controlled. Various quarantine practices were set up every year in and around the Mecca pilgrimage, because there was constant European anxiety that this mass movement—in a place that is just adjacent to Europe—would introduce cholera into Europe itself. So that boundary, which was not an actual territorial border but, rather, an important part of how Europe defined itself in relation to its most adjacent neighbor, the Orient, was made meaningful through very specific, very grounded, practices of inspecting people, putting them in quarantine camps, and monitoring or restricting their movement.

[Images: Routes to Mecca, and pilgrims on the Hajj (second image via Gizmowatch)].

Edible Geography: You’ve also examined the way these kind of disease borders can define cities as well.

Bashford: Yes—in Imperial Hygiene, I really explored this idea of boundaries at different scales. I structured that whole book spatially. I started with a chapter about smallpox, vaccination, and the border of the body and skin, and I looked at the way that a vaccine introduces disease into the body, in order to create immunity.

Then I moved outwards to the scale of the city. I took Sydney as a place that had certain diseased zones that were quite disordered, and analysed the way in which the establishment of the quarantine station on North Head—in Manly—was an attempt to create clean and dirty spaces within an urban environment.

Then I moved outwards again to think about the entire Australian continent—and outwards again to consider international hygiene and quarantine measures, and the way that the entire globe, due to immigration restriction acts over the twentieth century, became criss-crossed by all kinds of lines of quarantine.

Edible Geography: In that context, I was particularly interested in your paper tracing the origins of the World Health Organization—and public health as a globally regulated phenomenon—back to the International Sanitary Conferences, which were themselves convened to implement quarantine.

Bashford: The question of how to manage infectious disease is foundational for the League of Nations Health Organization, and then the World Health Organization. In fact, even the large philanthropic organizations, like the Rockefeller’s International Health Board, were attempts to prevent infectious disease, both by quarantine and also by hygiene education. In nineteenth-century Europe, the International Sanitary Conventions and Conferences were, in the first instance, about cholera, and the concern about the annual pilgrimage.

What’s intrigued me for many years are the way immigration restriction lines dovetail as quarantine lines. In spatial terms, I’m fascinated by the way this division of pure and polluted spaces can be architectural at a very small and local level, but can also come to structure the globe as a whole.

Edible Geography: Can you give an example of an encounter with one of these quarantine lines today?

Bashford: Airports are places where the demarcations of quarantine lines are very clear, and biological or biomedical terms like “Sterile Zone” still cling to the various clean and polluted zones. “Sterile Zone” doesn’t actually mean sterile zone—it indicates a zone into which only authorized people can go.

Airports still make the link between quarantine and the regulation of movement very clear. Historically, quarantine laws were the main way in which people’s movement over national borders was regulated. Almost all of the immigration acts that proliferated around the globe in the nineteenth century (which we still live with, every time we hand over our passport) were about quarantine regulations. Every immigration restriction act across the world, even now, always has a “loathsome disease” clause in it.

[Image: An Italian Health Passport, via the Disinfected Mail Study Circle].

Edible Geography: Can you talk a little more about the relationship between health passports, or pratique, and quarantine?

Bashford: What’s interesting is that all of these identity documents—passports, visas, health vaccine certificates, and so forth—only become attached to an individual relatively late in time. Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and into the twentieth century, in some cases—these documents would refer to the vessel on which you arrived into a zone, rather than to you as an individual.

For a ship arriving in Sydney Harbor, for example, there would be a certificate of freedom from disease that pertained to the entire ship, and that would be determined by the route on which the ship had come. If the ship had come to Sydney from London via what was then Ceylon, and if there was known to be an epidemic of cholera or smallpox in Ceylon, then that entire ship would be understood to be diseased and it would be put in quarantine for a certain period of time. I’m very interested in the way that, in the maritime world, the passengers and ship became one body, which could then be categorised as infected or clean, irrespective of the health or otherwise of the individuals on board.

One thing that I’ve always wanted to do more work on is the actual bodily inspection of people to determine whether they’ve got a vaccine scar, from the smallpox vaccine. It’s something that I know was practiced, particularly during an epidemic. Historically, before you had a passport or even a piece of paper that authorized your movement from one zone into another, people were not infrequently checked for a vaccination scar. You could only move from what was understood to be an infected zone into a healthy zone if you had a vaccination scar. It became a kind of bodily passport.

The other fascinating thing about quarantine is that it dreams of being non-porous, but in fact, quarantine lines are always leaky. Quarantine, like today’s passports and visas, is much more about letting some people through and keeping other people out, than enforcing a total border.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also interested in the phenomenon of proto-states testing the limits of their power through bio-political practices—that is, experimenting with how they can control and regulate individual people, and doing so in the arena of medicine. Medical power becomes a kind of stepping stone toward national sovereignty.

Bashford: Certainly, the display of a line around a country—and hence territorial sovereignty—can be put into practice very clearly through quarantine practices. That’s where we started our conversation. Immigration restrictions and quarantine practices go hand-in-hand as the two intertwined practices that determine a border as a border for modern kinds of territory. This takes place at an imaginary level.

But there is a flip side to all of this: the apparent imperative to maintain hygiene and keep out disease sets up the territorial boundaries of a nation, but it also gives that nation an almost humanitarian license to step over its own border and into the territory of another state. Patrick Zylberman and Alexandra Minna Stern wrote about this in my book, Medicine at the Border.

Alexandra Minna Stern, in particular, writing about U.S. quarantine and yellow fever, discussed the way that quarantine at Ellis Island was about inspecting migrants and excluding some people, and thus setting up a sovereignty for the United States. She then went on to show us how the very concern about yellow fever was also a way in which the United States government could offer assistance to, intervene in, and set up hygienic measures in all of the nations adjacent to the south, as a kind of a first way in. Unsurprisingly, this was followed pretty quickly, either by territorial acquisition of those places or by transnational agreements and other extensions of influence. After the Spanish-American War, in a whole lot of places like Cuba, and eventually Panama, Puerto Rico, and even Guam, the first U.S. inroads were around quarantine and infectious disease measures.

So while quarantine and infectious diseases function to set up territorial borders and national sovereignties, for powerful nations and nations with pretty good internal health structures the management of infectious disease in a place over the border is quite a common way to extend sovereignty into that territory.

[Image: Tuberculosis seen via x-ray].

Edible Geography: So quarantine contributes to both a spatial out-sourcing or in-sourcing of the border?

Bashford: Exactly. One article that I wrote about quarantine and tuberculosis is called “Where is the border?” It came out of work I was doing with colleagues in the UK about the difference between the Australian history of quarantine and the British tradition.

In Australia, quarantine took place from the physical borders of the nation outwards—the border was pushed way back to the point of origin of any intending migrant. Most people came to Australia from England, and your certificates of health had to be secured before you even got on the ship. This is completely different to the British tradition, because the UK was not, until after World War II, a country of immigration. In fact, the UK had very, very weak, and sometimes completely absent, quarantine laws.

My UK colleagues told me that, today, if you have tuberculosis and you arrive at Heathrow airport, you’re not asked to get back on the plane or to get back on the ship as you would be in Australia. Instead, your name and address are taken and you’re asked to see a doctor in your local area. You’re entirely brought within the borders of the country, and then quarantined or monitored.

These island nations have very different histories of where the border is located. Recent British governments have tried to bring in what they call the Australian model—a system where people get their health checks done at the point of departure. It seems to be much more problematic in the UK than it is for nations that have a long history of rigid quarantine rules.

[Image: The leper colony at Molokai].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, what examples come to mind in terms of places of quarantine that are particularly striking for spatial reasons?

Bashford: Molokai, Hawaii—that’s one of the original leper colonies dating back to 1865. It’s currently managed by the National Park Service, but there’s a community of people with Hansen’s Disease still living there. It’s a fascinating place. It’s an island within a very remote archipelago, and it’s also on a peninsula. It juts out sensationally underneath the world’s tallest sea cliff. The cliff separated the lepers from everybody else, even on the island, and the island itself was clearly chosen to be separate from the other islands in Hawaii. Natural geographies are being put to use here as a way to create a place of quarantine and isolation.

In addition, nineteenth-century maps of quarantine stations are fascinating for the way that they demarcate zones even within spaces of quarantine. Usually they are divided by race and class—in the nineteenth century, there is typically a specific building within the quarantine station for Chinese passengers, for example. To me, these intricate divisions of space within quarantine stations capture social divisions instantly, and almost too obviously.

• • •

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, and The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, a novel set in a voluntarily quarantined village in the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

From the book’s description:

The year is 1918. America is fighting a war on foreign soil that has divided the nation. Meanwhile, rumors of the spread of the deadliest epidemic ever are causing panic on the home front. The uninfected town of Commonwealth, Washington, votes to quarantine itself, and two young friends are asked to guard the town entrance and keep strangers out.
One day, a starving, cold—and seemingly ill—soldier comes out of the woods begging for sanctuary, and the two guards are confronted with an agonizing moral dilemma.

The Last Town on Earth was named the Best Debut Novel of 2006 by U.S.A. Today – who describe it as “an absorbing depiction of a utopian town that attempts to keep the 1918 flu epidemic at bay” – and it won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Excellence in Historical Fiction.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Mullen about his novel, about the historical research that informed it, and about the moral implications of mass quarantine.

• • •

Edible Geography: What sort of research went into writing the novel?

Thomas Mullen: The impetus for the book was an article that I read many years ago about an AIDS virologist who had studied the 1918 flu earlier in his career. It also mentioned, parenthetically, that there had been healthy towns in the Rocky Mountain states and in the Pacific Northwest that were so terrified by stories about how contagious the flu was, and how fatal it was, that they decided their best recourse for staying healthy was to block off all the roads leading into town and to post armed guards to prevent anyone from coming in. That just blew me away—it was amazing to read that this had happened—and I thought it would be a very dramatic first scene.

I was hooked by the moral dilemma of quarantine: what happens if, one day, you and your buddy are standing guard over your town and you’re presented with a lost traveler? He’s freezing, and he’s starving, and he’s begging for your aid. He needs food and shelter, or he might die. What do you do? Do you bring this person in? Do you try to be charitable, even if you know he might be carrying this awful virus that you don’t really understand? Again, it was 1918 and their understanding of the virus was certainly worse than ours is today. Or do you tell you the person: “Hey, I’m sorry, but I need to think of my friends and family and my town. I don’t know what you might be carrying, and you’re just going to have to die in the woods.”

That’s what made me want to write the book. I sat down and I read a few books about the 1918 flu—although I couldn’t find many. It had become this overshadowed chapter in history. That’s starting to change now; with the new concern about avian flu and H1N1, there’s been much more discussion of the 1918 epidemic. But, back when I started my research, it was hard to find much information.

I tried to find out about these towns that had done this—these sort of reverse-quarantines. That’s just a phrase that I invented; I don’t know if there’s a real phrase for it. Normally, quarantine is when something or someone is ill and they’re quarantined off so that they don’t spread their germs to the rest of us. But in this situation, the town that closes itself off is healthy. I called that reverse-quarantine.

I couldn’t really find anything out about these towns. In fact, when I was about three-quarters done with the rough draft, a historian named John Barry wrote what is now the definitive history of the 1918 flu, called The Great Influenza. I got that book and I read it—and it’s about 600 pages long, but he only gives about half a page to this phenomenon of Western towns that had closed themselves off. He says that it worked for some and it didn’t work for others—and that’s it.

[Image: Historical quarantine marker].

Edible Geography: Was reverse-quarantine a common phenomenon and just under-reported, or was it actually fairly rare?

Mullen: It doesn’t sound like it was very common. After all, if it only got about half-a-page in a 600-page book… It’s just something I could not find reference to very often.

They were probably small towns that were already fairly isolated, and therefore might not have left such a good paper trail for historians to write about. It must have been fairly unusual in the first place, because the flu spread very, very quickly, so usually it was too late. By the time you were thinking that maybe you should close the borders, people were already getting sick in your town—so you missed the opportunity.

Meanwhile, because our nation was at war, there was censorship of the press. Newspapers didn’t want to report bad news. People didn’t often know what was happening until it was too late. Instead, newspapers would have a little pick-me-up story about how some soldiers in a nearby army base had a bad case of the flu… but they’re feeling much better now. Meanwhile, people are looking out their windows and seeing hearses! If there had been a free press, and if the government had not been distracted by a war and had shared information about it sooner, it’s possible that more towns would have tried quarantine. But for most people, by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late.

I think the reason why the towns that did this were in the Rocky Mountains and in the Pacific Northwest was that they were inland and fairly isolated. The flu had started, most epidemiologists believe at this point, in army bases, and then it had traveled along the rail lines, from army base to army base; and from port to port—meaning cities like Philadelphia and Boston and New Orleans and San Francisco—and it gradually trickled inland. Some of the mountain states were the last to get infected – and they were the ones where, finally, the story was out. They were the ones who knew what was happening, so some of them were able to make this decision.

Ultimately, though, because I’m a novelist—I write fiction, and I can make things up—I decided, okay, maybe it’s better that I don’t know exactly what happened in these towns. Maybe that frees me up a bit. I did as much research as I could into how the epidemic worked, how the disease itself worked, and what the political environment was like at that time in America—what these characters were doing and what they were thinking about. But, as for what had actually befallen towns that tried this, I was sort of unconstrained by historical fact—which, I think, was a good thing.

BLDGBLOG: That raises the question of your own interest, as a novelist, in the idea of quarantine. What are the narrative possibilities of quarantine that drew you to it, as a plot device?

Mullen: As a novelist, you need there to be some stress, because that creates the tension between the characters. It leads them to act – sometimes in inappropriate or regrettable ways.

One of the things that I was really interested in doing with this book was studying the way in which people act differently from the way they would like to think they act, under stress. We have this idea of ourselves as good people, and we have moral guidelines that we like to believe we follow, but when we feel threatened and we feel that our family is in danger, we tend to bend some of those rules. Whether that means shooting a stranger who’s trying to come into your town, or whether that means shutting out your neighbor because you think they might have a cold – things like that.

I was interested in looking at the stresses that these people would be under. First of all, externally, they feel they’re safe in their little town—but the world around them is dangerous, with everyone being ill. Also, in those political times, there were things happening that the utopians in my little mill town didn’t agree with; they’re very anti-war and anti-capitalist. They feel at odds with the world, and they’re closing themselves off from a world that they disagree with in many ways. But when the disease does get into the town, they’re at odds with each other: some are sick, some are healthy. New stresses are introduced; they start running out of food and out of things that they need to maintain their quarantine.

[Images: The town of Jerome, Arizona, during the 1918 flu outbreak; note the face masks. Courtesy of the Jerome Historical Society, via the Sharlot Hall Museum].

Edible Geography: Much of your book is focused on the moral dilemmas associated with implementing and enforcing quarantine. What drew you to that?

Mullen: That was something that I didn’t seek out to do, but, as I was writing the story, it came naturally. You have these utopian idealists and political activists who are anti-war and pro-union, and they’re early suffragists. Some of them support the quarantine because they want to stay healthy; they want to protect their families. But some of them, because their political beliefs are so strong, realize that, hey, I have these beliefs because I want to make the world a better place. I don’t want to just make my town a better place. And what are the moral implications of turning our back on a world that is suffering? Isn’t it our obligation to do something that would improve the world? Some people feel that the best way to make a better world is to focus on yourself, and on your own community, and to hope the world will emulate it. Others—more activist—think they need to get out there. I’m interested in that conflict.

And, of course, that line is itself blurred—because they all support the quarantine initially. Even those who opposed it refused to leave. So, theoretically, everyone in the town in chapter one is cool with the idea. But, as time goes on, some people are thinking, god, I’m bored, I want to get out of here; or we learn that they’ve been secretly sneaking out to visit women or buy booze. So even the people who had initially agreed with it came to feel that it had been imposed on them. They change their minds—but it’s too late.

BLDGBLOG: In a way, you illustrate the fundamental impossibility of a total quarantine: there’s always something getting in or getting out, usually due to human weakness or error.

Mullen: I can’t remember if that’s something that I always intended—that I was going to have these people sneaking out—or if that was something that came up halfway. But it just seemed right to me. The whole dilemma of utopian politics, in general, is: can we really make the world a perfect place? I think there is enough human frailty and vice out there that something will always sabotage it.

Medically speaking, I know that quarantine can work, but, with something on the scale of a whole town, I can’t help but wonder: would it really work? It didn’t in the book because it was this slapdash affair; you’ve got randomly chosen people standing guard. But I think if it were to happen now, with a city or a state, you’d have National Guard or police or army officers standing guard, and I don’t think they would bend quite the way my characters would bend. But then you have the other problem—where it becomes a police state—and people aren’t allowed to come and go. It might work to keep the disease out, and people might thank them for that, but they might also feel like their rights were being violated. It gets really complicated.

[Image: A sick ward for those infected with the 1918 Spanish flu].

Edible Geography: Why do you think there has been such a historical silence about the epidemic?

Mullen: My partly cynical answer is that we Americans just don’t know our history very well!

I did a panel once with two other writers who both had novels set during World War I, and they were both British. They talked about how World War I is a big deal in the UK: how everybody knows about it; you see plaques everywhere listing the dead; and there were some towns where, in one night, the entire population of young men died, because they had this idea that men in the same town could enlist together and fight in the same regiment. This meant that you got to enlist with your friends, and you got to fight with your friends, which was great for morale—but what it also meant it that you died with your friends. There were literally towns where all the young men died on the same day, in one of those major battles.

It was a profound experience for so much of Europe, where they fought the war for years on their home soil. For America, on the other hand, we were only involved militarily for about year. We declared war earlier on, but it took a while just to get an army together, because we didn’t even have a standing army. And, of course, it wasn’t fought on our own soil. So the flu took place during the war, and the war itself is just not very well-taught or well-understood here.

But, also, in terms of why do people know about the war and not the flu, can it be that history textbooks can only handle one big subject at once? They’re writing about the war and they just didn’t think they needed to mention the flu? A disease doesn’t have the geopolitical themes that you get to play with when you’re teaching about a war or a politician or a movement; it was this horrible thing that just happened.

Also, I wonder how much of it was simply the fact that the people who lived through it just wanted to build a wall around those memories; they didn’t have our mindset, where we need to come to terms with our past and expose our scars in order to find closure. I think the survivors, to some degree, probably felt that it’s over – and it was horrible – but the last thing to do was to talk about it.

At this point, it’s enough generations away that there’s very little memory of it left – people only remember being told about it. Another horrible thing about the flu was that it killed so many adults and it left so many orphans. A lot of the survivors were very young children, who really don’t remember it for themselves.

But it was interesting to me that so many of the great literary lions in the early 20th century were people who lived through this when they were teenagers or young adults—Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Steinbeck—and none of them wrote about it. It now seems like of course you would write about this.

• • •

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, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

Saddam’s Palaces: An Interview with Richard Mosse

[Image: Ruined swimming pool at Uday’s Palace, Jebel Makhoul, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

Photographer Richard Mosse first appeared on BLDGBLOG last year with his unforgettable visual tour through the air disaster simulations of the international transportation industry.

He and I have since kept in touch—so, when Mosse returned from a trip to Iraq this spring, he emailed again with an unexpectedly intense new body of work. These extraordinary images—published here for the first time—show the imperial palaces of Saddam Hussein converted into temporary housing for the U.S military.

Vast, self-indulgent halls of columned marble and extravagant chandeliers, surrounded by pools, walls, moats, and, beyond that, empty desert, suddenly look more like college dormitories. Weight sets, flags, partition walls, sofas, basketball hoops, and even posters of bikini’d women have been imported to fill Saddam’s spatial residuum. The effect is oddly decorative, as if someone has simply moved in for a long weekend, unpacking an assortment of mundane possessions.

The effect is like an ironic form of camouflage, making the perilously foreign seem all the more familiar and habitable—a kind of military twist on postmodern interior design.

Of course, then you notice, in the corner of the image, a stray pair of combat boots or an abandoned barbecue or a machine gun leaned up against a marble wall partially shattered by recent bomb damage—amidst the dust of collapsed ceilings and ruined tiles—and this architecture, and the people who now go to sleep there every night, suddenly takes on a whole new, tragic narrative.

Fascinated by the dozens and dozens of incredible photos Mosse emailed—only a fraction of which appear here—I asked him to describe the experience of being a photographer in Iraq.
The ensuing dialogue appears below.


• • •

BLDGBLOG: What was the basic story behind your visit to Iraq? Was it self-funded or sponsored by a gallery?

Richard Mosse: The trip was backed by a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts, which I received after graduating from Yale last summer with an MFA in photography. The Fellowship provides enough to fund two full years of traveling to make new photographs, and I applied to shoot in a range of places, including Iraq. My proposal was to make work around the idea of the accidental monument. I’m interested in the idea that history is something in a constant state of being written and rewritten—and the way that we write history is often plain to see in how we affect the world around us, in the inscriptions we make on our landscape, and in what stays and what goes.

[Image: Saddam’s heads, taken from the roof of the Republican Guard Palace, now located at Al-Salam Palace, Forward Operating Base Prosperity, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

I suppose it’s an idea that captured me while traveling through Kosovo in 2004. I saw a building by the side of the road there that lay mined and shattered in a field of flowers. It was almost entirely collapsed—except for a church cupola which lay at a pendulous angle, though otherwise perfectly intact on a pile of rubble. It was a marvelously pictorial vision of the Kosovo Albanian desire to rewrite the history books. In other words, what I saw before me was not an act of mere vandalism, but a decisive act by the Kosovo Albanian community to disavow the fact of Serb Orthodox church heritage in the region. The removal of religious architecture is a terrible crime, and it constitutes an act of ethnic cleansing (remember Kristallnacht); yet I couldn’t help but interpret this as an attempt to create a brave new Kosovo Albanian world.

I began to see architecture as something that can reveal the ways in which we alter the past in order to construct a new future, as a site in which past, present, and future come together to be reformed. And it’s not the only one: language—our words and the way we use them—are another fine barometer of these things.

But architecture is something I felt I could research and portray using the dumb eye of my camera.

[Image: JDAM bomb damage within Saddam’s Palace interior, Jebel Makhoul, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Beyond the most obvious reasons—for instance, there’s a war going on—why did you go to Iraq? Was there something in particular that you were hoping to see? 

Mosse: I had heard plenty about Saddam’s palaces. They were the focus of the International Atomic Energy Association’s tedious investigations in the years preceding the invasion, and the news was always full of delegations being turned away from this or that palace. Why were we so keen to get inside Saddam’s palaces? Because he built so many—81 in total. Surely, we thought, he must be hiding something in those palace complexes. Surely he must be building subterranean particle accelerators. And, in the end, our curiosity got the better of us.

[Image: U.S.-built partition and air-conditioning units within Al-Salam Palace, Forward Operating Base Prosperity, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

In fact, Saddam was building palaces in every city as an expression of his authority. Palace architecture in Iraq served as a constant reminder of Saddam’s immanence. A palace in your city simply fed the sense that Saddam was not just nearby—he was everywhere. Saddam was omnipresent.

I once heard a Westerner tell me that, prior to the invasion, Iraqis driving near one of Saddam’s palaces would actually avert their eyes—they would refuse to look toward the palace. It was almost as if they were prisoners in a great outdoor version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Curiously, the sentry towers along the perimeter walls of Al-Salam Palace in Baghdad face only outward; they’re screened from looking inward at the palace itself. People say it’s so the guards could not witness Saddam’s eldest son Uday’s relations with underage girls, but I rather like to think that it created a sense of the unseen authoritarian staring blankly outwards. It was like those ominous black turrets that the British army constructed over the hills of Belfast, packed with listening devices and telescopic cameras.

[Image: Outdoor gym, Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

But the idea of Iraqis averting their eyes from Saddam’s palace architecture also reminds me of something from W.G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction.

BLDGBLOG: That’s an incredible book – I still can’t forget his descriptions of tornadoes of fire whirling through bombed cities and melting asphalt.

Mosse: Sebald recounts how the German population, after the end of WWII, would ride the trains, staring into their laps or at the ceiling—anywhere but out the window at the terrible wreckage of their cities. It was as if they were somehow disavowing the war by willing it away, by refusing to perceive it.

It’s interesting, then, that, in both instances—in both Iraq and in post-war Germany—it’s the tourist, or the outsider, who observes this blindness. I suppose that’s why I like to make photographs in foreign places: only the tourist notices the really dumb things that everyone else takes for granted.

[Image: U.S. military telephone kiosks built within Birthday Palace interior, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: The way these structures have been colonized is often amusing and sometimes shocking—the telephones, desks, and instant dormitories that turn an imperial palace into what looks like a suburban office or hospital waiting room. Can you describe some of the spatial details of these soldiers’ lives that most struck you? 

Mosse: It was extraordinary how some of the palace interiors had been transformed to accommodate the soldiers. Troops scurried beneath vaulted ceilings and glittering faux-crystal chandeliers. Lofty marble columns towered over rat runs between hastily constructed chipboard cubicles. Obama’s face beamed out of televisions overlooking the freezers and microwaves of provisional canteen spaces.

Many of the palaces have already been handed back to the Iraqis—but where Americans troops do remain, they live in very cramped conditions, pissing into a hole in the ground and waiting days just to shower. Life is hard on the front line, and it seems more than a little surreal to be ticking off the days in a dictator’s pleasure dome.

[Images: American dormitories built within Saddam’s Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photos by Richard Mosse].

The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor for me was the very fact that the U.S. had chosen to occupy Saddam’s palaces in the first place. If you’re trying to convince a population that you have liberated them from a terrible dictator, why would you then sit in his throne? A savvier place to station the garrison would have been a place free from associations with Saddam, and the terror and injustices that the occupying forces were convinced they’d done away with. Instead, they made the mistake of repeating history.

This is why I’ve titled this body of work Breach. “Breach” is a military maneuver in which the walls of a fortification (or palace) are broken through. But breach also carries the sense of replacement—as in, stepping into the breach. The U.S. stepped into the breach that it had created, replacing the very thing that it sought to destroy.

There are other kinds of breach—such as a breach of faith, a breach of confidence, or the breach of a whale rising above water for air. All of these senses were important to me while working on these photographs.

[Image: Provisional office wall partitions within Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: In several of these photos, the soldiers are literally lifting tiles up from the floor as if the buildings had been left unfinished, or they’re peering through cracks in the palace walls. From what you could see, were Saddam’s palaces badly constructed or were they just heavily damaged during the war?

Mosse: Tiles simply fell from Al-Faw Palace because the cement used there had been poorly salinated. If that can happen to tiles, think what’s happening when the entire palace has been built on similarly salinated foundations! It’s just a matter of time before Al-Faw collapses in on itself.

You can already see arches cracking and walls beginning to sag.

[Image: Fallen tiles and chandeliers, Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

But I’m reluctant to include images of U.S. soldiers pointing out problems with Saddam’s architecture, because it’s fairly evident that those could be a form of propaganda—and it’s easy to forget that many of these palaces were built during times of terrible sanctions imposed by the West. It might not seem very clear why Saddam was busy building palaces in a time of sanctions, but remember how the WPA was set-up during the Great Depression? I don’t want to risk being called an apologist for Saddam, but there are many ways to read a story.

[Image: “Thank you for your service” banner, Al-Faw Palace interior, Camp Victory, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

That said, the palace is a fabulous monument to rushed construction, poor materials, and gaudy pomp. Saddam had apparently insisted that the palace be finished within two years, so many shortcuts were taken during construction. For example, the stairway banisters were made of crystallized gypsum—rather than carved marble—and where pieces didn’t quite fit together, they were just sanded down rather than replaced. Marble that was used in the palace (such as in the great spacious bathrooms) was imported from Italy, in spite of the trade embargo. And the plaster cast frescoes in the ceilings were imported from Morocco.

[Image: Stairway, Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

Al-Faw Palace later became the U.S, Army’s Command HQ, located at the heart of Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport. The palace is now teeming with generals, including General Odierno, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. It’s a great, tiered wedding-cake structure, built around an inner hall with possibly the biggest and ugliest chandelier ever made. In fact, the chandelier is not made of crystal, but from a lattice of glass and plastic.

[Image: Chandelier, Al-Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

The palace itself is then surrounded by a lake, which seems a bit like a moat—and it would be tempting to take a swim there, but the moat has been turned into a standing pool for Camp Victory’s sewage. In the summer, the place must be rather unpleasant: rank in all senses of the word, both military and sanitary. These artificial lakes surrounding the palace are also populated by the infamous “Saddam Bass.” It’s said that Saddam would feed the bodies of his political opponents to these monsters. In fact, they’re not bass at all, but a breed of asp fish. U.S. troops stationed at Camp Victory love to fish on these lakes, and a 105-pound specimen was recently caught.

[Image: Tigris Salmon caught at Camp Victory Base, measuring 5 feet 10.5 inches and weighing 105 lbs. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army].

BLDGBLOG: How was your own presence received by those soldiers? Did you present yourself as a photojournalist or as an art photographer?

Mosse: The difference between art and journalism is, for me, of paramount importance—but twenty minutes in Iraq, and the dialectic recedes. I got a vague sense that Americans working there feel a little forgotten—unappreciated by people at home—so they’re very grateful for a camera, any camera, coming through. Even a big 8″x10″ bellows camera with an Irishman in a cape. There were a lot of rather obvious photographs that I chose not to make, and occasionally someone got offended by this.

[Image: A game of basketball, Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: What was the soldiers’ opinion of these buildings? Did they ever just wander around and explore them, for instance, or was that a safety violation?

Mosse: I got the feeling that soldiers who occupied one of Saddam’s palaces were pretty interested in its original function. They seemed a lot more together, and happier with their job, compared with the troops I met on the massive, sprawling, purpose-built military bases in the Iraqi desert. Constant reminders of hierarchy and protocol were everywhere on the bigger bases—but on the more cramped and less comfortable palace bases, soldiers of different ranks seemed much closer and more capable of shooting the shit with each other, to borrow an American turn of phrase.

Though a far tougher environment, there seemed to be real job satisfaction—a sense that they were taking part in a piece of history.

[Image: Detail of U.S. soldier’s living quarters, Birthday Palace interior, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Architect Jeffrey Inaba once joked, in an interview with BLDGBLOG, that Saddam’s palaces look a bit like McMansions in the suburbs of New Jersey. He quipped that “the architecture of state power and the architecture of first world residences don’t seem that far apart. Saddam’s palaces, while they’re really supposed to be about state power, look not so different from houses in New Jersey.” They’re not intimidating, in other words; they’re just tacky. They’re kitsch. Now that you’ve actually been inside these palaces, though, what do you think of that comparison? 

Mosse: Well, I’ve never been inside a New Jersey McMansion, so I can’t pass judgment. However, “McMansion” is a term borrowed by us in Ireland, where I’m from. Ireland was hard-hit by English penal laws, from the 17th century onward. One of those laws was the Window Tax. This cruel levy was imposed as a kind of luxury tax, to take money from anyone who had it; the result was that Irish vernacular architecture became windowless. The Irish made good mileage on the half-door, for instance, a kind of door that can be closed halfway down to keep the cattle out but still let the light in.

Aside from this innovation, and from subtleties in the method of thatching, Irish architecture never fully recovered—to the point that, even today, almost everyone in my country chooses their house from a book called Plan-a-Home, which you can buy for 15 euros. And if you have extra cash to throw in, you can flick to the back of the book and choose one of the more spectacular McMansions. Those are truly Saddam-esque.

[Image: Birthday Palace, Tikrit, Iraq (2009); photo by Richard Mosse].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, the “Green Zone,” as well as many of these palaces, are notoriously insular, cut-off behind security walls from the rest of Iraq. Did you actually feel like you were in Iraq at all—or in some strange architectural world, of walls and dormitories, surrounded by homesick Americans? 

Mosse: Not all of Saddam’s palaces are as isolated from reality as those situated in the green zone (or international zone, as it’s now called). One I visited near Tikrit—Saddam’s Birthday Palace—was even right at the heart of the city. Saddam was said to visit the palace each year on his birthday.

Wherever you go on the base, you’re eminently shootable—a fantastic sniper target—and can hear the coming and going of Iraqis in the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a remarkable experience to go up to the roof with the pigeons at dusk and watch the changing light. You get a palpable impression of the great tragedy of the Iraq war, and you can see for yourself the fencing between neighborhoods, the rubbish strewn everywhere, the emptiness of the place, and you can hear the packs of dogs baying about. But you can also hear occasional shots fired in the distance, and you get the distinct feeling that you’re being watched.

I spent a very slow month in Iraq trying to reach as many of these palaces as possible. I only managed to visit six out of eighty-one palaces. It is impossibly slow going over there, working within the war machine. These palaces are currently being handed back to the Iraqis, and many of them will be repurposed, sold to private developers or demolished. If I could get the interest of a publisher, for instance, I would return to Iraq to complete the project before Saddam’s heritage, and the traces of U.S. occupation, are entirely removed.


• • •

Thanks again to Richard Mosse for the incredible opportunity to talk to him about this trip, and for allowing BLDGBLOG to publish these images for the first time.

Be sure to see the rest of Mosse’s work on his website. Hopefully the entirety of Breach will be coming soon to a book or gallery near you.

This Gaming Life: An Interview with Jim Rossignol

[Image: Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities].

Jim Rossignol is a games critic, blogger, and the author of This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, published by the University of Michigan Press. Rossignol’s book is “a wonderfully literate look at gaming cultures,” according to The New Yorker‘s John Seabrook; Chris Baker of Wired magazine says that “we need more writers like Jim Rossignol,” writers who can intelligently explore “the deeper significance of games.”
My own familiarity with Rossignol’s work came through blogging: we first crossed paths online a few years ago; I read his book; we managed to meet up at the Barbican last winter; and we soon decided to have a much longer conversation about our mutual interests and books.
The following interview is an edited transcript of that discussion, focusing on Rossignol’s book, but also covering my own interests in gaming and architecture, Rossignol’s travels to Seoul and Reykjavik for games research, the plug-in avant-gardism of Archigram and others, the psychological effect of historic preservation in the UK, and the rewards of speculative thinking in the design of both physical and virtual worlds.
I’ve often wondered, for instance, how the process of playing a game might compare to the experience of using a building, and if these must necessarily be different ways of engaging with another person’s created space. Further, if the same software packages and other digital effects can be used to design a building and a new videogame, might this imply that there are deeper structural similarities between games and architecture—or is this merely a sharing of aesthetics and tools?
Such a conversation could go in any number of directions, of course; this interview merely helps kick things off.
Rossignol and I spoke by phone.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, what was the origin of your book?
 
Jim Rossignol: This Gaming Life came out of an essay I wrote about the Korean gaming scene, which is fairly unusual for gaming cultures around the world. There was a series of circumstances in Korea that led to something quite strange in the way Koreans approach gaming—via massive social gaming through internet cafes, but particularly their E-Sports, which focus on professional players playing games like Starcraft. I went out and looked at that for PC GAMER magazine—which, at the time, was doing very progressive games journalism. So I wrote a piece on that and it was very popular, and people became interested in the cultural angle of gaming. The University of Michigan, which does a collection of technology writing each year, put that into their 2007 anthology. Afterwards, UMICH came back to me and asked if there was any similar material that I had written, and we eventually decided it would be a good idea to sit down and put together a longer work—and that’s what became This Gaming Life.
 
I actually found it very difficult initially to come up with a cogent theme for the book! It developed quite a lot along the way, particularly in its focus on three cities. The structure of the book is broken up between London, Seoul, and Reykjavik, the London part being the most autobiographical. It’s me explaining my particular angle on gaming; moving into Seoul to talk about gaming cultures worldwide, particularly the differences between the west and Korea. Then the third section is Reykjavik, which I suppose is more personal once again, because it’s expressing some ideas and angles on a particular game—EVE Online, which was developed in Reykjavik by a company called CCP. I think there are some very interesting lessons and ideas in that game model. EVE, being a massively multi-player game, is never a static, fixed thing, as games have been in the past, and I think it points to the way games are going to work more as social systems, involving both the gamers and the developers. It creates a sort of symbiotic process where the developers are developing for and reacting to the way that gamers are using and doing the game. That stuff fascinates me.
 
[Image: A scene from EVE Online, taken from Robin Burkinshaw‘s massive EVE Online Flickr set].

BLDGBLOG: Your section about Seoul almost seems to imply that there’s less of a cultural difference between the gaming cultures of London and Seoul, and more of a recreational drug difference. What I mean is that everybody goes out drinking in London—it’s a social culture built very much around alcohol—but, when you go out in Korea, it sounds more like an all-night caffeine binge. That creates a very different urban and social reality.
 
Rossignol: I may be wrong in my impression of Seoul, of course! But wandering round the city myself, I didn’t tend to stumble across many bars—whereas it’s impossible not to stumble across a bar in any British town. There’s a lot of social eating, as well, in Seoul. It’s hard to really gauge how dominant gaming is there, and how much this is a factor of caffeine consumption; but, on the surface, the gaming is very obvious. It’s well-promoted and it takes place in public.
 
I was thinking the other night, though, about what prohibition would do to England. The disabling aspect of alcohol certainly changes motor tasks—but gaming does appear in bar culture here. There’s darts and pool, and so on. And there are slot machines, which are sort of prototypical video games. Gaming itself is so ubiquitous in British culture that you perhaps don’t even notice all the aspects of it and where they appear.
 
BLDGBLOG: In that sense, you suggest, gaming pops up everywhere. There’s a lot of stigmatism around the idea that you might sit at home alone playing a computer game—or blogging—or that you might go out to an internet café and play a game with your friends, as if there’s something socially wrong with you; but if you go down to the pub for a game of pool, that’s the height of sociability. That’s the right kind of gaming. So only specific types of games are stigmatized, and only specific types of play have been rewarded.
 
Rossignol: I wonder whether there will be a massive generational shift over the next 40 years, so that electronic gaming will just be everywhere. People will be so familiar with it. Kids who are growing up now are so used to the idea of a digital interface that they will expect to find one everywhere. When I was in Vegas a few years ago, I sat at a bar and there was a little betting machine panel in the bar top—a touch-screen betting system. But I was thinking: I would have happily sat at that bar longer if it had been a touch-screen Tetris.
 
BLDGBLOG: I can easily see games being embedded in different social environments—even instead of hold music, when you call the bank, you get a short text game.
 
Rossignol: Or a sound-based game. There are apparently a number of games which are based just on sound response, for blind people—sound-structure games. There’s no reason you couldn’t play a pure audio game while you’re just holding on the phone, by responding to sound cues.
 
BLDGBLOG: Something else you mention in the book, and that has been getting more and more attention in popular media, is the idea that games aren’t just a frivolous way to waste time; they’re almost a form of job training. You can learn to be a better brain surgeon and so on. Do you think games are a kind of pedagogical device like that, or even an emerging neurological frontier?
 
Rossignol: The U.S. military did, I think, say gamers were ideal helicopter pilots, due to the spatial awareness and coordination required. But games have other roles: like that Tactical Iraqi thing—that was actually a role-playing game: you go into a village, and you have a bunch of text trees, and you explore how you should approach the situation, and how you should talk to the locals. I thought that was interesting because the immediate thought is always the helicopter fighter-pilot angle—the classic “games make you have better reactions” angle—but games as social teaching devices I think is quite interesting. Perhaps crucial, from a military angle.
 
One of the things about games journalism, though, is that it’s dominated by business, and by products and product marketing, so a lot of the writing is preview/review cycle stuff. The other end of the scale is very academic material that tends to be theory-based. But there’s not a lot of practical study of the fundamentals of gaming, which I find very interesting.
It’s also one of those areas where I almost don’t want to make too much comment, because I feel like all I really want to say is, “For God’s sake, scientists! Spend some time with the subject and really use your methodology to see how people react to games. Do that kind of deep research that’s been done on so many other subjects.” It increasingly comes up. Just the other week there was an article called “Your Brain on Games,” where researchers had used an MRI scanner to look at someone’s brain while they were gaming, and talked about the effects and so on—but that still seems like a trivial treatment of the subject.
 
I think the University of Rochester in NY is doing some research on this, and I hope they continue to. One of the things they’re looking at is, as you were saying, the effect on the brain long-term. Which is a completely new frontier for neuroscience research. What they have shown is that visual processing is increased—so that gamers are much better at figuring out what’s happening in a particularly busy visual field—and it’s a very quick change, as well. People only have to play games for a few hours to see a distinct difference. What I think is interesting about that is that we don’t yet have any real handle on what’s going to happen to an entire generation of people who have spent years and years increasing their visual processing. Will we have this sort of super-visual human whose abilities to pick things out and understand things on a visual basis are going to be massively accelerated beyond what we’ve had in the past? I can’t even really see what sort of ramifications that would have—other than that we might be short-sighted as well, from being sat looking at the screen for so long. [laughs]
 
I read in a recent story about texting—I think it was in New Scientist—that texting actually improves your general literacy. That was the headline. I think the actual content of the article was that people who were more literate were better at texting, and better at reducing words down to a shorter form. There are graphical forms finding their way into text—obviously, the smileys and emoticons—and people have started doing other ones, like an o with a slash—a little man waving hello—and stuff like that. That kind of pictorial thing—this truncation that you’re getting from text-speak—is rapid visual processing.
 
BLDGBLOG: That reminds me of something else about your book—it has no images. However, I think that actually helps to demonstrate what your book is talking about—which is that you can have a literate, intelligent, and articulate approach to gaming, and it doesn’t require pyrotechnic visuals for people to be interested.
 
Rossignol: Yeah, we quickly dismissed the idea of using pictures at all. I wanted to make it pure text, which I’m quite pleased with. Even if we’d had color plates, I think that would have distracted from the themes I was talking about. I think a lot of the material isn’t easily illustratable—you can’t really illustrate interactions or game development, or indeed a lot of the cultural or theoretical stuff I was going to talk about. Having a picture of Mario would have been redundant.
 
Something I wanted to ask you about was how being speculative seems to be rewarded in architecture writing—which is almost the opposite condition that we have with games. Critics and writers are heavily dissuaded from being speculative when talking about games, and I think this is because there’s a tendency for gamers to be backseat designers. There’s a strong tendency for people to dismiss journalists who write speculatively about games or who talk about games’ futures or the possibilities of game design the way that you do with architecture. I wonder if that’s different with architecture because there are so few backseat architects, so to speak.
 
[Image: From Pixel City by Shamus Young].

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting. I’d say that one of the ways that blogging is doing this—leading to more speculation in today’s architecture writing—is that blogging has tapped into a massive class of unprofessional writers who, nonetheless, have strong opinions about the built environment. After all, they’re surrounded by it at all times. It’s not just Harvard graduates now who have the microphone, so to speak; even some kid in the suburbs—playing videogames—can offer an opinion about architecture, and it almost definitely will not involve references to Mies van der Rohe. It will be about shopping malls, or the suburbs themselves, or the ruined cities you see in movies like Terminator Salvation. It will be about the architecture of videogame worlds.
 
In any case, I think as people start to realize that they can have an opinion about architecture, in the same way that they can have an opinion about the food they order in a restaurant, or an opinion about a book they’ve just read, then they will also realize that they can ask questions about the buildings they see all around them. You know: why am I surrounded by buildings that look like this? Or: why on earth is there a road in the middle of that children’s park downtown? Or why can’t the world look like this—or this, or this? Very soon, you start speculating about how the world could really be.
 
But I’d also say that one of the reasons this is the case—why I can speculate freely about a Rem Koolhaas building, or about the future of London in an era of rising sea levels—is that there’s almost no risk that someone is going to take my ideas and realize them in built form. No one’s going to build an alternative version of London, with 80-foot seawalls, because they read about it on BLDGBLOG! But if I outline an amazing idea for a new videogame, then there’s every chance in the world that someone might take that idea and run with it.
 
I think I even saw something like this on Warren Ellis’s blog, where he says that, if you email him, don’t mention any new ideas for future stories or comics—because, at least in my interpretation of that, if he then puts that idea into a comic strip five years later, he’s probably going to be sued. It’s unlikely, on the other hand, that Zaha Hadid will read on my blog about some great new room she should design someday—and then actually go and add that exact thing to a new museum of hers in Potsdam.

In other words, there’s quite a large barrier to entry to becoming an architect. The idea that I would actually build the next Olympic Stadium is absurd, whereas—and I don’t mean to make it sound easier than it is—I think I could presumably become a games designer much faster than I could design the next Los Angeles airport. You’re less of a competitor as an architecture critic than you would be as a video game critic.
 
Rossignol: At the last game developers conference in San Francisco, one of my colleagues said to me that perhaps what was most interesting were all the ideas that were walking around inside the heads of the developers—the ideas that they wouldn’t talk about, or stuff they kept secret because it was too good and too commercially important for their companies. It did make me wonder whether the fact that games are so commercial stunts their futurology—after all, if game developers were given free rein to be pure creatives, I think there would be a massive exchange of ideas. This kind of accelerated avalanche of development could come out of there being no limits on sharing ideas. It makes it very difficult for game designers to get the ideas they need to make games better—because they’re going to be protected, or hidden, or otherwise held back by commercial concern.
 
BLDGBLOG: In a way, though, this brings us back to EVE Online—to the idea that there is a feedback loop between the players and developers. You do seem to be able to influence the future structure of a game, and it’s precisely through playing it in a certain way or demonstrating a certain behavior. That sort of thing doesn’t happen very often in architecture—it’s way too expensive to redesign buildings every two years based on how people have actually been using the space.

Or—actually, here’s a random example. When I lived in London seven or eight years ago, I worked at Norman Foster’s office in Battersea. I’m not an architect; I was just an admin person. One day, though, my task was to go through this huge cupboard full of old VHS tapes, many of which were unlabeled. I actually had to put them into the VCR, watch them for a few minutes, take notes, and figure out what they were—then label them and stick them back in the cupboard, in an organized way, based on chronology.
 
At one point, I found a bunch of tapes that were nothing but surveillance footage taken inside Wembley Stadium. It was unlabeled, black and white footage of people milling about outside the bathrooms, near the ticket gate, and so on—and my initial thought was actually that some sort of crime must have taken place. There had been a stabbing, or a riot—and, I thought, maybe even someone here at Foster & Partners had been involved. That’s why we had the tapes. Then again, that’s how it always is with surveillance tapes: you’re always waiting for something to happen on them. All CCTV footage of road traffic, for instance, looks like CCTV footage taken right before an accident.
 
In any case, nothing happened: there was no crime. What those tapes were actually used for was a kind of spatial research project: the office had pulled a bunch of surveillance tapes from the stadium so that they could watch how people actually used the space: where they congregated, what needed to be better designed, how things really, on a social level, worked. They could then figure out how to design the next Wembley Stadium.
 
My point is that that was an example of user-research coming to influence the spatial future of a building project—but it’s very rare, I think. Most people just design buildings based on whether or not it fits into their own stylistic development, regardless of whether anyone else will like what results. They just put up a new building—and you have to adapt to it, not the other way around.
 
Having said all that, I’m wondering if you could talk about how, in the specific case of EVE Online, the players’ interaction with the game affects how that game might be developed in the future.
 
[Images: Scenes from EVE Online, taken from Robin Burkinshaw‘s EVE Online Flickr set].

Rossignol: The thing about EVE, which is distinct from other online games, is that it’s a single galaxy—a single space. Most games aren’t like that. Even massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, are broken up into “shards”—so that, if you’re playing Warcraft, you’ll be on a shard with maybe two or three thousand other people. In EVE, everyone is in the same galaxy together. It’s never been switched off or restarted, although there’s a brief downtime everyday, so there’s been this continuous etching-in of detail since the game was first launched.
 
To create the actual structure of the galaxy, they used some crystal-forming algorithms—the maths that explain how crystals grow—and then a bunch of random generation to architect the solar systems (which creates some weird anomalies in places). It’s the system that they’ve laid down on top of that, and the detail that’s gone in subsequently, that often reflects how the players started using the world itself.
 
The two best examples of this occurred quite early on. One was this phenomenon called “can mining.” It may even have been in the beta version, but certainly in the early weeks of the game, when players realized that the asteroid belts could be mined for resources, and that that was the best way of making money. That’s no longer true, but it was true when it started. The logistical problem of getting minerals back to the space station hadn’t really been considered. There was no model for it, although there were these industrial hauler ships that could take large amounts.
 
What players realized early on is that they could eject a cargo container from their ship, a container which had vastly more cargo space than a mining ship, and they developed this process where they would mine into their own cargo hold and then move the minerals over to a canister; the industrial ships would hurry back and forth over to the can to take minerals back to the space station, where they could then be used to build stuff. I don’t think that CCP initially thought that their economic system would definitely work from the ground up like that, or that they would have people wanting to put together the most basic resources in the game; but once players discovered this cargo canister loophole, mining became very important to them. Subsequently there’s a huge section of the game, and the updates that followed, just based around mining. That perhaps goes counter to the designers’ expectations, because designers come in looking at gamers wanting to shoot things, wanting to blow things up, wanting to do combat and exciting stuff like that.
 
Another, bigger, example is the alliance system. Quite early on in the game, CCP introduced the alliance management systems. They expected players to band together in alliances to fight each other, but they didn’t quite know how it was going to work. They wanted players to be able to capture space, and very early on, pretty much from day one, players banded together in these sort of feudal tribes to do that. Initially it was done purely by the players saying, “Right, anyone in this corporation or in this small group of corporations which are all friendly with each other can use this space. Anyone else that comes in, we’ll just blow them up.” CCP waited to see what tools players would need to make this work before they implemented them.
 
But this created a kind of “piled up” evolution of game structures. The Something Awful GoonSwarm war against Band of Brothers—those are the two main alliances within the game as it is now—demonstrated how CCP had laid down layer after layer of game functionality in a sort of house of cards manner. They pulled down one part of that and the system collapsed drastically. Vital defensive systems were based on the alliance tools—not in any logical way, just in a kind of design legacy way—so when a Goon Swarm defector shut down the Band Of Brothers alliance, many of their entrenched defensive systems shut down, too. It handed the keys to the fortress over to the enemy—and it was a loophole created by the evolving design of this single galaxy.
 
That kind of ongoing development is pretty much unique to EVE. It’s come about because CCP’s philosophy is essentially that the game needs to be purely about human interaction. There is non-player interaction in the game, and there are non-player ships that populate various areas—and you can go blow them up, and you can do missions against them and so on. But the crucial step for CCP has been the idea that what fuels the game is interactions by players with each other, and that interaction is either through combat or through trade.
 
The economics of it are really interesting. I’ve had people say, “I can just stay in my space station and trade, or just play on the stock market, and not really interact with any other players”—but, of course, when it’s a purely player-based in economy, when players are mining to get the minerals that produce the materials that are sold in the market, any economic interaction is still interaction with other people. That in itself is unique within EVE. There are elements of it within lots of other games—Second Life, for example—but I think EVE’s game-like structure is what makes it so interesting.
 
Although it might not always be to its advantage: I’ve recently written an article about whether this dependence on interaction could actually be the downfall of EVE, because there is always the danger that the game will run into an evolutionary dead end—that the way the players behave within the systems that these people have created simply won’t continue functioning. A lot of people are speculating now, after this recent Band of Brothers/GoonSwarm conflict, that the big game—the alliance game—will be over, because everyone will be essentially allied with each other, and there won’t be enough war to make it worth playing. This would bring the whole game grinding to a halt, because once there isn’t any war and there aren’t any losses, then there’s no reason for a massive economy to turn out spaceships to get destroyed.
 
BLDGBLOG: It’s funny, though: listening to that as an outsider, or as a non-player, it sounds a lot like the end of the Cold War, when people like Francis Fukuyama were predicting that we were now at the “end of history.” If there was no more USSR vs. the USA—if there was no more good vs. evil—then everything would come to a halt and we could all go shopping. That would be the end of history. But, as we’ve seen, all it takes is these much smaller minor conflicts, and maybe one or two ambitious groups, like an Al-Qaeda—or, for that matter, an internal economic collapse—to step on stage and kick-start the engines of history again. If part of EVE is watching for these emergent, unexpected, angular behaviors, then there’s no telling what might happen next.
 
Rossignol: Absolutely.
 
BLDGBLOG: To go back to can mining briefly: your description made me wonder whether you might ever be playing a game that requires a certain behavior to win, but that behavior has absolutely no interest for you. It’s boring. But what if that game is Chinese, say, and the winning behavior for that game is something highly valued in Chinese culture—even though it leaves you basically wondering when the shooting begins. It’s incomprehensible that someone would actually want to do this. So it’s a kind of anthropological exchange through the embedded goals of gaming.
 
Rossignol: There is an element of that. Korean MMOs are seen as what’s called “grind-heavy,” in that they tend just to be about killing 50 floating eyeballs—and then you go off and kill 200 more, and then you move on to bats, or evil horses or something. It’s deeply repetitious, and there’s very little story. Some Korean MMOs—I think RF Online and ArchLord are probably the best examples—have stumped Western audiences, who have said, “Why are they so grind-heavy? Why are they so repetitious?”
 
I think there’s just a different philosophy for Korean developers. They want to create those games because they know that the players will spend time doing that. The high-end castle sieges and stuff have been invested in very heavily, long-term, by Korean players—it comes out of what Lineage did: huge castle sieges where you’d get hundreds of people, all fighting. I wonder whether that’s born out of their different gaming culture, where all 40 people who were fighting online in the castle siege would probably have been together in the same internet café. Whereas, in the West, it’s a much more solitary, single-player experience—like what you find in World of Warcraft, where it’s much more about the solo player’s experience.
 
[Image: A scene from Love by Eskil Steenberg].

BLDGBLOG: So if the sorts of user-generated structures you were describing are unique, at least for now, to EVE Online, do you think it’s something other people might start incorporating into their own games?
 
Rossignol: It’s a tough one. I think one of the main problems—and one of the reasons I’ve written so much about EVE—is that a lot of game designers who are making these games haven’t played EVE and they don’t understand the systems. It’s that traffic of ideas thing again: I think most people just don’t get it. They don’t understand why it works. It’s much easier to copy, say, World of Warcraft, which has quite a prescribed level structure—sort of “go and kill X number of monsters for X reward in money or experience points to continue to the next level up.” Game designers understand that a lot better.
 
EVE has been such an esoteric project anyway. The EVE computer cluster is one of the world’s supercomputers, and they’ve had to build this up over time to cope with the sheer number of people who are logging into a single world. The single galaxy model is such a big deal for them. I don’t think anything other than Second Life does the same thing. Any big commercial launch that tried to do the same thing would need to aim higher for more people to try to make more money, and, right now, that’s just not happening. I think where it’s most likely to come from is, in fact, going to be someone independent, starting very small like CCP did, and then slowly building it up over time.
 
There’s one developer operating at the moment who just programs things on his own—this guy called Eskil Steenberg. He’s sort of a graphical programming savant who used to be a tools programmer, and he’s now building his own tools to make his own world. He takes some similar ideas from EVE—it’s not quite the same, but his concept is basically city-building. It has a similar ethos, in that he wants players to build a lot of the content. They’ll be creating the architecture, creating the game world by being able to interact physically with the terrain. So he’s going to procedurally generate the landscapes, and then the players will have to build cities into them and then go out on quests to find stuff in the world, and bring that back to furnish the cities that they’ve built. It has a similar reliance on player productivity to make the game function.
 
I think that realizing that players want to work and want to invest in these things, and that they will put a lot of effort in over time, is probably the lesson that EVE has given to other game designers.
 
Have you seen LittleBigPlanet on the Playstation 3? The idea behind that is essentially that players can build their own levels. There are very simple tools—it allows you to cut-and-paste a world, and to import assets such as photos and so on. They’re relying on player creativity there to create game content.
 
[Image: Plug-In City by Archigram; meanwhile, check out The BLDGBLOG Book for an interesting, and previously unpublished, interview with Archigram’s Sir Peter Cook].

BLDGBLOG: One of the things I was doing while reading your book was trying to read the word “building” wherever you wrote “game.” In other words, every time you referred to user-generated content for a game, I was trying to imagine: could you do the same thing for a building? Could a building also have a built-in quest or goal? Could you have player-generated rooms and levels?
 
What’s interesting, though, is that once you start asking those questions you’ve basically just rediscovered the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s—where you had people like Archigram proposing plug-in architecture. You know, you’d show up in London with your own room and you would just plug it into an existing anchorage point on a building core near the Thames—it’d be a kind of user-generated utopia of temporary levels and rooms. That was the Archigramian vision of the city: I could bring my building, level, or room anywhere in the world and just plug it in to everyone else’s before eventually moving on. But what if I wanted to add a floor to the Empire State Building?
 
Anyway, what would user-generated content be in architecture? The most immediate thing that comes to mind is when you do things like geo-tagging, or immersive gaming, like cellphone gaming, where you chase someone through the Louvre based on cellphone signals—things like that. It seems, though, that user-generated content for architecture only exists through the digital world: you can have a temporary Google Maps mash-up that allows you to see who else is in Trafalgar Square with you—but that’s about as deep as it gets. Compare that, for instance, to showing up in London with your own Trafalgar Square. What might be called a gamer’s approach to architecture still has unrealized structural possibilities that might even allow that sort of thing to happen.
 
Rossignol: I think that’s born of the extent that architecture is often about preservation in urban environments. Isn’t that sort of the great frustration of architecture—that you can only ever put down small layers and make small changes? There can’t be a blank canvas—unless you’re building in the middle of the desert, on billions of dollars of oil money.
 
BLDGBLOG: That’s definitely part of the imaginative allure of cities like Dubai, Shanghai, and Beijing, even after the bust. There was, and perhaps still is, a real jealousy amongst architects, in the sense that China gets to do this but “we” don’t. You know, why is all this happening in Dubai and not Berlin?
 
Rossignol: That’s always been an interesting aspect to living in the UK, particularly where I live—Bath—which has an incredibly strict architectural theme. It’s all sandstone. Even modern buildings—they’re building a huge new shopping complex in the center of town—are built with sandstone in the Georgian style. Preservation lends a weird sort of museum air to a lot of the UK. Even where I live, outside of Bath, there are no new buildings—it’s all stone cottages and so on. But it can be quite complex: I love the fact that Bath is like that, and it’s very beautiful—but I’m also such a neophile. I like to see new buildings. I find the obsession towards heritage, and sustaining this mummified England, quite terrifying.
 
I can’t think whether it was an essay or a short story by the writer Will Self, but Self wrote about England as controlled by the National Trust. The National Trust is our core heritage organization that looks after stately homes and parks and so on. Self reimagines the UK as this fascist state where brown-shirted Heritage Police—the National Trust uniform is a brown shirt—are controlling the UK and not allowing any kind of change. I think that’s a splendid satirical image, and very telling about what it’s like to live here.
 
It’s also one reason why I love modern videogames: they are really heavy on architectural fantasies. They’re probably the best place to feel out a lot of that stuff. Sim City is obviously an amazing example of that.
 
BLDGBLOG: Yeah—there’s a funny gap between what people actually enjoy and what they feel is theoretically appropriate for their output as a designer. I’m referring to architects when I say that. I think that many students today, in order to be rigorous to the legacy of Le Corbusier, or to be rigorous to algorithmic design philosophies as laid down through a rereading of Gilles Deleuze in the mid-1990s, feel like they have to produce a certain kind of design—but then they go home and play a videogame, or watch a movie, or even read a fantasy novel or whatever, and they see these vast tree-cities, or old castles on cliffs, or Japanese pagodas the size of whole planets, or derelict mining spaceships, and they actually like that kind of architecture. But it’s exactly what they do not design in the studio. Of course, part of that is the fact that the physical realization of those sorts of ideas very quickly crosses over into kitsch, into the realm of the theme park: that’s Euro Disney or Busch Gardens. Or, for that matter, it’s Dubai.
 
But I do wonder about this. At the same time that it’d be ridiculous if San Francisco was rebuilt as a mock European village, I also wonder why I think that. Is there not a way to adapt fantasy architectures to the real-world without taking on the air of a kind of Walt Disney postmodernism?
 
There seems to be a very real sense that you have to design certain things, in a certain style, in order to demonstrate your seriousness as an architect—to the point that it might actually be that you’re out of touch with what you, yourself, desire and what you would actually want to build. I often wonder: do architects really enjoy these sprawling, biomorphic, 21st-century algorithmic buildings that look like huge webs of kudzu—or would they rather, just for kicks, design Dracula’s castle? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be asked very often in architecture school.

dracula[Image: A geological rethinking of Dracula’s castle, by a designer named Audit; from a recent Environment of the Week thread on ConceptArt.org].
 
Rossignol: I’d love to see figures for trained architects going into the videogame industry. I wonder how many of them actually are building castles and cities and so on.
 
BLDGBLOG: I’d love to see that number, too.
 
However, I’d like to reverse what I just said. Instead of asking: “Why aren’t architecture students designing the real world to look like a videogame?” It might be interesting if videogames started to use what are precisely not fantasy environments. For instance, at what point might architects stop putting out $100 coffee-table books that are only bought by libraries, and instead commission someone to design a game environment that features all of their buildings? It’d be a new kind of monograph. You buy the new Grand Theft Auto—but all the buildings are designed by Richard Rogers. It seems like you’ve got incredibly imaginative and very passionate people playing those games, so why not present your buildings to that audience? It seems like a missed opportunity.
 
Rossignol: I don’t know if you’ve seen Mirror’s Edge? That’s the one game recently that really made me think: wow, that’s a studio that’s paying attention and trying to use a specific architectural theme. The game is this perfect, controlled utopia, with whole cities full of pure white concrete skyscrapers. You also have these beautiful monochrome interiors, where everything is green or everything is orange. It’s a unique visual theme.
 
I’m hoping that kind of experimentation might push designers to create something that is more wholesale environment design, rather than lifting stuff either from the real world—or just trying to do Aliens again.

[Image: The architecture of Mirror’s Edge by Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (DICE), from an article by Charlotte West published last month in Varoom. “What distances Mirror’s Edge from the murky visuals often associated with gaming is its sharper, more intricate imagery,” West suggests].

• • •

Thanks again to Jim Rossignol for taking part in the conversation!
For more, check out Rossignol’s This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities; his ongoing reviews at Rock, Paper, Shotgun are also always worth a look.
Thanks, as well, to Nicola Twilley for transcribing this interview.

Game/Space: An Interview with Daniel Dociu

[Image: Daniel Dociu. View larger! This and all images below are Guild Wars content and materials, and are trademarks and/or copyrights of ArenaNet, Inc. and/or NCsoft Corporation, and are used with permission; all rights reserved].

Seattle-based concept artist Daniel Dociu is Chief Art Director for ArenaNet, the North American wing of NCSoft, an online game developer with headquarters in Seoul. Most notably, Dociu heads up the production of game environments for Guild Wars – to which GameSpot gave 9.2 out of 10, specifically citing the game’s “gorgeous graphics” and its “richly detailed and shockingly gigantic” world.

Dociu has previously worked with Electronic Arts; he has an M.A. in industrial design; and he won both Gold and Silver medals for Concept Art at this year’s Spectrum awards

To date, BLDGBLOG has spoken with novelists, film editors, musicians, architects, photographers, historians, and urban theorists, among others, to see how architecture and the built environment have been used, understood, or completely reimagined from within those disciplines – but coverage of game design is something in which this site has fallen woefully short.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

So when I first saw Daniel Dociu’s work I decided to get in touch with him, and to ask him some questions about architecture, landscape design, and the creation of detailed online environments for games.

For instance, are there specific architects, historical eras, or urban designers who have inspired Dociu’s work? What about vice versa: could Dociu’s own beautifully rendered take on the built environment, however fantastical it might be, have something to teach today’s architecture schools? How does the game design process differ from – or perhaps resemble – that of producing “real” cities and buildings?

Of course, there are many types of games, and many types of game environments. The present interview focuses quite clearly on fantasy – and it does so not from the perspective of game play or of programming but from the visual perspective of architectural design.

After all, if Dociu’s buildings and landscapes are spaces that tens of thousands of people have experienced – far more than will ever experience whatever new home is featured in starchitects’ renderings cut and pasted from blog to blog this week – then surely they, too, should be subject to architectural discussion?

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

Further, at what point in the design process do architects themselves begin to consider action and narrative development – and would games be a viable way for them to explore the social use of their own later spaces?

What would a game environment designed by Rem Koolhaas, or Zaha Hadid, or FAT really look like – and could video games be an interesting next step for professional architectural portfolios? You want to see someone’s buildings – but you don’t look at a book, or at a PDF, or at a Flickr set of JPGs: you instead enter an entire game world, stocked only with spaces those architects have created.

Richard Rogers is hired to design Grand Theft Auto: South London.

Of course, these questions go far beyond the scope of this interview – but such a discussion would be well worth having.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

What appears below is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with Daniel Dociu about his work, and about the architecture of game design.

• • •

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: First, I’d love to hear where you look for inspiration or ideas when you sit down to work on a project. Do you look at different eras of architecture, or at specific buildings, or books, or paintings – even other video games?

Daniel Dociu: Anything but video games! [laughs] I don’t want to copy anybody else.

Architecture has always made a strong impression on me – though I can’t think of one particular style or era or architect where I would say: “This is it. This is the one and only influence that I’ll let seep into my work.” Rather, I just sort of store in my memory everything that has ever made an impression on me, and I let it simmer there and blend with everything else. Eventually some things will resurface and come back, depending on the particular assignment I’m working on.

But I look back all the way to the dawn of mankind: to ruins, and Greek architecture, and Mycenean architecture, all the way up to the architecture of the Crusades, and castles in North Africa, and the Romanesque and Gothic and Baroque and Rococo – even to neo-Classical and art deco and Bauhaus and Modernist. I mean, there are bits and pieces here and there that make a strong impression on me, and I blend them – but that’s the beauty of games. You don’t have to be stylistically pure, or even coherent. You can afford a certain eclecticism to your work. It’s a more forgiving medium. I can blend elements from the Potala Palace in Tibet with, say, La Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s cathedral. I really take a lot of liberties with whatever I can use, wherever I can find it.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: top, middle, and bottom].

BLDGBLOG: Of course, if you were an architecture student and you started to design buildings that looked like Gothic cathedrals crossed with the Bauhaus, everybody outside of architecture school might love it, but inside your studio –

Dociu: You’d be crucified! [laughs]

[Image: Daniel Dociu; larger!].

BLDGBLOG: No one would take you seriously. It’d be considered unimaginative – even kitsch.

Dociu: Absolutely. That’s probably why I chose to work in this field. There’s just so much creative freedom. I mean, sure, you do compromise and you do tailor your ideas, and the scope of your design, to the needs of the product – but, still, there’s a lot of room to push.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: top and bottom].

BLDGBLOG: So how much description are you actually given? When someone comes to you and says, “I need a mine, or a mountain, or a medieval city” – how much detail do they really give before you have to start designing?

Dociu: That’s about the amount of information I get.

Game designers lay things out according to approximate locations – this tribe goes here, this tribe goes there, we need a village here, we need an extra reason for a conflict along this line, or a natural barrier here, whether it’s a river or a mountain, or we need an artificial barrier or a bridge. That’s pretty much the level at which I prefer for them to give me input, and I take it from there. Most of my work recently has been focusing around environments and unique spaces that fulfill whatever the game play requires – providing a memorable background for that experience.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: So somebody just says, “we need a castle,” and you go design it?

Dociu: Usually I don’t put pen to paper, figuratively speaking, until I have an idea. I don’t believe in just doodling and hoping for things to happen. More often than not, I think about a sentiment or an emotion that I’m trying to capture with an environment – and then I go back in my mind through images or places that have made a strong impression on me, and I see if anything resonates. I then start doing research along those lines. Only once did I have a pretty strong formal solution – an actual design or spatial relationship, an architectural arrangement of the elements – before that emotion crystallized.

But do I want something to be awe-inspiring, daunting, unnerving? That’s what I work on first – to have that sentiment clarify itself. I don’t start just playing with shapes to see what might result. Most of my work is pretty simple, so clarity and simplicity is important to me; my ideas aren’t very sophisticated, as far as requiring complex technical solutions. They’re pretty simple. I try to achieve emotional impact through rather simple means.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: one, two, three, four, five, and six].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever find that you’ve designed something where the architecture itself sort of has its own logic – but the logic of the game calls for something else? So you have to design against your own sense of the design for the sake of game play?

Dociu: Oh, absolutely – more often than not.

To make an environment work for a game, you have to redesign your work – and I do sometimes feel bad about the missed opportunities. These may not be ideas that would necessarily make great architecture in real life, but these ideas often take a more uncompromising form – a more pure form – before you have to change them. When these environments need to be adapted to the game, they lose some of that impact.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to focus on a few specific images now, to hear what went into them – both conceptually and technically. For instance, the image I’m looking at here is called Skybridge. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Dociu: Sure. The request there was for a tribe that’s been trying to isolate itself from the conflict, and the tensions, and the political unrest of the world around it. So they find this canyon in the mountains – and I was picturing the mountains kind of like the Andes: really steep and shard-like. They pick one of these canyons and they build a structure that’s floating above the valley below – to physically remove themselves from the world. That was the premise.

I wanted a structure that looked light and airy, as if it’s trying to float, and I chose the shapes you see for their wing-like quality. Everything is very thin, supported by a rather minimalist structure of cables. It’s supposed to be the habitat for an entire tribe that chooses to detach themselves from society, as much as they can.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: You’ve designed a lot of structures in the sky, like airborne utopias – for instance, the Floating Mosque and the Floating Temple. Was there a similar concept behind those images?

Dociu: Well, yes and no. The reasons behind those examples were quite different. First, floating mosques were my attempt to deal with what is a rather obnoxious cliché in games – which is floating castles. Every game has a floating castle. You know, I really hate that!

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] So these are actually your way of dealing with a game design cliché?

Dociu: I was trying to find a somewhat elegant and satisfying solution to an uninteresting request.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: And what about Pagodas?

Dociu: The story there was that this was a city for the elite. It was built in a pool of water and it was surrounded by desert. Water is in really high demand in this world, but these guys are kind of controlling the water supply. The real estate on these rock formations is limited, though, so they were forced to build vertically and use every inch of rock to anchor their structures. So it’s about people over-building, and about clinging onto resources, and about greed.

That doesn’t touch on the game in its entirety – but that’s the story behind the image.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, what about the Petrified Tree?

Dociu: That was part of another chapter in our game. We thought that there should be some kind of cataclysm – or an event, a curse – that turns the oceans into jade and the forests into stone. We had nomads traveling the jade sea in these big contraptions, like machines.

So the petrified forest was a gigantic forest that got turned into stone, and the people who were happily inhabiting that forest had to find ways to carve dwellings into the trees: different ways of shaping the natural stone formations and giving them some kind of functionality – arches, bridges, dwellings, and so on and so forth. It was a blend of organic and manmade structures.

At that particular point in time, quite a few of my pieces were the result of my fascination with the Walled City of Kowloon. I was really sad to see that demolished, and this was kind of my desperate attempt to hold onto it! I was incorporating that sensibility into a lot of my pieces, knowing it was going to be gone for good.

[Images: Daniel Dociu; view larger: top and bottom].

• • •

Thanks again to Daniel Dociu for taking the time to have this conversation. Meanwhile, many, many more images are available on his website – and in this Flickr set.

[Image: Daniel Dociu; view larger!].

(Daniel Dociu’s work originally spotted on io9).

Comparative Planetology: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

[Image: The face of Nicholson Crater, Mars, courtesy of the ESA].

According to The New York Times Book Review, the novels of Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson “constitute one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern science fiction.” I might argue, however, that Robinson is fundamentally a landscape writer.
That is, Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but his novels are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

In his most recent trilogy – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting – we see the earth becoming radically unlike itself through climate change. Floods drown the U.S. capital; fierce winter ice storms leave suburban families powerless, in every sense of the word; and the glaciers of concrete and glass that we have mistaken for civilization begin to reveal their inner weaknesses.
The stand-alone novel Antarctica documents the cuts, bruises, and theoretical breakthroughs of environmental researchers as they hike, snowshoe, sledge, belay, and fly via helicopter over the fractured canyons and crevasses of the southern continent. They wander across “shear zones” and find rooms buried in the ice, natural caves linked together like a “shattered cathedral, made of titanic columns of driftglass.”
Meanwhile, in Robinson’s legendary Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars – the bulk of the narrative is, again, complete planetary transformation, this time on Mars. The Red Planet, colonized by scientists, is deliberately remade – or terraformed – to be climatically, hydrologically, and agriculturally suited for human life. Yet this is a different kind of human life – it, too, has been transformed: politically and psychologically.
In his recent book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson devotes an entire chapter to Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Jameson writes that “utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them.”
Across all his books, Robinson is never afraid to imagine these radical alternatives. Indeed, in the interview posted below he explains that “I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms.”

In the following interview, then, Kim Stanley Robinson talks to BLDGBLOG about climate change, from Hurricane Katrina to J.G. Ballard; about the influence of Greek island villages on his descriptions of Martian base camps; about life as a 21st century primate in the 24/7 “techno-surround”; how we must rethink utopia as we approach an age without oil; whether “sustainability” is really the proper thing to be striving for; and what a future archaeology of the space age might find.
This interview also includes previously unpublished photos by Robinson himself, taken in Greece and Antarctica.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in the possibility that literary genres might have to be redefined in light of climate change. In other words, a novel where two feet of snow falls on Los Angeles, or sand dunes creep through the suburbs of Rome, would be considered a work of science fiction, even surrealism, today; but that same book, in fifty years’ time, could very well be a work of climate realism, so to speak. So if climate change is making the world surreal, then what it means to write a “realistic” novel will have to change. As a science fiction novelist, does that affect how you approach your work?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I’ve been saying this for a number of years: that now we’re all living in a science fiction novel together, a book that we co-write. A lot of what we’re experiencing now is unsurprising because we’ve been prepped for it by science fiction. But I don’t think surrealism is the right way to put it. Surrealism is so often a matter of dreamscapes, of things becoming more than real – and, as a result, more sublime. You think, maybe, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and the way that he sees these giant catastrophes as a release from our current social set-up: catastrophe and disaster are aestheticized and looked at as a miraculous salvation from our present reality. But it wouldn’t really be like that.

I started writing about Earth’s climate change in the Mars books. I needed something to happen on Earth that was shocking enough to allow a kind of historical gap in which my Martians could realistically establish independence. I had already been working with Antarctic scientists who were talking about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and how unstable it might be – so I used that, and in Blue Mars I showed a flooded London. But after you get past the initial dislocations and disasters, what you’ve got is another landscape to be inhabited – another situation that would have its own architecture, its own problems, and its own solutions.

To a certain extent, later, in my climate change books, I was following in that mold with the flood of Washington DC. I wrote that scene before Katrina. After Katrina hit, my flood didn’t look the same. I think it has to be acknowledged that the use of catastrophe as a literary device is not actually adequate to talk about something which, in the real world, is often so much worse – and which comes down to a great deal of human suffering.

So there may have been surreal images coming out of the New Orleans flood, but that’s not really what we take away from it.

[Image: Refugees gather outside the Superdome, New Orleans, post-Katrina].

BLDGBLOG: Aestheticizing these sorts of disasters can also have the effect of making climate change sound like an adventure. In Fifty Degrees Below, for instance, you wrote: “People are already fond of the flood… It was an adventure. It got people out of their ruts.” The implication is that people might actually be excited about climate change. Is there a risk that all these reports about flooded cities and lost archipelagoes and new coastlines might actually make climate change sound like some sort of survivalist adventure?

Robinson: It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.

[Image: New Orleans under water, post-Katrina; photographer unknown].

BLDGBLOG: Mars has a long history as a kind of utopian destination – and, in that, your Mars trilogy is no exception. What is it about Mars that brings out this particular kind of speculation?

Robinson: Well, it brings up an unusual modern event that can happen in our mental landscapes, which is comparative planetology. That wasn’t really available to us before the modern era – really, until Viking.

One thing about Mars is that it’s a radically impoverished landscape. You start with nothing – the bare rock, the volatile chemicals that are needed for life, some water, and an empty landscape. That makes it a kind of gigantic metaphor, or modeling exercise, and it gives you a way to imagine the fundamentals of what we’re doing here on Earth. I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth – because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time. We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things. In some ways, there have been improvements, in terms of human support systems, but there’s still so much damage, damage that’s gone unacknowledged or ignored, even when all along we knew it was happening. People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.

[Images: Mars, courtesy of NASA].

Mars is an interesting platform where we can model these things. But I don’t know that we’ll get there for another fifty years or so – and once we do get there, I think that for many, many years, maybe many decades, it will function like Antarctica does now: it will be an interesting scientific base that teaches us things and is beautiful and charismatic, but not important in the larger scheme of human history on Earth. It’s just an interesting place to study, that we can learn things from. Actually, for many years, Mars will be even less important to us than Antarctica, because the Antarctic is at least part of our ecosphere.

But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.

Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, your lifestyle may now be carbon neutral – but was it really any good in the first place?

Robinson: Right. Especially if it’s been encoding, or essentially legitimizing, a grotesque hierarchy of social injustice of the most damaging kind. And the tendency for capitalism to want to overlook that – to wave its hands and say: well, it’s a system in which eventually everyone gets to prosper, you know, the rising tide floats all boats, blah blah – well, this is just not true.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.

[Images: (top) Michael Reynolds, architect. Turbine House, Taos, New Mexico. Photograph © Michael Reynolds, 2007. (bottom) Steve Baer, designer. House of Steve Baer, Corrales, New Mexico, 1971. Photography © Jon Naar, 1975/2007. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, from their excellent, and uncannily well-timed, exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas].

BLDGBLOG: When it actually comes to designing the future, what will permaculture look like? Where will its structures and ideas come from?

Robinson: Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought – and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms – was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design?

As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time. And I think it is.

[Image: American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels, 20 June 1979. Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

This is one of the reasons I’ve been talking about climate change, and the possibility of abrupt climate change, as potentially a good thing – in that it forces us to confront problems that we were going to sweep under the carpet for hundreds of years. Now, suddenly, these problems are in our face and we have to deal. And part of dealing is going to be design.

I don’t think people fully comprehend what a gigantic difference their infrastructure makes, or what it feels like to live in a city with public transport, like Paris, compared to one of the big autopias like southern California. The feel of existence is completely different. And of course the carbon burn is also different – and the sense that everybody’s in the same boat together. This partly accounts for the difference between urban voters and rural voters: rural voters – or out-in-the-country voters – can imagine that they’re somehow independent, and that they don’t rely on other people. Meanwhile, their entire tech is built elsewhere. It’s a fantasy, and a bad one as it leads to a false assessment of the real situation.

The Mars books were where I focused on these design questions the most. I had to describe fifteen or twenty invented towns or social structures based around their architecture. Everything from little settlements to crater towns to gigantic cities, to all sorts of individual homes in the outback – how do you occupy the outback? how do you live? – and it was a great pleasure. I think, actually, that one of the main reasons people enjoyed those Mars books was in seeing these alternative design possibilities envisioned and being able to walk around in them, imaginatively.

BLDGBLOG: Were there specific architectural examples, or specific landscapes, that you based your descriptions on?

Robinson: Sure. They had to do with things that I’d seen or read about. And, you know, reading Science News week in and week out, I was always attentive to what the latest in building materials or house design was.

Also, I seized on anything that seemed human-scale and aesthetically pleasing and good for a community. I thought of Greek villages in Crete, and also the spectacular stuff on Santorini. One of the things I learned, wandering around Greek archaeological sites – I’m very interested in archaeology – is that they clearly chose some of their town sites not just for practical concerns but also for aesthetic pleasure. They would put their towns in places where it would look good to live – where you would get a permanent sense that the town was a work of art, as well as a practical solution to economic and geographical problems. That was something I wanted to do on Mars over and over again.

[Image: Photos of Greece, inspiration for life on Mars, taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Mondragon, Spain, was also a constant reference point, and Kerala, in southern India. I was looking at cooperative, or leftist, places. Bologna, Italy. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance, in a different kind of way. Also, cities where public transport on a human scale could be kept in mind. That’s mostly northern Europe.

So those were some of the reference points that I remember – but I was also trying to think about how humans might inhabit the unusual Martian features: the cliffsides, the hidden cities that I postulated might be necessary. I was attracted to anything that had to do with circularity, because of the stupendous number of craters on Mars. The Paul Sattelmeier indoor/outdoor house, which is round and easy to build, was something I noticed in Science News as a result of this fixation.

There was a real wide net I could cast there – and it was fun. If you give yourself a whole world to play with, you don’t have to choose just one solution – you can describe any number of solutions – and I think that was politically true as well as architecturally true with my Mars books. They weren’t proposing one master solution, as in the old utopias, but showing that there are a variety of possible solutions, with different advantages and disadvantages.

[Image: A photograph of Santorini taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of archaeology, one of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was that some archaeologists are now speculating that sites like the Apollo moon landing, or the final resting spot of the Mars rovers, will someday be like Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: they’ll be excavated and studied and preserved and mapped.

Robinson: Yes, and places like Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, will be quite beautiful. They’ll work as great statuary – like megaliths. They’ll have that charismatic quality and, in their ruin, they should be quite beautiful. As you know, that was one great attraction of the Romantic era – to ruins, to the suggestion of age – and there will be something nicely contradictory about something as futuristic as space artifacts suggesting ruins and the ancient past. That’s sure to come.

The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.

So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.

Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.

[Image: Two painted views of a human future on Mars, courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: That’s the same situation as with these lakes in Antarctica buried beneath the ice: to study them, we have to drill down into them, but by drilling down into them, we might immediately introduce microbes and bacteria and even chemicals into the water – which will mean that there’s not much left for us to study.

Robinson: They’re already having that problem with Lake Vostok. The Russians have got an ice drill that’s already maybe too close to the lake, and in the sphere of influence of the trapped bacteria. And now people are calculating that the water in Lake Vostok might be very heavily pressurized, and like seltzer water, so that breaking through might cause a gusher on the surface that could last six months. The water might just fly out onto the surface – where it would freeze and create a little mountain up there, of fresh water. Who knows? I mean, at that point, whatever was going on, in bacterial terms, with that lake in particular – that’s ruined. There are many other lakes beneath the Antarctic surface, so it isn’t as if we don’t have more places we could save or study, but that one is already a problem.

[Image: Architecture in Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Also, I do like the archaeological sites in Antarctica from the classic era. Those are worth comparing to the space program. Going to Antarctica in 1900 was like us going into space today: as Oliver Morton has put it, it was the hardest thing that technology allowed humans to do at the time. So you could imagine those guys as being in space suits and doing space station-type stuff – but, of course, from our angle, it looks like Boy Scout equipment. It’s amazing that they got away with it at all. Those are the most beautiful spaces – the Shackleton/Scott sites – even the little cairns that Amundsen left behind, or the crashed airplanes from the 1920s: they all become vividly important reminders of our past and of our technological progress. They deserve to be protected fully and kind of revered, almost as religious sites, if you’re a humanist.

[Image: Shackleton’s hut, Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

So archaeology in space? Who knows? It’s hard enough to think about what’s going to go on up there. But on earth it’s very neat to think of Cape Canaveral or Baikonur becoming like Shackleton’s hut.

Thinking along this line causes me to wonder about the Stalinist industrial cities in the Urals – you know, like Chelyabinsk-65. These horribly utilitarian extraction economy-type places, incredibly brutal and destructive – once they’re abandoned, and they begin to rust away, they take on a strange kind of aesthetic. As long as you wouldn’t get actively poisoned when you visit them –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Robinson: – I would be really interested to see some of these places. Just don’t step in the sludge, or scratch your arm – the toxicity levels are supposed to be alarming. But, in archaeological terms, I bet they’d be beautiful.

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson, not only for his ongoing output as a writer but for his patience while this interview was edited and assembled. Thanks, as well, to William L. Fox for putting Robinson and I in touch in the first place.
Meanwhile, the recently published catalog for the exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas offers a great look at the “big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print” that Robinson mentions in the above interview. If you see a copy, I’d definitely recommend settling in for a long read.

Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999; view larger].

Lebbeus Woods is one of the first architects I knew by name – not Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe, but Lebbeus Woods – and it was Woods’s own technically baroque sketches and models, of buildings that could very well be machines (and vice versa), that gave me an early glimpse of what architecture could really be about.

Woods’s work is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence proclaiming that the architectural imagination, freed from constraints of finance and buildability, should be uncompromising, always. One should imagine entirely new structures, spaces without walls, radically reconstructing the outermost possibilities of the built environment.

If need be, we should re-think the very planet we stand on.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, radically reconstructed, 1994].

Of course, Woods is usually considered the avant-garde of the avant-garde, someone for whom architecture and science fiction – or urban planning and exhilarating, uncontained speculation – are all but one and the same. His work is experimental architecture in its most powerful, and politically provocative, sense.

Genres cross; fiction becomes reflection; archaeology becomes an unpredictable form of projective technology; and even the Earth itself gains an air of the non-terrestrial.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, DMZ, 1988].

One project by Woods, in particular, captured my imagination – and, to this day, it just floors me. I love this thing. In 1980, Woods proposed a tomb for Albert Einstein – the so-called Einstein Tomb (collected here) – inspired by Boullée’s famous Cenotaph for Newton.

But Woods’s proposal wasn’t some paltry gravestone or intricate mausoleum in hewn granite: it was an asymmetrical space station traveling on the gravitational warp and weft of infinite emptiness, passing through clouds of mutational radiation, riding electromagnetic currents into the void.

The Einstein Tomb struck me as such an ingenious solution to an otherwise unremarkable problem – how to build a tomb for an historically titanic mathematician and physicist – that I’ve known who Lebbeus Woods is ever since.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, the city and the faults it sits on, from the San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

So when the opportunity came to talk to Lebbeus about one image that he produced nearly a decade ago, I continued with the questions; the result is this interview, which happily coincides with the launch of Lebbeus’s own website – his first – at lebbeuswoods.net. That site contains projects, writings, studio reports, and some external links, and it’s worth bookmarking for later exploration.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Havana, 1994; view larger].

In the following Q&A, then, Woods talks to BLDGBLOG about the geology of Manhattan; the reconstruction of urban warzones; politics, walls, and cooperative building projects in the future-perfect tense; and the networked forces of his most recent installations.


• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, could you explain the origins of the Lower Manhattan image?

Lebbeus Woods: This was one of those occasions when I got a request from a magazine – which is very rare. In 1999, Abitare was making a special issue on New York City, and they invited a number of architects – like Steven Holl, Rafael Viñoly, and, oh god, I don’t recall. Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. Michael Sorkin. Myself. They invited us to make some sort of comment about New York. So I wrote a piece – probably 1000 words, 800 words – and I made the drawing.

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth. Let’s not forget that buildings sit on the Earth.

I wanted to suggest that maybe lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet. So, in the drawing, you see that the East River and the Hudson are both dammed. They’re purposefully drained, as it were. The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed, and, in the drawing, there are suggestions of inhabitation in that lower region.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Lower Manhattan, 1999, in case you missed it; view larger].

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself. I think that comes across in the drawing. It’s not geologically correct, I’m sure, but the idea is there.

There are a couple of other interesting features which I’ll just mention. One is that the only bridge I show is the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t show the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, for instance. That’s just gone. And I don’t show the Manhattan Bridge or the Williamsburg Bridge, which are the other two bridges on the East River. On the Hudson side, it was interesting, because I looked carefully at the drawings – which I based on an aerial photograph of Manhattan, obviously – and the World Trade Center… something’s going on there. Of course, this was in 1999, and I’m not a prophet and I don’t think that I have any particular telepathic or clairvoyant abilities [laughs], but obviously the World Trade Center has been somehow diminished, and there are things floating in the Hudson next to it. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind – it was already several years ago – except that some kind of transformation was going to happen there.

BLDGBLOG: That’s actually one of the things I like so much about your work: you re-imagine cities and buildings and whole landscapes as if they have undergone some sort of potentially catastrophic transformation – be it a war or an earthquake, etc. – but you don’t respond to those transformations by designing, say, new prefab refugee shelters or more durable tents. You respond with what I’ll call science fiction: a completely new order of things – a new way of organizing and thinking about space. You posit something radically different than what was there before. It’s exciting.

Woods: Well, I think that, for instance, in Sarajevo, I was trying to speculate on how the war could be turned around, into something that people could build the new Sarajevo on. It wasn’t about cleaning up the mess or fixing up the damage; it was more about a transformation in the society and the politics and the economics through architecture. I mean, it was a scenario – and, I suppose, that was the kind of movie aspect to it. It was a “what if?”

I think there’s not enough of that thinking today in relation to cities that have been faced with sudden and dramatic – even violent – transformations, either because of natural or human causes. But we need to be able to speculate, to create these scenarios, and to be useful in a discussion about the next move. No one expects these ideas to be easily implemented. It’s not like a practical plan that you should run out and do. But, certainly, the new scenario gives you a chance to investigate a direction. Of course, being an architect, I’m very interested in the specifics of that direction – you know, not just a verbal description but: this is what it might look like.

So that was the approach in Sarajevo – as well as in this drawing of Lower Manhattan, as I called it.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods. Future structures of the Korean demilitarized zone (1988) juxtaposed with two views of the architectonic tip of some vast flooded machine-building, from Icebergs (1991)].

BLDGBLOG: Part of that comes from recognizing architecture as its own kind of genre. In other words, architecture has the ability, rivaling literature, to imagine and propose new, alternative routes out of the present moment. So architecture isn’t just buildings, it’s a system of entirely re-imagining the world through new plans and scenarios.

Woods: Well, let me just back up and say that architecture is a multi-disciplinary field, by definition. But, as a multi-disciplinary field, our ideas have to be comprehensive; we can’t just say: “I’ve got a new type of column that I think will be great for the future of architecture.”

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Woods: Maybe it will be great – but it’s not enough. I think architects – at least those inclined to understand the multi-disciplinarity and the comprehensive nature of their field – have to visualize something that embraces all these political, economic, and social changes. As well as the technological. As well as the spatial.

But we’re living in a very odd time for the field. There’s a kind of lack of discourse about these larger issues. People are hunkered down, looking for jobs, trying to get a building. It’s a low point. I don’t think it will stay that way. I don’t think that architects themselves will allow that. After all, it’s architects who create the field of architecture; it’s not society, it’s not clients, it’s not governments. I mean, we architects are the ones who define what the field is about, right?

So if there’s a dearth of that kind of thinking at the moment, it’s because architects have retreated – and I’m sure a coming generation is going to say: hey, this retreat is not good. We’ve got to imagine more broadly. We have to have a more comprehensive vision of what the future is.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, The Wall Game].

BLDGBLOG: In your own work – and I’m thinking here of the Korean DMZ project or the Israeli wall-game – this “more comprehensive vision” of the future also involves rethinking political structures. Engaging in society not just spatially, but politically. Many of the buildings that you’ve proposed are more than just buildings, in other words; they’re actually new forms of political organization.

Woods: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the making of buildings is a huge investment of resources of various kinds. Financial, as well as material, and intellectual, and emotional resources of a whole group of people get involved in a particular building project. And any time you get a group, you’re talking about politics. To me politics means one thing: How do you change your situation? What is the mechanism by which you change your life? That’s politics. That’s the political question. It’s about negotiation, or it’s about revolution, or it’s about terrorism, or it’s about careful step-by-step planning – all of this is political in nature. It’s about how people, when they get together, agree to change their situation.

As I wrote some years back, architecture is a political act, by nature. It has to do with the relationships between people and how they decide to change their conditions of living. And architecture is a prime instrument of making that change – because it has to do with building the environment they live in, and the relationships that exist in that environment.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods, Siteline Vienna, 1998].

BLDGBLOG: There’s also the incredibly interesting possibility that a building project, once complete, will actually change the society that built it. It’s the idea that a building – a work of architecture – could directly catalyze a transformation, so that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place. The building changes them.

Woods: I love that. I love the way you put it, and I totally agree with it. I think, you know, architecture should not just be something that follows up on events but be a leader of events. That’s what you’re saying: That by implementing an architectural action, you actually are making a transformation in the social fabric and in the political fabric. Architecture becomes an instigator; it becomes an initiator.

That, of course, is what I’ve always promoted – but it’s the most difficult thing for people to do. Architects say: well, it’s my client, they won’t let me do this. Or: I have to do what my client wants. That’s why I don’t have any clients! [laughter] It’s true.

Because at least I can put the ideas out there and somehow it might seep through, or filter through, to another level.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, Nine Reconstructed Boxes].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, it seems like a lot of the work you’ve been doing for the past few years – in Vienna, especially – has been a kind of architecture without walls. It’s almost pure space. In other words, instead of walls and floors and recognizable structures, you’ve been producing networks and forces and tangles and clusters – an abstract space of energy and directions. Is that an accurate way of looking at your recent work – and, if so, is this a purely aesthetic exploration, or is this architecture without walls meant to symbolize or communicate a larger political message?

Woods: Well, look – if you go back through my projects over the years, probably the least present aspect is the idea of property lines. There are certainly boundaries – spatial boundaries – because, without them, you can’t create space. But the idea of fencing off, or of compartmentalizing – or the capitalist ideal of private property – has been absent from my work over the last few years.

[Image: Lebbeus Woods. A drawing of tectonic faults and other subsurface tensions, from his San Francisco Bay Project, 1995].

I think in my more recent work, certainly, there are still boundaries. There are still edges. But they are much more porous, and the property lines… [laughs] are even less, should we say, defined or desired.

So the more recent work – like in Vienna, as you mentioned – is harder for people to grasp. Back in the early 90s I was confronting particular situations, and I was doing it in a kind of scenario way. I made realistic-looking drawings of places – of situations – but now I’ve moved into a purely architectonic mode. I think people probably scratch their heads a little bit and say: well, what is this? But I’m glad you grasp it – and I hope my comments clarify at least my aspirations.

Probably the political implication of that is something about being open – encouraging what I call the lateral movement and not the vertical movement of politics. It’s the definition of a space through a set of approximations or a set of vibrations or a set of energy fluctuations – and that has everything to do with living in the present.

All of those lines are in flux. They’re in movement, as we ourselves develop and change.

[Images: Lebbeus Woods, System Wien, 2005].


• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge thanks to Lebbeus Woods, not only for having this conversation but for proving over and over again that architecture can and should always be a form of radical reconstruction, unafraid to take on buildings, cities, worlds – whole planets.

For more images, meanwhile, including much larger versions of all the ones that appear here, don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s Lebbeus Woods Flickr set. Also consider stopping by Subtopia for an enthusiastic recap of Lebbeus’s appearance at Postopolis! last Spring; and by City of Sound for Dan Hill’s synopsis of the same event.

The Elephants of Rome: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 2)

This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and general editor of the Wonders of the World, a new series published by Profile and Harvard University Press.
Part One can be found here.

In this installment we discuss cultural authenticity and the rise of archaeo-tourism; China, the pirating of ancient history, and plaster casts of statuary; A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum; the little-understood lost lifestyle patterns of the pyroclastically entombed Pompeii; and the urban military spectacles of imperial Rome.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to ask you about different cultural attitudes toward copying and historical reproduction. There’s an essay by Alexander Stille, for instance, called “The Culture of the Copy and the Disappearance of China’s Past,” where he describes how meticulous copies are often used in China as stand-ins for ancient artifacts – without that substitution being acknowledged. Stille writes that, in China, copying “is a sign of reverence rather than lack of originality.” Do you foresee any sort of interpretive conflict on the horizon between these different cultural notions of authenticity and the past?

Mary Beard: This idea, of the meticulous copy being used as a stand-in for the ancient artifact – and that, somehow, this substitution can be its own historical object – well that’s one we actually find our own past. It’s not just a Chinese thing.

I’ve been thinking recently about the role of the plaster cast, and about collections of plaster casts; and, in a sense, it seems to me that the cult of the plaster cast, in seventeenth to early mid-nineteenth century Europe, had much in common with what Stille’s describing in China. Now – and I mean since the total commitment within modernism to “authenticity” – we regard plaster casts as cheap and perhaps awkward copies of the original. But, certainly, in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, plaster casts were the object that provided people with “real” connection with the classical world. The plaster cast was, in a sense, the fount of classical art and classical knowledge, and people like Goethe were inspired not so much by what we would think of as the authentic marble object, but by looking at plaster casts.

At one point in the Parthenon book – I mention it just very briefly – there was a moment, in the 1930s, when the British Museum had got all of Elgin’s marbles there, but the bits they didn’t have they filled in with plaster casts from Greece. It wasn’t that the casts were actually valued the same, but that viewers could happily see these things, side by side, in order to experience the Parthenon sculptures.

I think it’s actually quite moving sometimes, reading people’s accounts of Greek and Roman sculpture in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – because they’re describing plaster casts using a language which we would not now use for copies. They’re not framing it as a copy – they’re framing it as if it was it – or at least as if was sufficiently like the “real thing” to be able to prompt some of the same language and emotions.

[Image: A view of the Elgin Marbles, via the Wik].

BLDGBLOG: That seems to be as much about the desire to encounter the thing itself as to use convenient stand-ins for that thing, when “authenticity” is simply too expensive to afford.

Mary Beard: That’s partly it – but one thing that’s curious is that the modern city of Rome produced and displayed loads of plaster casts until quite recently (and there is still a great collection in the University gallery in Rome). They went in for making plaster casts of sculpture when they’d got the real stuff sitting right there in front of them. “Authenticity” is always a trickier idea than we think it is – which is, I guess, one of the things that “post-modernism” has been about telling us.

BLDGBLOG: Do you see educational value in things like merchandising, then? Do souvenirs obscure the past or give people access to it?

Mary Beard: I tend to be pretty laid back about it. I mean, I can do the argument about commodification if you like. I can say: goodness me, what you are doing? You’re re-presenting a tawdry cheap object, to make a vast amount of profit, and it’ll be bought by somebody else in the belief that, somehow, they have just bought into cultural property. I can do the gloomy side of it.

But I think it also goes back, more positively, to the idea that these objects are sort of shared. How do you share a monument? One of the main ways that you share a monument is by replicating it and letting people own the replica. It’s a way that people can feel they have a relationship to the original. That’s been going on since antiquity itself. One of the things that’s quite extraordinary is the number of relatively small-scale replicas there are of the cult statue of Athena from the Parthenon – hundreds of them.

Of course, in some ways, you say, tourists are being palmed off with plastic souvenirs instead of with knowledge – and, of course, some of these things, the middle class cultural critics can say, are horrible and cheap, and people think they’re buying culture when, in fact, they’re buying a nasty little replica. Obviously there’s an ambivalence there, but it never seems to me to be wholly bad.

You know, you have your photograph taken at the Colosseum next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator. Is that a terrible bit of exploitation because you’ve just paid a ridiculous amount of money? Well, that’s exactly what it is in one way – but it’s also a way of writing yourself into the history of that site, and saying “I was there.”

[Images: Tourists having their picture taken “next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator.” Photo by Robin Cormack].

BLDGBLOG: For a lot of people, there’s also a sense of irony there – in the idea that you’d get your picture taken next to a gladiator. It’s like a joke: look at me, wearing shorts, standing next to an Italian guy dressed like a gladiator.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think one’s capacity for self-ironization is necessarily incompatible with the idea of ownership. When I buy my ouzo bottle shaped like the Parthenon, it’s another way to the same end.

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

[Images: The streets of Pompeii, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: This changes the subject a bit, but I understand you’re also writing a new book about Pompeii. Is that for the Wonders for the World?

Mary Beard: I am writing a Pompeii book, and it’s for Profile and Harvard, like the Wonders. However, it’s not in the series because it’s going to be rather longer than that – and there’s a practical consideration here. If you’re going to tell your authors not to do more than 50,000 words, then you can’t have the series editor deciding she wants to do 100,000 words!

I suppose I’m trying to do some quite specific things. I’ve worked on and off on Pompeii for 20 or 30 years, and it struck me that, apart from the study of volcanology (where everybody will talk till the cows come home about “pyroclastic flows” and all that), by and large there’s an increasing gap between what academic studies of Pompeii are doing and the kind of stuff that popular books on Pompeii feed people. I wanted to see if I could close a bit of that gap between what people normally get given, if they’re not specialists, and some of the ways of thinking about the city that are current within academic debate.

I think that one of the problems about going to Pompeii, once you’ve done your first wander round it – and, even now, it’s gob-smacking to go to the ancient town – there’s a question of: what do people look at? And how do they look at it?

I think, as we were saying before, tourists are pretty canny – but their canniness and sharpness is often crushed by the sense that there is a particular set of questions that are somehow the right questions to ask. I suppose I want to help people see that their puzzlement about how this town worked – their puzzlement about the city – is legitimate. You know, they should go on asking those kinds of questions.

There is a huge distance between us and what went on in this town (whatever that was); yet, on the other hand, there is a dialogue that you can have with it. It’s a dialogue which is, in part, mediated by novels and films and so on – Last Days of Pompeii and the like. And that is something we have to work through, not against. It’s that way of thinking I’m interested in exploring.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve written on your blog about Pompeii’s ancient traffic patterns, and about some more mundane questions, such as how Pompeii actually functioned.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right – you know: where did people go to the loo? Why is there so little “stuff” there? Why was so little found in Pompeii? Well, that really is interesting – and that is what archaeologists are sometimes honest enough to worry about. Where do these stairs actually go? Did anything happen up there? How many people lived here?

So you want to say to tourists: your questions aren’t foolish. We don’t know what the upstairs was like. Estimates of the population of Pompeii vary by thousands, according to whether you think all the slaves lived up there, squashed together in dorms, or whether there were some elegantly spacious master bedrooms, or whether it was mostly storeroom. We really don’t know. We don’t even know how Pompeii related to the sea!

But I think there is a very difficult trade-off here. In the end it’s a terrible downer for people always to say, “We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.” You’ve got to tell them something that we do know!

I suppose I want to write a book that doesn’t fob people off with simplifying stories that I know not to be true. I think that’s the nasty power relationship between popular books on the ancient world and their readers: an author, who knows how complicated it is, tells the ignorant reading public a simplified story that he or she doesn’t really believe. That then makes writing – and disseminating what you know about the ancient world – an act of bad faith. So you want it to be good faith – without saying: the conclusion of this book is that we know nothing.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] That reminds me of Robert Irwin’s book, where he begins with two full pages’ worth of incorrect “facts” about the Alhambra.

Mary Beard: Yes. Jolly good.

[Images: A Triumph through the streets of Rome following the sack of Jerusalem. For more on Roman Triumphs, don’t miss Mary Beard’s forthcoming book; for more on the sack of Jerusalem, grab a copy of Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem].

BLDGBLOG: You’ve also got another forthcoming book, published by Harvard, about the Roman Triumph – about Roman military processions. Could you tell me more about that? Is it similar in tone to the Wonders of the World series?

Mary Beard: In a funny way, although it’s a longer book, and it’s heavily footnoted, it’s written partly for the same kind of audience. It’s for the specialist as well as the intelligent ignorant.

What the book is saying is: look, here is a Roman ceremony which, much in the same way as these monuments, has been reworked and reappropriated throughout history. You know, Napoleon does the Triumph, every blasted princeling in the Renaissance does a Triumph, Mantegna paints the Triumph – it’s still a cultural form that we share with the Romans. So how can we make sense of it? Particularly now, how do we think about celebrating military victory – and what form is possible, legitimate, in bad taste, in good taste…?

This relates, of course, to how we now package the Romans. Certainly for the last hundred years or so, they have been seen as the poor relations of the Greeks: Greek culture, we believe, was intellectual and self-reflexive, whilst the Romans were thugs who built roads and won battles. It’s a convenient dyad for us but, in many ways, it undermines and disguises so much of what’s really interesting about Roman culture.

One of the things I’m wanting to say about the Triumph goes like this. Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism. The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after – but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

For example, there are constant anecdotes, which I think are very loaded anecdotes, about how risky a celebration it is, and how the celebration can always go wrong. There’s one General, Pompey, in the sixties BC, who decides to outbid all of the previous triumphant Generals. Instead of having his chariot yoked to horses, he decides to have it pulled by elephants. It looks fantastic – it looks kind of divine (that’s how the god Bacchus drove his chariot) – until he comes to go through an arch and the elephants get stuck in the arch. So he reverses a bit, and he tries it again – and they still can’t get through. They finally have to unhitch the elephants and bring up the horses – and you think: why is this anecdote being told? Not only is this obviously a humiliating moment – wouldn’t you feel a real fool if it happened to you! – but it’s also being told as a way of saying, remember, glory has to be carefully negotiated. Where is the boundary between glory and foolishness?

Another question is: who do you look at when you’ve got this great procession? Who’s the star of the show? Is it the General in his chariot? Well, sometimes it is – but sometimes it’s the victims. Sometimes military victory makes stars of the defeated. That was also a problem in the gladiatorial arena: who was the star? Well, it was the gladiator, not the emperor. In the Triumph those exotic but pathetic captives regularly stole the show, or were said to, and Roman poets and historians recognized this, and wondered about it, and played with it, and they turned it into a metaphor just like we do. And that is so topical today. Take Saddam Hussein’s execution – you know, what was the upshot of those films? Who won?

Militarism often goes hand in hand with everything which undermines militarism. The Romans were actually – if you know how to read them right, and if you’re not expecting them to be Greek and to talk about it in the same way – they’re actually looking at the nature of military victory, and military display, and they’re wondering about it some of the same ways that we do.

So that’s what the book is about – or, at least, those are some of the questions that have driven it.

[Images: A poster for 300 and scenes from 300 and Gladiator].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, could you talk a bit about the present state of pop cultural knowledge about the Classical world, from the film 300 and David Beckham’s new tattoo to cable television documentaries? In the most general sense, are these things useful for teaching the Classics?

Mary Beard: I’m very keen on it, of course. I have to be. Partly, you know, if you’re a classicist teaching Classics at a British university, self-interest is a factor here. All these things, from Gladiator on, have been a tremendous recruiting ground, and so we go around talking about whether Gladiator’s true or not, and 300, and all the rest – and encouraging people to get interested in “real” Classics that way (there, I’m talking about authenticity!).

More generally, though, one of the things that these movies and so on remind us is that classical culture simply isn’t the bastion of elitism that it’s often made out to be. Certainly in the UK – and, I expect, it’s largely the same in the U.S. – the study of Classics, as an academic discipline, is thought to be the upper echelons of privilege and elitism. To some extent that’s true – and to some extent it’s unfair. What that view overlooks is the fact that there has been enormous amounts of mass engagement with ancient culture from the end of the 19th century onwards. Books like The Last Days of Pompeii, or Ben-Hur, sold fantastic quantities. They were absolute bestsellers, in the way that Gladiator is a bestselling movie.

What’s interesting though is that every generation has always claimed that it was the first to rediscover the Romans for themselves, and for mass culture. You can see that very clearly with the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It was a fantastic success, but it sold itself in very similar terms to Gladiator – that here, for the first time, the wee masses were going to see Rome as it really was.

So what interests me, beyond the hope that this brings other people into Classics, is the idea that Classics is a subject which is actually quite democratic. It isn’t only this kind of toff, upper-class subject it’s often thought to be. Every generation enjoys rediscovering it – but, each time it comes around, we claim that now, for the first time, we’ve got privileged knowledge which we’re going to share with you all over again. In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of movies, and hundreds of novels, and thousands of cartoon strips about the Romans. They never go away – but we always think that it’s us that got them first.

In the UK, when kids discover Asterix the Gaul – a wonderful cartoon series about plucky little Gauls fighting the Romans – each 10-year old finds it anew, and rediscovers the Romans for themselves. Which is just how it should be.

[Image: The Colosseum, photographed by Robin Cormack].

• • •

I owe a huge thank you to Mary Beard for taking the time to have this conversation, and for following up with images and with edits to the transcript.
For more Mary Beard, meanwhile, don’t miss her blog, A Don’s Life; her essays at the London Review of Books; or The Roman Triumph, due out this Autumn.
Finally, titles in the Wonders of the World series now include:

The Parthenon by Mary Beard
The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere
The Temple of Jerusalem by Simon Goldhill
Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns
The Alhambra by Robert Irwin
The Rosetta Stone by John Ray
St. Peter’s by Keith Miller
St. Pancras Station by Simon Bradley
The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp

Collect them all—and don’t miss Part One of this interview while you’re doing so.

The Wonders of the World: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 1)

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, where she is a fellow of Newnham College. She also writes a blog for the Times, called A Don’s Life, and she is the editor of an excellent new series of books, The Wonders of the World.

The latter is “a small series of books that will focus on some of the world’s most famous sites or monuments.” It is published by Profile in the UK, and by Harvard University Press in North America.

A few notable titles in that series include Mary Beard’s own book about The Parthenon; her collaboration with Keith Hopkins for The Colosseum; Cathy Gere’s extraordinary look at The Tomb of Agamemnon (previously discussed on BLDGBLOG here); and many others, including books about Westminster Abbey, The Temple of Jerusalem, and The Alhambra, with other titles ranging from the birth of Egyptology to the history of British railways and the First World War.

Meanwhile, Beard has another, highly anticipated book forthcoming from Harvard University Press: The Roman Triumph. Among other such questions, that book will ask: “what are the implications of the Roman triumph, as a celebration of imperialism and military might, for questions about military power and ‘victory’ in our own day?”

In the following two-part interview, Mary Beard talks to BLDGBLOG about the Wonders of the World series, including how and why the particular buildings and monuments have been chosen. We discuss the politics of archaeology and the often misguided reappropriation of the past; whether or not sites of historical horror can be transformed into places of both wonder and critical reflection; why we still know so little about the ruined city of Pompeii; how museums, guidebooks, and films, from Gladiator to 300, represent the Classical past; and even ancient Roman analogues for the death of Saddam Hussein.

Part Two can be found here.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: To start with, what are the basic editorial intentions behind the Wonders of the World series? For instance, who are the books for?

Mary Beard: You sometimes wonder whether you reinvent your editorial intentions as you go along! But I suppose there are three intentions. The first is that I want these books to open up culture and history, as well as dissent about culture and history, through the contested life stories of individual monuments and wonders – real or imaginary. I think it’s about using a single object – a single monument, a single wonder – as a kind of window onto not just culture and history but also the controversies of culture and history. That’s number one.

Number two – and these are not meant to be hierarchical – is quite a simple one, and it’s to show that bricks and mortar, or concrete and marble, are always more than that. A great building is always more than the sum of its parts: it’s about mythology; it’s about argument; it’s about cultural re-use and re-presentation.

And I think the third intention is that you want to help people to enjoy looking at monuments, and at the complexity of monuments – and to see that the complexity and the arguments are what’s fun about this. Sometimes, when people write for what they think of as a popular market, they think that they should make it simple, whereas I think that what you should be doing is helping people to enjoy how complicated it all really is.

Of course, some of these buildings work better for one of those functions rather than others – but that’s the overall theme.

BLDGBLOG: When it comes to choosing an author to produce these books, do you go after people whose scholarly work you already admire – or do the authors come looking for you, pitching you ideas for a new monument or Wonder?

Mary Beard: Increasingly, as people know the series, they’re starting to come forward and say, “I’ve got a great idea.”

I think the key to it, though, is: one, they can’t be dull. I call it “academics with attitude” – they’ve got to have some sense of chutzpah about them. But I don’t think attitude is enough; I think the key is the kind of marriage you make between the writer and the monument – how you can make it work by getting the pairing right. That is, I think, quite difficult.

One of the best examples I can think of is that we’ve been looking for someone – and may possibly now have found somebody – to do the Tower of London. Years ago I went out for lunch with Simon Bradley, an architectural historian, to talk about the Tower and whether he’d like to do it. He looked like a good prospect. So we were having lunch, but as we talked on and on about it, I got the sense that both of us were becoming just a bit bored with the blasted Tower of London. After a good drink or two, I finally said: “Look, Simon – forget the Tower. If you could have any building in the world, what building would you really, really like to write about?” And he instantly said: St. Pancras Station. Then it all came out: he was an architectural historian of the Gothic Revival by training, and he’d been a train enthusiast when he was a kid, and, suddenly, you saw: God – there was a building just waiting for the bloke. And, actually, it’s turned out to be an absolutely wonderful book.

It’s that kind of slightly unlikely marriage that makes them work best – it’s about being a kind of dating agency.

But there was something back in question one which we didn’t do – which is who the books are for. And we’re wanting to have as many readers as possible. Those might be specialists, or teachers, or high school students, or the man on the bus; but I think there is always a central nugget of people in the middle that I’ve got in mind when I’m commissioning a book, and I call them the intelligent ignorant.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] I suppose I’m in that category.

Mary Beard: And I’m quite good at being the clever ignorant, too!

This goes back to what I said: people write popular books wanting to make things simple. I’m imagining that somebody who comes to this series may be ignorant, in the sense that they know nothing about the building they’re about to read about, beyond its name, or a very few facts – so they are, technically, ignorant. But I’m also assuming that they’re intelligent. What they do not want is to be shortchanged by oversimplification – and they do not want to be talked down to. They’re not going to take crap.

So lots of specialists will pick up these books, in the way that they always do, but my target audience is the intelligent ignorant.

[Image: The interior iron arches of London’s St. Pancras Station, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: How much thought goes into choosing the actual sites?

Mary Beard: Quite a lot. This started off by me wanting to write about the Parthenon, and wanting to write about it for all the reasons that I’ve glossed as the editorial objectives of the series. But then it grew – and we saw that there was mileage in the idea.

BLDGBLOG: I can think of a dozen or so places that would make fantastic books – the catacombs of Paris, the Maginot Line, Hoover Dam, Cape Canaveral, and so on – maybe even the International Space Station – but perhaps those don’t really fit the editorial mission of the series. Do sites like those have any interest for you?

Mary Beard: Again, we want to range from the absolutely bog-standard, normative greatest hits that would be on anybody’s idea of a Wonder of the World, while, at the same time, we want to increase the range of those Wonders. There’s a trade off there, between not wanting to be boringly predictable, and, on the other hand, not wanting to be maverickly odd.

One of things I want to do is to take some of the greatest hits, like St. Peter’s and Stonehenge, and show people how interesting and complicated and different they are – different from what those people might have imagined. But I also want to take things that people might never have thought of putting in the category of a Wonder.

BLDGBLOG: Like St. Pancras?

Mary Beard: I think St. Pancras in England is an absolutely extraordinary building, and, behind it, the rail sheds are incredible – in the engineering and in the architecture. It’s absolutely marvelous. So I’m very pleased to do that.

Similarly, with something like Gavin Stamp’s The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: what happens if you take something that people would say, “Oh, a war memorial” – and you say, no: think of it in a different way. Think about this as a Wonder of the World. And then you think about that monument differently.

But I don’t know how far you can go down that line of being subversive. In some ways, we’re always teetering on the margins of where we might go next. One of the things that I’ve often said is: I wonder what happens if you do Auschwitz? Can you do sites of horror? Can you turn wonder around in that way?

It would be hard to know how to do that in the series in a way that isn’t mawkish or that, in some way, makes the monument tawdry. It’s hard to know.

[Image: Tourists visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau; photo via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting, actually, because there was a short article in New Scientist a few months ago about the rise of so-called dark tourism – where people visit sites like Auschwitz and the Cambodian Killing Fields. So there is a connection between wonder and horror.

Mary Beard: There was a book – which was not in the series, but which was published by Profile – by William St. Clair, about Cape Coast Castle, a British slave-trading castle on the west coast of Africa. That turned out to be extremely interesting. It expanded from being a Wonder partly because he found an enormously rich set of unexploited documentation.

But we did talk quite a lot about whether the slave trade could produce wonder – if the slave trade could produce a Wonder of the World – and what that would mean.

BLDGBLOG: Most of the books now focus on sites around the Mediterranean – with some exceptions, but those exceptions are all European. Do you see the series going on to include non-European sites like Macchu Picchu or the Taj Mahal?

Mary Beard: Well, it is a bit European. In fact, one of the things about our list at the moment, and this is something that I really want to do something about, is that the Americas are striking by their absence. That’s something that’s on my mind. We have got the Forbidden City coming up, and the Taj Mahal, too – but there’s a striking lacuna where America, North or South, is concerned, and that’s something I want to think hard about.

I’m also interested in natural wonders: the Grand Canyon is only made a natural wonder by cultural re-appropriation. Without that, it’s just a canyon. So why not the Grand Canyon? Similarly, too, the Alps were any old mountains – till they became Mountains. And the Lake District was just boggy hills till the blasted poets got at them.

I think the boundaries of the Wonders of the World series are interesting – but, in the end, if all you did was invest in the margins, without re-looking – and I think it is a radical re-looking – at some of the things which seem more familiar, it would be a bit of a waste.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, doing a book about Cape Canaveral would be a little too avant-garde.

Mary Beard: I would go with a monument of space technology, actually, because I think you’d read it differently within the series. It’s just that I wouldn’t have too many volumes on Cape Canaveral and other things like that. It’s a question of productive balance.

In the long term, I hope that the books will rub off on one another: you’ll read Westminster Abbey differently because you’ve read it after you’ve read about Cape Canaveral – and vice versa. If people like the series, and if they trust it, if they feel that there’s a guarantee of a decent read, then they’ll be encouraged to read things that they wouldn’t otherwise have read. I hope that’s what happens.

BLDGBLOG: I thought Cathy Gere’s book, The Tomb of Agamemnon, was incredible – in large part because it demonstrates how easily archaeology can become politicized. From your own experience, how easy is it for archaeological research, or just basic historical research, to become politicized – for the past to be deliberately reinterpreted in a way that benefits certain political narratives in the present?

Mary Beard: That was one case where, even though I know a bit about prehistoric Greece, and I’ve done stuff on Schliemann, I fell into the category of the intelligent ignorant. I had really very little clue quite how loaded the tomb of Agamemnon became. It was extraordinary.

It does seem to me that all these books do, in a sense, is say: look, these buildings matter. They’re not just bricks and mortar. They’ve been fought about. People want to own them, to make them theirs – because they know that they’re important. Quite how that happens I think is always an important story. It’s a way to find out more about political culture by a back door.

In some ways, one learns a lot about the Nazification of Western Europe by thinking about Mycenae. But there’s also a sense of ownership going on here, in a more general sense – and, certainly, the Getty is a good place to sense that. There is an interesting problematization at the moment about cultural ownership, which is: do we think culture is moveable and global and shared? Or do we think that culture is national, and it belongs to the soil on which it was created? Should culture be owned by the people whose ancestors created it?

I saw a statement quite recently – I don’t know if he was correctly quoted – by the Greek minister of culture, saying that, in his ideal world, everything produced in Greece would be in Greece. At that point you think: right, this is not about the restitution of things that have been illegally bought or smuggled or whatever; this is about a particular version of archaeological nationalism. At that point I start to feel very uneasy – and I would hope that these books help people to see that a narrowly vulgar archaeological nationalism is a very problematic idea.

I was in the Met relatively recently, and I was walking through those rooms that have been reconstructed from British country houses, and I thought: do I feel pleased that these rooms are here? Or do I feel like what have you got your hands on these for? Which do I feel? Obviously, to some extent, you feel both – but on balance I feel more pleased than cross, because the idea that bits of my culture can be found globally, that I can go into a museum in New York and see something from Gloucestershire, actually pleases me as much as it makes me anxious.

I did also go to the Mellon Center for British Art, in New Haven, a few weeks ago – a marvelous collection of British art. It made me say: here I am, a very well-educated, cultural middle-class Brit, and this collection of British art in New Haven, displayed in a way that I’d never seen British art displayed before, has made me think differently about my own culture, in a way that would have been impossible had these been in the UK.

So, leaving aside the fraught issues of criminality or theft, which is one thing, the idea is whether we can think of these things as bits of shared cultural property. I mean, what happens when a building becomes a Wonder of the World? One of the interesting consequences, I think, is a series of tough questions. In what sense do we own these things? In what sense can these things really be shared? Do we feel pleased that there’s a bit of the Parthenon in the Louvre – or do we think it should go back?

I increasingly come down on the side of feeling pleased – although ambivalent.

BLDGBLOG: I think a lot of this, though, comes down to the specific historical relationship between the countries involved. The U.S. having British artifacts in a museum means one thing, whereas, say –

Mary Beard: Having the Benin bronzes means quite another.

BLDGBLOG: Exactly. It has a different set of political implications. But that’s also why it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between archaeology as a science, and archaeology as a political pursuit – politics, or even empire, pursued by other means.

Mary Beard: Yes – I think there’s always a trade-off, and it’s always murky. Different sides will tell you different stories and give you different interpretations of exactly the same series of events.

I think you can see that very clearly with Mussolini. It is one of the clearest cases: you could say that Mussolini was re-excavating Ancient Rome in order to make a political statement about his own genealogy. He wasn’t saying: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the Mausoleum of Augustus looks like?” He was trying to excavate the monumental center of ancient Rome as a legitimation of his own regime.

It’s clear that’s why the money went in. It’s not half so clear that the individual archaeologists, in receipt of that money, were on message in quite the way that they appear to have been.

Some time ago I got a group of my colleagues in Cambridge together. All of them were eighty and over, and all of them had been in Italy when the big Mussolini excavations were going on. One of them was an ex-member of the Communist party; others were highly unpoliticised. I got a group of students, interested in finding out about this, to ask the group questions about what being in Rome in the 1930s was all about. I expected at least the highly political ones would give me, possibly an anachronistic reading, but a very political reading about distaste for the appropriation of archaeology for political ends. I couldn’t have been more surprised – because every single one of them said, “It was amazing. It was marvelous. So much stuff was being discovered.” I thought gosh, you know, the reading of this is actually extremely complicated in terms of how the politics worked – and how our view of it changes over time. I mean, it’s easier to spot political motives a generation or two after the event.

Another thing: one of the most famous excavations in Pompeii was the excavation of the Villa of the Mysteries and its frieze, first published in the 1930s. These were fantastically lavish volumes – you know, more expensive that you would ever imagine, in a fantastic vellum binding – which my library in Cambridge managed to get a copy of. The book’s got Mussolini’s fasces on the back cover, in gold emboss, and, instead of being dated 1938, it’s dated Era Fascista VII or something.

So we got a group of students together and we passed the book round, and we said, “Do you notice anything about this book? Now, don’t think of the pictures – look at it as a book. Do you notice anything about it?” And most of the students said, “Well it’s lovely. It’s really expensive, isn’t it?” It took them about a quarter of an hour before a single one of them said, “Oh, what’s this here?” pointing to the fasces and the dating by Era Fascista. And I thought, actually, they’re both right and wrong. They’re wrong because they’re being very unobservant and they’ve failed to see why this bit of archaeology was published as lavishly as it was, and it was having money plowed into it by a regime that they would purport to disdain. And yet here this has entered their own academic life, in a way that is somehow separate from those considerations. I thought that that was quite a neat example, and a nice little vignette of how these monuments work.

I went to the Ara Pacis, in Rome, with the new Richard Meier cover to it – and what was interesting about that was that, if you go in and you’re not going to buy the expensive guidebook, if you’re just going to go in as a tourist and use the information panels, then you would have to look very hard to discover that this was excavated by Mussolini and then put into a fascist box that has now been removed – although it’s sitting in the middle of a square surrounded by fascist sculpture!

[Image: Benito Mussolini, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: That brings up the question of what tourists are really looking for when they go out to visit “history.” We’ve talked about the political side of this – but what do tourists want from the past?

Mary Beard: What’s funny about the “wonders of the world” idea is that it’s such a lasting metaphor for the must-see thing. The category starts in Hellenistic Greece. Greeks in the third and second century BC were making all kinds of lists and all kinds of categories, and they were terribly busy systematizing things. Most of that we’ve forgotten, but the idea of the “wonders of the world” proved to be terribly lasting. In some ways, it feeds into the whole Grand Tour – a very elite British Grand Tour, obviously.

What it does now, I think, is it enriches tourism hugely.

I think one of the most exciting things about visiting these monuments – like the Parthenon, or the Colosseum, etc. – is in going to see what our predecessors saw, but differently. I think the buzz you get from going to, say, the Colosseum is not just: “Oh my goodness, this is where gladiators fought and bled their guts out on the sand!” But also: “This is where Byron came.” And: “This is where Henry James came.” There’s a sense of revisiting the recent as well as the remote past – and wondering, “Does it look the same to me as it did to Byron?” Is it oppressive to be seeing through the eyes of these other people – or is that actually a wonderful enjoyment of historical “thickness”?

For my taste, most popular tourist books are dishonest to the extent that they pretend there’s a kind of unmediated access between you and the past. So when you go to the Colosseum, and when you go to the Parthenon, there’s you and the fifth century BC, or there’s you and the first century AD – when, in fact, you’re not seeing the first century AD or the fifth century BC, you’re seeing it as it has been reconstructed, rebuilt, written about, and talked about. You’re only there because somebody in 1780 decided to draw it.

I want to bring that bit back in — the “thickness” of tourism’s history being its own pleasure.

[Image: The Arch of Titus, via Wikipedia].

• • •

Don’t miss Part Two of this interview.

Drains of Canada: An Interview with Michael Cook

[Image: The Toronto Power Company Tailrace at Niagara; this and all other photos in this post by Michael Cook].

Michael Cook is a writer, photographer, and urban explorer based in Toronto, where he also runs a website called Vanishing Point.
Despite its subject matter, however, Vanishing Point is more than just another website about urban exploration. Cook’s accounts of his journeys into the subterranean civic infrastructure of Canada and northern New York State – and into those regions’ warehouses, factories, and crumbling hospitals – often include plans, elevations, and the odd historical photograph showing the sites under construction.
For instance, his fascinating, inside-out look at the Ontario Generating Station comes with far more than just cool pictures of an abandoned hydroelectric complex behind the water at Niagara Falls, and the detailed narratives he’s produced about the drains of Hamilton and Toronto are well worth reading in full.
As the present interview makes clear, Cook’s interests extend beyond the field of urban exploration to include the ecological consequences of city drainage systems, the literal nature of public space, and the implications of industrial decay for future archaeology – among many other things we barely had time to discuss.
Or, perhaps more accurately phrased, Cook shows that urban exploration has always been about more than just taking pictures of monumentally abstract architectural spaces embedded somewhere in the darkness.

[Image: The Memorial Park Storage Chambers in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain; this is architecture as dreamed of by Adolf Loos: shaved of all ornament, exquisitely smooth, functional – while architecture schools were busy teaching Mies van der Rohe, civil engineers were perfecting the Modern movement beneath their feet].

As he writes on Vanishing Point:

The built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.

This is a website about exploring some of those spaces, about immersing oneself in stormwater sewers and utility tunnels and abandoned industry, about tapping into the worlds that are embedded in our urban environment yet are decidedly removed from the collective experience of civilized life. This is a website about spaces that exist at the boundaries of modern control, as concessions to the landscape, as the debris left by economic transition, as evidence of the transient nature of our place upon this earth.

In the following conversation with BLDGBLOG, Cook discusses how and where these drains are found; what they sound like; the injuries and infections associated with such explorations; myths of secret systems in other cities; and even a few brief tips for getting inside these hyper-functionalist examples of urban infrastructure. We talk about ecology, hydrology, and industrial archaeology; and we come back more than once to the actual architecture of these spaces.

[Image: “Stairs” by Michael Cook, from the Westview Greenbelt Drain].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Is there any place in particular that you’re exploring right now?

Michael Cook: I am trying to piece together entrance to a drain here in Toronto. It’s part of a larger system. As part of their efforts to improve Toronto’s water quality on the lake front, the city built this big storage tunnel called the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel. It intercepts and stores overflow from a number of combined sewers, as well as from several storm sewers along the western lake front. I guess this was finished in 2001, but they had various technical issues, with the mechanics of it, so it was only operational this past summer.

But there are three storm sewers, I guess, that are part of this system. One of them is on my site already – Pilgrimage – and then there’s a second one that’s large and possibly worth getting into. It’s just not something I’ve investigated thoroughly, so… I’ll probably go down and look for that.

[Images: (top) “Transition to CMP,” from Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain; (middle) “Junction with small sidepipe (falling in on the right)” inside Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain; (bottom) “Backwards junction” in Toronto’s Sisters of Mercy drain].

BLDGBLOG: How do you know that the system fits together – that all these storm sewers actually connect up with one another? Are there maps?

Michael Cook: In this case, I have an outfall list that was prepared in the late 80s for portions of Toronto – so I know, from this list, what the size of this storm sewer was at its outfall, before it was intercepted by the new system.

There was also a fair bit of media coverage when the system was being built, because it was a huge expenditure on the part of the city. So we know which combined sewers are part of the system, and I do know where a particular storm sewer is when they intersect – I just don’t necessarily know which residential streets it runs under.

Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.

[Image: “Emerging in Wilson Heights,” out of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain].

BLDGBLOG: What do you actually bring with you? Do you have some kind of underground exploration kit? Full of Band-Aids and Advil?

Michael Cook: I have a pair of boots or waders, depending on the circumstances. I’ll also bring one or more headlamps, and a spotlamp, and various other lighting gear – plus a camera and a tripod. That basically sums it up.

I also have a manhole key – that’s basically just a loop of aircraft cable tied onto a bolt at one end and run through a piece of aluminum pipe that serves as a crude handle. Most of the manhole lids around here have between two and twenty square holes in them about an inch wide, and they’re reasonably light. Assuming the lid hasn’t been welded or bolted into the collar of the manhole, it’s relatively quick and painless to use this tool to pull the lid out. It’s only useful for light-weight lids, though. In Montreal, for instance, most of the covers are awkward, heavy affairs that sometimes need two people, each with their own crowbar, to dislodge safely. Real utilities workers use pickaxes – but those aren’t so easily carried in the pocket of a backpack.

[Image: The outfall of Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever run into other people down there?

Michael Cook: That’s never happened to me, actually. It’s just not that popular a pursuit, outside of certain hotspots.

People can accept going into an abandoned building: you might run into someone you don’t want to run into there, or you might find that part of the building’s unstable – but it’s still just a building.

Even people I know who self-identify as urban explorers aren’t at all that interested in undergrounding – especially not in storm drains. A lot of them just don’t see the actual interest. It’s not a detail-rich environment. You can walk six kilometers underground through nearly featureless pipe – and there’s not something to see and photograph every five feet.

[Image: An “A-shaped conduit” in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain].

BLDGBLOG: Yet a lot – possibly most – of these drains are already named. Who names them, and how do the names get passed around and agreed on by everyone else?

Michael Cook: With people who drain, one of the first things you pick up is a respect for existing names – and the first person to explore a drain has naming rights over it. People generally respect that. Sometimes we’ll make exceptions – I know I’ve made exceptions a few times – but, ultimately, we depend on other people respecting our names.

It’s at once a completely pointless exercise; but, at the same time, it’s fairly meaningful in terms of having a way of discussing this with other people.

So that’s how it comes up. You then use that name, both offline and online. In Australia, they have a kind of master location list, that they keep within Cave Clan, but here we don’t have that level of organization, or that size of a community. It’s just a matter of publishing stuff on our websites.

That said, sometimes we’ll adopt the official name. This usually happens when we’ve been using that name for awhile before we find a way to actually get inside the system, and this usually comes about with something really big or historically significant. We’ll never rename the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, for instance, though we call it the “Webster,” colloquially. When I find a way into Toronto’s storied Garrison Creek Sewer, the buried remains of our fabled “lost” creek, it won’t be the subject of renaming either. Those are the exceptions though; most of the time naming is one of the things we do to capture and communicate something of the magic of wading for three hours through a watery, feature-poor concrete tunnel underground.

[Image: (top) “Outfall structure in the West Don Valley,” part of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain; (bottom) The outfall of Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain].

BLDGBLOG: A lot of these places look like surreal, concrete versions of all the streams and rivers that used to flow through the city. The drains are like a manmade replacement, or prosthetic landscape, that’s been installed inside the old one. Does the relationship between these tunnels and the natural waterways that they’ve replaced interest you at all?

Michael Cook: Oh, definitely – ever since I got into this through exploring creeks.

At their root, most drains are just an abstract version of the watershed that existed before the city. It’s sort of this alternate dimension that you pass into, when you step from the aboveground creek, through the inlet, into the drain – especially once you walk out of the reach of daylight.

Even sanitary sewers often follow the paths of existing or former watersheds, because the grade of the land is already ideal for water flow – fast enough, but not so fast that it erodes the pipe prematurely – and because the floodplains are often unsuitable for other uses.

[Image: “Outfall in winter” at Toronto’s Gargantua drain].

BLDGBLOG: How does that affect your attitude toward this, though? Do you find yourself wishing that all these drains could be dismantled, letting the natural landscape return – or, because these sites are so interesting to explore, do you actually wish that there were more of them?

Michael Cook: It’s an awful toll that we’ve taken on the landscape – I’m not one to celebrate all this concrete. If it were conceivable to set it all right, I’d be the first one in line to support that. And the marginal progress being made in terms of environmental engineering – building storm water management alternatives to burial and to large, expensive pipes – is a great step forward; unfortunately, its success so far has been limited.

Ultimately, you just can’t change the fact that we’ve urbanized, and we continue to do so. That comes with a cost that can be managed – but it can’t be eliminated completely.

[Image: Looking out of a spillway at the Ontario Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: So do you actually have an environmental goal with these photographs? Your explorations are really a form of environmental advocacy?

Michael Cook: Well, I want to find something that goes a bit further than just presenting these photos for their aesthetic value – but, at the same time, turning this into some sort of environmental advocacy platform doesn’t really come to mind, either.

I’m very interested in urban ecology and in the environmental politics that take place in the city – and I’ve done some academic work in that regard – but I’m not really prepared to distill the photography and these adventures into an activist exercise.

[Image: The “spectacular, formerly natural waterfall that the [Chedoke Falls Drain] now feeds,” in Hamilton, Ontario].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you’ve ever been injured, or even gotten sick, down there. All that old, stagnant air – and the dust, and the germs – can’t be very good for you!

Michael Cook: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten sick from it. Sometimes, the day after, you can feel almost hung-over – but I don’t know what that is. It could be dust, or it could be from the amount of moisture you breathe in. But it passes. It may even be an allergy I have.

I haven’t really done any exploration of sanitary sewers – that would be a different story. In Minneapolis/St. Paul they actually have a name for the sickness they sometimes come down with after a particularly intense sewer exploration: Rinker’s Revenge. It’s named after the engineer who designed the systems there. And a colleague caught a bout of giardia recently, which he believes he acquired exploring a section of combined sewer in Montreal.

So, obviously, there are disease risks in doing this, though they’re not as extensive as one might want to imagine.

The only serious situation I’ve ever been in, with a high potential for injury – and I was pretty lucky – was while exploring in Niagara. The surge spillways for the Ontario Generating Station used to carry overflow water from the surge tanks, and those were fed by the intake pipes. So the water would overflow from the intake pipes into the surge tanks, and then drain out through these helical spillways that spiral downwards to the bottom of the gorge. They then outfall in front of the plant into the river.

So we made an attempt to ascend both of these spillways, and we were successful in the first one; but the second one, we found, was more difficult toward the latter stages of the climb. We had to turn back just before reaching the surge tanks. On the way back down I lost my footing – I lost all grip on the surface, it was so steep and so slippery, and it was covered in very fine grit – and I ended up sliding all the way down to the bottom, nearly 200 vertical feet. And I was going at a very high speed by the time I reached the bottom.

I was very lucky to come away from that with just a few friction burns and a sprained thumb.

[Images: A “short drop” in Toronto’s beautifully torqued and ovoid Viceroy Drain].

BLDGBLOG: As far as the actual tunnels go, how connected is all this stuff? Is it like a big, underground labyrinth sometimes – or just a bunch of little tunnels that look connected only because of the way that they’ve been photographed?

Michael Cook: Well, most of the drainage systems I’ve been in are pretty linear. You have a main trunk conduit, and then sometimes you’ll get significant side pipes that are worth exploring. But as far as actual maze-quality features go, it’s pretty rare to find systems like that – at least in Ontario and most places in Canada. It requires a very specific geography and a sort of time line of development for the drains.

You might end up with a lot of side overflows and other things, which makes the system more complicated, if the drain has several different places where it overflows into a surface body of water – or if there’s a structure that allows one pipe to flow into another at excess capacity. That sort of thing allows for more complicated systems – but most of the time it doesn’t happen.

You can still spend hours in some of these drains, though, because of how long they are. And sometimes that makes for a fairly uninteresting experience: drains can be pretty featureless for most of their length.

[Images: Four glimpses of the vaulted topologies installed inside the Earth at Niagara’s William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace].

BLDGBLOG: Are the drains up there mostly poured concrete, or are they made of brick?

Michael Cook: We have recently opened up our first significant brick sewer in Toronto – The Skin of a Lion – which is built from yellow brick and would probably date to around the turn of the last century. So there are a few locations where you can find brick, but most are concrete.

[Images: (top) Leaving the William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace, Niagara Falls; (bottom) Tailrace outlet, William B. Rankine Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: Does that affect what the drains sound like, as far as echoes and reverb go? What sort of noises do you hear?

Michael Cook: I’d say that every drain is acoustically unique. Each has its own resonance points – and even different sections of the drain will resonate differently, based on where the next curve is, or the next room. It all shifts. I often explore that aspect a bit – probably to the annoyance of some of my colleagues. I’ll make noises, or hum. Even sing.

As far as environmental noises, the biggest thing is that, if there’s a rail line nearby, or a public transit line, you often get that noise coming back through the drain to wherever you are. It’s very frightening when you first hear it, till you figure out what it is – this rushing noise. It’s not a wall of water. [laughs]

But the most common recurring noise is the sound of cars driving over manhole covers – which gives you an idea of which covers you don’t want to exit through. It also helps you keep track of the distance, and where you are – that sort of thing.

[Image: “Transitions” inside the Duncan’s Got Wood sewer, Toronto].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of legal issues are involved here – like trespassing, or even loitering? Do you have to go out at 2am, dressed like an official city worker, or wear a hood or anything like that?

Michael Cook: For draining, the legal issues are pretty grey. After all, you’re on public property the entire time – so the risk of a serious trespassing fine is a lot lower. There’s no private security company looking out for you, and there’s no private property owner who’s going to be irate if you’re found inside his building. It’s a municipal waterway – it just happens to run underground. A lot of times the outfalls aren’t even posted with notices telling you to stay out.

Now, some people have been given fines for trespassing – for having been inside drains in Ontario – but these have been for pretty minor sums of money. It’s not something that I’ve ever had a problem with – and definitely not something that requires me to go in the middle of the night.

The only thing that really dictates what time you can go is traffic conditions. If you have to use a street-side manhole, you generally don’t want to be doing that doing the day.

[Image: “Deep inside the century-old wheelpit that is the beginning of the Rankine Generating Station Tailrace” (view bigger)].

BLDGBLOG: Within Toronto itself, are you still finding new drains, or is the city pretty much exhausted by now?

Michael Cook: We are still finding new tunnels beneath Toronto, and we’re on the trail of others that we know about but just haven’t discovered access to yet. There are also still a few underground gems in Hamilton that haven’t been seen by anyone except municipal workers and a handful of journalists. These days though, Montreal and Vancouver are emerging hotbeds for new sewer and drainage finds in Canada, thanks to explorers in those cities.

When Siologen came over here he found a whole bunch of new drain systems in Toronto – systems nobody else knew about. He had the time and the inclination to go and scout out a whole lot of stuff that I’d never gotten around to doing.

BLDGBLOG: How’d he do that?

Michael Cook: Basically by riding all the buses. That, and looking at a lot of little creek systems, and searching around for manholes – all of that.

But there are people who happen to read in the paper about some new tunnel project, or whatever, and so they pass that on to people who do this sort of thing. Outside of that, I don’t really know what to say. I guess some people have even found stuff after it’s been featured in skateboarding magazines.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Michael Cook: Some of the largest pipe in the world is used as spillways for hydroelectric projects – big dams and that sort of thing – and usually the first people who find out about this stuff are skateboarders. Usually they try to keep the locations pretty quiet – just as we do. But I’m sure that, at least once or twice, some tunnel explorer has found out about a system through the skateboarding community.

[Image: Ottawa’s Governor General’s Drain].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet, or even just an urban legend about some tunnels that may not actually be real – secret government bunkers in London, for instance.

Michael Cook: I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

You know, these legends are really… there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

[Image: “Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace“].

BLDGBLOG: Is there some system – a real system – that you’re really dying to explore?

Michael Cook: If I had unlimited funds, I’d really like to make a trip to South America and see some of the underground workings beneath Rio and São Paulo and Montevideo; and I want to go to Africa for a lot reasons but, obviously, it would also be really neat to see what’s built under some of the larger cities in Africa. It’s a place of real cleavages between modern development and the complete impossibility of expanding that development to the entire population. So great sums of money have been wasted on huge highway projects and huge downtown core projects that were completely unnecessary for anything other than creating the semblance of a modern city – but, undoubtedly, there’s subterranean infrastructure connected to all of it.

BLDGBLOG: As well as abandoned pieces of infrastructure just sitting up there on the surface – unused highway overpasses and derelict stadiums and things like that.

Michael Cook: Definitely. And huge mine workings, as well, in certain parts of Africa, that have been shut down.

[Image: Inside a distributor tunnel at the Ontario Generating Station drain; meanwhile, I can’t help but imagine what it’d be like if architects began building hotel lobbies like this: you check into your boutique hotel in London – and nearly pass out in awe…].

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, urban exploration seems to be getting a lot of media attention these days – this interview included. How do you feel when you see articles in The New York Times about people exploring tunnels and drains?

Michael Cook: The problem I have with general interest reporting is that it almost invariably becomes, you know: look at this, isn’t this weird. Because that’s the easiest way of presenting what we do. It’s not about anything else – it’s entertainment.

So I’ve never really been interested in taking part in articles like that. They happen all the time in various places around the continent. Somewhere, there’s always a reporter who needs to file a story this week, or this month, and so they find an urban exploration site on the internet and they think, hey, that’s a great thing to write about, and then I can fill my quota. It’s not even that what they’re going to write is false or misleading, but it ultimately presents an incomplete and slightly cheapening image of what we do – and, in the end, it doesn’t really accomplish that much.

I think what I’m getting at is that the format of the newspaper article or the television news feature ultimately waters all this down and forces it into a specific block – that, while true of a certain segment of urban exploration, isn’t really representative of the whole. It has the effect of pigeon-holing the whole endeavor in a way.

[Images: Disused hydroelectric machinery: top/bottom].

BLDGBLOG: That implies that there’s a way of looking at all this that you think needs more exposure. What parts of urban exploration should the media actually be covering?

Michael Cook: I think, even among explorers, that we don’t pay enough attention to process. I think every piece of infrastructure – every building – is on a trajectory, and you’re experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life.

We see things, but we don’t often ask how they came about or where they’re going to go from here – whether there will be structural deterioration, or if living things will colonize the structure. We tend to ignore these things, or to see them in temporal isolation. We also don’t give enough time or consideration to how this infrastructure fits into the broader urban fabric, within the history of a city, and where that city’s going, and whose lives have been affected by it and whatever may happen to it in the future. I think these are all stories that really need to start being told.

Which is something I’m starting on. It’s just not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires a lot of work, and a lot of thought while you’re on-site – which maybe you’re not really inclined to do, because you’re too busy paying attention to the immediate, sublime nature of the experience.

But the basic linear photo gallery really bores me at this point – especially when you’re seeing basically the same photos, just taken inside different buildings. It has no real, lasting value. A lot of people have fallen into that trap, and a lot of people defend that – saying that they’re making art or whatever, or that it’s just for their own personal interest.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s a matter of paying attention both to the site’s history and to how your own documentation of that site will someday be used as history.

Michael Cook: If you decide to take a purely historical approach to it, though, I think the real question is: are these photos of asylum hallways and drainage tunnels ultimately going to be useful to anyone else at some point in the future? And the answer is probably not. Probably we’re photographing the wrong things for that.

Some architect or materials historian is going to be cursing us for photographing some things and not others, or for not taking a close-up of something – or for not writing down any supplementary information at all to help them identify this stuff.

So that historical angle, to justify some of the stuff we’re doing, falls down on further analysis.

[Image: Abandoned cash registers].

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: What’s that?

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: Yeah, basically. It’s like we’re just digging things up and not paying attention to where they were placed, or what they were next to, or who might have put it there.

Ultimately, we need some sort of framework, and to put more effort into additional information beside just taking a photo. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing all that information so that everyone can see it – but just telling stories in other ways, and creating narratives about the places and the things that we’re seeing.

Otherwise, these are just postcard shots. We’re taking postcard shots of the sublime.

[Image: Inside The Skin of a Lion, Toronto].

• • •

While we were editing the transcript for publication, Michael wrote:

I got into the storm sewer I mentioned [at the beginning of the interview], shortly after talking to you. It’s now on the site as Sisters of Mercy. Similar to Pilgrimage, it ends in a siphon, rather than a traversable passage into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, which I’m still working on finding. We’ve started exploring combined sewers as well here – so that opens up some other options. In the end, the access I found was directly above where the siphon begins, quite close to the lake.

So the explorations continue.
With a big thanks to Michael Cook for having this conversation – and for maintaining such a great website.

[Image: The “Three Musketeers” standing inside Toronto’s Westview Greenbelt Drain; Michael Cook is the one on the right; one of the other two is Siologen].

For a few more images, meanwhile, check out Vanishing Point – in particular, stop by the Daily Underground).

(More underground worlds and urban exploration on BLDGBLOG: Urban Knot Theory, London Topological, Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city, Beneath the Neon, Valvescape, Subterranean bunker-cities, and Tunnels, mines, and the “upwardly migrating void”).

The Possibility of Secret Passageways: An Interview with Patrick McGrath

The novels of Patrick McGrath are often described as Gothic. They unfold across foggy landscapes and rolling moors, on marshes dotted with isolated houses and dead trees. There is a lot of rain.
McGrath’s characters are frequently deformed, crippled, mad, or somehow undefined, both psychologically and sexually; they are sinister, if naive, and quietly aggressive, weaving conspiratorial plots around one another with a tightness and an intricacy, and a psychological intensity, till something dreadful occurs – and the book then lurches on to its brutal and unhappy ending.
Amidst tropical swamps and London graveyards, crumbling barns and basements, operating theaters and unused bedrooms, we find incest, murder, and suicide – as well as the creeping, subterranean shadows of mold and rot.
But it is the settings, and not the plots, of Patrick McGrath’s novels that led me to speak with him for BLDGBLOG.
For those brackish marshes and dust-filled hospital wards are extraordinarily well-described; indeed, McGrath’s eye is intimidating in its attention to detail, supplying information across the senses, giving readers the taste, smell, and sound of his fictional worlds, in beautifully crafted sentences.
His landscapes are precise, vivid, and worth re-reading.

A question often asked on this website is: what do novelists, artists, and filmmakers want from landscape and the built environment? More specifically, how can architecture assist a writer as he or she constructs a novel’s storyline? Are certain types of buildings more conducive to one kind of plot than to another?
And what about landscape? How does landscape lend itself to literary effect – and could landscape architects actually learn something about the drama of designed space by turning to a novel instead of to a work of theory?
To the work of Patrick McGrath, for instance?
In the following interview, Patrick McGrath talks to BLDGBLOG about Romanticism, the Sublime, and the origins of Gothic literature, from Mary Shelley’s Alpine wastes to the forests of Bram Stoker, by way of Edgar Allan Poe and the frozen seas of the Antarctic.
We discuss David Lynch, The Sheltering Sky, the architecture of psychiatric institutions – where cell doors always open outward – and the spectacle of unfinished castles soaked with rain on the British moors. We pass through mountains, abbeys, and malarial swamplands, referring to Joseph Conrad, amateur paleontology, and the featureless voids of the Sahara.
We spoke by telephone.

[Image: Novelist Patrick McGrath].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, on the most basic level, could you talk about what makes a landscape “Gothic”? Is it the weather, the landforms, the isolation, the plantlife…? Further, in your own work, what is it, on a psychological level, that unites, say, the crooked and leafless trees of the British moors with the coastal swamps of Honduras?

Patrick McGrath: Not an easy question to answer! As you point out, a landscape could be tropical – or it could be Arctic, and it could still have those qualities that we might consider Gothic. It’s hard to know just what these landscapes have in common.

I suppose we have to go back to the origins of Romanticism, and to Edmund Burke‘s book on the Sublime, and look at his notions of the horrid and the terrible. There were landscapes that emotionally aroused the people of that time – but because of their what? Their magnificence in some way. The sheer scope and grandeur of the high mountains – the Alps which Mary Shelley described very powerfully in Frankenstein – or the eastern European landscape in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the loneliness and the remoteness of those mountains, the density of the forests, the fact that there are very few human beings there. Nature dwarfs humanity in such landscapes. And that will arouse the sense of awe that is made particularly dramatic use of in Romantic and Gothic literature.

Then, at the other end of the scale, we have a tropical landscape such as Conrad’s Congo in Heart of Darkness where it’s almost the reverse: it’s the constrictiveness and the fecundity of nature, the way it presses in on all sides. Everything is decaying. And decay, of course, is a central concept in the Gothic. So when you have tropical vegetation you do have a sense of ooze and rot – of swampiness.

BLDGBLOG: You mentioned that certain landscapes might have been “emotionally arousing” for the people of that era – but this implies that what makes a landscape emotionally arousing will change from generation to generation. If that’s the case, might something altogether different be considered Gothic or Romantic today? Have you noticed a kind of historical shift in the types of landscape that fit into the Gothic canon?

McGrath: My first thought is: not so much of landscape – but let’s say in the view of the city.

My second novel, Spider, was inspired by a book of photos by Bill Brandt. He captured the seedy, ill-lit character of the East End of London of the 1930s in such powerfully human character – illicit liaisons on wet cobbled streets, toothy barmaids in grotty pubs, pulling pints for sardonic men in cloth caps – that I was at once inspired to find a story there. But I do think the Victorian slum – the dark, rather shadowy streets that have a sort of sinister and rather threatening feel to them – could be replaced by the blandness of a suburb.

I’m thinking of what David Lynch did in Blue Velvet, with a scene of apparent utter normality. Think of the opening scene where a man is watering his garden and everything seems, well, perfect in that neat and orderly suburban way and yet his camera then goes beneath the grass and we see all sorts of forms of life that are slimy and grotesque and that aren’t apparent in that hygienic world above.

So there may be something in that: the suburb as the most Gothic of sites. Think of the work, say, of Gregory Crewdson.

BLDGBLOG: That raises the question of what sorts of architecture pop up most frequently in Gothic literature: usually English manor houses, church ruins, forgotten attics and so on. Why are certain types of buildings more conducive to one type of storyline and not others?

McGrath: I think you’d have to say that there are two questions here. There’s the conventional, stereotypical Gothic site which tends to be a lonely house high on a hill, probably Victorian, with turrets and the possibility of secret passageways and cellars and attics – places of obscurity, places where the past somehow resides. You know, houses of secrets.

These sites, in turn, would have grown out of the more traditional Gothic architectures – basically the ruins of monasteries and abbeys and convents and such, which dotted the British landscape in the 18th century, after the Reformation. Those first aroused the taste for ruins, and that was the origin of the Gothic. That would be basically a medieval architecture – in ruins, as I say, because of what Henry VIII did to the English church in the 16th century. So those were the places where people like Horace Walpole set their fiction, because the buildings were in such a state of decrepitude.

I think anything that sort of relates to these large, broken down, dilapidated structures would arouse the Gothic effect.

[Images: The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1809-10, and Cloister Cemetery in the Snow, 1817-19, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: Interestingly, though, in the work of J.G. Ballard, you get the same sort of psychological atmosphere – of perversion, violence, and dread – from a totally different kind of built environment: instead of crumbling manor houses, you have corporate office parks in the south of France, or even British shopping malls.

McGrath: Absolutely – and that was going to be the second part of my answer. There is the old Gothic, which does have a very definite architectural style that comes out of the structures of the Middle Ages, as these became ruins and gave off a sense of ghostliness and evil and menace. But then there is what you might call, I don’t know, a new Gothic, where the particular trappings of the old Gothic, the particular stylistic characteristics, are not necessary to produce the same sorts of effects – the feelings of dread, constriction, obscurity, transgression. You can get those from inner city projects, for example, or even a little neat rowhouse.

There was an early Ian McEwan novel, The Cement Garden, where all sorts of perverse wickedness was going on but in a very sort of unmemorable little house, in a street of very similar houses, none of which would particularly smack of evil. Although I did notice, when I was re-reading it, that he uses a little crenellation detail in the architecture of one of these absolutely anonymous little houses. He’s just touching-in this faint hint of the Gothic – as though to say: this is a child of something out of Ann Radcliffe, some decaying monastery in which an aristocrat pursues a maiden in the depths of the night.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if there are any real buildings that you have in mind when you’re describing places like Drogo Hall or Crook Manor. Put another way, could someone ever do a kind of Patrick McGrathian architectural tour, or heritage walk, visiting sites that have inspired your fiction? Where would that tour take them?

McGrath: [laughs] Good question. I don’t quite know where I get them from. In part from the imagination, in part from books, books I’ve got around the place with photographs or paintings of buildings, some of which I’ve observed and remembered.

There’s a house called Crook in my first novel, The Grotesque. I found a lovely little book in a second-hand bookstore in New York, called The Manor Houses of England, and I simply leafed through it, picking up details here and there – not only architectural details, but verbal details. The way that aspects of architecture are described – the sorts of terms that are used – can be as much a part of the creation of a building in fiction as a clear, purely visual picture in your mind. You catch a nice phrase that’s used to describe, I don’t know, a Jacobean staircase or a particular piece of detailing or masonry – and you fling it in because it sounds good, rather than just because it evokes a particular image.

But I don’t think there’s a pattern. They’re usually curious amalgams that I put together in my imagination.

BLDGBLOG: I noticed one day that there is a real Castle Drogo. Architecturally, how much of that was an influence on your descriptions of Drogo Hall? Or did you just use the name?

McGrath: It was basically just the name. Castle Drogo’s somewhere down in the West Country, I can’t remember where – I think it looks over Dartmoor. It was built in, I think, the early twentieth century by some rich industrialist, as I remember, who wanted to have a main building with two wings. But then his son was killed in WWI, and he’d only built one wing of the castle. He grew so despondent that he never built the second wing. All the life had gone out of him. So it’s an incomplete structure. It was also essentially an ersatz thing – it wasn’t a proper castle. It was an Edwardian idea of a castle – of which there are many in Britain, of course. But it was the name; the name was very powerful: Drogo.

So I pinched the name and gave it to a building that I largely invented out on the Lambeth Marshes. And, again, the Lambeth Marshes as I describe them don’t really have any resemblance to the Lambeth Marshes as they existed in the 18th century. I mean, I sort of put a Dartmoor on the south of the Thames – and I don’t think it was like that! [laughter]

BLDGBLOG: Well, it works, so…

McGrath: It works – and that’s all you want.

[Images: Castle Drogo].

BLDGBLOG: Have you read The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald? One of the stories is partially set in an old, sprawling psychiatric hospital in the forests of New York state. Near Syracuse, I think, or maybe Ithaca. The narrator explains that his uncle once committed himself there voluntarily to undergo electroshock therapy, basically as a way to erase painful memories from some time spent in the Sahara south of Cairo.

McGrath: Now, this is very, very interesting – I’ve read Sebald, but not that particular book. In fact, I’ve just finished a novel which is set in Manhattan and the last couple of chapters are set in a mental hospital in northern New York state. And I had no idea about Sebald using that location – and I didn’t really know about the Victorian institutions you described.

What I did was I took an institution from northern Ontario where I worked when I first came over to North America, and it was very unlike a Victorian institution. It was sort of like a blockhouse – like a penitentiary. And so what I’ve done is I’ve sort of plonked that down in upstate New York – but I might have to rethink how I’ve done that based on what you’ve just said. But this is great to know – I’ve still got time to tear that chapter apart.

BLDGBLOG: Well, some of those hospitals – these big, Gothic complexes – have actually been demolished. But in other cases, they’ve been transformed into apartments and condominiums –

McGrath: Yes, that’s happening in England, too. I visited old Victorian asylums there that have outlived their usefulness and are now being converted into apartments.

[Image: The Hudson River State Hospital, beautifully photographed by Kirkbridebuildings.com. The rest of that site – especially the other hospitals – is well worth checking out].

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the question of landscape, the natural environments in your work are extraordinarily well-described; in fact, there are parts of Asylum that strike me as literal exemplars of superb landscape description. I’d love to know more about how you work: if you actually visit specific locations, driving up to the moors or through the hills of New England, to capture your descriptions on the spot; or if you work from memory, or from imagination, or even from other books of photographs.

McGrath: There have been times when I’ve gone to a place. When I went down to Belize, for instance, and saw what Belize City looks like – the shacks lurching unsteadily over the river, the mangrove swamps and so forth – that just told me, instantly, that here I had the setting of a novel. I took a lot of photos and then basically used what I’d seen. Other times, I just sort of invent it.

I remember when I was writing The Grotesque, I had the Berkshire marshes in there, and I’d been out of England for many years at that point and somebody pointed out to me that, in fact, there are no marshes in Berkshire –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

McGrath: – but by then it was too late. I needed there to be marshes and I wanted it to be Berkshire, for some reason, and so there it was: a completely nonexistent landscape had sprung to life.

I don’t know, I look at things and a lot of it comes from reading. I discover details that, for example, in prisons and asylums you will always have the doors opening outwards so that whoever is incarcerated behind that door won’t be able to blockade themselves inside the room. Little details like that give the character of an institution and can be very evocative on the page.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious about weather and climate. For instance, a wet climate – with thunderstorms, humidity, and damp – seems to play a major, arguably indispensable, role in the Gothic imagination. Your own novels illustrate this point quite well: from rain-soaked country homes to the Lambeth marshes, from coastal fishing towns to Central American swamps. But can aridity ever be Gothic? In other words, if the constant presence of moisture contributes to a malarial atmosphere of decay, mold, infestation, and disease, might there be a whole other world of psychological implications in a climate where things don’t decay – where there is no mold, where bodies turn to leather and everything can be preserved? Is indefinite preservation perhaps a Gothic horror of its own?

McGrath: Aridity does interest me. It’s an unusual application of the Gothic mood. You usually think of northern European or north American climates and landscapes, but that’s merely because, traditionally, that’s where these sorts of stories have been set. But I can very well imagine aridity being a place, or a site, for such a story.

I think you could safely say that one of the themes of the Gothic is the sins of the father being visited upon the sons – in other words, there is no escaping the past. The past will always haunt the present. And this is certainly true of Gothic stories that are set in crumbling old houses: there’s always some piece of evil that has occurred in a previous generation that will work itself out on the current generation. So that continuation – or persistence – of the past is what you’re expressing: it’s the skeleton that can’t be disposed of.

But I’m trying to think if I know of a Gothic tale set in a desert, and the only thing I can come up with is… I think it’s an old Erich von Stroheim movie. It might be called Greed? There’s a man who has, somehow or another, wound up handcuffed to his companion – and the companion has died. This is in the quest for gold. Somehow or another their greed has got them into an impossible situation: they’re handcuffed, the companion has died, and so we have a man crawling across the desert handcuffed to a corpse. It being a desert, of course, he’s doomed. But that’s a very powerful image of an utterly arid landscape.

In the spirit of a new Gothic, one that isn’t dependent on very particular types of landscape or architecture, you could certainly exploit an arid landscape in order to create a condition of extreme thirst, extreme solitude, extreme desperation – all of which would be appropriate states of mind for a Gothic story. I just can’t think of many examples.

BLDGBLOG: It never really occurred to me to refer to this book as “Gothic” before, but there’s The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – where you see people completely destroyed by the desert. The Sahara is presented as this strangely dark landscape, something that they can’t comprehend culturally and they can’t survive physically.

McGrath: Whether you could get away with calling that Gothic, I don’t know! But, certainly, there is horror in that environment. It does have that in common with the Gothic. You can’t have the Gothic without horror, and the desert is a place where, you’d think, horror is always close at hand.

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, some of the earliest Gothic fiction was actually polar – Mary Shelley’s Arctic chase in Frankenstein is an obvious example. I’m curious if glacial landscapes and frozen seas attract you? Might there someday be a kind of Arctic Port Mungo?

McGrath: Well, again, in the novel that I’ve just finished, I wanted to take my character, when he’s pretty much spiraled down as far as he can get in New York City, to a place of snow. And there are all sorts of precedents for this. Frankenstein, as you say, begins up in the Arctic Sea – and ends there. I think the final image is Frankenstein pursuing his creature across the frozen waste – a vast white landscape. There’s also Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which comes to a place of great whiteness; and, almost contemporary with that, is Melville’s white whale.

There is something about whiteness that is almost identical to blackness in terms of what it can evoke. I think it must be about featurelessness: the horror that comes of there being nothing there. It’s a white nothing instead of a black nothing.

But the absence of color would suggest a kind of emptiness, a draining of life and meaning. A void. And the Gothic is very fond of a void. And Melville was certainly onto that. I mean, you can’t help but see that the white whale is really just a blank screen onto which Ahab has projected all sorts of powerful and twisted emotions – but, in itself, it is merely a screen. Melville’s possibly suggesting that all of nature is just such a blank screen, and that it is the business of humans to project meaning onto nature, that meaning is not inherent, is an idea that I think we can comfortably live with now; but, I think, in the 19th century, it was probably a great deal more threatening to God-fearing people.

[Image: The Sea of Ice, 1824, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: One of the most striking images I’ve read in years is actually your character Hugo Coal, from The Grotesque, assembling his dinosaur skeleton in the family barn. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what went into that image – but also what you think about the human encounter with prehistoric monstrosity: with dinosaur bones, and marine fossils, and the utter strangeness of the earth’s inhuman past.

McGrath: What interested me – before I’d even thought through aspects of deep time, and what that means – was that a man could go to Africa and collect a bunch of bones and crate them up and bring them back, and then spend the rest of his life trying to see what fitted where. This may be completely implausible, in terms of paleontology, but I just liked the notion of Sir Hugo sitting there in his barn, year in, year out, trying to make a pattern, to make a structure – and continuing to get it wrong. It seemed, somehow, very much in the spirit of human endeavors to discover the truth, or to figure out how nature works – or even, within that book, to get an answer to the mystery of who killed Sidney. It was to do with the fallibility of knowledge that was contained within this enterprise of getting the bones to fit – and they won’t! [laughs] There’s always a bit left over, or something that won’t go where it’s supposed to go. So that was the aspect, the epistemological aspect, of reconstructing a skeleton that first fascinated me.

Then there was the notion of this thing coming from deep in the past and being now extinct – from so deep in the past that it no longer had any place on this earth – and the suggestion that Sir Hugo, in a sense, was the same. He, too, was a dinosaur; his day, as a representative of a certain social class, was past.

But the first impulse that I had was that this was a carnivorous creature. This wasn’t a gentle herbivore Hugo’s got there. This was a creature of enormous violence and absolute rapacity, capable of tearing its prey to pieces, and I wanted to suggest that those sorts of implicit violent energies were now swirling about this old country house.

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, though, it seems like the contemplation of the earth’s biological past lends itself well to the Gothic mood – but contemplating, say, the earth’s geological past just doesn’t have the same psychological impact. For some reason, rocks just aren’t very Gothic.

McGrath: Well, I remember the way that Conrad handles the river in Heart of Darkness: he speaks of the journey that Marlow takes to get to Kurtz as being a journey through, or deeper into, the geological history of Africa. I forget how he does it, but he gives you the sense that, as the boat moves up the river, it is also descending through eons of time. So there is almost a sense of a geological regression occurring as Marlow moves toward a man who has committed an act of enormous moral regression. Everything is about a movement downwards in that book. I’d say that he employs geological descent to mirror a moral descent.

BLDGBLOG: Of course, there’s also Hugo Coal’s surname: coal, a geological product.

McGrath: There you are. Absolutely. That was no accident. Again, I’m referring to deep layers of what once had been wood, and that now, through the operation of time and pressure, is something quite different.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’d like to ask you about islands. You’re from England, with a home in Manhattan, and you’ve lived on “a remote island in the north Pacific.” Interestingly, though, your work doesn’t include a lot of islands – indeed, there are very few scenes at sea. Do the Gothic possibilities of islands, or archipelagos, have any literary interest for you?

McGrath: Well, that’s true. I don’t know why that should be. I’ve put people by the water often enough – a lot of my people seem to stand in high places gazing out to sea – but the notion of an island as a… I suppose the island gives you the possibility of a closed community – and that’s always a good site to play out a story in. You can just say that the world doesn’t extend beyond the borders I’ve imposed upon it. I suppose the use of a village is a sort of island. The last book I’ve done is set in Manhattan almost exclusively, but… I’ve never sort of literally done an island.

I think every novelist – unless you’re Dickens, maybe, where you just want to give a great sweep of an entire society – finds a way of creating islands, or social islands, anyway. The family is a sort of island. A prison, an asylum, is a sort of island. A town can be a sort of island. I mean, every novel has to limit its scope geographically and socially, so I suppose we create islands – but I’ve never particularly been drawn to an island itself. Though I do have a novel somewhere in the back of my head set on an island in the Mediterranean.

I suppose the answer is: I don’t see the need for an island in itself, when the only point to an island would seem to be to draw a circle around a community. Unless it was the notion of being cut-off… That would be a good reason to make an island. You know, where the weather closes in and your people have no way of escape. I can see that being a way you might want to use an island. But I just haven’t felt the need yet.

[Image: Monk by the Sea, 1809, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: As I mentioned, your bio refers to a “remote island in the north Pacific.” I’m just wondering where exactly that was?

McGrath: There’s a group of islands called the Queen Charlottes. They’re off the northwest coast of British Columbia. If you were to find Prince Rupert on the map, you would then just go due west about 80 miles, and they’re just south of the Alaskan panhandle. There are two main islands: Moresby and Graham. Moresby is uninhabited and Graham has, oh, two or three little towns. That’s where I lived a few years.

I was a schoolteacher back in those days, and I’d been living in Vancouver, and I wanted to get out of the city, basically. So I got a job teaching there, and, while I was there, I basically gave up teaching and built a cabin and declared myself a writer.

That was the beginning.

• • •

BLDGBLOG would like to thank Patrick McGrath for taking the time to have this conversation – which he and I both hope to continue in a few months’ time: so watch out for another interview with Patrick McGrath here on BLDGBLOG, to be posted, I hope, this winter.
Meanwhile, Asylum, The Grotesque, and Spider are all great places to start, if you’re looking for an introduction to Patrick McGrath’s work. Spider, of course, was recently filmed by David Cronenberg. A new novel, meanwhile, called Trauma, is due out in April 2008.
Finally, this PDF contains a much longer, and older, interview with McGrath (in which he describes the grotesque as “things beginning to merge, things becoming undifferentiated” – the grotesque is a “breakdown, in every dimension that I could imagine, in the organic, in the social, in the sexual, in the natural”). Briefly, then, it’s interesting to point out that one of the manifestos mentioned in the previous post discusses the grotesque in terms of monstrosity, beauty, and architecture.