In Which Buildings Meet Their Chronicler As We Talk With Geoff Manaugh

Slightly Better Than It Used To Be

an interview with Geoff Manaugh

by George Ducker

Geoff Manaugh used to have dyed blond hair. Now it’s brown. We’re glad about this, as old press photos made him look a bit like that kid in your chemistry class wearing the Screeching Weasel t-shirt who seemed strangely excited to be learning about photosynthesis.

We’re also glad that his blog exists. In fact, the word blog has become a kind of comical understatement, as he devotes the kind of time and care and slavish attention towards architecture, ecological concerns and subterranean tunnels that most dudes would devote to their Fantasy Football Team (Go Echo Park Lakes!)

If this weren’t enough, he’s just taken on the Senior Editor post at Dwell Magazine and relocated to San Francisco. The move might have left him a little homesick. Where he found the time to talk to us is anyone’s guess.

Antarctica; also perhaps L.A. and San Francsico, separated by I-5

TR: How are you adjusting to life in San Francisco?

GM: We got up here almost literally a month ago. It was the transition from starting at Dwell…I haven’t had two free days since we got up here. So we’re still kind of rearranging the furniture and figuring out how to use the kitchen and all that kind of shit.

TR: Like how to turn the oven on?

GM: Just figuring out where to put stuff.

Whether it’s convenient to have the coffee mugs in this cabinet or the other one. We just haven’t had a chance to get used to our new place yet. My wife and I are pretty busy so we don’t spend that much time in the apartment. It still feels like we’re coming home to someone else’s place.

TR: With all the work at Dwell, it seems like you couldn’t have any possible time to work on BLDGBLOG.

GM: I’m starting to think that too. I’m finding the time and I’m getting up really early. In addition to the blog itself, I’m working on a book that’s based on the blog, so I kind of have to keep it going. To make sure that it even has a public presence so that when the book comes out that it’s got something to refer to. The book is due in January or early February of next year, so for the next four months I’m going to be pretty monastic.

TR: It probably helps that you’ve just moved to a new city. It cuts down on old friends calling you up to go out and get drunk.

GM: Yeah, but it’s almost just as bad because I’m turning down invitations from new co-workers to go out, and I think that sets up a bit of a chronic force field that may come back to haunt me. I’m a pretty friendly person, so I think they know I’m not blowing them off. They can also get onto BLDGBLOG and see that I wasn’t out boozing it up behind their backs.

“Stoned Faces Don’t Lie” — Doug Sahm Quintet: mp3

TR: How would you initiate a novice into the world of design? I didn’t know very much about design and/or architecture. And I still don’t. But I came across the phrase “chic steel cube” used to describe a residence. I could see from the pictures that the place looked nice, but I couldn’t reconcile that phrase with anything resembling comfort or a “residential” demeanor.

GM: First of all, you use the language to initiate people into it, rhetorically. So with the phrase chic steel cube, it’s like saying jumbo shrimp. It sounds a bit like an oxymoron. People just have to just accept the humor of modernism—it can be a fairly ridiculous style—and understand that when people are looking at it, that they’re not going to see what you’re seeing, and so therefore instead of describing it as a chic steel box, just saying “Yeah, it’s fucking box, but you can do this that and the other with it.” Then people realize that they aren’t the only ones who think modernism is a bit alienating. Hopefully it could get people into thinking that there’s actually a lot of freedom in this style that allows for a lot of individuality and it’s very clean and very nice.

TR: That a particular style can be warm and helpful in a functional way, and not just shapes and lines devoid of meaning.

GM: But then physically, if I wanted to bring someone into design, I would just start with relatively modest means. Like a new toaster. This $11.99 toaster that you bought from Target is similar to this other toaster which, granted, is $17.99—but look how much difference there is in the detail, or look how cool it sits in your kitchen…Then I’d slowly move down the line with small things like that: coffee mugs, blankets. Do the whole Martha Stewart thing.

I think it might help people realize that their everyday lives can improve on tiny incremental levels. Like a new toothbrush that would actually make you want to brush your teeth at night because the handle on my toothbrush is really cool. Or driving your car in the morning is now a better experience because you got this form-fitting travel mug.

TR: Man, I could use one of those.

GM: But design isn’t some weird abstract thing where you have to be European or dress like the Sprockets guys. You can just be psyched that your life is now just slightly better than it used to be. Then if the bug catches, you can deeper into it…kind of like reading slightly better books. You don’t have to, but it’s going to improve your life in a small, incremental way.

“Swinghouse” – Gerry Mulligan Quartet: mp3

TR: I was looking at the Schulman photographs in the last Dwell issue, but I was also looking at photographs in a number of other publications. It was all clean lines, and clean space. And I figured that this cleanliness exists because they’re ultimately trying to sell a product. But is there any sort of market for “lived-in” or “cluttered” interior photography?

GM: I think there is, but I think it’s a different branch of the market. I think it’s geared towards Spin magazine or something: “The Home of Flea.” Maybe then you want to see the piles of beer cans or whatever, then I think you would want to see the lived-in space.

TR: What’s the MTV show? Cribs?

GM: Uh. Yeah. MTV Cribs.

TR: Yeah! I’ve seen that damn show and every time they go inside a celebrities’ house it’s all been cleaned out. There’s no beer cans or bongwater or anything.

GM: I’m tempted to say that in advertising and photography there’s a whole other level which is the world of lawsuits. That, if you walk into somebody’s room and they’ve got…a Heineken and a Penthouse out on the table…that might be how you’re living, but you’re gonna get sued because you just tied their brand in with Heineken and Penthouse and they don’t want those associations to be taking place. You’d lose your advertisers if you’ve got a pack of Marlboros laying on the kitchen table.

I mean I think there’s definitely a market for that kind of stuff. What is that market? Is it an architecture market, or is it a lifestyle market? There’s a series in the Guardian called “Writer’s Rooms,” which is photographs of rooms where writers work. I’m sure there’s some arranging going on behind the scenes, but the rooms are generally pig-sties. You’ve got two thousand sheets of paper stacked up underneath a dictionary, there’s ashtrays, empty glasses of wine.

Martin Amis’ room

Then you realize: Oh this is where they work. The point is not the architecture but to see what fills the architecture. So there’s that difference, where maybe Dwell or Metropolis or Home & Garden are focusing on the background, on the space itself. It depends ultimately on what you want to fill the lens of your camera with—the space or the personality.

TR: Have you ever done landscape or architectural photography professionally?

GM: No. Not seriously. Only as someone who wants a record of a building I’ve seen.

TR: Can you think of one object that was basically worthless at the time you found it, but it’s gained all this intrinsic value from you owning it over the years?

GM: I have a lot of stuff that I’ve hung onto, but mostly it’s because I’m a collector. But I think the closest thing actually isn’t man-made at all. I’m huge into rocks. I love rocks. I’ve got rocks all over the fucking place. I’ve got this huge chunk of flint that I picked up in the hills in Surrey. There’s this park that my wife’s grandmother likes to go, and we were walking and I looked around and the path was strewn with all of these unbelievable rocks. Just natural flint. I picked this one particular one up, and it looked just like Australia.

Sweden as a rock?

TR: The country?

GM: Yeah! It fits the outline perfectly. If you hold it at the right angle it could double for a map of Australia. It’s even got Queensland. It’s almost architectonic. It doesn’t have a flat base—it’s very angled. Since flint is pretty sharp you can make arrowheads out of it, you can make spears. It’s not like mica, it’s not like those flaky, thin rocks that break easily like slate. It’s pretty durable. More like obsidian because it’s really sharp angled rock and when it cleaves, it’s very angular and kind of knife-edged.

TR: How big is it? The size of your palm?

GM: It’s pretty big. Like the size of my whole hand. I’ve had the thing for six years and I flew it back to the States and I’ve moved it all over the U.S. And I still have the thing. It’s up on our mantle.

D.C. back in the day. Probably more rats then.

TR: Have you had any bad experiences with apartments you’ve lived in? You moved around a lot, so I imagine you’ve found yourself in situations where the landscape or the feng shui was less than amenable.

GM: When I was living in Washington D.C., I came home from work one night and I heard a noise which I thought was the showerhead falling off and water splashing all into the bathtub. I mean, that’s what it sounded like, but then I had got this creeping feeling—I watch a lot of horror movies—that there was probably a rat in the toilet. And there was!

TR: Was the lid shut?

GM: Well, he was in the water, like splashing around. He got in there somehow. The first thing I tried was to flush the toilet, but of course that didn’t work. All it did was take all the water out and gave the rat more traction. So I flushed it again—nothing happens. I just had no idea what to do. I called an exterminator, but they quoted me two hundred dollars for some guy to come down and take care of it. So I wait around, meanwhile the sun is going down, it’s getting later, it’s a work night…So I get this idea that, you know how bleach kills basically everything?

TR: Sure…

GM: I thought well, I could kill the rat with bleach. So I poured a whole bottle all into the toilet, thinking the rat would die any minute, but the thing was squealing and making this awful racket, so I put the lid down. After a minute or two I opened it back up. The rat was just sitting there. Not only is it still alive, but it’s just sitting there, totally hairless, and looking right at me.

Trinity College Library, Dublin

TR: And now it’s pissed.

GM: No! That was the thing. It didn’t look angry. It just looked really sad. Like, “Man, all I wanted to do was drink a little water, I crawled into the wrong place and now I’m covered in bleach.” By this point, I’m figuring the rat is indestructible, so put an old Art History textbook on the lid. I went down to the hardware store and bought the thickest pair of electrician gloves I could find. The kid that rings me up is this kind of 17 year-old punk rock kid. I tell him, “There’s a rat in my toilet,” and he gives me a look of complete bafflement. Like I’m the neighborhood crazy man.

So I bike home, and I grab two trashcans. I’ve got these little identical trashcans that fit into each other. I figure I’ll put the rat into one and trap it with the other and then take it outside. So I reach in and the rat starts squealing and hooking into my gloves, but it hangs onto the edge of one of the trashcans and ends up getting kind of mangled in the process. The thing still wasn’t dead when I got it outside.

TR: Suburban animal terrorism.

GM: So now I feel terrible about everything and I spend the next month or so sleeping with two or three Art History textbooks on the toilet.

TR: So you have a talk coming up at the Hammer Museum with Lawrence Weschler? [They had it already. It was great. About 30 people showed up–Ed.]

GM: I think he’s been reading BLDGBLOG for the last year or so. He and I first got in touch about a year ago and now we have some mutual friends. He put me in touch with Walter Murch, the film editor, and I ended up interviewing him for the website.

TR: You were just in Chicago, right? At the Humanities Festival?

GM: Yeah, I was up there giving a talk. It wasn’t even a talk so much, but we were there for a planning session of next year’s festival.

TR: The Daniel Burnham-themed one? The Centennial?

GM: It is, actually. So we’re going to do the talk at the Hammer and [Weschler] really liked BLDGBLOG even though it operates on the messier edge of architecture. It kind of veers more towards things like science fiction and geology.

TR: There’s a Los Angeles-based art gallery called Machine Project that recently did an experiment with tracking the CO2 emissions from ripening tomatoes and converting that into music? I was wondering if you could think of anything that’s been done similarly in a spatial /architectural sense? With movement?

GM: I do know of things that are based around recording people’s movements, but it’s more on the optical end. They use cameras to map out people’s movements through a space.

There’s a guy in London who I should be interviewing in the next couple of weeks for the blog. His name is Alex Haw. He does a lot of stuff with surveillance. He put a piece up in London called the Lighthive. I’m still not quite sure how it worked, but it looked like a chandelier curtain made out of bird-like light fixtures. They turned on and off or dimmed according to the people’s movement in a different room of the gallery. I don’t know how it was measured, but the light ended up diagramming other people’s movements.

TR: Building a kind of sonic architecture?

GM: Right now, there’s a lot of interest in sonic landscapes. They have “soundwalks” and things where one can acoustically engage with urban space.

So this is disputed research, but the Tomato Quintet made me remember this experiment recently where you could turn certain genes on or off by using different sound frequencies.

In fact, the effect was intense enough that he thought you could potentially replace the need for photosynthesis using sound. You could grow genetically engineered crop strains in the dark by playing ultra low bass or really high-pitched frequencies.

But he thought you could use sound as a way of manipulating through vibration the genetics of seeds which would then cause (without photosynthesis) the sprouting of, effectively, acoustically engineered crops. It’s one of the weirdest fucking things I’ve ever heard.

“Arcana 19 (track 2)” – Kunihanu Akiyama: mp3

George Ducker is the senior contributor to This Recording.


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