Geoff Manaugh, who founded the popular website BLDGBLOG in 2004, and myself, a fellow architecture blogger, share a number of enthusiasms. Among them: novelist Don DeLillo, 18th century architect Sir John Soane, and ’60s pranksters Archigram. These cult figures populate the pages of The BLDGBLOG Book, released this past summer by Chronicle Books. For an architect whose taste skews wider than the modernist canon, finding them referenced in each chapter is like running across a favorite eccentric uncle.
On his website (bldgblog.blogspot.com) and in this volume, Manaugh’s vision is fueled by the gothic and the sublime: crumbling monuments, vintage warfare, musical icebergs. And he is not shy about showing off his romantic tastes. “BLDGBLOG is fundamentally about following, and not being ashamed by, your own enthusiasms, whether or not they are rigorous and appropriate for the academic mores of the day, or even interesting for your family and friends,” he has written in defense of his outlier subjects.
I was eager to see how Manaugh would translate his verbose and eclectic website into print. “I wanted to use the book as a book,” he writes. As such, he’s created material “exclusively” for the volume. The new essays and interviews, including a conversation with Archigram’s Peter Cook, make up the bulk of each chapter—bonus tracks for hardcore BLDGBLOG fans. Still, it’s the dozens of reprinted blog posts that make for livelier reading, especially, for example, Manaugh’s talk with British novelist Patrick McGrath, in which McGrath explores the writing process and the dark imagination it takes to develop “gothic landscapes” with words.
It’s hard to say if the new texts make the book any more book-like: It still feels very bloggy, minus the hyperlinks and comments. (Actually, links would help. In just a few pages I chalked up references to works by Umberto Eco, Neil Gaiman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Orson Welles. The extensive name-checking borders on HighFidelity’s record-store-clerk insiderness.)
In each short essay, Manaugh lets his consciousness expand. For instance, in a piece titled “The Weather Bowl,” he proposes manipulating the climate to create public events and fun spectacles. Letting his narrative get frothy, he writes, “Weather control is the future of urban design. Engineering the climate is how we’ll make our cities interesting again.” Like how Katrina made New Orleans interesting again? Is Manaugh critiquing the political gap between climate change and urban infrastructure with a sly parody? We’ll never know—he finishes the essay imagining a new Pritzker Prize for best weather effects.
A flooded city does appear in the essay “Wreck-diving London.” Here, London slowly sinks as the tide rises. Manaugh takes the opportunity to feature drawings of Retreating Village, a project by architects Mark Smout and Laura Allen that puts houses on rails to adapt to a changing coastline. (It was previously published in their 2007 book Pamphlet Architecture 28: Augmented Landscapes.) He also quotes extensively from The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel, relishing the descriptions of polluted lagoons and submerged arcades. Manaugh wears his Ballardian love on his sleeve. He’s clearly a fanboy: There’s even a section at the back of the book to collect autographs—Ballard, check; David Byrne, check; Brad Pitt, check …
The BLDGBLOG Book is filled with beautiful photography that captures the sublime and tantalizingly dystopian moments in the contemporary built environment: a pavilion-like checkpoint constructed by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, photographed by Simon Norfolk; David Maisel’s aerial shots of the toxic Owens Lake in California. The images tell the narratives that seem to elude Manaugh. Evidence of manmade destruction, they do the heavy lifting for his fantasy-prone texts.
“Architecture is, in many ways, a very specific type of science fiction; it is its own genre of speculative thought,” writes Manaugh. He’s convinced that architecture needs to be more exciting, and that liberal poaching from other, more imaginative genres will shake things up. But as the interviews and photographs attest—and as sci-fi aficionados already know—science fiction is at its most chilling when it expands on conditions already at hand.