A decade ago, when Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley first started researching what would become their forthcoming book, The Coming Quarantine, they never imagined that they’d be finishing it during a global pandemic. By the time the book is published next spring (by MCD, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the title will likely need to be revised to reflect the idea that quarantine is neither an exotic relic of the past nor part of some dystopian future, but rather a familiar part of our lives.
Manaugh is perhaps best known as the writer behind BLDGBLOG, a long-running (since 2004) compendium of ideas in architecture and design informed by his various other interests: technology, literature, crime, history, archaeology, acoustics, science fiction, and more. He’s also the author of the 2016 book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, published by FSG Originals. Twilley, his wife, a New Yorker contributor and the cohost of the podcast Gastropod, is “deeply obsessed” with refrigeration, the subject of her forthcoming book The Birth of Cool, to be published next year by Penguin Press.
ARCHITECT contributing editor Karrie Jacobs spoke with the two writers from their home in Los Angeles, which is now under a countywide “stay at home” order.
Jacobs: You couldn’t have anticipated completing work on your book on quarantine while in quarantine. But you’re in L.A. which, because of the coronavirus pandemic, is under lockdown. Have the current circumstances altered your thinking about the subject?
Manaugh: For me at least it definitely brings home just how complicated it is to try to get everyone on the same page in terms of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine. It’s very easy to expect everyday life to go on as usual and to go socializing or to do the things that one would have done normally, only to confront the surreal absence of those opportunities, such as seeing grocery stores, even local convenience stores, that are closed versus other places that seem to be open, like a liquor store that we drive past a lot. So it’s just strange to see what survives in quarantine and what doesn’t.
Twilley: Having been to a bunch of simulations, high-level kind of [pandemic] simulations involving senators and the CDC and the World Health Organization, and seeing this now play out in real time, a lot of the questions that were left at the end of the simulations—like, will the American people go for this?—are questions that we’re dealing with in real time. People said, Well, we’ll lock people down or We’ll impose this kind of restriction on movement and other people in the simulations would say, I don’t know that that’s going to fly in America. And we’re seeing this debate happen in real time.
Jacobs: When did you start thinking about the subject quarantine and why does it interest you?
Manaugh: About 11 or so years ago we were traveling for some teaching opportunity that I had down in Sydney, Australia. There was a big, sprawling quarantine complex on a peninsula that had actually been repurposed as a semi-luxury hotel [called Q Station]. At the time, quarantine seemed like this outdated approach to disease control that was no longer used. People didn’t go into quarantine anymore. And the idea [was so interesting] that all of these beautiful old structures, these very remote, isolated places that had been very well-suited for what they did medically, that now it makes them ideally suited for a total different kind of touristic experience.
So, we really started thinking about quarantine from a spatial, geographic, and architectural point of view and that led to the exhibition that we put together at Storefront for Art and Architecture that opened almost exactly 10 years ago. That was called Landscapes of Quarantine.
Jacobs: That was a group show where you had architects contribute ideas, conceptual pieces?
Manaugh: It was more than just architects. It was very interdisciplinary. The idea was to take quarantine as a kind of scenario and then task people in different disciplines: How would this affect a novel you might write or a stage that you might design or a building you would design, etc. And that’s what led to the group show.
And I think then it was maybe five or six years later that we started looking again at the world of epidemic disease and we decided that we would revisit the quarantine material. And so that’s the book that we’re now finishing.
Jacobs: And was there a particular disease outbreak, like SARS, that prompted you to start thinking about quarantine again?
Twilley: No, it was more that I think both of us realized there was just so much that had come out of this three-month-long studio that we did with this multidisciplinary group. There was so much still there that we wanted to revisit.
And we should say that, when we started seriously doing the research for this book, even the World Health Organization was, like, Oh, yeah, quarantine. Tool from the past. We don’t even really think of it as a realistic thing anymore. I spoke to the woman who’s the director of pandemic and epidemic diseases at the World Health Organization and she practically laughed at us when we said we were writing about what quarantines would look like in the future. Because to her it was historic.
And so that’s another thing that’s been really interesting about this current moment: it’s still the only tool we have in some circumstances.
Jacobs: I want to go back for a second. In your research, are there models of quarantine throughout history that intrigue you most? Are there things you came across that were either horrifying or brilliant or fascinating?
Twilley: One thing that we looked at is other species have quarantine, too. Particular species of ants and bees actually have entire sections of the hive set aside for newly-returned workers to be screened until they’re proven healthy. So it’s not a uniquely human phenomenon.
Manaugh: What interests me actually is the fact that it’s so consistent over time and that it’s constantly being tweaked, where we change maybe the number of days that you’re being held away from other people or we’ll change the number of people you can be held with. Or we change the floor plan slightly of the hospital or the lazaretto or the place where these people are being quarantined. But there’s just something to me about the fact that it is this very consistent idea of creating a spatial and temporal buffer before people can come back into society.
And it’s how that abstract algorithm takes on architectural shape that I think was one of the most interesting things to me throughout the research process, because we were able to see it by visiting some of the oldest quarantine stations ever constructed in Europe.
Jacobs: And what did they look like? What was the model?
Manaugh: I think that you get a kind of standard sense of fairly remote structures. Often, at first glance, you would assume that they were a fortress of some kind, possibly a prison or jail. But there’s a kind of architectural language of isolation and protection. Very often they’re also in quite stunning locations, so it actually made the research process a very nice travel experience.
Jacobs: And have a lot of them become luxury hotels or just the one in Australia?
Manaugh: Some have been torn down, obviously. Others have been converted into theaters or restaurants or luxury hotels, but often they’re on islands just off the coast of the city as opposed to in the city. Or they’re out on a peninsula that’s just beyond the reach of the municipality. I think there’s this kind of spatial language of quarantine, where things are meant to happen out on the edges or be pushed out beyond the limits of the city or where people would normally congregate.
Twilley: And the other thing that’s consistent is this idea of circulation. You get negative and positive [air] pressure in the most sophisticated quarantine facilities today. But you can see the same concerns articulated architecturally in the earliest quarantine facilities, but they’re done through positioning of windows and arcades and entrances and exits. So there is this concern with flow and circulation that I think is really interesting.
And you can see, even right now, people now trying to redesign the flow of their shops, for example, to control and prevent circulation and contact; they are in the moment redesigning those commercial flows into quarantine flows. And it’s a particular kind of way of thinking about space that, as Geoff said, is consistent over time, even though it manifests slightly differently.
Jacobs: Have you decided whether quarantine is an architectural construct or is more of a social and political construct or some mixture of the two? Historically and also in the present?
Twilley: I am also writing a book about refrigeration and I think about these two concepts in almost the same way; you’re manipulating both time and space to fend off marauding microbes. So it’s both a temporal and a spatial phenomenon is the way I think about it in our ongoing millennia-long struggle against the microbes.
Jacobs: Refrigeration is a form of quarantine?
Twilley: It’s a different spatial and temporal manipulation that is also part of the same struggle. But, you know, I just see it in that light. There are tiny enemies—it’s sort of asymmetric warfare—but our tools are temporal and spatial at the end.
Manaugh: We are trying to keep the book as literal as possible, so it really is about quarantine in terms of disease management and epidemiology. But it is interesting, though, just how flexible it is as a metaphor and that quarantine almost immediately become not just architectural, but geopolitical. It becomes literary. It becomes metaphoric in an almost psychological sense. It’s a very flexible term, which also makes it dangerous politically because it’s very easy to start using the idea of separation and isolation as a political tool.
Jacobs: Someone writing about your project brought up Venice as the original quarantine city. It’s an island and you could close the bridges and all of that. And I started thinking about it and realized so is Manhattan. If you wanted to close off Manhattan, it wouldn’t be that hard to do.
Manaugh: Well, it’s funny, those two cities have a lot in common in terms of being archipelagos and having that ability to create isolative barriers between different neighborhoods. So, yeah, you could do the John Carpenter scenario of Escape from New York and close the bridges and build a wall around Manhattan, create this isolated world of quarantine or, for that matter, an isolated world of health.
Venice isn’t truly the place of origin, which is actually Croatia. The city of Dubrovnik pioneered the idea of quarantine, historically speaking. But Venice was the laboratory of invention and innovation. Venice, precisely because of its geography, was able to experiment with different kinds of quarantine and different ways of cutting off different neighborhoods and creating things like the very first ghettoes.
Twilley: I think there seems to be this affinity, as Geoff said, between islands and the idea of quarantine. At the same time, the U.K., which is an island nation, has traditionally been really resistant to quarantines and, while the rest of Europe has enormous infrastructures dedicated to quarantine, the U.K. was usually just in favor of letting trade flow freely. It was much more of a commercial, mercantile, trading nation.
And so I think, it’s interesting. I mean, you can clearly, one can go either way as an island.
Jacobs: Are there clear connections between quarantine and architecture, ways that quarantine has shaped architecture or that architecture has shaped quarantine?
Twilley: As we were researching the book, one of the public health experts we spoke to was talking about the difficulty of preparing for quarantine and pandemics in general. And talking about the need to embed dual mandates in public planning. And I think we’re seeing that happen now as gyms and conference centers are being transformed into big Wuhan-style [facilities]. This is where people who are infected but don’t need to clog up our hospital ICUs can go. And you think, well, perhaps there would have been a way to make those more functional or more easily transformable. You can’t build an entire separate infrastructure to sit there empty in case of a pandemic, but you can build a shadow pandemic architecture into your existing architecture by thinking through your needs. Can you mandate that these large structures are transformable?
Jacobs: I’ve been thinking about Javits Center in New York. And of course when there’s a trade show what you have is myriad little booths in this huge space. And, when you look at the pictures of these treatment centers they built in Wuhan, it’s that same setup.
Twilley: Exactly. But what would an actual public health version of that look like? The capability is there and so thinking about the ins, outs, drop-off, pickup—building that into the design of the conference center from the start would have been the really smart thing.
Manaugh: Thinking about things like recessed or sub-floor electrical outlets for setting up individual treatment bays or even plumbing, so if you wanted to have hand-washing facilities, you could just tap into a previously unused parallel plumbing system that would be underneath the floor.
Along those lines, we sit around and act as if there are no solutions for anything, whether it’s epidemic disease or it’s homelessness. And then all of a sudden at a flick of a switch, we’re turning either underused or abandoned buildings or temporarily unused buildings like hotels into places to house the homeless or to house people in a quarantine and bringing hospital ships into the port or harbor area to expand hospital capacity.
And I think what’s so interesting about that is the solutions already existed. They were around three months ago before the coronavirus hit. And I think that that kind of creative emergency thinking reveals that we already are surrounded by many spatial solutions to many existing societal problems. They’re just not possible yet politically.
Jacobs: One thing I thought was fascinating in all of this was how Wuhan shut down a city of 11 million. Is that something that you paid attention to as it was happening?
Manaugh: Definitely. As recently as just two months ago, we were ending the book with a look at the future of quarantine. And so the idea was to use a thought experiment to look ahead in five or 10 years with the way that things are moving in the technological world, with smart homes and with surveillance technology etc., to try to imagine where quarantine might be down the road.
And what was so interesting with what was happening in Wuhan and China in general was the realization that the future of quarantine is now. We are already seeing the implementation, almost overnight, of things that we saw—or at least things that I saw—as being several years away, if not a decade in the future, where you can combine this big data approach to tracking people, their temperatures, the people they’ve met, the places they’ve been. Even how far they might have been outside certain stores to see if they were a risk to the people inside. All of these things that seemed really futuristic and kind of dystopian and almost like a science fiction movie suddenly were happening in Wuhan.
And so, yeah, that was actually very interesting to track. It brought home the realization that all the things that I thought were in the future are here already and in fact can be implemented overnight if you have the right political structure.