Geoff Manaugh, Los Angeles-based writer and creator of BLDGBLOG, and Nicola Twilley, contributing writer for the New Yorker, are writing a book on the history and future of quarantine, to be published by MCD Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in 2021. Manaugh spoke with DLA in late April.

This interview was conducted on June 9, 2020.


You and Nicola Twilley started this project on quarantine ten years ago with your initial research and the exhibition, titled “Landscapes of Quarantine,” at Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2010, where you asked designers to come up with visions for the future of quarantine. You’ve spoken about your experience of beginning this project after finding an old quarantine station in Sydney, Australia, that had been abandoned and then turned into a hotel. Why was something that seemed such a relic of the past interesting for you and Nicky?

For me, as someone who writes about architecture, it was the idea that there was a way of dealing with disease—which, from a modern point of view, I would associate with vaccines, pills, or surgery—instead you can design a building in such a way that you can prevent the spread of a disease from one person to the next. It seemed like a way to instrumentalize architecture beyond just aesthetics, or beyond just everyday use value such as, you know, this is a restaurant or this is a home. It gives architecture – and the very fundamentals of architecture, including questions of circulation and sequence, and where walls and doors might be placed – a medical effect. And it helps to avoid the need for a vaccine or avoid the need for medical treatment later.

There was something fascinating about that for me. Quarantine seems, on one level, like a very simple practice – let’s just put one person in this room and another person in that room. But, actually, it’s a really sophisticated and strange way of giving architecture a medical purpose that is larger than just a building or a building design. And then it was also just the idea that something that interesting is now just a ruin, and it’s just been turned into a hotel, and in many cases has just been erased entirely. Most quarantine stations are missing now. They’re gone. What does it say about the state of quarantine today that something that fascinating and that interesting architecturally is just totally overlooked?

Thinking back to the exhibition on quarantine at Storefront ten years ago, I was wondering if there were aspects of that, some of those investigations then that have become even more relevant now? What kinds of visions can we look to architecturally or urban design-wise for new visions of quarantine?

For the exhibition, and the design studio that led to it, we wanted to invite people outside of the design world, not just architects or designers. There was a graphic novelist, an author, a photographer. There were also artists in a more traditional sense. There was a sound designer, a musician. We wanted to bring all those disciplines together and focus on the concept of quarantine. How can they all learn from one another? What would an architect and a sound designer come up with if they discussed quarantine? What would an architect and a graphic novelist come up with if they were trying to tell a narrative about quarantine? …Maybe where the story is set, or the kinds of buildings that are featured in it, or how an architect might influence the story.

The idea was a multidisciplinary approach to one idea. That’s one of the things we liked so much about the studio and the exhibition. That approach in architecture is quite important. If you take an abstract idea like quarantine, or disease, or transportation, and you bring people from outside of architecture into an architecture studio, you can have a really exciting conversation about what that term means in their fields, or what it means for the things they might be exploring.

The sound artist, for example, was looking at temperature tracking stations when you first get off of airplanes and are being held in a kind of liminal state before you’re given entry to the country that you’ve arrived in. The kinds of technical experience and the… almost sonic environment of paranoia waiting to have your temperature taken.

One participant, architect Brian Slocum, looked at the famously perforated facade of Storefront for Art and Architecture which swivels on hinges and opens to the outside air. He found a way to take a couple of those doors and attach prosthetic devices onto them so that, depending on what state the door was in, it was simultaneously open and closed. It would be open and closed for different people for different states of the door. It was a really interesting engagement with the very idea of the threshold of a building, of being inside and outside, and potentially being inside at the expense of other people and vice versa. It was the idea that quarantine might come down to devices that we add to buildings that simultaneously are inside and outside.

Another group called Front Studio looked at what they called Q-City. The idea was that it was possible to implement a kind of parallel quarantine infrastructure so that you can still inhabit the city and its full range of experiences, from shops to operas to movie theaters, but never leave the quarantine infrastructure. And they explored the ways in which there would be a parallel infrastructure – almost like a New York City A and a New York City B – and you would be in one or the other depending on what state of quarantine you were in. I think that that kind of thing would be really interesting especially as coronavirus might become a multiple year experience – some people are talking about 18 months of social distancing – what might be implemented that’s a bit like their vision for Q-City.

That seems to be something that reclaims the role of physical design in a topic that in some ways has become much more about the “touchless.” Following up about the role of architects and designers in this pandemic: we’ve had a lot of debates recently about how architects and designers can become more relevant in terms of our relationship to power, as people who are oftentimes involved in reinforcing structures of power. You’ve pointed out the issues of power that quarantine inevitably brings up. Do you think that this moment is an invitation to designers and architects about how we may have more social responsibility and possibly social relevance in this moment, and are there ways that we can do that?

Yes, this could be a way for architects and urban designers to insert themselves in a more engaged manner in very important conversations. And for us to bring more importance to the design field. On one level, you see this in terms of how we design the city to make it easier for social distancing. How do we reuse a street as a temporary park or maybe a permanent park? How do we widen the sidewalks for medical reasons, not just because walking is already good for you in terms of preventing diabetes or keeping the populace healthy. But now wider sidewalks can actually allow us to avoid one another in terms of disease. Those are questions of urban design as much as they are questions of medical necessity. I think that engaging in that conversation is very important.

Another thing that comes up a lot is the importance of dual-use facilities. We’ve been looking at everything from the Javits Center in New York City being suddenly remade into a medical facility for overspill patients from hospitals, and at one point they were even looking at Saint John the Divine, the gothic cathedral in New York City, as a possible medical bay, which has all kinds of metaphoric resonance. But, in any case, we’re looking at facilities that aren’t designed with a medical purpose in mind suddenly taking on medical purpose. The example that comes to mind a lot for me is that, in Japan, there is already an importance placed on dual-use architecture in the expectation of there being a large earthquake. So there are extra electrical outlets, there are water hookups for fresh water for taps, there are even these kind of pop-in devices that allow you to turn manhole openings for the sewer into makeshift toilets for people to use in public.

There could be an earthquake while you and I are having this conversation! So we’re always just on the cusp of a radical transformation, and architects can help imagine that transformation, how we might build our buildings differently. One thing that Nicky talks about is the possibility of a kind of quarantine code that architects could help develop, so that when you’re designing a new building, whether it’s a stadium or it’s a shopping mall, when you go through the building code you would add a quarantine code, and you would figure out ways that you could make sure that it’s ready. So a supermarket, for example, is ready to switch into quarantine mode where now we have to maintain distance between each other.

I’m sure, for you and Nicky, this present moment has changed your work for the near-term. Your book will certainly include this moment in it! How does the sudden timeliness and pertinence make you think about the relationship between quarantine and disease and other aspects of our world that architects and designers have increasingly looked at, such as issues of sustainability and climate change?

One of the things that’s very interesting is that, for decades now, people have been talking about international airplane travel and the greenhouse gas emissions of the transportation industry in general as if there’s nothing we can do about it. I have a friend here who’s an architect who allegedly lives in Los Angeles. But every time this person is on social media, you know, it’s a new airport, they’re flying over a new landscape… They go out of their way to take international trips that seem unnecessary. Now with COVID-19, at the flip of a switch, suddenly all of those international trips – flying all the way to Austria to give one lecture, or flying all the way to Istanbul to appear at a gallery opening – seem kind of flippant and frivolous. And if we can turn it off that quickly for this then why can’t we turn it off that quickly for climate change? In terms of its effects beyond just the human sphere, of entire ecosystems, of sea-level rise, climate change is a very substantial threat that dwarfs the coronavirus pandemic. So why can’t we implement those changes for that?

I think that, if anything, the quarantine experience that we’re having is the realization that large-scale, drastic changes are actually possible. People will in fact go along with them. And that we’re resilient. We’ll find a new way to make things happen. We just gave a lecture to 160 people. We’re using the internet, and it didn’t require driving through rush-hour traffic, or someone flying in from out of state. There are ways that we can adapt and communicate with each other and respond to looming crises.

I’ll just add briefly that the original title for our book was The Coming Quarantine. The idea was that at some point there will be a massive quarantine because of international travel and emerging diseases and so on and so forth. But needless to say we’re looking at a new title. This is the coming quarantine! You know, it’s here – the near future crisis that our book was describing has arrived. And it’s very interesting to experience that from the inside.

One more question because we’re in Los Angeles. It seems like every city has its own idea of itself. It makes its own myths through either its triumphs or its crises. Like, New York City now certainly reflects its idea of how it responded to 9/11. In LA we think of events like the Rodney King uprising. And I was wondering if there’s anything particular about LA’s social or spatial history that you think is particularly pertinent now for how we are responding to this crisis.

Not to downplay the disease, I do think that it’s interesting how easily it’s been to lock off certain neighborhoods from each other and not have the kind of epidemic spread that we see in New York City. It’s almost like Los Angeles was prototyped on the idea of social distancing. We already live in a social distanced landscape. I do think that the spread out nature of Los Angeles means that we’re kind of skating through the quarantine – or through the lockdown I should say – with a slight more sense of ease than other municipalities like New York City or Boston. We’re already usually in a car traveling through a landscape alone going from one building to the next and not usually interacting with other people. The stereotype of nobody walking in Los Angeles… You’re already describing a world under lockdown.

The dark humor of it all is that some of Los Angeles hasn’t necessarily noticed that things have changed. Of course, having said that, and more seriously, it’s fascinating that we have the cleanest air we’ve had since the 1980s because fewer people are driving and industrial plants are shutting down. People are seeing Los Angeles as beautiful for the first time in a generation. So many people associate it with smog and ugliness and concrete. Now you’re seeing people on social media sharing photographs of Los Angeles and being like, my god, it’s actually a beautiful city because the sunsets are coming down over clear skies. I think that there’s a strange kind of resonance between social distancing and lockdown and what we already had in Los Angeles, and that’s actually quite interesting to me.

Photo Credit: Ellis Island quarantine and hospital complex, photograph by Geoff Manaugh. Lazzaretto Vecchio in Venice, photograph by Nicola Twilley. Ebola isolation unit in London, photograph by Geoff Manaugh.
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