Fellow gray matter(s) writer Hamza Hasan and I recently had the opportunity to interview Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG and Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography. Discussing everything from architectural iconography to misanthropic Leeds United fans, they articulated unique perspectives on blogging, poetry, education, the future, and more.
S: What word could describe the architecture of the 21st century? Would there be any -isms?
G: I think that the existing historical categories that pop up a lot in architectural history books are relatively appropriate for the times that they discuss; so everything as basic as modernism or post-modernism and that sort of thing. But as far as an overarching -ism for the entire 20th century, it seems to me that there is too much variation to really say that there is one particular kind of architectural description.
You’re dealing buildings that have been standing since the middle ages in some examples, you’re dealing with architecture that has just been constructed last week in others. I think that to find a kind of general description might be difficult, but I guess Iconism, I suppose is as accurate [a description] as we might have for the first decade of the 21st century.
The quest for a building that sums up a city with a one-liner and gives people something to put on the cover of a magazine or gives you a nice photograph or in-flight article to “Come Visit Dallas” or “Come Visit Athens.” I guess I’d say Iconism is as close as it can get, but with 90 years to go in the 21st century, I would imagine that we would see quite a lot of architectural changes.
S: Assuming that blogging is speculative, how can it speculate on the -isms that might emerge tomorrow? (Maybe in space?)
G: I think any act of what you might call “the narrative diagnostics of what’s yet to come” is a nice role for blogging.
If you can extrapolate from existing trends and anticipate where they might be in 10 or 15 years, that’s one way of doing it. But I think another is simply to trying to imagine against the grain of the times: what might occur in twenty or twenty-five years? Or, for that matter, two days? The future is increasingly rapid, so 25 years is the equivalent of saying 200 just a little bit ago.
There’s a sort of physician’s way of reading the symptoms and trying to anticipate the cure of the illness that is yet to come for architecture. Or there’s just simply fictional speculation writ large for you to come up with ideas that may or may not exist in the future.
That is one of the traditional roles of science fiction: not so much that it’s anticipating things based on what’s real today, but just coming up with ideas for an alternate present or future scenario. Sometimes those become real because they inspire scientists or architects to build the vision of the science fiction writer. Other times it’s just sheer fantasy, but it’s a provocative one nonetheless.
S: What sort of science fiction being produced today could feed into that?
G: Maybe this is more of my own individual temperament, so I don’t know if it is a societally accurate statement, but I know that dystopian visions of the future have become increasingly easy to find. Whether it’s the surveillance state of the future or it’s the post-civilizational state where cities have collapsed, climate change has flooded cities like New York, and people are left to fend for themselves in a kind of stateless, almost Tea Party-like world.
But that might just be my temperament. There’s a lot of more optimistic science fiction writing coming out of the future from a different standpoint. Whether it’s the medical promise of things like stem cells or the construction promises of things like 3d printers. Entirely different kinds of optimistic communities and almost utopian scenarios can be opened by the appropriate use of new technologies.
But I think it depends on the temperament of who you ask that question what the future will be.
H: What’s your take on edible architecture?
N: I think there are a lot of ways to go about working with food and architecture: from Terreform’s meat house to the more conventional approach of putting a vegetable garden on the roof, although calling that conventional, it seems, is not that conventional yet.
But I think in terms of working with food as a material for building, it is pretty exciting as a conceptual tool to start thinking of musculature and inorganic matter’s architectural possibilities. So as a conceptual tool to enable you to open up a different way of thinking about a building that might grow or be both clone-able but also adaptive.
I also think that there are pretty fabulous material discoveries being made with fungus. Depending on how you define edible, I’m not sure you would want to eat the fungi that they use in construction, but its certainly edible in its inspiration. So I think there’s a lot interesting work being done with materials. I also think incorporating edible aspects into architecture is important, less in terms of actually feeding ourselves and more in terms of creating awareness and top-of-mind visibility of where food comes from.
G: I think it’s funny that all architecture, in a sense, is actually edible architecture. It’s just that it’s not humans doing the eating: things like fungus and kudzu, and even the roots of trees tearing down architecture. All buildings are edible, it’s just different creatures that are doing the consuming.
H: What was your favorite lesson in school? Who taught it to you?
N: It seems like such a long time ago…
I think, like everyone, I was more a fan of the field trips than the lessons that happened in the classroom. That still holds true: there’s nothing like going to a place and talking to people who work there and opening up a whole new set of ideas.
I was actually a huge fan of geography in school from the point of view of landscape processes. I had a teacher named Mrs. Stag, I think it’s the only name I can remember. We spent a lot of time mapping meanders… But I think I’ve learned a lot more out of school than I ever did in school.
H: What was your favorite lesson out of school? Where did you pick it up?
N: Anything out of school. I always read a lot, those were my formative educational experiences. I didn’t start to understand that I could shape my own path of inquiry until grad school. It took me a long time to realize that with the tools that school is supposedly trying to teach you, you could simply look at what you find interesting in the world and learn about that.
I’m not narrowing in on a most interesting lesson; for me the most recent is the most interesting thing. There have been several amazing things that I think I’ll remember longer than any class in school: a tour by a mushroom farmer of his farm in a disused railway tunnel in Australia, a trip around a sugarcane factory, an evening spent with a molecular gastronomist in Brooklyn.
These sorts of experiences proved to me that I’m not actually senile, I just remember only what I’m interested in.
S: So does this make blogging an educational tool?
N: Absolutely. Blogging is the best excuse there is for spending time pursuing people and things you find interesting because it can justify that you are going to produce something.
I also think it is a great way to hold onto that information afterwards. But I guess this is the point of writing a paper in school. Though for me it never worked that way, whereas for blogging you’re forced to synthesize what it is that you found so interesting about the experience you had, or what you just read, or the person you spoke to.
It’s probably the most educational experience I have.
S: What’s a little known hobby, talent, or interest of yours? Who introduced it to you?
G: I spent a pretty long time in my life writing poetry, it was introduced to me by my Latin teacher.
The summer between my 8th and 9th grade, my mom hired a tutor for me over the summer. Not for any classes that I was learning in school, but specifically for poetry. We read The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn, so there was a maritime theme of people journeying through landscapes by water. Then we used that as sort of a writing exercise all summer. We gave each other random themes to explore in poetry…
I was sixteen or fifteen years old at the time and that turned into a pretty major current in my life: just until a few years before BLDGBLOG, I wrote poetry fairly intensively for a healthy 11 or 12 years. I don’t really have to talk about that time of my life…
I don’t really know if it’s an active hobby, to be honest, but I suppose the same impulse for description and reusing of words comes out in my blogging. As far as actually writing in stanzas, it’s not something I do often anymore.
H: When you did write in stanzas, what structure did you use? Did you follow a specific format, or just what the prompt called for?
G: It was a combination of free verse and constraints. If I did take constraints, it wasn’t meter or anything like that. It would be more things like the French experimental writers of the ’60s and ’70s. Like the Oulipo, where I’d set a limit of letter use and deliberately come up with arbitrary constraints to see what would happen.
But as far as actual writing, it was descriptive free verse. Not iambic pentameter or anything, though I was good at translating Latin poetry back in my day.
H: So no sonnets for you?
G: No, but if you want me to, I’ll try to write you one…
H: How did you two meet?
G: We met on orientation day at a grad school in Chicago. 10 years and 1 month ago. We met at an art museum.
N: We were going around the room saying where we came from, and I said I had just graduated from the University of Leeds. So Geoff came up and said, “I was just in Leeds.”
G: I had been in Leeds two weeks earlier, visiting a friend from high school. A friend who had moved to England after going to school here.
H: So, I’m assuming you’re Leeds United fans?
N: Actually, in college one of my jobs was serving burgers at the Leeds United football stadium. They had the meanest fans. They’re sort of legendary along with Millwall for having the meanest fans in the league. So I can’t necessarily say I’m a fan, but I have spent a lot of time with them.
S: How do you get your caffeine fix?
G: Well, we’re doing it right now!
N: There’s four cups of coffee on the table in front of us right now.
G: Nicky used to drink tea, being from England, but I guess I converted her somewhere along the line to the stronger stuff. Yes, we tend to make quite a lot of cups of coffee in the morning, and drink them.
Occasionally, I’ll get a double espresso or something like that, but I’m not much of an energy drink kind of guy. There’s something about waking up over a hot drink that contributes to focus, whereas if you just down a Red Bull, all of a sudden all you want to do is jump around.
N: Geoff is responsible for making coffee, I don’t actually make the hot coffee. I haven’t gone that far. But I get up first so I make tea for myself, and then I get my extra charge of caffeine from Geoff.
Lately, I’ve also started making cold-brewed iced coffee at home, now we’re in LA so it seems appropriate. And if you cold-brew it, it’s incredibly good!
So it’s a lot of caffeine.
H: So do you usually use a coffee maker or a french press? What’s you preferred process?
G: I have this really, really old-school thing, I don’t know why I prefer it, but it’s just a black, plastic cone called a Melitta filter. That’s all you need, really, just some hot water and this black plastic thing. No moving parts or anything, just stick a filter in it, put some coffee in that, then it comes out the bottom into a pot or cups or whatever you want. You don’t need to wash very much at the end, and you don’t need a machine that you turn on.
It’s pretty lo-fi, but I guess that’s why I like it. It’s a six dollar piece of plastic.
H: Sounds like something we could use in studio…
S: You guys seem to travel a lot, but you mainly work on your blogs? How do you fund these explorations?
G: Mainly, these trips are paid for in some manner. Either through giving a lecture or teaching. The only real vacation we’ve taken in any substantive sense, in a long time, was last summer. The summer of 2009 we spent one month in Rome. That was kind of a vacation, but we ended up blogging a lot anyway. At least, I was blogging, and Nicky was scheming the beginning of Edible Geography.
But everything else has been work: we were in Australia where I was teaching at the University of Technology in Sydney for a kind of two week super-workshop, there were a couple of lectures in Scandinavia, and London, and in Montreal as well.
I suppose the thing that makes it more realistic is not so much the money. I think if you genuinely want to go somewhere you can figure out a way to make it financially viable. Whether it’s setting up a speaking gig, or just a temporary internship or that kind of thing.
The thing that challenged us this time was that we put everything we owned in storage. We left San Francisco thinking that we were just going to be gone for the summer. That we would do this Rome thing, and then go down to Australia and then come back. That trip that was supposed to be two and a half months long ended up being fifteen and a half months long. The only reason we were able to do that was because we had our stuff in a storage unit. If we had not had a storage unit, there was no way we could have done the New York City thing or Montreal or stay in Europe as long as we did.
So, in some ways it’s almost an experiment in mobile living by putting everything into a storage unit and using that as an excuse to travel around the world. That was one of the more important parts. I think we are both too old now to keep things in our parents’ basements. The storage was the appropriate venue, as well as the fact that we live on the West coast and neither of us have family out here, so there is no basement or closet out here to stick our stuff in anyway.
Gray Matter(s) would like to thank Geoff and Nicola for their support of the blog and the students of the College of Architecture, and we wish them the very best in their future work.
[ architecture, blogging, coffee, Edible Geography, education, food, geoff manaugh, love, nicola twilley, poetry, science fiction, v_02 | i_06 ]