Geoff Manaugh, the puppeteer behind the much-loved BLDGBLOG and purveyor of all things speculative, spoke Friday at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He regaled the crowd with tales from the landscape future, in a lecture that was akin to a mad dash through the head of a child who’s interested in everything, and won’t be deterred by practical constraints. Throughout, he explored how the built environment has historically interacted with terra firma, and mused about what that interaction might look like in anywhere from 50 to 50 million years from now. What materials will stay with us, and which won’t? Will cities learn to work in tandem with the organic process of flooding and decay? How do we plan, architecturally, for climates that will invariably change within our lifetime?
Manaugh’s blog has long functioned as an amalgam of things that excite him, and he shared slides from some of his favorite blog entries, which include ephemeral cities, fault lines, and ruins. He is particularly enamored of “American Acropolis,” a controversial photo essay by New York photographer Camilo Vergara that envisions Detroit transformed into an historical ruins park. One audience member took issue with this, questioning the utility of focusing on ruins rather than reclamation or adaptive reuse projects that have practical applications. Manaugh’s reply? Those things aren’t interesting.
One of the complaints often lodged against architecture critics is that they would rather not deal with the messiness of things like poor people. Manaugh is no different, but he at least recognizes the class bias inherent to his obsessions, pointing out that had he grown up in a crumbling city, such as Sarajevo or even Detroit, he wouldn’t get such a thrill from architecture that personifies man’s losing battle against time. He’s also disarmingly cheerful for a self proclaimed disciple of JG Ballard, the science fiction writer who is known for his dystopic portraits of the future. As a Baudrillardian, Manaugh recognizes that most things in our post-modern world are simulacra of what they once were, but he’s fascinated, rather than troubled by this. One of his most insightful arguments relates to our changing relationship with nature. He presented the images of Finnish photographer Ilkka Halso to demonstrate that nature will soon become a place where you either go to pay respects, or to bask in the delights of a theme park.
He explained that we’re already witnessing examples of this, with the Bush administration’s decision to allow snowmobiling in the once-sacred space of National Parks.
He’s fascinated with the increasing commercialization of the natural world, and proposes a meditation on the moment when the diver of the future discovers that this “natural looking” coral reef in the Red Sea is actually brought to you by OBS systems.
At the very least, it’ll be interesting.
Manaugh has been outspoken about his disdain for Philadelphia, so of course I had to elicit an explanation from him. In short, he reviles its dishonesty—a city that bills itself as inherently walkable, when it fact it isn’t. When he lived here, he delighted at watching museum-goers racing their strollers across the Ben Franklin Parkway, dodging buses and taxis in the process. Its a fair observation, and one which deserves a riposte fitting for Manaugh himself. Let’s hear the zaniest, most impractical yet highly entertaining solution to the problem … and go.
Be sure to look for Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG book in March of 2009.
Read more Manaugh at BLDGBLOG