Greg Lindsay and BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh on the Future of Cities

Greg Lindsay is a journalist whose writing has appeared in publications like Time, Fast Company, and recently the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. His new book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next (co-written with John D. Kasarda) is a fascinating look at the future of cities in an increasingly connected world. To mark its publication this month, Lindsay hopped on Skype with Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, to talk about Aerotropolis, global urbanism, the role of the architect, and the internet’s place in architectural criticism today. Work in Progress is bringing you the second part of this conversation; you can head over to BLDGBLOG to read the first part.

Geoff Manaugh is the founder and author of BLDGBLOG, one of the best architecture and design blogs out there today. He is a former senior editor of Dwell magazine, a contributing editor at Wired UK, and the author of The BLDGBLOG Book, one of Amazon’s 100 Best of 2009.

Greg Lindsay: I think this is our moment to segue into my interviewing you now, so my question for you is: how prepared are architects to be generalists, or to really think about the issues, or to work with people in other fields. I’ve spoken to Jamie von Klemperer, the design principal at the firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, who’s basically the mastermind behind New Songdo City in South Korea. And now, because of the work that he’s continuing to do with Gale International, he’s trying to work with people from Cisco to figure out how to build a smart city into the physical city, or how to work with the aspatial or nonspatial in a place that’s all about space. Von Klemperer would be the first person to tell you that he’s not really much of a technophile. Are architects prepared to grapple with other cultures, in the sense of technology culture and engineering culture? Are they bewildered? What’s your perception of how they are dealing with nontraditional urbanism?

Geoff Manaugh: There are a bunch of answers to that. One of the reasons I like architecture as much as I do, and enjoy writing about architecture so much, is that I think there’s a multidisciplinary open-mindedness toward these sorts of approaches and ideas. But, having said that, I also think that architects still have a tendency to try to use these multidisciplinary experiences simply to stylize their projects—to offer nothing more than aesthetics.

Geoff Manaugh

They end up missing real opportunities coming from the material sciences, information technology, or even new engineering and construction methods. Rather than genuinely jumping into these sorts of things, there’s a tendency to use them as a signature move that will make their buildings look individualistic enough to be seen as theirs. That’s a tendency that I’d like to see go away in architecture. I would rather see people genuinely dive into these technologies and new cultural encounters. I’m thinking of everything from 3-D printing to robotized construction methods, even to the great specter of prefab that has been hanging over architecture for about forty years yet never seems to work. To see more effort in that direction would be interesting.

The cultural question is something else entirely. For instance, last summer I was based in Montréal at the Canadian Center for Architecture, and there’s a man there named Vikram Bhatt, a professor at McGill University. It was interesting to talk to him about the work he’s done—I guess you might call it “humanitarian urbanism”—where he was trying to design whole neighborhoods. It’s nothing compared to the stuff you’re talking about in Aerotropolis, but it’s very large from an architectural standpoint. And it was interesting because Bhatt didn’t just take a design method that he’d been taught in a North American university and then export it to India and China to see if it worked; he actually developed an entire spatial system, trying to figure out exactly how much space someone might need if they were going to be weaving clothing at home, for instance, or if they were going to be making shoes or even assembling circuit boards. In other words, he was taking the informal economy that architects otherwise might want to sweep under the rug, and he was trying to extract from it culturally specific spatial needs. From there, he tried to frame a new architectural project based on these cultural requirements. What’s interesting about this is that these projects reformatted space from a different standpoint; Bhatt looked at what people might need in a village in a totally different way. Instead of just saying “everybody needs a piazza” or “everybody needs benches in a park,” he realized that everybody needs a place to hang out laundry or a front porch where they can simultaneously assemble gadgets and also sell them to the people who come through, or public squares that could easily and immediately be reconfigurable as traffic throughways and marketplaces. It’s nothing particularly avant-garde or groundbreaking, but it reveals that there’s a whole other world of spatial rules out there, hidden in everyday human behavior, if only you’re willing to look for it. Architects need to be open to performing that sort of investigation.

The funny thing with architecture is that it’s going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. It sees precisely all of the things that you’re talking about—businessmen launching their own cities; FedEx inaugurating its own metropolis in the middle of the United States—and it looks at what architects can do. For the most part, it’s people in their thirties and forties who are more or less doing work for free because they can’t find any clients—they might design a single-family house for their parents, or they’ll do a bathroom renovation, or they have to get a job at a major corporation like Kohn Pedersen Fox, SOM, or, for that matter, OMA—and they no longer know what architecture is capable of.

Trying to figure out what it is that architects should do now is a real question. There’s a kind of diaspora of architects who have taken the skills that they learned in architecture and, because they couldn’t find work in that field, have begun to use those skills in other industries and other businesses. It would be fascinating some day to map that diaspora and to see where everyone has ended up, because you see architects going into things like graphic design, or set design for films and theater, even special effects for everything from video games to motion pictures. It would be interesting to see not only where they’re going but who they’re being replaced by. That’s one ongoing evolution or transformation within architecture that I think will be particularly interesting to watch over the next five or ten years.

Lindsay: So what is architecture at this point? There’s the notion of the architect as this powerful figure with the ability to shape cities. But now it seems like they’re almost in a subservient position, where grand-scale technocrats, bureaucrats, and developers are dictating the vision, and the architect is doing it. Is there a way for architects to get back to the center of this process? Is just building a building no longer the most important thing? Talk a little bit more about that identity crisis and what the power of the architect is at this point.

Manaugh: It’s an interesting moment today, in the sense that a lot of architects have inadvertently or unwittingly accepted the idea that they are really nothing more than stylists. They’re basically exterior decorators. If somebody has the money to hire them, they’ll produce something with a certain signature aesthetic or a particular design move. There seems to be a reluctance to try to shape whole cities. In fact, it’s almost in reaction to figures like Ayn Rand or Robert Moses. It’s a reaction against these technocratic figures—you know, the hand of God of Le Corbusier reaching down to point at his models. But I do think that architects might miss a genuine opportunity to shape cities again and to shape the way people live, instead of leaving it to transportation engineers or planning authorities. Part of the solution is in accepting the fact that architecture needn’t be limited just to designing a stand-alone building, that being an architect today can and does touch on things like becoming a mayor, or becoming a developer, or becoming a technocrat, or, for that matter, becoming a venture capitalist. Being an architect can mean having a more aggressive entrepreneurial role, seeking out new markets for architecture and finding entirely new cultural niches for spatial design. In the latter case, this can also mean moving away from the capitalistic sense of the real-estate developer and toward people like Cameron Sinclair and Architecture for Humanity, which is a fascinating and totally viable niche for architecture to practice within. But, like it or not, if architects want to be anything more than just spatial hairstylists, then they need to find a way to insert themselves more aggressively into the urban development processes and to become central to those types of political and economic negotiations.

But to offer a third role, however—and this is what really interests me—architecture is not just about buildings. It’s also about the way that human beings use space. I think that there’s an anthropological aspect to architecture, at least in the way that I like to write about it and research it. I look at architecture almost as a kind of spatial anthropology: the way that human beings inhabit the landscape, the way that they inhabit cities, the way that they act within buildings, and even what they dream about when they’re in certain types of building, whether it’s a hotel or a small house in the woods. This spatial formatting of the human experience is absolutely fascinating to me, and I think that architects would do well to pay more attention to the poetic, or less physical, aspects of what it means to engage with the built environment. That can be everything from literature, to dreams, to everyday events—like skateboarding, petty crime, or extramarital affairs—that occur within the built environment. I think that offers a particularly rich and exciting resource for design thinking and architectural thinking. Architecture shouldn’t always boil down to the physicality of construction or to the specific software packages that are being taught in graduate school. I don’t want to sound like I’m talking about something mystical here because I’m not—or at least I don’t think I am. But there’s a lived experience of space—including how it’s described and articulated in things like literature, and so on—that architects would do well to pay more attention to.

Lindsay: Some architects would consider your approach heresy. In fact, you were basically accused of that recently. I want to ask you about what I think of as the “Blueprint scandal,” where Peter Kelly of Blueprint sort of accused you of debasing criticism; he pushed the idea that bloggers such as yourself, by broadening the concept of architectural criticism, were in fact undermining classical criticism. He leveled a charge that seemed to be at you in particular, that you are cheapening architectural criticism. And then you responded to this, which then led to your participation in the Domus discussion in January. What happened when you discussed this directly with Peter Kelly rather than trading posts about it?

Manaugh: It’s an ongoing debate, to be honest. But the Domus event in January was not very confrontational. There may have been too many people involved, and each person was trying to differentiate themselves from the others in a way that ended up making it a bit more like a self-introduction, which didn’t really lead to open argument. So, at least on that level, it didn’t light the critical fire that it was meant to or that people were perhaps hoping for.

But as far as what is actually going on in the debate, it seems to me—and particularly with Peter Kelly and many of the other architecture writers who agree with him—that there’s an idea that people like myself are treating architectural criticism almost like a tag cloud or a cluster of topics that span related fields, and we’re losing sight of the fact that architects are creating buildings and someone needs to critique those architects so that they don’t create bad buildings in the future. It’s a perfectly valid point that we need architecture critics; we need someone going into these buildings, like Alice Tully Hall, or the New Museum, or whatever kind of structure it might be, and offering criticism to architects. That’s important. But what I don’t think is right on any level is that this needs to come at the expense of the speculative—that we should close up shop on the way bloggers tend to operate, think, or write, and that we should retreat to a situation where you have an architecturally trained writer going into buildings and offering criticism to an audience of architects. To me, that didn’t go anywhere when it was around the first time, and there’s no reason we should go back to it now.

If anything, we need to be even more open than we are. I’ve found that there’s a huge audience for architecture. People love talking about cities, buildings, space, the way people live, and so on. It seems insane that architects would prefer to sit out that conversation and not participate because they’d rather talk about the buildings that they’re designing or get feedback on the choice of mullion details that they came up with for a new building in Manhattan. There’s a huge public conversation that people want to participate in. People love these kinds of topics. Even my dad, who is a traveling salesman, loves talking about cities, and architecture, and buildings. It’s just that he does it in a different way, and he does it in a way that would be unrecognizable to a grad student at Princeton or at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. But it’s still a conversation about architecture.

It seems like a strangely nostalgic lashing out at their allies that’s happening in the design press right now. Rather than looking at the audience that bloggers have found for architecture and saying, “There’s a huge audience out there, and we should take advantage of that and try to get architectural criticism into the hands of millions of people, to recalibrate the way we write about buildings in order to make people excited to read a critique of a new Renzo Piano building in Chicago, or a new Rem Koolhaas building in Dubai,” instead they seem to want to close the door and go back to the East Coast, wood-paneled rooms of architectural better days and have a nostalgic conversation in which formal criticism is the only approach worth discussing.

There’s an almost willful ignorance that I don’t understand and that actually seems detrimental to the future of architecture and architectural writing. Why would you want to turn your back on millions of people who have suddenly realized that they’re interested in architecture? Why would you want to say to them, “You’re not welcome in this conversation, only people like us who are trained, who have read Le Corbusier, only we are allowed to explore the architectural archives or to hold the public microphone”? To me it seems really strange—almost xenophobic—to try to shut the door on that many people and not let them into the conversation.

This ties back to the topics that you’re talking about in Aerotropolis: realizing that somebody trained in economics now wants to build cities, or that a junior administrator at UPS has ideas about space, architecture, and the logistical ways that cities should function. Those opinions are incredibly interesting, and also more spatially influential now than many of the ideas being taught in architecture school.

Lindsay: Part of what Peter Kelly was saying about you was that out of nowhere you had assumed this position of curatorial power and that you’re teaching, but that no one really checked your credentials at the door. Seven years on, how do you see your position in this? And to move beyond that, I found it interesting what you did with landscape futures—I saw the Domus piece about your Super-Workshop. To me the most amazing part was that it seemed to imply that no curator had ever thought to gather the contributors together to have a discussion, as opposed to simply dropping their things off at the exhibition space. By ignoring the convention, and moving it more toward a conference format, you made it much more interesting. So I’m curious what you see as your long-term legacy—is breaking down boundaries what you really bring to this?

Manaugh: I do genuinely like collaboration, dialogue, and bringing together people from different disciplines. I get a genuine thrill from that sort of thing, so as long as I can continue to do that… I mean, I have no idea if I will have a long-term legacy, but if part of that is inspiring more people to pursue this sort of collaborative openness, then I would be happy with that. Incredibly interesting things happen, even if they’re not positive—after all, you can learn from the mistakes of collaboration. Whether it’s architects coming together to work on a project, or architects getting together with novelists and filmmakers or, for that matter, with a police officer to talk about the city—those sorts of combinations and exchanges are fascinating. Again, you could say it comes down to the idea of spatial anthropology, just trying to learn how people use space. I would love to think that I could use my blog as a platform for bringing even more people into the conversation about architecture, and in the process I would hope that architects, rather than freak out about it, would actually say, “Look at this, we now have a lot of other people who are interested in what we’re doing, and a lot of other people to talk to.” Bloggers and other new architecture writers are just trying to open up the discipline; there’s no reason for architects to react negatively—they could take this as an opportunity to talk to new clients, new audiences, and new future collaborators.

Lindsay: My last question is about one of your posts, which was part of your food series for GOOD magazine’s festival of food writing. It was the one on Tempelhof, where you mention that you were drawn to it because it looked interesting, but you kind of questioned the practicality of it, and I think one of your commenters echoed this, too. From a narrative standpoint it seemed to have value and interest, even though you questioned its ultimate worth. What I love about BLDGBLOG is that half the time you’re sort of curating ironic failed futures or schemes that never came to fruition. I’m curious if you approach BLDGBLOG as though you’re telling stories, or do you feel you need to advocate at times? Every time I read about, for example, your landscape work, I keep thinking of the civil war that seems to be going on between new urbanists and the landscape urbanists, which has finally broken out into the public with the Boston Globe piece. Do you ever feel the need to take sides? Where do you strike that balance between storytelling and advocacy, and using your audience to put forward a point of view?

Manaugh: I do think that if there is a major issue or a question that deserves taking a side on, then that’s important to do. But on the other hand, I feel like everything is so unbelievably divided right now, in both politics and popular culture, that the idea that I would just plant my flag and say that I’m a new urbanist and not a landscape urbanist, or vice versa, is totally counterproductive. I’d rather find what’s best about landscape urbanism and what’s best about new urbanism, and celebrate both of them. I know that sounds like fatuous centrism…

Lindsay: I think at this point Andrés Duany would scream, “You’re either with us or against us!”

Manaugh: Yeah, but that attitude—maybe I’m just overly politicized by eight years of George W. Bush—that kind of “with us or against us” thinking, is totally uninteresting to me. I guess, at the end of the day, demanding that a blogger such as myself become an advocate for certain things, such as landscape urbanism, is kind of like expecting a new pop album to have an opinion about the High Line. In other words, there are ways of telling stories with architecture that don’t necessarily have to boil down to a neat set of specific, ideologically correct zoning recommendations or a planning white paper for some particular topic. You can treat architecture as a fictive, literary, even a mythic field of human imagination. And there’s something exciting and liberating about that. It allows people to realize that they can dream or think about the future, and that they can do it through architecture. Then, if that brings people around to the idea of hiring an architect, or even around to the idea of practicing and studying architecture in the future, it’s a positive thing. I guess I’m just not the kind of person who wants to get out my gavel and start railing against things or taking positions for or against a particular topic. I know that might sound like a cop-out, but that’s just not my goal.

See Also:

  • For our Los Angeles readers, please join Greg and Geoff for a live conversation about Aerotropolis at the A+D Museum on Tuesday, April 5th at 6:00 p.m.
  • For everyone else, we hope you’ll join Greg’s coauthor John Kasarda—the primary proponent of the aerotropolis—for the second of FSG’s free national teleforum events, on April 15th at 2:00 p.m. ET. You can learn how to participate here.