The Doomway

[Image: The beginning of the Broomway path, at Wakering Stairs].

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Macfarlane’s recent book, The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, has been excerpted over at the BBC—and, although the excerpt itself is well worth reading in full, it only reminds me of how good the entire chapter really is (note, as well, that the following quotations come from Macfarlane’s book, not from the BBC excerpt, lest there be variations in text).

The chapter documents a hike along the Broomway, an eerie coastal path across tidally exposed sands out where the Thames meets the North Sea.

The satellite photo, above, shows the Broomway’s launching point, at a place called Wakering Stairs. From there it heads into a shifting marine landscape of tidal flats—a “vast revealed world,” in Macfarlane’s words, of mud, half-buried guideposts, and omnipresent quicksand.

The path is also known as the Doomway: it is a path that leads “straight out to sea.”

[Image: One possible end-point—not the furthest—of the “Doomway” path].

The Broomway is “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain,” Macfarlane writes, “and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked.”

It only exists at low tide, for starters, and it can often be followed only with the visual help of unstable wooden poles driven into the ground to mark its route across the landscape. Its unusual name, in fact, comes from “the 400 or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.”

Without those brooms, the path—and not just where it’s heading, but the route you’ve already walked to get there–would disappear from view entirely, in effect stranding you at sea.

That might sound easy enough to account for, if you have a good sense of direction. “When the tide comes back in, though,” Macfarlane warns, “it comes fast—galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run.”

[Image: The endpoint of the Broomway tidal path].

A sense of how difficult the Broomway can be to follow is revealed by Macfarlane’s description of how people used to walk it in bad weather. “Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of navigating in bad conditions, when it was impossible to see from broom to broom, was with stone and thread. Walkers carried a 200-foot length of linen thread, with one end tied to a small stone. They would place the stone next to a broom and then walk away in what they believed to be the right direction, unspooling the thread as they went, until they could see the next broom.”

They would then either haul the stone up to their current position and start the process all over again, or they would search back through the mist and darkness for the correct route forward.

The path “is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries,” and what an utterly lost and disoriented death it must have been.

If you’re tempted to hike it—as am I—please take the necessary precautions; consider reading Macfarlane’s book the first necessary step.

(On a side note, it is very much not the same thing, but Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel The Loney takes place in a coastal British landscape that has its own disappearing footpath across the tidal sands; it can be, at times, uneven, but it is a good read for any fellow fans of Gothic horror).

The Architecture of Delay vs. The Architecture of Prolongation

[Image: A rendering of the “Timeship” cryogenic facility by architect Stephen Valentine, via New Scientist].

The primary setting of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, is a cryogenic medical facility in the mountainous deserts of Central Asia. There we meet a family that is, in effect, freezing itself, one by one, for reawakening in a speculative second life, in some immortally self-continuous version of the future.

First the mother goes; then the father, far before his time, willfully and preemptively ending things out of loneliness; next would be the son, the book’s ostensible protagonist, if he didn’t arrive with so many reservations about the procedure. Either way, it’s a question of what it means to delay one thing while prolonging another—to preserve one state as a means of preventing another from setting in. One is a refusal to let go of something you already possess; the other is a refusal to accept something you don’t yet have. An addiction to comfort vs. a fear of the new.

Without getting into too many of the book’s admittedly sparse details, it suffices to say that Zero K continues many of DeLillo’s most consistent themes—finance (Cosmopolis), apocalyptic religion (Mao II), the symbolic allure of mathematical analysis (Ratner’s Star).

What makes the book worth a mention here are some of the odder details of this cryogenic compound. It is a monumental space, described with references both to grand scientific and medical facilities—think the Salk Institute, perhaps—as well as to postmodern religious centers, this desert megachurch of the secular afterlife.

Yet its strangest details come from the site’s peripheral ornamentation: there are artificial gardens, for example, filled with resin-based and plastic plant life, and there is a surreal distribution of lifeless mannequins throughout the grounds, standing in penitential silence amongst the fake greenery. Unliving, they cannot die.

These stylized representations of biology, or replicant life forms that come across more like mockery than mimicry, expand the novel’s central conceit of frozen life—life reduced to absolute stillness, placed on pause, in hibernation, in temporal limbo, preserved—out into the landscape itself. It is an obvious symbolism, which is one of the book’s shortcomings; these deathless gardens with their plastic guards remain creepily poetic, nonetheless. These can also be seen as fittingly cynical flourishes for a facility founded on loose talk of singularities, medical resurrection, and quote-unquote human consciousness, as if even the designers themselves were in on the joke.

Briefly, despite my lukewarm feelings about the actual novel, I should say that I really love the title, Zero K. It is, of course, a thermal description—or zero K, zero kelvin, absolute zero, cryogenic perfection. Yet it is also refers to an empty digital file—zero k, zero kb—or, perhaps more accurately, a file saved with nothing in it, thus seemingly a quiet authorial nod to the idea that absolutely nothing about these characters is being saved, or preserved, in their quest for immortality. And it is also a nicely cross-literary reference to Frank Kafka’s existential navigator of European political absurdity, Josef K. or just K. From Josef K. to Zero K, his postmodern replacement.

The title, then, is brilliant—and the mannequins and the plastic plant life found at an end-times cryogenic facility in Central Asia make for an amazing set-up—but it’s certainly not one of DeLillo’s strongest books. In fact, I have been joking to people that, if you really want to read a novel this summer written by an aging white male cultural figure known for his avant-garde aesthetics, consider picking up Consumed, David Cronenberg’s strange, possibly too-Ballardian novel about murder, 3D printing, North Korean kidnapping squads, and more, rather than Zero K (or, of course, read both).

In any case, believe it or not, this all came out of the fact that I was about to tweet a link to a long New Scientist article about a cryogenic facility under construction in Texas when I realized that I had more to say than just 140 characters (Twitter, I have found, is actually a competitor to your writing masquerading as an enabler of it—alas, something I consistently re-forget).

There, Helen Thompson takes us to a place called Comfort, Texas.

[Image: Rendering of the “Timeship” facility by architect Stephen Valentine].

“The scene from here is surreal,” Thompson writes. “A lake with a newly restored wooden gazebo sits empty, waiting to be filled. A pregnant zebra strolls across a nearby field. And out in the distance some men in cowboy hats are starting to clear a huge area of shrub land. Soon the first few bricks will be laid here, marking the start of a scientific endeavour like no other.” A “monolithic building” is under construction in Comfort, and it will soon be “the new Mecca of cryogenics.”

Called Timeship, the monolithic building will become the world’s largest structure devoted to cryopreservation, and will be home to thousands of people who are neither dead nor alive, frozen in time in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life. And last month, building work began.

The resulting facility will include “a building that would house research laboratories, DNA from near-extinct species, the world’s largest human organ biobank, and 50,000 cryogenically frozen bodies.”

The design of the compound is not free of the sort of symbolic details we saw in DeLillo’s novel. Indeed, Thompson explains, “Parts of the project are somewhat theatrical—backup liquid nitrogen storage tanks are covered overhead by a glass-floored plaza on which you can walk surrounded by a fine mist of clouds—others are purely functional, like the three wind turbines that will provide year-round back-up energy.” And then there’s that pregnant zebra.

[Image: An otherwise totally unrelated photo of a circuit, chosen simply for its visual resemblance to the mandala/temple/resurrection facility in Texas; via DARPA].

It’s a long feature, worth reading in full—so click over to New Scientist to check it out—but what captivates me here is the notion that a sufficiently advanced scientific facility could require an architectural design that leans more toward religious symbolism.

What are the criteria, in other words, by which an otherwise rational scientific undertaking—conquering death? achieving resurrection? simulating the birth of the universe?—can shade off into mysticism and poetry, into ritual and symbolism, into what Zero K refers to as “faith-based technology,” and what architectural forms are thus most appropriate for housing it?

In fact, DeLillo presents a political variation on this question in Zero K. At one point, the book’s narrator explains, looking out over the cryogenic facility, “I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile logic? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells [the facility’s administrators], in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.” When does utilitarian become totalitarian.

When do scientific undertakings become religious movements? When does minimalism become a form of political control?

Books Received

tadao[Image: Inside Tadao Ando’s studio in Osaka; photo by Kaita Takemura, via designboom].

Somewhere, despite the weather here, it’s spring. If you’re like me, that means you’re looking for something new to read. Here is a selection of books that have crossed my desk over the past few months—though, as always, I have not read every book listed here. I have, however, included only books that have caught my eye or seem particularly well-fit for BLDGBLOG readers due to their focus on questions of landscape, design, architecture, urbanism, and more.

For previous book round-ups, meanwhile, don’t miss the back-links at the bottom of this post.


1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)

Daniel Jütte’s The Strait Gate seems largely to have slipped under the radar, but it’s my pick for the most interesting architectural book of the last year (it came out in 2015). It has a deceptively simple premise. In it, Jütte tells the story of the door in European history: the door’s ritual symbolism, its legal power, its artistic possibilities, even its betrayal through basic crimes such as trespassing and burglary. He calls it “a study of doors, gates, and keys and a history of the hopes and anxieties that Western culture has attached to them”; it is a way of “looking at history through doors.”

Jütte describes locks (and their absence), city walls (and their destruction), marriage (and the literal threshold a newly joined couple must cross), medicinal rituals (connected “with the idea of passing through a doorway”), even the doorway to Hell (and its miraculous sundering). You know you’re reading a good book, I’d suggest, when something pops up on nearly every page that you need to mark with a note for coming back to later or that gives you some unexpected new historical or conceptual detail you want to write about more yourself. An entire seminar could be based on this one book alone.

2) Witches of America by Alex Mar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Witches of America is simultaneously an introduction to alternative religious practices in the United States—specifically, contemporary paganism, broadly understood—and a first-person immersion in those movements and their cultures. As such, the book is a personal narrative of attraction to—but also ongoing frustration with—the world found outside mainstream beliefs or creeds.

As such, it ostensibly falls beyond the pale of BLDGBLOG, yet the book is worth including here for what it reveals about the spatial settings of these new and, for me, surprisingly vibrant communities. There is the abandoned churchyard in New Orleans, for example, now repurposed—and redecorated—by a group of 21st-century acolytes of Aleister Crowley; there is the remote stone circle built in Northern California by what I would describe as a post-hippie couple with access to land-moving equipment; there is the otherwise indistinguishable collegiate house in central Massachusetts where future “priests” train in the shadow of New England’s peculiar history with witch trials; there is the corporate convention center in downtown San Jose; the overgrown tombs of the Mississippi Delta, where we meet a rather extraordinary—and macabre—burglar; there is even what sounds like an Airbnb rental gone unusually haywire in the hills of New Hampshire.

While descriptions of these settings are certainly not the subject of Alex Mar’s book, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the world of the esoteric, the otherworldly, or, yes, the occult presented in the context of our own everyday surroundings, with all of their often-mundane dimensions and atmosphere. This alone should make this an interesting read, even for those who might not share the author’s curiosity about the “witches of America.”

3) The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur (Princeton University Press)

The Work of the Dead looks at the role not just of death but specifically of dead bodies in shaping our cities, our landscapes, our battlefields, and our imaginations. The question of what to do with the human corpse—how to venerate it, but also how to do dispose of it and how to protect ourselves from its perceived pestilence—has led, and continues to lead, to any number of spatial solutions.

Laqueur writes that “there seems to be a universally shared feeling not only that there is something deeply wrong about not caring for the dead body in some fashion, but also that the uncared-for body, no matter the cultural norms, is unbearable. The corpse demands the attention of the living.”

Graveyards, catacombs, monuments, charnel grounds: these are landscapes designed in response to human mortality, reflective of a culture’s attitude to personal disappearance and emotional loss. While author Thomas Laqueur’s approach is often dry (and long-winded), the book’s thorough framing of its subject lends it an appropriate weight for something as universal as the end of life.

If this topic interests you, meanwhile, I also recommend Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold (Simon & Schuster), as well as Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre—How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray (Picador).

4) The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf)

Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt has justifiably won the author a series of literary awards. Its subject matter is by no means light, yet the book has the feel of an adventure tale, pulling double duty as the life-story of a European scientist and explorer but also as a history of scientific ideas, ranging from the origins of color and the nature of speciation to some of the earliest indications of global atmospheric shifts—that is, of the possibility of climate change.

Natural selection, cosmology, volcanoes—even huge South American lakes full of electric eels—the book is a great reminder of the importance of curiosity and travel, not to mention the value of an inhuman world against which we should regularly measure ourselves (and come out lacking). “In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective,” Wulf writes, “Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.”


5) Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond by Stefan Helmreich (Princeton University Press)

You might recall seeing Stefan Helmreich’s work described here before—specifically his earlier book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas—but Sounding the Limits of Life is arguably even more relevant to many of the ongoing themes explored here on the blog.

In his new book, Helmreich outlines a kind of acoustic ecology of the oceans, placing deep-sea creatures and shallow reefs alike in a world of immersive sound and ambient noise, now all too often interrupted by the deafening pings of naval sonar. He also uses the seemingly alien environment of the seas, however, to expand the conversation to include speculation about what life might be like elsewhere, using maritime biology as a launching point for discussing SETI, artificial digital lifeforms, Martian fossils (from Martian seas), and much more.

It’s a book about how our “definition of ‘life’ is becoming unfastened from its familiar grounding in earthly organisms,” Helmreich writes, as well as an attempt to explore “what life is, has been, and may yet become—whether that life is simulated, microbial, extraterrestrial, cetacean, anthozoan, planetary, submarine, oceanic, auditory, or otherwise.”

6) Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner (W.W. Norton)

I had been looking forward to this book, exploring the relationship between mapping and the world, ever since reading an op-ed by the author, Greg Milner, in The New York Times about “death by GPS.” Milner’s book is specifically about the Global Positioning System and its power over our lives: how GPS shapes our sense of direction and geography, what it has done for navigation on a planetary scale, and even how it has transformed the way we grow our global food supply.

7) The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty by Benjamin Bratton (MIT Press)

Design theorist Benjamin Bratton’s magnum opus is a fever-dream of computational geopolitics, “accidental megastructures,” cloud warfare, predictive mass surveillance, speculative anthropology, digital futurism, infrastructural conspiracy theory—a complete list would be as long as Bratton’s already substantial book, and would also overlap quite well with the utopian/dystopian science fiction it often seems inspired by.

In Bratton’s hands, these abstract topics become, at times, almost incantatory—as if William S. Burroughs had taken a day job with the RAND Corporation. As information technology continues to exhibit geopolitical effects, Bratton writes, “borderlines are rewritten, dashed, curved, erased, automated; algorithms count as continental divides; (…) interfaces upon interfaces accumulate into networks, which accumulate into territories, which accumulate into geoscapes (…); the flat, looping planes of jurisdiction multiply and overlap into towered, interwoven stacks…” He writes of “supercomputational utopias” and the “ambient geopolitics of consumable electrons.”

It’s a mind-bending and utterly unique take on technology’s intersection with—and forced mutation of—governance.

8) You Belong To The Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathon Keats (Oxford University Press)

Jonathon Keats’s new book simultaneously attempts to debunk and to clarify some of the cultural myths surrounding Buckminster Fuller, a man who described himself, Keats reminds us, as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” For fans of Fuller’s work, you’ll find the usual suspects here—his jewel-like geodesic domes, his prescient-if-ungainly Dymaxion homes—but also a chapter about Fuller’s work with and influence on the U.S. military in an age of nuclear war games and “domino theories” overshadowing Vietnam.


9) Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City by Jessica Maier (University of Chicago Press)

Art historian Jessica Maier’s book suggests that changes in the way the city of Rome was mapped over the centuries simultaneously reveal larger shifts in European cultural understandings of space and geography. Her argument hinges on a sequence of surveys and maps chosen not just for their visual or cartographic power—which is considerable, as the book has many gorgeous reproductions of old engraved city maps, views, and diagrams—but for their influence on later geographic projects to come.

Broadly speaking, the documents Maier discusses are meant to be seen as passing from being artistic, narrative, or abstractly emblematic of the idea of greater “Rome” to a more rigorous, modern approach based in measurement, not mythology.

This widely accepted historical narrative begins to crumble, however, as Maier puts pressure on it, especially through the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etching of the Campus Martius. This is an image of Rome that “was neither documentary nor reconstructive,” Maier suggests, and that thus had more in common with those earlier, more folkloristic emblems of the city. In today’s vocabulary, we might even describe Piranesi’s Campus Martius as an example of “design fiction.”

10) Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of the New City by Adina Hoffman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This is a remarkable and often beautifully written history of modern Jerusalem, as told from the point of view of its architecture. Jerusalem is a city, author Adina Hoffman writes, that “has a funny way of burying much of what it builds.” It is a place of “burials, erasures, and attempts to mark political turf by means of culturally symbolic architecture and hastily rewritten maps.” The book, she adds, “is an excavation in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the singular builders who envisioned them.”

Indeed, the book is structured around the lives of three architects. The story of German Jewish designer Erich Mendelsohn—probably most well-known today for his futurist “Einstein Tower” in Potsdam—looms large, as do the lives of Austen St. Barbe Harrison, “Palestine’s chief government architect,” and the “possibly Greek, possibly Arab” Spyro Houris.

Hoffman’s work is a mix of the archaeological, the biographical, and even the geopolitical, as individual building sites—even specific businesses and kilns—become microcosms of territorial significance, embedded in and misused by nationalistic narratives that continue to reach far beyond the boundaries of the city.

11) City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity by Dayna S. Kalleres (University of California Press)

City of Demons looks at three cities—Antioch, Jerusalem, and Milan—in the context of early Christianity, when the streets and back alleys of each metropolis were still lined with temples dedicated to older gods and when alleged opportunities for spiritual corruption seemed to lie around every corner. Historian Dayna Kalleres writes that the cities of late antiquity were all but contaminated with demons: imagined malignant forces that had to be repelled by Christian ritual and belief. Cities, in other words, had to be literally exorcized by a practice of “urban demonology,” driven out of the metropolis by such things as church-building schemes and public processions.

While the book is, of course, an academic history, it is also evocative of something much more literary and thrilling, which is a nearly-forgotten phase of Western urban history when forces of black magic lurked in nearly every doorway and civilians faced security threats not from terrorists but from “the marginal, ambiguous, and protean,” from these hidden demonological influences that the righteous were compelled to expunge.

12) City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Picador)

City of Thorns looks at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya through various lenses: economic, political, and humanitarian, to be sure, but also ethical and anthropological, even to a certain extent architectural.

While author Ben Rawlence’s goal is not, thankfully, to discuss the camp in terms of its design, he does nevertheless offer a crisp descriptive introduction to life in a sprawling settlement such as this, from its cinemas and police patrols to its health facilities and homes. “Our myths and religions are steeped in the lore of exile,” he writes, “and yet we fail to treat the living examples of that condition as fully human.” The camp, we might say in this context, is the urbanism of exile.


13) Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau)

I went through a nearly three-year spate of reading law-enforcement memoirs and books about urban policing while researching my own book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. The excellent Ghettoside by Jill Leovy came out at the very end of that peculiar literary diet—but it also showed up the rest of those books quite handily.

Ghettoside is bracing, sympathetic, and emotionally nuanced in its week-by-week portrayal of LAPD homicide detectives investigating the murder of a fellow detective’s teenage son. Much larger than this, however, is Leovy’s dedication throughout the book to sorting through the overlapping mazes of media disinformation that have turned “black-on-black” crime into nothing more than a dismissive explanation of something genuinely horrific, a way to paper-over “racist interpretations of homicide statistics,” in reviewer Hari Kunzru’s words. More damningly, Ghettoside insists, this ongoing wave of murders and revenge-killings is not some new urban state of nature, but is entirely capable of being stopped.

Indeed, Leovy clearly and soberly shows through years of L.A. homicide reporting that today’s epidemic of violence primarily targeting African-American males is due to a failure of law enforcement—or, in her words, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” Yet the answer, she explains, is more policing, not less. As an endorsement of effective, community-centered police work, the book is unparalleled.

No matter what side you think you might be on in the growing—and entirely unnecessary—divide between police and the populace they are hired to serve, this is a superb guide to the complexities of law enforcement in contemporary Los Angeles and, by extension, in every American metropolis.

14) The City That Never Was by Christopher Marcinkoski (Princeton Architectural Press)

Christopher Marcinkoski’s book is a fascinating exploration of the relationships between “volatile fiscal events” and “speculative urbanization,” with a specific focus on a cluster of failed urban projects in Spain. Marcincoski defines speculative urbanization as “the construction of new urban infrastructure or settlement for primarily political or economic purposes, rather than to meet real (as opposed to artificially projected) demographic or market demand.”

Although the author jokes that his book is actually quite late to the conversation—discussing the spatial fallout of a global financial crisis that was already five years old by the time he began writing—it is actually a remarkably timely study, as well as a sad assessment of how easily architectural production can become ensnared in economic forces far more powerful than humanism or design.

15) Slow Manifesto: Lebbeus Woods Blog edited by Clare Jacobson (Princeton Architectural Press)

Lebbeus Woods was both a friend and a personal hero of mine; his blog, which lasted from 2007 to shortly before his death in 2012, has now been collated, edited, and preserved by Princeton Architectural Press, with more than 300 individual entries. While primarily text, the books also includes several black-and-white images, including pages from his otherworldly sketchbooks. Thoughts on “wild buildings,” war, borders, September 11th, the now also deceased designer Zaha Hadid, and Woods’s own intriguing mix of cinematic/fictional and analytic/documentary modes of writing abound.


16) Almost Nature by Gerco de Ruijter (Timmer Art Books)

I’ve written about Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter fairly extensively in the past—most recently in a piece about “grid corrections”—so I was thrilled to see that some of his aerial work has been collected in a new, beautifully realized edition. It collects photos of stabilized coastlines and tree farms, grids and borders.

“Is the wilderness wild?” an accompanying text by Dirk van Weelden asks. “Cities and industrial farming make it seem man is in perfect control,” van Weelden continues later in the essay. “The reality is far more interesting. (…) The truly uncontrollable forces of nature are mutation, chance, hybridity, and contamination,” all subjects de Ruijter’s photos document at various scales, in every season.

17) Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site by Caroline O’Donnell (Routledge)

In the guise of what looks—and even, to some extent, physically feels—like a textbook there is hidden a fantastic study of how buildings relate to their surroundings.

More precisely, Caroline O’Donnell’s investigation of “architecture and site” hopes to reveal how, during the design process, the context of a building affects that building’s final form. Questions of autonomy (do buildings need to reflect or refer to their settings at all?) and generation (can the essence of a site be “extracted” to give shape to the final building?) are woven through a series of essays about ugliness, architectural history, colonialism, monstrosity, and more.

18) How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today by John Thackara (Thames & Hudson)

John Thackara is already widely known for his advocacy of “sustainability” in design—a word I deliberately put in scare-quotes because Thackara himself would prefer, I presume, a term more like transformative or even revolutionary design. That is, design that can flip the world on its head, not through violence, but through unexpected and strategic solutions to problems that often remain undiagnosed or overlooked. This new, short book looks at everything from mass transit to internet access, clothing manufacture to desertification, aging to fresh water, seeking nothing less than “a new concept of the world.” “The core value of this emerging economy is stewardship,” he writes, “rather than extraction.”

19) Design and Violence edited by Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt (Museum of Modern Art)

This book, crisply designed by Shaz Madani, documents an exhibition and debate series of the same name hosted by the Museum of Modern Art. Presented here as a combination of short essays by various authors—myself included—and provocative design objects, products, and public events, the aim is both to startle and to moderate. That is, the book seeks to bring together conflicting sides of often quite fierce arguments about the role of design, including how design can be used to mitigate or even, on occasion, to perpetuate violence. There are 3D-printed guns and a short history of the AK-47 alongside examples of prison architecture, classified surveillance aircraft, slaughterhouse diagrams, and border walls, to name but a few.

• • •

Briefly noted. Other books that have crossed my desk this season include Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law by Paul H. Robinson and Sarah M. Robinson (Potomac Books), Memories of the Moon Age by Lukas Feireiss (Spector Books), Shanshui City by Ma Yansong (Lars Müller Publishers), the double publication of Scaling Infrastructure and Infrastructural Monument from the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press), Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal by Niklas Maak (Hirmer), and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (W.W. Norton).

Finally, although I have mentioned it many times before, I do also have a new book of my own that just came out last week, called A Burglar’s Guide to the City; if you’d prefer to sample the goods before purchasing, however, you can check out an excerpt in The New York Times Magazine. But please consider supporting BLDGBLOG by ordering a copy—not least because then we can talk about burglary, architecture, and heists…


All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Mass Death Assemblage

An unlikely paleontological event occurs every year behind a Lowe’s superstore in suburban New Jersey: a “mass death assemblage” of dinosaur fossils is excavated bit by bit in an open event for the community. 66 million years old, the fossils might hold clues to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Library of Dust

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

There’s a spectacular new book coming out at the end of this summer called Library of Dust, by photographer David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books. I had the intensely exciting – and flattering – opportunity to write one of the book’s introductory essays; that essay now re-appears below.
I first learned about Library of Dust when I interviewed Maisel back in 2006 for Archinect. In 1913, Maisel explained, an Oregon state psychiatric institution began to cremate the remains of its unclaimed patients. Their ashes were then stored inside individual copper canisters and moved into a small room, where they were stacked onto pine shelves.
After doing some research into the story, Maisel got in touch with the hospital administrators – the same hospital, it turns out, where they once filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and he was granted access to the room in which the canisters were stored.

[Image: Abandoned rooms of the hospital. From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Over time, however, the canisters have begun to react chemically with the human ashes held inside them; this has thus created mold-like mineral outgrowths on the exterior surfaces of these otherwise gleaming cylinders.
There was a certain urgency to the project, then, as “the span of time that these canisters are going to be in this state is really finite,” Maisel explained in the Archinect interview, “and the hospital is concerned that they’re now basically corroding.”

So when I was there just a few weeks ago, photographing for I think the fourth time, there was a proposal being floated that each canister be put into its own individual plastic bag, and then each bag would go into its own individual black box that’s made for containing human ashes. And that would be it.
To me, the arc of the project – if it ends like that, which it seems it probably will – has a certain kind of conceptual logic to it that I appreciate. I appreciate the form and the story of these canisters, that they’re literally breaking down further every day, even between my visits to the hospital. My time of doing it, then, is finite as well.

In order to deal with the fragility of the objects, and to respect their funerary origins, Maisel set up a temporary photography studio inside the hospital itself. There, he began photographing the canisters one by one.
He soon realized that they looked almost earthlike, terrestrial: green and blue coastal forms and island landscapes outlined against a black background. But it was all mineralogy: terrains of rare elements self-reacting in the dark.
Maisel’s photos have now been collected into a gorgeous, and physically gigantic, book. It’s expensive, but well worth checking out.
The following is my own essay for the book; it appears alongside texts by Terry Toedtemeier and Michael Roth.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

• • •

In Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an unnamed man finds himself walking through an unnamed town. Its depopulated spaces are framed most prominently by a Clocktower, a Gate, and an Old Bridge. The nameless man is told almost immediately to visit the town’s central Library – an unspectacular building that “might be a grain warehouse” for all its allure. “What is one meant to feel here?” the man asks himself, crossing a great, empty Plaza. “All is adrift in a vague sense of loss.”

Once inside the Library, the man meets a Librarian. The two of them sit down together, and the man prepares to read dreams. They are not fairy tales written in pen and ink, however, but the psychic residues of long-dead creatures, a gossamer field of electrical energy left behind in the creatures’ bleached skulls. Weathered almost beyond recognition, one such skull is “dry and brittle, as if it had lain in the sun for years.” The skull has been transformed by time into something utterly unlike itself, marked by processes its former inhabitant could not possibly have anticipated.

Each skull is the most minimal of structures, seemingly incapable of bearing the emotions it stores hidden within. One skull in particular “is unnaturally light,” we read, “with almost no material presence. Nor does it offer any image of the species that had breathed within. It is stripped of flesh, warmth, memory.” It is at once organic and mineralogical – living and dead.

The skull is also silent, but this silence “does not reside on the surface, [it] is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal” – intangible. One might also add invisible. This “smoke” is the imprint of whatever creature once thought and dreamed inside the skull; the skull is an urn, or canister, a portable tomb for the life it once gave shape to.

The Librarian assists our nameless narrator by wiping off a thin layer of dust, and the man’s dream-reading soon begins.

[Images: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Dust is a peculiar substance. Less a material in its own right, with its own characteristics or color, dust is a condition. It is the “result of the divisibility of matter,” Joseph Amato writes in his book Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Dust is a potpourri of ingredients, varied to the point of indefinability. Dust includes “dead insect parts, flakes of human skin, shreds of fabric, and other unpleasing materials,” Amato writes.

Many humans are allergic to dust and spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to rid their homes and possessions of it, yet dust’s everyday conquest of the world’s surfaces never ends. Undefended, a room can quickly be buried in it.

Dust lies, of course, at the very edge of human visibility: it is as small as the unaided eye can see. And dust is not necessarily terrestrial. “Amorphous,” Amato continues, “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe.” But dust is found beyond that earthly sphere, in the abiotic vacuum of interstellar space, a freezing void of irradiated particles, where all dust is the ghostly residue of unspooled stars, astronomical structures reduced to mist.

Strangely representational, the chemistry of this stardust can be analyzed for even the vaguest traces of unknown components; these results, in turn, are a gauge for whatever hells of radiation once glowed, when the universe burned with intensities beyond imagining. Those astral pressures left chemical marks, marks which can be found on dust.

Such dust – vague, unspectacular, bleached and weathered by a billion years of drifting – can be read for its astronomical histories.

Dust, in this way, is a library.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

A geological history of photography remains unwritten. There are, of course, entire libraries full of books about chemistry and its relationship to the photographic process, but what the word chemistry fails to make clear is that these photographic chemicals have a geological origin: they are formed by, in, and because of the earth’s surface.

Resists, stops, acids, metals, fixes – silver-coated copper plates, say, scorched by controlled exposures of light – produce imagery. This is then called photography. Importantly, such deliberate metallurgical burns do not have to represent anything. Photography in its purest, most geological sense is an abstract process, a chemical weathering that potentially never ends. All metal surfaces transformed by the world, in other words, have a literally photographic quality to them. Those transformations may not be controlled, contained, or domesticated, but the result is one and the same.

Photography, in this view, is a base condition of matter.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

David Maisel’s photographs of nearly 110 funereal copper canisters are a mineralogical delight. Bearded with a frost of subsidiary elements, their surfaces are now layered, phosphorescent, transformed. Unsettled archipelagos of mineral growths bloom like tumors from the sides and bottoms – but is that metal one sees, or some species of fungus? The very nature of these canisters becomes suspect. One is almost reluctantly aware that these colors and stains could be organic – mold, lichen, some yeasty discharge – with all the horror such leaking putrescence would entail. Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.

Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?

After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they’ve been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied – treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.

It is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Yet perhaps there is something altogether more triumphant at work here, something glorious, even blessed. There is a profoundly emotional aspect of these objects, a physical statement that we, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal: an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, not one of loss but of reunion.

There is a broader kinship being proclaimed, a more important reclamation occurring: the depths of matter will accept us back. We will be rewelcomed out of living isolation. We are part of these elements, made of the dust that forms structures in space.

Maisel’s photographs therefore capture scenes of fundamental reassurance. The mineralized future of everything now living is our end. Even entombed by metal, foaming in the darkness with uncontrolled growths – there is splendor.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

To disappear into this metallurgical abyss of reactions – photographic, molecular – isn’t a tragedy, or even cause for alarm. There should be no mourning. Indeed, Maisel’s work reveals an abstract gallery of the worlds we can become. Planetary, framed against the black void of Maisel’s temporary studio, the remnant energies of the long dead have become color, miracles of alteration. There are no graves, the photographs proclaim: only sites of transformation.

That is our final, inhuman release.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

At the end of winter 2005, David Maisel traveled to a small city in Oregon. There were bridges, plazas, and gates. He was there to locate an old psychiatric hospital – a building now housing violent criminals – because the hospital held something that interested him.

Upon arrival, he met with the head of security, who already knew why Maisel had come. The two of them walked down a nearby corridor, where Maisel was shown what he’d been looking for. It was an isolated room behind a locked door – smaller, less official, than expected.

Within it was the Library of Dust.

• • •

David Maisel’s Library of Dust is available both through Chronicle Books and through – though you can also buy a signed copy through photo-eye.
Don’t miss my earlier interview with David over at Archinect – and, at some point soon, take a long trip through David’s website.

(Thanks to Joseph Antonetti for his help with the images – and to editor Alan Rapp for instigating this book in the first place).

The Possibility of Secret Passageways: An Interview with Patrick McGrath

The novels of Patrick McGrath are often described as Gothic. They unfold across foggy landscapes and rolling moors, on marshes dotted with isolated houses and dead trees. There is a lot of rain.
McGrath’s characters are frequently deformed, crippled, mad, or somehow undefined, both psychologically and sexually; they are sinister, if naive, and quietly aggressive, weaving conspiratorial plots around one another with a tightness and an intricacy, and a psychological intensity, till something dreadful occurs – and the book then lurches on to its brutal and unhappy ending.
Amidst tropical swamps and London graveyards, crumbling barns and basements, operating theaters and unused bedrooms, we find incest, murder, and suicide – as well as the creeping, subterranean shadows of mold and rot.
But it is the settings, and not the plots, of Patrick McGrath’s novels that led me to speak with him for BLDGBLOG.
For those brackish marshes and dust-filled hospital wards are extraordinarily well-described; indeed, McGrath’s eye is intimidating in its attention to detail, supplying information across the senses, giving readers the taste, smell, and sound of his fictional worlds, in beautifully crafted sentences.
His landscapes are precise, vivid, and worth re-reading.

A question often asked on this website is: what do novelists, artists, and filmmakers want from landscape and the built environment? More specifically, how can architecture assist a writer as he or she constructs a novel’s storyline? Are certain types of buildings more conducive to one kind of plot than to another?
And what about landscape? How does landscape lend itself to literary effect – and could landscape architects actually learn something about the drama of designed space by turning to a novel instead of to a work of theory?
To the work of Patrick McGrath, for instance?
In the following interview, Patrick McGrath talks to BLDGBLOG about Romanticism, the Sublime, and the origins of Gothic literature, from Mary Shelley’s Alpine wastes to the forests of Bram Stoker, by way of Edgar Allan Poe and the frozen seas of the Antarctic.
We discuss David Lynch, The Sheltering Sky, the architecture of psychiatric institutions – where cell doors always open outward – and the spectacle of unfinished castles soaked with rain on the British moors. We pass through mountains, abbeys, and malarial swamplands, referring to Joseph Conrad, amateur paleontology, and the featureless voids of the Sahara.
We spoke by telephone.

[Image: Novelist Patrick McGrath].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, on the most basic level, could you talk about what makes a landscape “Gothic”? Is it the weather, the landforms, the isolation, the plantlife…? Further, in your own work, what is it, on a psychological level, that unites, say, the crooked and leafless trees of the British moors with the coastal swamps of Honduras?

Patrick McGrath: Not an easy question to answer! As you point out, a landscape could be tropical – or it could be Arctic, and it could still have those qualities that we might consider Gothic. It’s hard to know just what these landscapes have in common.

I suppose we have to go back to the origins of Romanticism, and to Edmund Burke‘s book on the Sublime, and look at his notions of the horrid and the terrible. There were landscapes that emotionally aroused the people of that time – but because of their what? Their magnificence in some way. The sheer scope and grandeur of the high mountains – the Alps which Mary Shelley described very powerfully in Frankenstein – or the eastern European landscape in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the loneliness and the remoteness of those mountains, the density of the forests, the fact that there are very few human beings there. Nature dwarfs humanity in such landscapes. And that will arouse the sense of awe that is made particularly dramatic use of in Romantic and Gothic literature.

Then, at the other end of the scale, we have a tropical landscape such as Conrad’s Congo in Heart of Darkness where it’s almost the reverse: it’s the constrictiveness and the fecundity of nature, the way it presses in on all sides. Everything is decaying. And decay, of course, is a central concept in the Gothic. So when you have tropical vegetation you do have a sense of ooze and rot – of swampiness.

BLDGBLOG: You mentioned that certain landscapes might have been “emotionally arousing” for the people of that era – but this implies that what makes a landscape emotionally arousing will change from generation to generation. If that’s the case, might something altogether different be considered Gothic or Romantic today? Have you noticed a kind of historical shift in the types of landscape that fit into the Gothic canon?

McGrath: My first thought is: not so much of landscape – but let’s say in the view of the city.

My second novel, Spider, was inspired by a book of photos by Bill Brandt. He captured the seedy, ill-lit character of the East End of London of the 1930s in such powerfully human character – illicit liaisons on wet cobbled streets, toothy barmaids in grotty pubs, pulling pints for sardonic men in cloth caps – that I was at once inspired to find a story there. But I do think the Victorian slum – the dark, rather shadowy streets that have a sort of sinister and rather threatening feel to them – could be replaced by the blandness of a suburb.

I’m thinking of what David Lynch did in Blue Velvet, with a scene of apparent utter normality. Think of the opening scene where a man is watering his garden and everything seems, well, perfect in that neat and orderly suburban way and yet his camera then goes beneath the grass and we see all sorts of forms of life that are slimy and grotesque and that aren’t apparent in that hygienic world above.

So there may be something in that: the suburb as the most Gothic of sites. Think of the work, say, of Gregory Crewdson.

BLDGBLOG: That raises the question of what sorts of architecture pop up most frequently in Gothic literature: usually English manor houses, church ruins, forgotten attics and so on. Why are certain types of buildings more conducive to one type of storyline and not others?

McGrath: I think you’d have to say that there are two questions here. There’s the conventional, stereotypical Gothic site which tends to be a lonely house high on a hill, probably Victorian, with turrets and the possibility of secret passageways and cellars and attics – places of obscurity, places where the past somehow resides. You know, houses of secrets.

These sites, in turn, would have grown out of the more traditional Gothic architectures – basically the ruins of monasteries and abbeys and convents and such, which dotted the British landscape in the 18th century, after the Reformation. Those first aroused the taste for ruins, and that was the origin of the Gothic. That would be basically a medieval architecture – in ruins, as I say, because of what Henry VIII did to the English church in the 16th century. So those were the places where people like Horace Walpole set their fiction, because the buildings were in such a state of decrepitude.

I think anything that sort of relates to these large, broken down, dilapidated structures would arouse the Gothic effect.

[Images: The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1809-10, and Cloister Cemetery in the Snow, 1817-19, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: Interestingly, though, in the work of J.G. Ballard, you get the same sort of psychological atmosphere – of perversion, violence, and dread – from a totally different kind of built environment: instead of crumbling manor houses, you have corporate office parks in the south of France, or even British shopping malls.

McGrath: Absolutely – and that was going to be the second part of my answer. There is the old Gothic, which does have a very definite architectural style that comes out of the structures of the Middle Ages, as these became ruins and gave off a sense of ghostliness and evil and menace. But then there is what you might call, I don’t know, a new Gothic, where the particular trappings of the old Gothic, the particular stylistic characteristics, are not necessary to produce the same sorts of effects – the feelings of dread, constriction, obscurity, transgression. You can get those from inner city projects, for example, or even a little neat rowhouse.

There was an early Ian McEwan novel, The Cement Garden, where all sorts of perverse wickedness was going on but in a very sort of unmemorable little house, in a street of very similar houses, none of which would particularly smack of evil. Although I did notice, when I was re-reading it, that he uses a little crenellation detail in the architecture of one of these absolutely anonymous little houses. He’s just touching-in this faint hint of the Gothic – as though to say: this is a child of something out of Ann Radcliffe, some decaying monastery in which an aristocrat pursues a maiden in the depths of the night.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if there are any real buildings that you have in mind when you’re describing places like Drogo Hall or Crook Manor. Put another way, could someone ever do a kind of Patrick McGrathian architectural tour, or heritage walk, visiting sites that have inspired your fiction? Where would that tour take them?

McGrath: [laughs] Good question. I don’t quite know where I get them from. In part from the imagination, in part from books, books I’ve got around the place with photographs or paintings of buildings, some of which I’ve observed and remembered.

There’s a house called Crook in my first novel, The Grotesque. I found a lovely little book in a second-hand bookstore in New York, called The Manor Houses of England, and I simply leafed through it, picking up details here and there – not only architectural details, but verbal details. The way that aspects of architecture are described – the sorts of terms that are used – can be as much a part of the creation of a building in fiction as a clear, purely visual picture in your mind. You catch a nice phrase that’s used to describe, I don’t know, a Jacobean staircase or a particular piece of detailing or masonry – and you fling it in because it sounds good, rather than just because it evokes a particular image.

But I don’t think there’s a pattern. They’re usually curious amalgams that I put together in my imagination.

BLDGBLOG: I noticed one day that there is a real Castle Drogo. Architecturally, how much of that was an influence on your descriptions of Drogo Hall? Or did you just use the name?

McGrath: It was basically just the name. Castle Drogo’s somewhere down in the West Country, I can’t remember where – I think it looks over Dartmoor. It was built in, I think, the early twentieth century by some rich industrialist, as I remember, who wanted to have a main building with two wings. But then his son was killed in WWI, and he’d only built one wing of the castle. He grew so despondent that he never built the second wing. All the life had gone out of him. So it’s an incomplete structure. It was also essentially an ersatz thing – it wasn’t a proper castle. It was an Edwardian idea of a castle – of which there are many in Britain, of course. But it was the name; the name was very powerful: Drogo.

So I pinched the name and gave it to a building that I largely invented out on the Lambeth Marshes. And, again, the Lambeth Marshes as I describe them don’t really have any resemblance to the Lambeth Marshes as they existed in the 18th century. I mean, I sort of put a Dartmoor on the south of the Thames – and I don’t think it was like that! [laughter]

BLDGBLOG: Well, it works, so…

McGrath: It works – and that’s all you want.

[Images: Castle Drogo].

BLDGBLOG: Have you read The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald? One of the stories is partially set in an old, sprawling psychiatric hospital in the forests of New York state. Near Syracuse, I think, or maybe Ithaca. The narrator explains that his uncle once committed himself there voluntarily to undergo electroshock therapy, basically as a way to erase painful memories from some time spent in the Sahara south of Cairo.

McGrath: Now, this is very, very interesting – I’ve read Sebald, but not that particular book. In fact, I’ve just finished a novel which is set in Manhattan and the last couple of chapters are set in a mental hospital in northern New York state. And I had no idea about Sebald using that location – and I didn’t really know about the Victorian institutions you described.

What I did was I took an institution from northern Ontario where I worked when I first came over to North America, and it was very unlike a Victorian institution. It was sort of like a blockhouse – like a penitentiary. And so what I’ve done is I’ve sort of plonked that down in upstate New York – but I might have to rethink how I’ve done that based on what you’ve just said. But this is great to know – I’ve still got time to tear that chapter apart.

BLDGBLOG: Well, some of those hospitals – these big, Gothic complexes – have actually been demolished. But in other cases, they’ve been transformed into apartments and condominiums –

McGrath: Yes, that’s happening in England, too. I visited old Victorian asylums there that have outlived their usefulness and are now being converted into apartments.

[Image: The Hudson River State Hospital, beautifully photographed by The rest of that site – especially the other hospitals – is well worth checking out].

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the question of landscape, the natural environments in your work are extraordinarily well-described; in fact, there are parts of Asylum that strike me as literal exemplars of superb landscape description. I’d love to know more about how you work: if you actually visit specific locations, driving up to the moors or through the hills of New England, to capture your descriptions on the spot; or if you work from memory, or from imagination, or even from other books of photographs.

McGrath: There have been times when I’ve gone to a place. When I went down to Belize, for instance, and saw what Belize City looks like – the shacks lurching unsteadily over the river, the mangrove swamps and so forth – that just told me, instantly, that here I had the setting of a novel. I took a lot of photos and then basically used what I’d seen. Other times, I just sort of invent it.

I remember when I was writing The Grotesque, I had the Berkshire marshes in there, and I’d been out of England for many years at that point and somebody pointed out to me that, in fact, there are no marshes in Berkshire –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

McGrath: – but by then it was too late. I needed there to be marshes and I wanted it to be Berkshire, for some reason, and so there it was: a completely nonexistent landscape had sprung to life.

I don’t know, I look at things and a lot of it comes from reading. I discover details that, for example, in prisons and asylums you will always have the doors opening outwards so that whoever is incarcerated behind that door won’t be able to blockade themselves inside the room. Little details like that give the character of an institution and can be very evocative on the page.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious about weather and climate. For instance, a wet climate – with thunderstorms, humidity, and damp – seems to play a major, arguably indispensable, role in the Gothic imagination. Your own novels illustrate this point quite well: from rain-soaked country homes to the Lambeth marshes, from coastal fishing towns to Central American swamps. But can aridity ever be Gothic? In other words, if the constant presence of moisture contributes to a malarial atmosphere of decay, mold, infestation, and disease, might there be a whole other world of psychological implications in a climate where things don’t decay – where there is no mold, where bodies turn to leather and everything can be preserved? Is indefinite preservation perhaps a Gothic horror of its own?

McGrath: Aridity does interest me. It’s an unusual application of the Gothic mood. You usually think of northern European or north American climates and landscapes, but that’s merely because, traditionally, that’s where these sorts of stories have been set. But I can very well imagine aridity being a place, or a site, for such a story.

I think you could safely say that one of the themes of the Gothic is the sins of the father being visited upon the sons – in other words, there is no escaping the past. The past will always haunt the present. And this is certainly true of Gothic stories that are set in crumbling old houses: there’s always some piece of evil that has occurred in a previous generation that will work itself out on the current generation. So that continuation – or persistence – of the past is what you’re expressing: it’s the skeleton that can’t be disposed of.

But I’m trying to think if I know of a Gothic tale set in a desert, and the only thing I can come up with is… I think it’s an old Erich von Stroheim movie. It might be called Greed? There’s a man who has, somehow or another, wound up handcuffed to his companion – and the companion has died. This is in the quest for gold. Somehow or another their greed has got them into an impossible situation: they’re handcuffed, the companion has died, and so we have a man crawling across the desert handcuffed to a corpse. It being a desert, of course, he’s doomed. But that’s a very powerful image of an utterly arid landscape.

In the spirit of a new Gothic, one that isn’t dependent on very particular types of landscape or architecture, you could certainly exploit an arid landscape in order to create a condition of extreme thirst, extreme solitude, extreme desperation – all of which would be appropriate states of mind for a Gothic story. I just can’t think of many examples.

BLDGBLOG: It never really occurred to me to refer to this book as “Gothic” before, but there’s The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – where you see people completely destroyed by the desert. The Sahara is presented as this strangely dark landscape, something that they can’t comprehend culturally and they can’t survive physically.

McGrath: Whether you could get away with calling that Gothic, I don’t know! But, certainly, there is horror in that environment. It does have that in common with the Gothic. You can’t have the Gothic without horror, and the desert is a place where, you’d think, horror is always close at hand.

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, some of the earliest Gothic fiction was actually polar – Mary Shelley’s Arctic chase in Frankenstein is an obvious example. I’m curious if glacial landscapes and frozen seas attract you? Might there someday be a kind of Arctic Port Mungo?

McGrath: Well, again, in the novel that I’ve just finished, I wanted to take my character, when he’s pretty much spiraled down as far as he can get in New York City, to a place of snow. And there are all sorts of precedents for this. Frankenstein, as you say, begins up in the Arctic Sea – and ends there. I think the final image is Frankenstein pursuing his creature across the frozen waste – a vast white landscape. There’s also Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which comes to a place of great whiteness; and, almost contemporary with that, is Melville’s white whale.

There is something about whiteness that is almost identical to blackness in terms of what it can evoke. I think it must be about featurelessness: the horror that comes of there being nothing there. It’s a white nothing instead of a black nothing.

But the absence of color would suggest a kind of emptiness, a draining of life and meaning. A void. And the Gothic is very fond of a void. And Melville was certainly onto that. I mean, you can’t help but see that the white whale is really just a blank screen onto which Ahab has projected all sorts of powerful and twisted emotions – but, in itself, it is merely a screen. Melville’s possibly suggesting that all of nature is just such a blank screen, and that it is the business of humans to project meaning onto nature, that meaning is not inherent, is an idea that I think we can comfortably live with now; but, I think, in the 19th century, it was probably a great deal more threatening to God-fearing people.

[Image: The Sea of Ice, 1824, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: One of the most striking images I’ve read in years is actually your character Hugo Coal, from The Grotesque, assembling his dinosaur skeleton in the family barn. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what went into that image – but also what you think about the human encounter with prehistoric monstrosity: with dinosaur bones, and marine fossils, and the utter strangeness of the earth’s inhuman past.

McGrath: What interested me – before I’d even thought through aspects of deep time, and what that means – was that a man could go to Africa and collect a bunch of bones and crate them up and bring them back, and then spend the rest of his life trying to see what fitted where. This may be completely implausible, in terms of paleontology, but I just liked the notion of Sir Hugo sitting there in his barn, year in, year out, trying to make a pattern, to make a structure – and continuing to get it wrong. It seemed, somehow, very much in the spirit of human endeavors to discover the truth, or to figure out how nature works – or even, within that book, to get an answer to the mystery of who killed Sidney. It was to do with the fallibility of knowledge that was contained within this enterprise of getting the bones to fit – and they won’t! [laughs] There’s always a bit left over, or something that won’t go where it’s supposed to go. So that was the aspect, the epistemological aspect, of reconstructing a skeleton that first fascinated me.

Then there was the notion of this thing coming from deep in the past and being now extinct – from so deep in the past that it no longer had any place on this earth – and the suggestion that Sir Hugo, in a sense, was the same. He, too, was a dinosaur; his day, as a representative of a certain social class, was past.

But the first impulse that I had was that this was a carnivorous creature. This wasn’t a gentle herbivore Hugo’s got there. This was a creature of enormous violence and absolute rapacity, capable of tearing its prey to pieces, and I wanted to suggest that those sorts of implicit violent energies were now swirling about this old country house.

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, though, it seems like the contemplation of the earth’s biological past lends itself well to the Gothic mood – but contemplating, say, the earth’s geological past just doesn’t have the same psychological impact. For some reason, rocks just aren’t very Gothic.

McGrath: Well, I remember the way that Conrad handles the river in Heart of Darkness: he speaks of the journey that Marlow takes to get to Kurtz as being a journey through, or deeper into, the geological history of Africa. I forget how he does it, but he gives you the sense that, as the boat moves up the river, it is also descending through eons of time. So there is almost a sense of a geological regression occurring as Marlow moves toward a man who has committed an act of enormous moral regression. Everything is about a movement downwards in that book. I’d say that he employs geological descent to mirror a moral descent.

BLDGBLOG: Of course, there’s also Hugo Coal’s surname: coal, a geological product.

McGrath: There you are. Absolutely. That was no accident. Again, I’m referring to deep layers of what once had been wood, and that now, through the operation of time and pressure, is something quite different.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’d like to ask you about islands. You’re from England, with a home in Manhattan, and you’ve lived on “a remote island in the north Pacific.” Interestingly, though, your work doesn’t include a lot of islands – indeed, there are very few scenes at sea. Do the Gothic possibilities of islands, or archipelagos, have any literary interest for you?

McGrath: Well, that’s true. I don’t know why that should be. I’ve put people by the water often enough – a lot of my people seem to stand in high places gazing out to sea – but the notion of an island as a… I suppose the island gives you the possibility of a closed community – and that’s always a good site to play out a story in. You can just say that the world doesn’t extend beyond the borders I’ve imposed upon it. I suppose the use of a village is a sort of island. The last book I’ve done is set in Manhattan almost exclusively, but… I’ve never sort of literally done an island.

I think every novelist – unless you’re Dickens, maybe, where you just want to give a great sweep of an entire society – finds a way of creating islands, or social islands, anyway. The family is a sort of island. A prison, an asylum, is a sort of island. A town can be a sort of island. I mean, every novel has to limit its scope geographically and socially, so I suppose we create islands – but I’ve never particularly been drawn to an island itself. Though I do have a novel somewhere in the back of my head set on an island in the Mediterranean.

I suppose the answer is: I don’t see the need for an island in itself, when the only point to an island would seem to be to draw a circle around a community. Unless it was the notion of being cut-off… That would be a good reason to make an island. You know, where the weather closes in and your people have no way of escape. I can see that being a way you might want to use an island. But I just haven’t felt the need yet.

[Image: Monk by the Sea, 1809, by Caspar David Friedrich].

BLDGBLOG: As I mentioned, your bio refers to a “remote island in the north Pacific.” I’m just wondering where exactly that was?

McGrath: There’s a group of islands called the Queen Charlottes. They’re off the northwest coast of British Columbia. If you were to find Prince Rupert on the map, you would then just go due west about 80 miles, and they’re just south of the Alaskan panhandle. There are two main islands: Moresby and Graham. Moresby is uninhabited and Graham has, oh, two or three little towns. That’s where I lived a few years.

I was a schoolteacher back in those days, and I’d been living in Vancouver, and I wanted to get out of the city, basically. So I got a job teaching there, and, while I was there, I basically gave up teaching and built a cabin and declared myself a writer.

That was the beginning.

• • •

BLDGBLOG would like to thank Patrick McGrath for taking the time to have this conversation – which he and I both hope to continue in a few months’ time: so watch out for another interview with Patrick McGrath here on BLDGBLOG, to be posted, I hope, this winter.
Meanwhile, Asylum, The Grotesque, and Spider are all great places to start, if you’re looking for an introduction to Patrick McGrath’s work. Spider, of course, was recently filmed by David Cronenberg. A new novel, meanwhile, called Trauma, is due out in April 2008.
Finally, this PDF contains a much longer, and older, interview with McGrath (in which he describes the grotesque as “things beginning to merge, things becoming undifferentiated” – the grotesque is a “breakdown, in every dimension that I could imagine, in the organic, in the social, in the sexual, in the natural”). Briefly, then, it’s interesting to point out that one of the manifestos mentioned in the previous post discusses the grotesque in terms of monstrosity, beauty, and architecture.