Until Proven Safe

[Image: Dressed in 21st-century personal protective equipment (PPE), I am standing next to Dr. Luigi Bertinato, wearing period plague doctor gear from the time of the Black Death, inside the library of the Querini Stampalia, Venice. Photo by Nicola Twilley.]

Long-time readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to hear of my interest in quarantine, a topic I’ve been posting and lecturing about since at least 2009. The Landscapes of Quarantine exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture, curated with Nicola Twilley back in 2010, was the beginning of a much larger project that Nicky and I eventually returned to, several years ago, for a book on the subject.

Originally titled—and sold to our editor as—The Coming Quarantine, we had to change the book’s name when COVID-19 hit. Surreally, we ended up finishing a book about quarantine while in a state of medical detention—indeed, at one point late last spring, more than half the world’s human population was in some state of quarantine or lockdown.

Our book’s hypothesis and prediction was, in fact, that we would all be quarantining more in the future, not less, relying on this seemingly medieval tool of spatial isolation to protect ourselves from emerging diseases for which we had no natural immunity, no available vaccination, and no cure. Why quarantine? It is the use of space and time to overcome uncertainty, creating a buffer between ourselves and a potentially infectious other until that suspected threat can be proven safe.

[Image: An arch inside the abandoned lazaretto, or quarantine hospital, on Manoel Island, Malta; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine—the book we have been traveling for, reporting, and working on since summer 2016—finally comes out tomorrow, July 20th. I am unbelievably excited about this book, for millions of reasons. On one level, it combines so many of the long-running interests here on this blog, from quarantine itself to architectural ruins, mythology & horror, science fiction, space exploration, the Army Corps of Engineers, agricultural landscapes, strange animal diseases, extraordinary engineering controls, the ethical dangers of smart homes, even nuclear waste.

Having posted little to nothing about this book over the past few years—indeed, having posted almost nothing about COVID-19—it’s also immensely relieving to finally release this thing into the world.

[Image: Inside the lazaretto at Ancona, Italy; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

Some highlights that I think would appeal to BLDGBLOG readers include Nicky’s and my travelogue around the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas, exploring ruined lazarettos in the footsteps of 18th-century British prison reformer—and quarantine critic—John Howard. We climbed locked fences into ruins on Malta, took a night ship across the Adriatic to disembark near the extraordinary pentagonal lazaretto in Ancona, and we got to tour the then-closed Lazzaretto Nuovo in Venice, Italy, with the local man intent on preserving it. (His original plan, he admitted, was to turn the island into a martial arts dojo.)

In other parts of the book, we sit down with the head of the Disinfected Mail Study Circle, based in North London. That group collects rare pieces of mail sent to and from sites of quarantine; like characters in a Thomas Pynchon novel, their postal archaeology has revealed previously forgotten outbreaks and odd geopolitical details about the formation of international borders.

We also visited the first federal quarantine facility, then under construction, in the United States in more than a hundred years, mere months before COVID-19, and we spoke with the former head of the Army Corps of Engineers about plans for retrofitting hotels, convention centers, and stadiums, as well as the prospect of pop-up home quarantine kits in the near-future. We visited the Ebola high-level isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital in London—where Nicky climbed inside.

[Image: Nicola Twilley inside the high-level isolation unit’s Trexler Ebola system; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

In the latter half of the book—primarily dedicated to nonhuman quarantine, or quarantine applied to the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms, capped off by a look at “planetary protection” and the risk of alien microbes—we were able to see a brand-new high-level animal-disease research lab in the middle of U.S. cattle country. This is the nation’s replacement for the aging facility on Plum Island, subject of countless conspiracy theories.

Elsewhere, we went deep into WIPP—the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, to see nuclear waste being buried and isolated from the Earth’s biosphere for a federally-mandated time periods of at least 100,000 years. We got to see the Apollo moon rocks and learn about the history of lunar quarantine, and even sat down with two of NASA’s Planetary Protection Officers—and their counterpart at the European Space Agency—to discuss the quarantine challenge of bringing Mars geology back to Earth. Along the way, we got to see Perseverance, the Mars rover, before its long (and successful) journey to Mars.

Reporting the book also led us to a series of high-level pandemic simulations over the course of several years—all the way up to the incredible experience of sitting in on a simulation in October 2019, the premise of which was a global outbreak of a novel coronavirus. As we sat there, listening to government figures role-play what they would do, the very earliest cases of COVID-19 were likely circulating in China, undetected.

We also look at the limits of mathematical modeling, the encroachment of algorithms and Big Data into the future of quarantine, and the dystopian potential of involuntary medical isolation automatically enforced by today’s smart homes.

And, through all of that, one of our biggest coups, I think, was recording hours of interviews with the head of the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine, visiting him in his office at the CDC and recording anguished, on-the-record discussions during the Trump Administration about the nation’s COVID-19 response.

[Image: Walking inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a salt mine 2,150 feet below the surface of the Earth, where the United States is permanently burying nuclear waste; photo by Nicola Twilley.]

I could go on and on, but I am genuinely proud of the book and I would love to discuss it with you all! One great way to do that, in fact, would be if you can tune in to one, some, or all of our book launch events. We’ve already done one virtual event—last week, hosted by the Strelka Institute, in conversation with Benjamin Bratton, whose own new book, Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World, is well worth picking up—and other events begin tomorrow.

If I’ve convinced you to grab a copy of the book, I hugely, hugely appreciate it—thank you! If you’re tempted, you can easily order one from Bookshop, Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookshop, etc. etc.

And perhaps one of these events might catch your interest; the full schedule is also available at untilprovensafe.com. (Please note that, with only one clearly marked exception, these are all virtual events.)

July 20: UK Book Launch! Hosted by the Architectural Association Bookshop, in partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum, with critic and curator Brendan Cormier | 1pm ET / 6pm London | Register here!

July 20: US Book Launch! Hosted by Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore with author Mary Roach | 7:30pm ET | Register here!

July 21: Hosted by Washington D.C.’s Politics and Prose with author and journalist Steve Silberman | 7pm ET | Register here!

July 22: Hosted by San Francisco’s Book Passage with journalist and co-host of KQED’s Forum, Alexis Madrigal | 8:30pm ET | Register here!

July 28: New Republic Salon Series, with Laura Marsh | 7pm ET

July 29: Hosted by Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store with journalist and Gastropod co-host Cynthia Graber | 7pm ET | Register here!

August 3: Hosted by Point Reyes Books with author, journalist, and editor Adam Rogers | 7pm Pacific | Register here!

August 6: Hosted by the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment with William L. Fox | 12pm Pacific | Register here!

August 11: Alta Live with critic and author David L. Ulin | 12:30pm Pacific

August 17: Live and in person! The Interval at the Long Now Foundation, San Francisco | 7pm Pacific | Register here!

September 21: Hosted by Town Hall Seattle | 6pm Pacific | Registration info forthcoming

A great way to get a flavor of the book would be to check out excerpts published in WIRED and The Guardian—and, tomorrow morning, The Atlantic—or to listen to the Gastropod episode we did on quarantine, agriculture, and threats to the world’s chocolate supply.

[Image: Until Proven Safe, with a cover design by Alex Merto.]

With a sense of near-overwhelming relief, then, I just wanted to announce this book’s arrival. It’s out from MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States and Picador in the UK. Genuine thanks to anyone who decides to take a look—I hope you enjoy.

Note: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon and Bookshop from which I might draw a small percentage of any book sales.

Katrina 1: Levee City (on military hydrology)

[Policing the earth: a military helicopter surveys a flooded metropolis under martial law.]

It’s too easy, not to mention slightly vindictive, to blame all of hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic impact and aftermath on the Army Corps of Engineers; but it is worth remembering that New Orleans – in fact the near totality of the lower Mississippi delta – is a manmade landscape that has become, over the last century at least, something of a military artifact. To say that New Orleans is, today, under martial law, is therefore almost redundant: its very landscape, for at least the last century, has never been under anything *but* martial law. The lower Mississippi delta is literally nothing less than landscape design by army hydrologists.
New Orleans as military hydrology.
Or, military urbanism as a hydrological project.
According to The Economist, “For much of the 20th century the federal government tampered with the Mississippi, to help shipping and – ironically – prevent floods. In the process it destroyed some 1m acres of coastal marshland around New Orleans – something which suited property developers, but removed much of the city’s natural protection against flooding. The city’s system of levees, itself somewhat undermaintained, was not able to cope.”
When even people within the Army Corps of Engineers began to warn that the hubristic landscape design methods of the US military might actually be inappropriate for what is a very muscular, flood-prone, not-to-be-fucked-with drainage basin, the warnings were taken – well, frankly, they were probably taken to be blatantly unpatriotic, knowing what’s happened to this country. But I digress.
“There is an irony,” The Economist elsewhere continues, “in this warning coming from the Corps of Engineers. Just as with the Everglades in Florida, New Orleans’s vulnerability has been exacerbated by the corps’ excellence in reshaping nature’s waterways to suit mankind’s whims. In the middle of the last century, engineers succeeded in re-plumbing the great Mississippi… [which simply] hastened erosion of the coastal marshes that used to buffer New Orleans, leaving the city needlessly exposed. Most of the metropolitan area lies below sea level on drained swamp land. Levees normally hold back the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, but those were not designed to handle the waters that would come with such a powerful hurricane.”
Those same levees, in fact, as we all know, are actually now responsible for keeping the flood waters in:


“‘We’ve been living in this bowl,’ said Shea Penland, a coastal geologist who has studied storm threats to Louisiana for years,” in an interview with The New York Times. “‘And then Katrina broke channels into the bowl and the bowl filled. And now the bowl is connected to the Gulf of Mexico. We are going to have to close those inlets and then pump it dry.'”
But pumping the flooded city dry will be a “hard task,” according to the somewhat characteristic understatement of the BBC, in an article that then outlines the various steps of the engineering strategy involved (included new causeways, steel sheets, and 300-lb. sandbags).
But even if New Orleans is “pumped dry,” even if the city is eventually drained, even if commerce returns and the Big Easy’s population goes back to life as usual, there is still a much larger problem to face.
The Economist: “America’s Geological Survey has estimated that if nothing is done by 2050, Louisiana will lose another 700 square miles of coastal wetlands. Various local groups have long called for reconstruction of the marshes along the lines of the troubled $10 billion Everglades rejuvenation project. The New Orleans version, which would cost $4 billion more, would divert some 200,000 cubic feet of water each second from the Mississippi 60 miles through a channel to feed the existing marsh and to build two new deltas. The plan, which would also shut canals and locks to keep out salt water and would build artificial barrier islands, may find more adherents.”
Artificial barrier islands; 200,000 cubic feet of water each second; two new deltas: if at first you don’t succeed… try ever more elaborate feats of hydrological engineering. More of the disease is the cure for the disease. (See here for a much older – yet no less impressive for being small-scale – example of complex hydrological engineering).
Katrina, in this context, becomes a problem of landscape design.
The “hurricane” as an atmospherically-interactive, military-hydrological landscape problem.

[NASA satellite image: the Mississippi delta – several hundred square miles smaller than it should be.]

It’s a question, in other words, of human geotechnical constructions and how they interact with the complex dynamics of the earth’s tropical atmosphere and waterways.


[Image: Nearly all of the Atlantic’s equatorial reserves of warm water contributed to the strength of the storm. A few levees didn’t stand a chance.]
So what may soon become known as the destruction of New Orleans was simply the violent and undeniable clarification of how bad certain examples of landscape architecture really can be. This should surprise no one – horrify everyone, but surprise no one.




[Images: The total collapse of the manmade landscape has all but drowned the city, turning it, in the words of the Associated Press, into “a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses, under siege from looters, and seething with anger and resentment”; and the complete failure of urban infrastructure – including federal emergency response, management, and planning, which has hamstrung itself by sending first-responders to fight in Iraq – has made what is fundamentally a problem of landscape design much worse.]

Financially, could things have been different? Could the money now being spent in Iraq and on bogus Homeland Security projects have gone elsewhere – into FEMA, for instance, or into hydrologically better-designed levee projects on the outskirts of New Orleans? Or into some of those “artificial barrier islands” mentioned above (that BLDGBLOG would love to help design)?
Yes, the money could have been spent differently. But is further entrenching a particular manmade landscape – really, a kind of prosthetic earth’s surface, a concrete shell, of valves, dams, locks, levees, and holding ponds installed upon the lower Mississippi – really the answer? Perhaps; but equally possible is that *there should not be a city there*.


As Mike Davis writes in *Dead Cities*: “Nature is constantly straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, faults, even a speck of rust. The forces at its command are of course colossal as a hurricane and as invisible as a baccilli. At either end of the scale, natural energies are capable of opening breaches that can quickly unravel the cultural order. (…) Environmental control demands continuous investment and systematic maintenance: whether building a multi-billion-dollar flood control system or simply weeding the garden. It is an inevitably Sisyphean labor.”
Davis then describes the 19th century novel *After London: or, Wild England* by Richard Jefferies, a book in which “the medievalized landscape of postapocalyptic England” is explored “less [as] a nightmare than [as] a deep ecologist’s dreamwish of wild powers re-enthroned. (William Morris reported that ‘absurd hopes curled around my heart as I read it.’)”
After its destruction, then, this is London: “As fields, house sites, and roads were overrun, the saplings of new forests appeared. Elms, ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse chestnuts thrived chaotically in the ruins while more disciplined copses of fir, beech, and nut trees relentlessly expanded their circumferences.”
The city is soon home to huge flocks of kestrel hawks and owls; wild cattle; and thousands and thousands of cats, “now mostly grayish and longer in body than domestic ancestors.” (As per the film *Logan’s Run* – or see CNN: “New Orleans residents who return to their homes [will] face ‘a wilderness’ without power and drinking water that will be infested with poisonous snakes and fire ants.”)
Eventually, Davis recounts, “new species or subspecies [evolve] out of other former domesticates, (…) [and] the monstrous vegetative powers of feral nature begin a full-scale assault on London’s brick, stone, and iron skeleton.”
“As marsh recovered the floodplain, (…) [t]he hydraulic pressure of the flooded substratum of the city – underground passages, sewers, cellars, and drains – soon burst the foundations of homes and buildings, which in turn crumbled into rubble heaps, further impeding drainage.”
A “200-mile-long inland sea” soon forms: “Jefferies’s extinct London, in short, is a giant stopped-up toilet, threatening death as an ‘inevitable fate’ to anyone foolish enough to expose themselves to its poisonous miasma.”
It becomes, that is, a flooded city.

[Image: A corpse floats in the oil-coated lake that was once New Orleans.]

This thread continues in Katrina 2: New Atlantis (on flooded cities); and Katrina 3: Two anti-hurricane projects (on landscape climatology) – both on BLDGBLOG.