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.

The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

The Architecture of the Overlap

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

One of my favorite museums, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, has teamed up with ScanLAB Projects for a new, 3D introduction to the Soane’s collections.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

“We are using the latest in 3D technology,” the Museum explains, “to scan and digitize a wide selection of Museum rooms and objects—including Soane’s Model Room, and the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of King Seti I.”

The opening animations alone—pulling viewers straight into the facade of the building, like a submarine passing impossibly through a luminous reef—are well worth the click.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

The museum’s interior walls become translucent screens through which the rest of Soane’s home is visible. Rooms shimmer beneath other rooms, with even deeper chambers visible behind them, golden, hive-like, lit from within. Like a camera built to capture only where things overlap.

In fact, I could watch entire, feature-length films shot this way: cutting through walls, dissecting cities, forming a great narrative clockwork of action ticking away in shining blocks of space. As if the future of cinema is already here, it’s just hidden—for now—in the guise of avant-garde architectural representation.

[Image: Screen grab from Sir John Soane’s Museum].

ScanLAB’s work—such as in Rome, beneath the streets of London, or in strange new forms of portraiture—continues to have the remarkable effect of revealing every architectural space as actually existing in a state more like a cobweb.

Hallways become bridges crossing the black vacuum of space; individual rooms and galleries become unreal fogs of ornament and detail, hanging in a context of nothing.

It thus seems a perfect fit for a place as bewildering and over-stuffed as the Soane Museum, that coiling maze of archaeological artifacts and art historical cross-references, connected to itself through narrow stairways and convex mirrors.

Of course, this also begs the question of how architecture could be redesigned for maximizing the effects of this particular mode of visualization. What materials, what sequences, what placements of doors and walls would lend itself particularly well to 3-dimensional laser scanning?

The new site also includes high-res, downloadable images of the artifacts themselves—

[Images: The sarcophagus of King Seti I; courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum].

—including Seti I’s sarcophagus, as seen above.

Click through to the Soane Museum for more.

(Elsewhere: The Dream Life of Driverless Cars).

A Burglar’s Guide to London

[Image: From London’s Hatton Garden heist; photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service].

For anyone near London next week, I’m looking forward to speaking with Rory Hyde, curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, on Monday night, September 26th. We’ll be discussing infrastructural vulnerabilities, subterranean heists, electromagnetic getaways, ubiquitous police surveillance, and many other topics found in A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

Things kick things off at 7pm, at Libreria, a great new bookshop run by the folks at Second Home, in a space designed by Selgas Cano. The event is free, but here are some details to RSVP.

Stop by—and join us for drinks afterward to continue the conversation.

The Sacrifice of the Microcosm

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

I happened to be in London last night for the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. To mark the occasion, a huge timber model of the city, nearly 400 feet in length, designed by sculptor David Best, was burned on a barge anchored in the center of the Thames.

[Image: Photo by Jill Mead, courtesy of the Guardian].

It felt like a Viking funeral pyre, given a particularly Borgesian subtext—the sacrifice of the microcosm—as if every city should ritually destroy miniature versions of itself as a collective means for moving forward.

Spaces of Guilt and Innocence

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

I was in London earlier this month, primarily for another year of external exams at the Bartlett School of Architecture. This consists for the most part in meeting with a large group of students from different design units across the school for one-on-one presentations of their work; much of that work was incredibly interesting and worth sharing here.

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

This first project is a design for a new London Law Court, by Matthew Turner for Unit 12. The class, taught by Jonathan Hill, Elizabeth Dow, and Matthew Butcher, looked at what it called “the public private house,” with a focus on civic institutions and their relationship to the larger city.

In this case, that institution is a court of law.

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

The entire project is built around a set of stark spatial polarities set up between public and private, accuser and accused, guilty and innocent.

Circulation—the actual path a visitor might take to pass from one room to another, or from one part of the facility to the next, or even what can or cannot be seen from specific standpoints, such as the witness box or the judge’s robing chambers—is thus the building’s major organizing principle.

It is all about sequence, connection, and adjacency.

[Images: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

Even better, the project is a rigorous exploration of brick, a hugely overlooked material, including micro-studies of structural bricklaying patterns and surface effects.

[Image: Brick patterns from “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

Turner explained that different surface treatments show up throughout the building almost as a kind of signage or way-finding tool, such that particular patterns come to signify types of interior spaces throughout the complex—a public waiting area, for example, or spaces for the accused.

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

These pattern-studies are rendered in a style that makes them deeply reminiscent of Auguste Choisy.

[Images: Brick patterns from “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

Turner really went for it with the axonometry, cutting gorgeous sections through sites of extreme structural complexity that reveal slices of the interior that seem more like Cubist abstractions than actual building plans.

Yet, as his thesis voluminously demonstrates, all of the spaces nonetheless maintain both architectural and narrative coherence.

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

The passage of light, as can be seen in this next image, is also given symbolic or explanatory weight. As Turner writes, “Distances are compressed and spaces seem to step through each other. Spaces are attenuated, echoed and re-echoed before their sources are experienced. Light in the building does not signify divine truth and justice but instead its shadows and effects are hard to define.”

As they day progresses, the interior is like a clock, and “shadows become spaces within themselves.”

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

The thesis is immensely detailed, and these selections are barely sufficient as an introduction to Turner’s work. As a study of how architecture itself—that is, the careful and deliberate sequencing of spatial experience—can be used to instill narrative sensations of guilt, resolution, privacy, institutional respect, and so much more, it was really commendable.

[Image: From “The New London Law Court” by Matthew Turner, Bartlett School of Architecture, Unit 12].

I’ll hope to post a few more projects from the Bartlett over the next couple of days.

The London Time Ball

timeball[Image: The London “time ball” at Greenwich, courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich].

Thanks to the effects of jet lag getting worse as I get older, I was basically awake for five days in London last week—but, on the bright side, it meant I got to read a ton of books.

Amongst them was an interesting new look at the history of weather science and atmospheric forecasting—sky futures!—by Peter Moore called The Weather Experiment. There were at least two things in it worth commenting on, one of which I’ll save for the next post.

This will doubtless already be common knowledge for many people, of course, but I was thrilled to learn about something called the London “time ball.” Installed at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in 1833 by John Pond, England’s Royal Astronomer, the time ball was a kind of secular church bell, an acoustic spacetime signal for ships.

It was “a large metal ball,” Moore writes, “attached to a pole at the Royal Observatory. At 1 p.m. each day it dropped to earth with an echoing thud so that ships in the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.” As such, it soon “became a familiar part of the Greenwich soundscape,” an Enlightenment variation on the Bow Bells. Born within sound of the time signal…

timeball1[Image: Historic shot of the time ball, via the South London Branch of the British Horological Institute].

There are many things I love about this, but one is the sheer fact that time was synchronized by something as unapologetically blunt as a sound reverberating over the waters. It would have passed through all manner of atmospheric conditions—through fog and smoke, through rain and wind—as well as through a labyrinth of physical obstructions, amidst overlapping ships and buildings, as if shattering the present moment into an echo chamber.

Calculating against these distortions would have presented a fascinating sort of acoustic relativity, as captains and their crew members would have needed to determine exactly how much time had been lost between the percussive thudding of the signal and their inevitably delayed hearing of it.

In fact, this suggests an interesting future design project: time-signal reflection landscapes for the Thames, or time-reflection surfaces and other acoustic follies for maritime London, helping mitigate against adverse atmospheric effects on antique devices of synchronization.

In any case, the other thing I love here is the abstract idea that, at this zero point for geography—that is, the prime meridian of the modern world—a perfect Platonic solid would knock out a moment of synchrony, and that Moore’s “echoing thud” at this precise dividing line between East and West would thus be encoded into the navigational plans of captains sailing out around the curvature of the earth, their expeditions grounded in time by this mark of sonic punctuation.

The Human Nervous System, Pressed Like A Flower

[Image: Screen grab from a video produced by the Royal College of Physicians].

While this is not hugely relevant to landscape or architectural design, I was nonetheless floored today by these absolutely gorgeous—and extraordinarily, grotesquely, unsettlingly macabre—objects on display at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

[Image: Screen grab from a video produced by the Royal College of Physicians].

Called “Evelyn tables,” after the man who once purchased them, John Evelyn, they are 17th-century anatomical boards from Padua, Italy, upon which the meticulously dissected human nervous system has been pressed like a flower onto varnished wood.

[Image: Screen grab from a video produced by the Royal College of Physicians].

In fact, one board consists entirely of nerves, another of veins, another of arteries.

They are blood red, black in places as if burnt to a state of antiseptic purity, and intensely, very literally visceral; part of the adhesive process apparently involved the body’s own fluids.

They are the human form taken to some insane, surgical ideal, the Grand Guignol as display technique.

[Image: Screen grab from a video produced by the Royal College of Physicians].

While it is loosely accurate to describe them as flat, they are actually fully three-dimensional, laminated in whorled layers of knots and ropes, with nerves and veins coiling back and forth upon one another and spraying out over the boards like branches and roots, charts and maps.

They are genuinely impressive physical objects, almost sculptures, and they look like some infernal collaboration between novelist Clive Barker, painter Francis Bacon, and, in their pure physicality, like the dense, thickly realized prints of Richard Serra (for example).

They are absolutely worth seeing, if you’re anywhere nearby, although I should note that they are not currently displayed as you see them in these images; they were only placed like that for a short video produced by the Royal College, embedded above, that is also worth a view.

[Image: Smartphone shot in non-ideal lighting conditions].

Alas, the lighting conditions are not ideal for photography, and the boards are sort of shoehorned into a tight gallery on the top floor, but I’ve included a (bad) smartphone shot to give you sense of the insane surreality of these unpeeled and exploded human figures. They are, of course, life-size.

The Voids Beneath

sinkhole[Image: Drone footage of a Cornwall garden sinkhole, via the BBC].

One of the peculiar pleasures of reading Subterranea, a magazine published by Subterranea Britannica, is catching up on British sinkhole news.

In more or less every issue, there will be tales of such things as “a mysterious collapse in a garden behind a 19th-century house,” that turns out to be a shaft leading down into a forgotten sand mine, or of “abandoned chalk mine sites” heavily eroding in winter rain storms, “resulting in roof-falls.”

“As most chalk mines are at relatively shallow depth,” Subterranea reports, “these roof-falls migrate upwards to break [the] surface as ‘crown holes’ or craters, which in the said winter [of 2013/2014] have been appearing in lawns and driveways, and even under houses, newly built in chalk districts.”

The earth deceptively hollow, the landscape around you actually a ceiling for spaces beneath.

Worryingly, many of these mines and underground quarries are difficult, if not impossible, to locate, as insufficient regulation combined with shabby documentation practices mean that there could be abandoned underground workings you might never be aware of hiding beneath your own property—until next winter’s rains kick in, that is, or the next, when you can look forward to staring out at the grass and shrubbery, with growing angst, waiting for sinkholes to appear. Rain becomes a kind of cave-finding technology.

Even in the heart of London, the underworld beckons. Last Spring, Subterranea reminds us, “a woman and her shopping trolley rather suddenly disappeared into a four metres deep hole in North End Road, Fulham.” The culprit? It “appears to have been a disused under-street coal cellar.”

Perhaps the most incredible recent example, however, comes from the town of Scorrier, in Cornwall.

shaft[Image: Photo courtesy The Sun].

There, a “deep mine shaft has appeared” beneath the patio of a house in the process of being prepped for sale. “The shaft drops approximately 300 feet deep to water but could be four or five times deeper [!] below that,” Subterranea reports. It “is a remnant of Cornwall’s tin mining industry in the 18th century.”

It is a straight vertical shaft, more like a rectangular well, yawning open behind the house.

And there are many more of these mines and quarries, still waiting to be discovered: “As mines closed,” we read, “many [mining companies] put very large blocks of timber, often old railway sleepers, across shafts and backfilled them, thinking this would be safe. Gradually all evidence of the engine houses and covered shafts disappeared from view and memory and in the past builders assumed there was nothing there. Had they consulted old maps they would have known about the shaft. The timbers rotted over the years and collapses like this often happen after long periods of rain, which they have had in this area.”

There’s something both uncanny and compelling about the idea that, with seasons of increased rainfall due to climate change, the nation’s mining industry might stage an unsettling reappearance, bursting open in subterranean splendor to swallow the surface world whole.

Think of it as an industrial-historical variation on the El Niño rains in Los Angeles—where huge storms were suspected of “unearthing more skeletal human remains” in the parched hills outside the city—only here given the horror movie ambience of murderous voids opening up beneath houses, making their abyssal presence felt after long winter nights of darkness and endless rain.

In any case, consider joining Subterranea Britannica for a subscription to Subterranea for more sinkhole news.

Secret Tunnels of England

The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).

London’s Secret Circuitry

I’ve got a new piece up over at The Daily Beast about London’s Hatton Garden heist—in a sense, a preview of many themes from my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, including the idea that “the tools and techniques of breaking and entering are more often than not also those of architectural construction and maintenance.”