The author of the bestselling book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, Geoff Manaugh, investigates how the uncertainty of quarantine creates legal loopholes allowing for atrocities and the abuse of power.
Most people would not connect architecture with burglary or quarantine. But for Geoff Manaugh, a Los-Angeles based writer and creator of BLDGBLOG, those stories on the edge—told from the peripheral viewpoints of burglars, safecrackers, or doctors in quarantine facilities—are the most insightful. They reveal the hidden aspects of urbanism, seen only from marginal perspectives. “Writing about how a mayor or a city planner sees the metropolis reveals one thing, but then looking at how someone who actually cleans the subways, or someone who wants to break into buildings for that matter, reveals a totally different way about how cities function,” the author says.
Manaugh is currently working on a book about the history and future of quarantine, co-authored by his wife and fellow writer Nicola Twilley. They aim to focus on quarantine strictly as a medical practice, but their research extends beyond epidemic control and healthcare strategies—tapping into biological, ethical, architectural, political, and even astronomical dimensions.
Manaugh is also a Strelka Institute faculty member.
Strelka Mag spoke to him to find out how architecture can be used as a strategic tool of separation.
Manaugh has been writing about architecture and design for more than 15 years. He started BLDGBLOG back in the heyday of blogs in 2004 to write about things that were overlooked in the architecture world—topics where architecture is central, and yet at the same time is unexpected or seems secondary. He posted articles about the architecture of science fiction films, the works of J.G. Ballard, classical mythology, and the role architecture can play in dreams, among many other offbeat topics. “You could start off talking about archaeology or interplanetary exploration and end up back at a discussion of airlocks and offworld construction techniques and material science in low gravitational planets, etc., which is architecture,” explains Manaugh.
“Blogging gives you a platform and a voice that differentiates you from other people. Makes you no longer reliant upon editors’ politics, or other publications—they are just pre-existing outlets that you have to tell yourself to fit,” he adds.
Today Manaugh regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired UK, and many other major platforms. His book A Burglar’s Guide to the City on the relationship between crime and architecture became a blockbuster and was optioned for a television show by CBS Studios in 2016.
In the book, Manaugh explores the city for its vulnerabilities and blindspots. He offers a view through the eyes of a burglar, who is misusing buildings in ways that are both illegal and tactically unusual. By finding ways of getting into a structure that were not designed by architects—such as using the subway system to break into a bank vault—burglars engage with architecture in the most peculiar way.
Just like burglary, quarantine for Manaugh is a spatial concept that engages with architecture through the opposition of inside vs outside.
Manaugh and Twilley define quarantine as “the creation of a hygienic boundary between two or more things, for the purpose of protecting one from exposure to the other. It is a strategy of separation and containment—a spatial response to suspicion, threat, and uncertainty.”
“What’s interesting about quarantine from an architectural point of view is that it’s kind of the apotheosis of circulation. The entire point of quarantine is to keep either goods separate from the people moving through the same building, or to keep certain people separate from other people moving through it,” Manaugh says.
Quarantine in fiction
Sinister plots about infections have always captured human imagination. From Albert Camus’ The Plague to recent films The Cabin in the Woods and 28 Days Later, the theme of quarantine re-appears in different genres throughout history.
Manaugh looks to The Mask of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe, a short story that fascinated him when he was a child, as an example of how quarantine can become an outstanding narrative tool.
“One of the things that I love so much about this story is the irony of separation—the idea that by removing ourselves from a world that we think will harm us, we, in fact, might be isolating ourselves with the very thing that will take us down,” says Manaugh.
He believes there’s always a vulnerability when it comes to these kinds of acts of isolation or scapegoating. “There’s an irony in what we think we can achieve by walling ourselves off, by building the wall, by separating ourselves and inadvertently incorporating the thing that we thought we were rejecting—finding that the threat is within, so to speak.”
The metaphor of quarantine can be applied not just at the level of an individual or a city, but at the scale of entire civilizations. One of Manaugh’s favorite quarantine stories is the myth of Alexander's Gate. This legend, popular in medieval literature, was later described by Stephen T. Asma in his book On Monsters and, as Manaugh argues, it can be used to explain the origins of Western exceptionalism.
According to the myth, Alexander the Great built a barrier in the Caucasus to keep uncivilized barbarians of the north from invading the land to the south. Manaugh believes that one particular detail of the story—of how the gates would fall apart—reveals the vulnerabilities of quarantine.
The legend, Manaugh argues, shows that the very thing that makes the West the West relies on an architectural intervention—the landscape that seals this civilization off from a “world of monsterology.”
“The way in which the monsters gain access to the Christian West, in this particular mythic version is fascinating—that it's through one small creature finding a route between the one world and the next, and then having others follow it through. That is a good way of illustrating the vulnerability of quarantine, or the vulnerability of isolation and separation, and the way in which these kinds of gaps or weaknesses can be exposed and the other side can leak through.”
History of quarantine
Quarantine was first introduced in 1377 in Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. However, it is most strongly associated with Venice, which was the hub of many trade routes into Central Europe, and therefore became the epicenter of plague epidemics. One of the reasons why Venice quickly adopted quarantine was not only because of its economic centrality, but also because its landscape is an ideal environment for quarantine.
“Venice is a city of islands, walled neighborhoods, courtyards, and palazzi—architectural structures that are very easy to separate from the outside world. It lends itself really well to the practice of quarantine, because you can just remove a bridge and isolate an entire neighborhood or an entire compound. You can simply take people out to the next island, and stop ship traffic, and patrol the islands so that no one can come or go,” explains Manaugh.
The first permanent plague hospital (lazaretto) was opened in 1423 on the small island of Santa Maria di Nazareth. And gradually quarantine developed into a complex system of defense—incoming ships were directed to Lazzaretto Nuovo, where their goods were sorted and fumigated, and passengers screened for disease. The rules and rituals of quarantine became a sort of algorithm. Performed over and over again, they took on architectural form. After the discovery of germs in the 1800s, quarantines were designed with particular microbes in mind. The following advent of antibiotics and the application of routine vaccinations in the mid-20th century made large-scale quarantines a thing of the past. But today bioterrorism and newly emergent diseases like SARS threaten to resurrect the age-old practice, potentially on the scale of entire cities.
“When you look back at history, knowing what we know now about medicine, a lot of the things that people were doing in quarantine 400 years ago were completely ridiculous, they had no effect whatsoever on infection. There are examples of burning incense and letting the smoke waft over infected merchandise—it had no medical effect at all, but it made people feel as if it was clean,” says Manaugh.
We’ll think the same when we look back in 50 or 100 years at the things we do today, he argues. “There’s such a genuine terror that you might be exposed to something like ebola or a yet undefined disease that we’re inventing sequences of activity that don’t necessarily correspond to a real risk. Quarantine becomes a space of theatre and acting and superstition because we don’t really know what we’re up against and that’s the question of uncertainty as well.
Politics and ethics of quarantine
The use of quarantine as a public health tool has always been controversial. Very often, fears aroused by disease and epidemics have justified abuses of state power and meant taking a group of people, usually a minority group or those in the lowest income bracket, and placing them apart from the rest. Looking at the history of quarantine means looking at the history of discrimination.
“If you look at quarantine from the position of state power, you’re immediately drawn to the scale of an almost ritualistic use of the city—of creating spaces of protection, purification, and separation. Quarantine basically justifies political vendetta against other people, who can be seen as possibly bringing a contagion into the city,” says Manaugh.
Quarantine is a politically strange phenomenon, as it’s not something that you can challenge in the courts. “There is a troubling overlap between the figure of the quarantined and the figure of the ‘enemy combatant,’ who legally and constitutionally fall into the same category, where their civil rights can be put on hold for indefinite periods of time.”
Quarantine becomes a legally blurry area because of the condition of uncertainty, he says. “Isolation means that if someone is definitely infected, you’re isolating them—whereas with quarantine you don’t know if someone has a disease. There is this fundamental idea of uncertainty that creates a political risk and can be abused dramatically. You’re in a place that is not subject to trials, that is not subject to even necessarily legal proof—it’s a statement of biological suspicion and uncertainty, and that creates the political position of the quarantined.”
In this regard, Manaugh looks at the case of Guantanamo Bay, where prior to the War on Terror, Haitian immigrants suspected of being HIV-positive were detained. “Guantanamo was a kind of liminal territory, simultaneously outside the US, but also outside Cuba, even though it’s on the Cuban island. Later it became a site for the detention of enemy combatants.”
Не argues that quarantine becomes a space of exception that is very close to the idea of a ban or exile. “Once you start going down the line of quarantine as a metaphor, it literally goes everywhere. Take the Cuban Missile Crisis: in order for it not to be seen as an act of war, the US referred to encircling Cuba as a quarantine, not a blockade, because that was a military term. Similarly, the creation of Jewish ghettos in European cities and the very existence of concentration camps can become an example of quarantine. But separating people because you don’t want their ideas to spread also can be seen as quarantine—like the quarantine of the internet by the Great Firewall of China.”
In all of these cases, quarantine creates a zone outside of the regular world and thus raises the question of “inside vs outside,” which is fundamental to understanding the logic of sovereignty in line with the argument Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt.
“The quarantine station, like the camp, as defined by Giorgio Agamben, becomes this space that is simultaneously outside the law, but is also enclosed and becomes a sort of the exception that proves the rule,” says Manaugh. “If something is going to be pushed out, exiled, or banned, it’s going to be quarantined and placed into a space that is outside of the everyday, outside the political sphere of rights and laws—into a place of biological waiting and medical indeterminacy and uncertainty. The very act of putting that outside is in its own sense a kind of enclosure and an inscription of that thing within the system of rights, or rather of legal control and political power.”
So where does quarantine occur—is it outside or inside the political system? Manaugh argues that the very thing that we’re rejecting, that we’re trying to push outside of the sphere of politics, is the thing that we’re putting at the center of it, and enclosing and locking into its own kind of inside. He draws from Deleuze and Guattari’s argument that “sovereignty only reigns over what it is capable of internalizing.”
“In this case, the opposite is also true—sovereignty rules over what it is capable of exteriorizing. The very thing that it can reject is the thing that it has power over. The fact that it can push it out and that it can exile something is also a form of power and it’s an interesting way of looking at quarantine. It’s that dance between exteriority and interiority, and the exercise of power, and that kind of topology of spatial relations that let us talk about quarantine in the first place.”