The edifice of enthusiasm: The BLDGBLOG Book

June 22, 2009


Copies of The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh are arriving in the hands of those who have ordered it, stores and individuals alike. I know this is a rather keenly awaited event for a number of BLDGBLOG readers and enthusiasts—and not least Geoff himself.

I’m also up there among those who have anticipated this moment, for I am the editor of the book. As such it is inappropriate for me to do anything like review the book, even in an unregulated online environment; endorsing it would be redundant, and running it down bizarre.

Spreads from The BLDGBLOG Book, from BLDGBLOGs Flickr page

Spreads from The BLDGBLOG Book, from BLDGBLOG's Flickr page

Not surprisingly, I’m predisposed to this book and its creator, and want to share a few thoughts about it from a privileged perspective. This may not be the biggest publishing event of ought-nine, but for some it’s a triumph. I am not talking about the subject range of this modestly proportioned 272-page book, whose content quotient is far outweighed by that of the blog. Neither is this to argue that The BLDGBLOG Book is a bellwether for how new-media content will supersede traditional models of publishing—the blog that gets ported into a book. I’m pretty sure BLDGBLOG doesn’t need further boosterism to find its aficionados; its critical function of non-academic, laterally thought speculation is already established. I’d argue what makes the book a successful entity unto itself is its rhetorical drive, its optimistic inclusiveness.

The BLDGBLOG Book is an edifice of enthusiasm.

A brief recap: Geoff had conducted a singularly entertaining interview with another Chronicle author, Erik Davis, of the aforementioned The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, and from that point on the blog had me hooked. I met Geoff and his wife Nicola Twilley in Los Angeles in the Winter of 2007 at a small symposium he held at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. From there Geoff and I staged a similar event in San Francisco, in which we stuffed a weekend afternoon with the ideas of Geoff, Erik, the principals of Rebar and IwamotoScott, and to cap it off, the great film and sound editor Walter Murch, who shared, as I put it in a Chronicle Books blog post, “his independent research into how the geometry of the Pantheon seems to accurately point to a heliocentric understanding of the cosmos, and how some simplified math supports an archaic theory called Bode’s Law, which correlates planetary orbits to harmonic intervals.” That weekend Geoff and I also discovered shared interests in the grindcore band Napalm Death, film director David Cronenberg, and of course the godfather of psychospatial perversity, J.G. Ballard. Sometime during that weekend I think the idea of a book surfaced.

Geoff moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles to take a senior editorial position at Dwell, which enabled further discussion. He worked up a proposal, and late that June I delivered him an offer for the book. It may not go down as the most outlandish agreement ever struck in modern pop history—leagues away from Tony Wilson’s blood-inked cocktail napkin contract with Joy Division, say—but the setting was a neon-hued hotel room in Reno, Nevada, there was bourbon involved, and there were numbers on a napkin. That possibly sounds more louche than it really was, since we were in Reno to attend a fairly highbrow event sponsored by the Nevada Museum of Art, a panel discussion with Geoff, David Maisel, and Bill Fox.

One of the aspects of BLDGBLOG that I always liked was Geoff’s writing—longer form than most blogs, interrogative of its subject (it’s never a simple re-post site), and often a platform for a capsule prose piece of some speculative sort. From the beginning the mutually agreed idea behind the book was to create ample space for this writing, what Geoff sees as the foundation of his creative endeavor. Yes, the range of his fantastic ideas are why many people love the blog, but if that were the primacy of his work then he’d be just another blogger. My job as an editor would not be to mess with the text so much as to coordinate it with the other elements and Chronicle’s in-house process and flow. There weren’t that many disagreements about his writing, though I could not disabuse Geoff of his fondness for activating any given noun into a verb through the “-ize” suffix (we should have brought the discussion here). I thought there must be some better, if more technical, word for something as obtrusive as “musicalize.”

But there it is again, the rhetoric of enthusiasm, causing what’s usually inert to jump to life. It’s the animating principle behind BLDGBLOG and the justification for its wide net. This is another key factor that separates him from most other online scribes, and what puts him at the farthest end of the spectrum from trolls or grey vampires or whatever. Geoff’s philosophy was well summed up in his manifesto for Icon magazine: “Everything is relevant to architecture . . . stop limiting the conversation.”

The idea was never to slurp the best posts from BLDGBLOG, typeset them, and throw some fancy pictures into a default format. Geoff wrote a great deal of new texts for the book, and adapted many others. The book format afforded an opportunity to impose a structure that blogs largely lack. Five sections—Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation; The Underground; Redesigning the Sky; Music Sound Noise; Landscape Futures—accommodate texts of various lengths, including little sidebars and interstitial texts for the skimmer type of reader. Portions of his smartest interviews appear as well, including an exciting new one from Michael Peter Cook of Archigram [Michael Cook is the Canadian sewer-and-drain spelunker behind The Vanishing Point, and also the subject of an interview in the book]. And there are lots of wonderful images as well, from David Maisel, Simon Norfolk, Siologen, Camille Seaman, Ed Burtynsky, and of course NASA. Brett MacFadden and Scott Thorpe—former colleagues at Chronicle who struck out on their own—imposed a sharp look and clear hierarchy for the different kinds of texts within. Geoff enlisted Dwell colleague Brendan Callahan for some blithe illustrations of some of Geoff’s more peculiar concepts, and cartoonist Joe Alterio converted the inner covers to the first BLDGBLOG comics ever. Finally, Geoff added a special, rather funny, spread in the back, after an extensive Further Reading section, for the autographs of particular BLDGBLOG heroes. Sadly, though perhaps necessarily, noone will ever fill all those lines, due to the passing of the great Mr. Ballard.

We could devote a long entry to the thorny process of choosing the right cover for the book, but in the end this composite approach is an appropriate visual summary to the menagerie within. I’m proud of this book and eager to see it get out to its fans. Thanks to the entire team who worked hard to put this together—and thanks, Geoff, for trusting me and Chronicle with it.

I hope you start working on the second book soon.

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