A view reserved for the return journey home in the evening. The creeping plant on this wall is a kind of seasonal barometer, captured here between summer and autumn. The colour-blend from green to red traces the sun’s trajectory across the sky on this north-facing wall on Gormannstraße. In winter, the plant sheds its leaves, and the branches resemble an epic crack in the plaster.
Before it became synonymous with traveling to work, the word ‘commute’ originally meant to reduce, replace or to truncate. It derives from the commuted ticket prices workers were offered by rail companies in the 1840s to get to their offices in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia from the burgeoning suburbs.
Compared to the 3.5 million “extreme commuters” cited in this New Yorker article from 2007 – people who, according to the US Census Bureau, travel more than 90 minutes each way – my commute is positively idyllic. For the last 11 years it’s been a pleasant 35 minute cycle ride through Berlin along good roads, a fair stretch of which have marked cycle lanes. Apart from a couple of large intersections which can get hairy sometimes, it’s a pretty good deal, seen globally. In this networked day and age, anyone with broadband has little excuse for not putting themselves into a global context. I do not, for instance, have to traverse a rope bridge, like some farmers in parts of Pakitstan. Nor do I have to take a bus along the Yungas Road in Bolivia.
In a couple of months, my company is set to move to a different part of town. The change will reduce my 4.5km ride to around 3km, and will also force me to cycle through a park. My commute is about to commute.
This is an occasion which affects Slab to quite some degree. Looking back over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of how many of my articles have been informed by stuff I’ve seen on the way to the office. Indeed, there have been times when I’ve brooded over the notion that it would be possible to write several hundred-thousand episodic words solely about my route to work. I won’t take you down that rabbit hole, but this series of articles will serve as a kind of resumé, or jaunty blurbanistic synopsis of the 16,200km I’ve cycled through central Berlin on my way to work over the last 8 years existence of this journal.
I’ll wrap up this episode with one more impression which cannot be a more fundamental statement about architecture and Berlin:
What’s that Eastern European, in-lawy-looking woman in white plastic slippers doing, leafing through a stack of mail she’s retrieved from one of the motley mailboxes, wire-tied to the galvanized construction fence, loosely arranged as a sort of abatis? Does she live here?
It seems like only yesterday: this used to be a corner plot of leafy wilderness spawned by a protracted property dispute, with pairs of old shoes dangling from chain link fences. I hoped to myself that the dispute would never end, and that wilderness would prevail. A Red Cross old clothes bin always made me think of the sad incident where a man suffocated in one of these when he got trapped in the hatch trying to retrieve something. Then one day, the wilderness was a groundwater filled pit. Then came the prefab concrete walls, the aerated concrete blocks with mortar oozing from oversized grouts, the argon filled triple glazing cassettes, the acrylic render tanks, the stacks of Dow Styrene, the glossy lifestyle render on the construction board advertising. Just another building’s apparition, torn together by reversed explosion. Behind the fence, a slab of slate-colored stone-like material slapped onto a scrubs green chunk of styrene insulation slapped onto some wobbly trestles splattered with white goo. Windows splattered with the same white goo. Is that some sort of black granite they are putting up as a rainscreen? Real stone, a holocrystalline mass forged over hundreds of millions of years deep in the earth’s crust from molten magma or slowly accumulated sediments, concealing the expanded polystyrene at eye level? Around the doors, the PS gives way to real rock wool. Better for fires. The five floors above are covered in acrylic render.
What is this building, anyway; seemingly condensed from argon, aerated concrete, and styrene foam? High-end or trashy? Can I afford to live there, and would I want to? Is it cheap-looking or well made? Is this a cheap ass building or state-of-the-art? I have a hard time telling. The building looks kind of OK, I guess. At least it’s not a Noefer or a Kocher: can’t ask too much these days. It’s pretty well executed. The acrylic render is some of the finest around. Neat, straight edges, no dents. No swallow’s nests yet either, as in the EIFS across the street. Shame they made the whole thing visually top-heavy, with a change in color and a step in the render and more beefy loggias, literally setting the penthouses apart from the apartments below. So that the penthouses look more like houses. Too bad about that slight fender bender on the flashing on one of the penthouse’s loggias. Guess it got banged-up by one of the lifts hauling cheap ass facade up an down.
Couldn’t they have averaged out the cost of the natural stone and the EIFS above to pay for a decent looking rainscreen across the whole facade? Then there wouldn’t be this large expanse of untreated acrylic render that I’m unsure about, aesthetically. That poplar needs to go a little more to the right to cover up that blank wall up. Oh wait, can’t photoshop in reality. And why do these buildings always have floor to ceiling windows? Is it cheaper to just make it all glass than to actually come up with a facade design, to pay for a rain screen, something nice to look at? Took my daughter to look at one of the apartment. 118m2. I think I managed to convince the Engels&Völkers agent that I could be for real, possibly. The flat looked great. We could put the shelves there, and a nice sofa … Does it have underground parking? Well yes, of course. Ok, good. But what does it cost? She wouldn’t say; gave me an exposé. The development’s named “Schatz am Kollwitzplatz”. It’s not really on Kollwitzplatz, but on a Spielplatz a block away. I quickly leafed to the prices. 670K, plus agent’s fees. Well, that’s definitely high-end then, must be. This is some fine-ass piece of construction. Shiat, all that natural stone.
Slab’s coffers are empty after the extravagance of sending your roving correspondent to distant Lincoln, England.
The Roman walls survive in some places, here indelicately overstepped by the undercarriage of the brutiful 1970s City of Lincoln Council building. For the new building, the relic is an irrelevance that it is obliged not to obliterate. Preservation by condescension, insultingly undoing the difference between the outside and inside of the old walls. It does not matter which side we are on. Die Mauer ist weg.
It matters here, though. As you progress up the steep hill that is the heart of the old city, you move through a rather exclusive neighbourhood of niche houses, concealed from the winding streets, each with picturesque planting spilling over their walls, as if to make up for their high exclusivity. I have walked similar wealthy laneways above the coast around Nice.
The cathedral at the top of the hill is for everyone. For centuries, it welcomed pilgrims from far and wide who came to see the relic of the tomb (pictured) of Little Hugh, a child supposedly ritually murdered by Jews in 1255. Now there is a history of the event composed in 2009, in a spirit of ecumenical inclusivity, which acknowledges Lincoln’s leading role in the history of anti-semitism in England. Inclusivity cuts both ways of course – disowning the heritage of racism does not extend so far as to remove the remnants of the offending tomb. The wealth and stature of the cathedral itself derive to a significant degree from its anti-semitic attraction. The tomb cannot be disentangled from the cathedral.
The modern gargoyles on the renovated parts of the exterior tell us more about the modern cathedral’s values. Death and money. Yes, we get it. This is the Church of England à la Rowan Williams – unhappy with capitalism, but not quite uncomfortable. The vision of a demon transfixed by money goes back some way, indeed this is an undead Jew for all intents and purposes. The error is to outsource excessive interest in material wealth to a demonic entity, to some kind of repressed other, or to a hated minority. The real problem is far more disturbing and can find expression only in this weird gargoyle’s secret message, which is that God has not died, he has been transformed into money.
Connected to the cathedral is the prep school of Lincoln Minster School. A small, fairly posh place. It is interested in bringing out the best in everyone.
The best in everyone, you understand, but not for just anyone. You have to belong. These photographs were taken from the wrong side of the wall.
Down in the town, there sits ignored a far smaller, older church.
St Mary Le Wigford is unfortunate enough to be crammed between the railway track, the train station, the high street and the hideous dual carriageway that cuts through the heart of the waterside (built 1972, when else?). In its desperation, it plays both God cards at once: God is eternally there, and He has agents who work for Him in the here and now. You belong to Me. You don’t belong here.
In Germany, the laws governing the ban on smoking within public railway stations includes a subset of exceptions for certain areas demarcated by yellow lines. In mapping, lines defining the extremities of political territory often have physical counterparts: walls, checkpoints, fencing, river banks, coastline. But the graphical markings above form a legislative map, with no concrete manifestation on the ground other than the paint used to describe itself.
The smoking ban is otherwise known as the “Nichtraucherschutzgesetz”, or Law for the Protection of Non-Smokers, but smoke doesn’t care too much for yellow lines painted on the floor. Whilst the non-smoker may not enjoy a great deal of protection from a wayward puff of smoke, for a smoker, the line represents the difference between a contemplative drag on a fag within, and a 15€ fine without.
Caught between the vestigial popular image of the smoker as a carefree rebel, the law-abiding instincts of a right-minded German, and the inner alarm bells of slighted common sense, these smokers spotted in Angermünde participate in the silent theater of casual defiance. A back is turned to the line, a foot traverses it, and few wish to appear truly enclosed by it. The charitable protection of non-smokers is paid for with the shame of those obliged to participate in this absurd agreement.
As a design solution, the box misses an opportunity for some self-irony: the rectangle maybe most cost effective, but this author would prefer the outline of a big fluffy cloud.
The article “Fubar Corner“, from April of this year, was one of our regular skirmishes against what we perceive to be an affront to the architectural arts, just as much as it is a contribution. Today we must shed light on a further affront made by the same building, but this time to the typographic arts.
The object in question is Neue Grünstraße 40, otherwise known as ‘Berliner Neue Mitte’ by its developers, the Munich-based Baywobau. A quick peruse of the relevant project page of their website reveals that the horrid, wine-red, polyurethane window bay we criticised was actually planned by the architects as being constructed of wood.
Click through their slideshow (skipping over the inexplicable photo of a park bench on Unter den Linden, 2km distant) or peer closely at the rendering above, and one can see that the architects did a pretty good job on the typography over the doorways: Paul Renner’s 1927 typeface Futura has been used, and the letters are well-spaced. In reality though, the building will have to put up with Arial, which has been applied in the most ham-fisted way imaginable. The letters are mercilessly crushed up against each other, leaving a gaping hole between the words and tipping the whole center-justified affair completely off balance.
As a flourish, or a signing-off, the lettering probably marked the finishing touch to the entire building. How tragic, and how typical, that this final simple gesture should have been executed so poorly.
You are on a quay just outside Bantry, on the southwest coast of Ireland. In post-building boom Ireland, there is something familiar about the way this block has been abandoned, askew on the concrete, dumped either because it is damaged on the corner or because the construction firm went bust. The little slips of wood underneath, originally to help a lifting machine slide underneath, have softened and rotted to pulp. So far, so recession. You take a closer look.
Readers of Slab will be familiar with images of the secret polymer innards of apparently substantial architectural objets. But this block of science friction strikes you as particularly alien. You are contemplating the styrofoam hyperobject, an entity that will outlive you, that will out-exist you, on a timescale that has no place for the things that we usually call objects. Why are you thinking like this? On the way to Bantry, you saw this.
A farmer has used an old axle as a fencepost to enclose sheep on this particular windswept outcrop of turf and heather. The incongruity is apparent, because (let’s spell this out) it is a piece of modern engineering that has been repurposed in a natural, non-industrial environment. And perhaps you are pleased to sense the axle’s decay, its chemical disintegration in the face of weather, vegetation, soil and time. The quayside block may lose its blockiness with time, but the styrofoam will never change, and that’s uncanny. ‘Incongruous’ doesn’t even start to cover it.
The axle is almost quaint. In the grand historical sweep of things, ‘antique’ machinery has been integrated into a nostalgic vision with striking speed. The defunct maritime technology in a fishing port pub (brass compasses, oil lamps), the skeletal remains of mass-produced iron farm machinery in an Irish pub, and the chipped enamel signs for long-forgotten brands in a German bar – these are all barely a century old.
The rush to assign machinery to the trash heap of memory even results, for God’s sake, in perfectly functional bikes being pimped out to sell the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables of the common supermarket, a display that itself is strangely subject to immediate decay yet is in denial of all historical conceptions of time, place, culture, climate, transport and cuisine. In other words, modern agriculture is another hyperobject, festooned with the disjecta of an outmoded transport infrastructure, which invisiblizes the world-destroying hyperobject of mass-transportation-refrigeration-genetic-modification-industrialization-herbicide-pesticide-carbonization-suburbanization. Not to mention dummification.
Of course, it’s easy to ignore how modern old-fashioned modernity really was. The bike was a revolutionary technology that changed the shapes of cities, patterns of labour, gender relations, rural spheres of contact, and much more.
Back in West Cork, the farmer is penning in his sheep on the uplands, once inhabited and farmed by humans on the edge of starvation. It’s worth remembering how new the potato was, the key crop that sustained and then failed this population – it came to Europe a mere 200 years before. Then comes a truly modern, continent-wide event, the Napoleonic Wars, and the land is cleared of surviving humans to make way for sheep, because the price of wool has been driven up by the conflict. And all of this long before the invention of the bicycle. What other staples of the vision of traditional Irish rural life are in fact modern imports? Tea. Sugar. Corn. Tobacco. St Patrick’s Day.
A few miles up the road from Bantry, there is a fair in Kenmare, where you find more evidence of post-building-boom junk, this time in the form of tools of bankrupt and unemployed builders, dumped on the tarmac for the patient browser who knows what he or she is looking for. 20 or 30 years ago, you might have come across a jumbled box of screws, bolts and hinges, but the pace of obsolescence has increased even since then. Tools and the things they make are in an ever-faster race towards a vanishing point of obsolescence, each trying to become junk before the other.
The dislocation of it all dizzies the holidaymaker. Before obsolescence was its opposite – some kind of combination of immanence and transcendence achieved by feats of heroic prehistoric engineering. Two great 5000-year-old megaliths jut from the earth in a field just off the road, and their slow weathering, their gradual death, and their inarguable meaningfulness (though what it is that they say is obscure) make 3000 BCE seem like it was a very long time ago.