Video of the talk I gave at 2016’s Typo conference, held at the HKW in Berlin, has finally been released from password-protected seclusion. The theme of that conference was “Beyond Design”, which provided me with the narrow opening I needed to drop 40 minutes of psychogeography onto an audience otherwise invested in topics more closely related to typographic design.
In contrast to previous speaking engagements held in the context of architecture or urban design, it seemed helpful to provide the Typo crowd with something akin to an overarching hypothesis for the writings collected here. This writer has been shortcoming in that respect, aside from the somewhat dated and vainglorious effort provided by the About page. True to our strapline, this is a heuristic journal, braced for the inevitable pitfalls of not knowing where one is going, but keen to divulge the resulting narrative all the same.
Being forced to explain Slab Mag’s thrust was a gruelling, but ultimately rewarding endeavour. Whilst structuring the talk’s first 15 minutes, I hit upon the notion of the “phantom narrative” to describe the transient subtext’s of our built environment, rendered legible only when critical reflection prioritises the personal over the theoretical. Not long after this coinage, I stumbled across Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration, in which the film director famously explained his theory of “ecstatic truth”, an elusive substance “reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization”.
In den Leonorengärten is a newly built residential neighbourhood in Lankwitz, a locality in south-west Berlin. It seems perfectly situated; between a nursing home and a leisure center. In August of 2016 I drifted by, on my way down to a stretch of the Berlin Wall Trail which I’d not personally covered during research on Slab Magazine’s 2010’s investigation The New Death Strip. It was a gorgeous day, and trails need trailing.
Attracted by the developer’s sign on the main road, I approached Leonorengärten’s southern corner, where several hundred meters of gabion wall separated the estate from the adjacent swimming pool, tennis club and ice rink. A puzzling choice of material. Although perhaps “domesticated” to some extent by Herzog and de Meuron’s rigorous and contextually persuasive use in the 1995 Dominus Winery, gabion doesn’t easily shake-off its military heritage. Here, it seemed so at odds with the carefully staid idyll it had been installed to protect, that it resembled a copy/paste error, or the result of a misnamed data-object unwittingly mouse-dragged into a CAD-model. The alleyway which had emerged as a result of the wall being built, seemed already resigned to its new role as a future crime scene, best traversed with indifferent haste.
Before attempting to go beyond the wall, I briefly imagined the scene on other side. Freshly installed nuclear families luxuriating in the material and psychological fallout of behavioural patterns appropriated from American sitcoms, gardening magazines and last century’s beer commercials: couples lying prostrate on teak sunloungers, inebriate, basted with sun-cream and barbecue sauce, whilst a lawn sprinkler delivers arcs of water over a Weber propane grill and a Jack Russell Terrier quietly gnaws on a roller skate. Twisted images of middle-class, mail-order debauchery.
In a way I am the misplaced son of such imaginaries. I was once a sub-urban, commuter-belt-dwelling, BMX-riding, scuff-kneed, back-for-dinner-by-six, Cold War, latchkey kid. The ’70s-era Bracknell housing estate where my father and stepmother lived in the late 1980s was a dense landscape of bifurcating cul-de-sacs, arranged like the tightly packed, fractal blooms of a cauliflower. My radius of movement was asymmetrical, modestly sized, and mostly confined by the configuration of alleyways, gardens, fences, garages and gates established by the land-developer. Our neighbourhood had been built to feel like a discrete world. But on one occasion I broke the illusion, and all I needed to do was to slip through a hitherto unseen gap in a wall. On the other side was another neighbourhood: separate, familiar, yet oddly different. This breaching of zones was significant for its small lessons in agency and orientation: the expansion of my own spatial context – the feeling of setting – had previously been provided by adults at the wheel of a car.
Standing outside Leonorengärten, I wondered how such a transgression would unfold here: the gabion provided no such fortuitous gap for an inquisitive kid. Other narratives would emerge from this configuration of space.
An initial glance over the ramparts was encouraging: I spotted skeuomorphic window-shutters screwed onto the foam-insulated, synthetic-render façades. Decorative hinges were mercifully absent, but ventilation slats – perhaps too fundamental a feature – had been preserved. It occurred to me that slats’ function hadn’t been obliterated, but transferred. They were now rhetorical devices meant to evoke the shutteryness of a shutter, the houseyness of the house, and hence the collective memory and implication of the original.
The physical effort involved in using a real shutter denotes a communion between the body and the house. Shutters are closed at nightfall in mimicry of sleep, and darkness is banished to the outer world. At daybreak, shutters are thrown open with widespread arms: light, and the exterior world, are greeted with an embrace. But all of that has been held hostage in Leonorengärten by an amputated metaphor. Their very name, shutter, is redundant, for these shutters will never shut. All the same, the need to exercise control over light and shade remains, so each window has been equipped with a motorised roll-up which retracts into the façade.
The effect of this doubling was uncanny. Some roll-ups had been left ajar, causing the windows to simultaneously exhibit two mutually exclusive symptoms: temporary paralysis and rigor mortis. Worse still, adjacent windows shared a single decorative shutter, as though its reference object had been dysfunctional too, attached to the wall with hinges on both sides. In Make it Real – Architecture as Enactment, Sam Jacob calls such redundant appendages “technological glitches”, and suggests that we see “architecture’s re-enactment of history in the present as a kind of anachronic radicalism” . Using a dead shutter to evoke a superficial cosiness might be a radical gesture (as if the houseyness of a house needed reinforcement), but I’m inclined also to see the enactment as a perverse form of malingering: the pretence of phantom limb syndrome, the desire for amputation.
But the anachronic radicalism of Leonorengärten’s enactive strategy seems to lie in its successful, and completely uncalled for smooshing-together of Tex Avery cartoons with a Beethoven opera. The fake shutters, the ham-fisted fluting and the dopey pitch of the roof remind me of the bug-eyed psychosis of a Daffy Duck animation, whilst the development’s name directly references the heroine and a key set-piece of Beethoven’s Fidelio: Leonore’s garden. You can see how the terraces might start swaying their rubbery bulk in time to the music. In Act I of the opera, Leonore, who is working incognito in the prison where her husband has been detained, convinces the guard Rocco to let the prisoners roam in the garden and enjoy the beautiful weather. “Oh what joy / in the open air / freely to breathe again!” the chorus sings.
Should we view the central configuration of gardens as an analogy to the prison yard? Would this explain the gabion perimeter? We can, of course, grant the developer, Interhomes AG, an awareness of Leonore: after all, the name is lifted from the main street Leonorenstraße , which runs through a neighbourhood often referred to as the composer’s quarter. But I’m doubtful the implied consequences of my analogy were factored in to the choice of name. Rather, the word “garden” just works well in Berlin, where property owners are easily convinced that living in the city and the countryside simultaneously is a realisable proposition. But this journal is dedicated to probing the limits of analogy, and insisting on deeper levels of legibility in the protocols of spatial production.
I freewheeled through the estate. I wondered why such huge houses should also appear so shrunken. There was a neat convenience to everything. Unsightly bins were housed in little wooden cages, empty deck chairs stood poised on the terraces, and the ground-cover was seamless. Whimsically, or sinisterly, one street was populated with black cars, and another predominantly by white vehicles. A single child wobbled about on roller-blades like a new-born foal. A family were actually in their front garden setting a table whilst the BBQ came up to heat.
In the context of Lankwitz, Leonorengärten’s aesthetic program (those “lavish façades in the style of garden-city architecture”  ), its economic narrative (single-investor splurge) and topography (semi-enclosed crescents) are singularly alien: a petri-dish community fallen from an investment portfolio. As such we should read it as the concentrated manifestation of a consensual, spectacular vision of suburbia; a meta-burb, a theatre set for the re-enactment of lifestyle-rituals, or an open laboratory for market researchers performing ethnographic house-calls , in which close observation of the residents’ interactions with shampoo dispensers, retractable-cord electric lawnmowers, mini trampolines and juicers can be made in a perfect simulation of a human’s natural surroundings.
 Sam Jacob, Make It Real – Architecture as Enactment, (Moscow: Strelka Press, 2012)
 On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Leonorenstraße was named in 1937, four years into Nazi rule, in which Beethoven was enjoying slightly more popularity than Princess Victoria Adelaide of Schleswig-Holstein the Duchess of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, after whom it had originally been named. Link.
 Blurb from the website of property developer Interhomes AG. Link.
 For more on this, Slab can recommend Some Suggestions for Conducting Ethnographic Research, published in 2008 by Zwillinger Research, a market research group in Los Angeles, California. Link.
I encountered the turd on Arachovis Street, about one and a half blocks north-west of Asklipiou. I didn’t actually step into it: my peripheral vision had registered it moments previously, and I’d probably subconsciously classified it as geological feature best given wide berth. It really was an extraordinarily large turd: polymerous in structure, in fact, making it more of a turd-complex, or a compound-turd. A nobbled trunk of tremendous girth, poking upwards, adjacent to a slick of peaty, viscous gloop, which looked as though it had been troweled onto the pavement with great force.
For two more blocks I speculated about the turd’s origin. Sure, there was something vaguely anthropogenic about it, but the squalid chain of events leading up to its being excreted onto the middle of a pavement in Athens’ Exarcheia district was too unseemly to be plausible. On the other hand, I couldn’t image any other mammal capable of producing such a monument to its pitiable existence either, let alone one indigenous to this city’s streets. Surely no domestic dog could have produced that monstrosity. A large hyena, perhaps, or, hell – who knows? – a small rhinoceros.
The local organic wholefood shop is called The Hopsack, after the loose-weave untreated fibrous material that gives the shopper a sense of the dietary worthiness within.
The Hopsack has temporarily relocated from another location in the same shopping mall. The new site is smaller, so the sitting-around-drinking-coffee-area has been moved to the outside.
The contours of the marble tiles display a non-pattern created by the random distribution of ancient sea life, further randomized by the mining process, randomized once again by manufacturing processes of cutting, polishing and finishing, and one more time by the distribution, storage and laying of the tiles.
And yet, somehow, the marble just doesn’t say ‘organic’ the way astroturf does.
This piece was commissioned by Andrew Thomas Parry, a British artist living and working in Berlin. Parry approached me in May 2016 after his own research into foam insulating panels led him, inexorably, to Slab. The text accompanied an installation entitled “Let ’em Kuchen essen”, which was exhibited in the Platform art-space, a vitrine in the Kleistpark metro station. Parry’s installation is a social critique of Germany’s ongoing federal subsidisation of façade insulation, which is often used by property owners as a mechanism to increase rents prices.
Andrew Thomas Parry’s installation Let ’em Kuchen essen at Platform. Photo: Timo Ohler
The author with Slab’s Daniel Schwaag. Photo: Leah Peschel
In the urban imaginary, foam proffers itself as an allegorical narrative of social mobility. Foam is a useful metaphor for a specific expression of material wealth typified by a fetishistic appreciation of reductive aesthetics, as well as a tangible substance inherent to the fabric of our built environment and our culinary conventions.
In the multi-scaled system of foam we find the bubble as its smallest unit. Intrinsic to the lifespan of a bubble are gentle inflation and rapid collapse. In bubble economies, asset price inflation combined with unbridled credit expansion precede the crash. A single bubble might burst violently, but the steady depletion of foam soothes us with the promise of a soft landing. Foam’s abundance is a structural antidote laced with our desires.
The proliferation of the latte macchiato as a ritualistic medium through which to celebrate modest luxury permeates the urban econoculinary landscape. The rise of the neoliberal market economy – overlapping the second and third-wave coffee movements – was ushered in by the two-decade, bugle-call, background howl of the espresso-machine steam-wand. The latte macchiato’s emblematic ascent coincides with the exponential growth of Starbucks following the end of the Thatcher-Reagan era. When company stock began trading on Nasdaq in 1992, the chain had 195 stores. Twenty years later, there were over 17,000.
Writing in 1998, New York Times food columnist Molly O’Neill described late Michelin 3-stared chef Alain Chapel’s foamy mushroom cappuccino as “legendary”. Significantly – for analogies with late-capitalism – she frames the frothing of soups as a “subversive act, a way of blurring the distinction between the light and the heavy, the austere and the indulgent.” More recently, molecular gastronomist Adrià Ferran inadvertently helped to whip foam into the mainstream where it has since sagged into an aspirational cliché of more pedestrian eateries.
The pièces montées of Marie-Antoine Carême
It is in the soufflé, however, that we find the embodiment of mastery over the inflation and collapse of textured hydrocolloids. First recorded in the early 1700s, the soufflé was developed and popularised by Marie-Antoine Carême 100 years later. Abandoned by his parents during the French Revolution, Carême apprenticed as a pâtissier close to the Palais-Royal neighbourhood in Paris, where post-revolutionary high-society congregated. He rose to fame after opening his own pâtisserie, where he regularly astonished the public with spectacular pièces montées in the shop window. These creations, made entirely of marzipan, sugar and pastry, were towering structures which mimicked architectural motifs: tiered pyramids, arches, turrets, domes and porticos.
Contemporary domestic architectures (another kind of pâtissier’s confection), with their smeared surface layers of coagulated polymer goos, are complicit in the swindle of the light masquerading as the heavy. Historical buildings, meanwhile, are coerced into the opposite: the seductive idea of indulgent austerity, heaviness rendered light by effervescent financial mechanisms. Subsidised foam cladding ostensibly addresses environmental concerns, but is also the driver of asset price inflation by passing on the remaining costs to those already ascendent on the socio-economic soufflé, and forcing aside those who are not. Profits swell on the back of a bubble.
As a sign of a certain kind of spirituality, foam, noted semiotician Roland Barthes, “has the reputation of being able to make something out of nothing, a large surface of effects out of a small volume of causes”.
With thanks to: Andrew Thomas Parry, Leah Peschel, Lucy Olivia Smith and Timo Ohler.
For more on foam, goo, unguents, effluvia and other unpleasant coagulants, you might enjoy the following Slab articles:
We set out from the apartment quite late in the day, after a morning of eating and listening to the radio. Turning left out of the main door, out of Rue Rossini and onto Rue Berlioz, we made for the sea, leaving the Musiciens neighbourhood. It takes five minutes to reach the landmark of the Hotel Negresco, which stands prominently on the Promenade des Anglais.
This will take some time to get through. You are reading a record of the walk that I took with Tom while visiting him in Nice in the south of France at the end of June 2004. The start is when we left the apartment and the end will be when we returned.
The previous night I had started reading a book about the walk as an architectural/cultural activity. It described how the Paris Dadaists went on a city walk, whose purpose and route were deliberately unclear. They photographed themselves at the meeting point, beside a modest church in some Paris neighbourhood. It was the first time that I really understood Dada; through absurdity to reveal the true nature of things. Is something as banal as walking worth recording, worth commenting on? Is a walk an event? These people took what I suppose they would have called a promenade, or at least went through the motions of it, and raised for me the question of why one does such a thing as take a walk. And when one does, why is it sometimes important to have a route and other times not? And why does it seem important to record the event sometimes and other times not?
The Promenade des Anglais is a busy place, especially so on the weekend. It is hemmed in on the landward side by a dual carriageway that is constantly streaming with traffic. On the other side is the sea, several metres below. The beach itself is not really the main attraction in Nice. It is narrow and stony. The sea bed drops sharply away and the waves crash down on your head and the large stones hurt your feet. It is difficult to bathe gracefully there. So those who are on the beach are just lying about, some on the loungers arranged in rows and corralled by little fences that belong to the small bars that huddle against the retaining wall of the promenade. So the thing to do on the promenade is to walk and to watch other people doing the same thing. Some rollerblade, some jog, some cycle, but most walk. We walked east, a little quicker than most. It would be absurd to take a walk along the coast in Nice without going along this custom-built stretch, so we did what seemed logical and walked.
On our left was the beginning of the strip of green that marks where the now diverted river used to run. After that, the promenade is called Quai des Etats Unis. There is an interesting reason behind these French-foreign names for this French-foreign place, and I read about it somewhere at the time. If I had sat down to write this within a few days of the walk itself, I would remember, but I did not and I do not. In fact, many of the details have already started to fade. But that may be no bad thing. This account may not be entirely accurate, but it will probably be faithful.
Most of the ground we covered that day was along the coast and this is an attempt among other things to give the measure of this famous coastline. I can sum things up by saying simply that we walked south to the beach, then east along the sea over the first headland and then on to the next headland, which we ascended and then turned inland, reaching the outskirts of the city, where we took a bus that took us back into the city centre. That is the short of it, and I could leave it at that. But I want to give the long of it.