Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Shopping Malls ∕ Sick Buildings ∕ Spectacle

The myth and the mob

∕ Tue 27th Jan ’15

The Mall of Berlin is 76,000 m² of new retail space built on the former site of the Wertheim department store on Leipziger Platz, which was once the largest of its kind in Europe. The Wertheim building was partially destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944; nothing less than the Führerbunker skulked some meters to the North. Wrecking balls followed in 1955 and six years later the Berlin Wall went up, casting the plot of land deep into no-man’s-land. The new complex boasts 270 shops, with as many apartments located on the upper three floors. It occupies two city blocks on an east-west axis, and is bisected north-to-south by a glass-roofed atrium.

“Shopping is coming home”, declares the publicity material, in English. That’s one thing residents of this town have had to get used to over the last few years: a fetishistic clamouring to the Anglo-Saxon by property developers, who only seem capable of focussing on Berlin through the lens of other places. For this reason you also have the sphincter-clenching embarrassment that is the Upper East Side commercial development on Unter den Linden. In reunified Berlin, there is nothing east nor upper about it, either geographically or stylistically. Here though, the unmistakable reference to the Mall of America is presumably meant as a gesture of self-possessed internationalism, but it comes across as a corny admission of inadequacy. The Minnesotan namesake is content to call itself MOA on occasion. MOB, though, just sounds second-rate, and carries a worrying lexical payload for anyone sensitive to the power of the crowd. Sensing this problem perhaps, the Mall of Berlin plays it safe with a dumb little fall-back name of its own: LP12. It’s an acronym of the street address, Leipziger Platz 12, and the contraction is a popular naming strategy across town for businesses lacking in imagination: tacky hairdressers, low-rent ad agencies or third rate bakeries trade under similar names, not 800-million-Euro shopping malls.

A lighting suggestion for natural stone façades

Outside, the Mall of Berlin adheres to the dutiful blend of gestures which defines post-unification architecture in Berlin. A stiff grid of windows punctures a sandstone and granite curtain: the flush fit of the glass rules out any playful syncopation of light and shadow, creating the architectural equivalent of marching music. The lack of funk or swing is traded for a barely perceptible shifting of the surface plane. The proportions of the windows vary across the building’s height, compressing the central floors of the sandstone-coated segment, and stretching them in the granite portion. Equally, the windows of the upper floors either squint myopically or dilate unblinkingly. Not only are these tectonic trompe l’oeil entirely divorced from the logic of the inner structure, they are also so restrained that it is difficult to perceive any stylistic intention in them. They are subliminal ripples on the surface, reporting of unseen turbulences below. What remains is the lingering sense of something which has been overstuffed, and is ready to burst: an engorged Weisswurst perhaps, or the ripening carcass of a beached whale.

Obvious to me now: not the entrance

On reading that architects Tchoban Voss were partly responsible, I actually gasped audibly. I only knew them from their project Museum for Architectural Drawings in Prenzlauer Berg, where I’d caught a Lebbeus Woods exhibition last summer and been overwhelmed by the dense opulence of their vault-like structure: a petrified palimpsest. Something surely had gone amiss. Alas no. For the Mall of Berlin, Tchoban Voss worked with Pechtold Architects, whose portfolio reads like an illustrated lexicon of everything people mean when they refer derisively to Investorenarchitektur (investor’s architecture). The much criticised, abhorrent little box of a hotel on Hauptbahnhof is by Pechtold, as is the Greco-Roman-Egyptian-Polymer mashup, Schlossgalerie Berlin-Steglitz. On further inspection, Tchoban Voss’ museum is an oddity or fluke: the detested Eastside Tower, which went up on the site of the East Side Gallery amid significant protests in 2012 is from their stable. So too the inner-city branch of Ikea which opened amid significant protests in the Altona district of Hamburg last year. Recent reports suggest it sells little furniture, but has become a block-sized hotdog stand with an empty parking garage where school-kids come to make selfies.

Step right up: a master course in SLOAP (Space Left Over After Planning). The dead-space of an accidental courtyard, were leaves come to rustle.

Peculiar nooks of dead-space can be found at LP12 too. At the end of last November, I tried to outsmart the building by entering it not from the atrium or the main entrance, but via an alleyway between service doors and ventilation slats. This is LP12’s contribution to urbanity along much of Leipziger Straße: instead of window shopping, you can go vent-sucking. I had hoped to circumnavigate the crowds and spirit myself inside via a hatch or similar unmarked portal, materialising perhaps in a broom cupboard. The alleyway was lit by lamps made for a space with twice the headroom, and led passed an odd little courtyard with a bandstand-like stage area. Aside from allowing a little light to pass into the office windows, it was difficult to imagine any immediate function for the space, though it did give pause enough for me to admire a set of columns resting on their emaciated anti-plinths; a very contemporary negotiation between ground and building. Further on I found a door, which was glazed but locked from the outside, and no amount of manipulation was going to convince a button mounted at hip-height to open them. Shoppers on the other side gazed at me, first with an expression of opportunistic appeal as though they wished to escape, then with contempt when it was clear that I had no more authority in the matter than they did.

An accumulation of surfaces posing as mass

Inside LP12, space, depth and mass seemed overwhelmed by the sheerness, or over-abundance of surface. Repeat-pattern floral entablatures, which might have been carved in Wertheim’s day, appear as stick-on decals, laser cut from laminates and rolled into place with two-component epoxy adhesives. Wafer-like fake-mahogany veneers coat the seams between floor, wall and ceiling. Mirror-polished marble is the zero-depth floor surfacing of choice, fitted as precisely as the pixels on a hi-res laptop display. It is there to reflect the ceiling spots, the ambient shop lighting and the LED-juiced signage, and levitates the shopper on a cushion of pure glare. The white ceiling is cross-illuminated to eradicate any clues as to its elevation, and acts as a bright stream pulling you through a one-point-perspective corridor coiled into a loop like a three-floor Möbius strip.

Redemption in the lobby: Christ manifest as purveyor of fashion accessories

Split-level möbius shopping strip.

Fake wood slats emphasise slattyness rather than woodiness.

If there is an incandescent pulling mechanism, then there are other devices working on deceleration. For example, floor-coverings oscillate between stretches of multi-coloured and monochrome tiling, arranged alternately as solid blocks, as stripes or checker-board-fashion. Sections of wall flare up like ceramic harlequins or simulate exterior walls with stick-on brick coatings. It’s the re-deployment of razzle-dazzle camouflage, used with the same intention: not to render invisible, but to distort angles of orientation, and to scramble the sense of depth perception in the onlooker.

Old photographs of the Wertheim building perform similar tricks with the flow of history. Appearing as long friezes or as floor-to-ceiling reproductions, the black and white images pinch the second half of the twentieth century out of the flow of time. This acknowledgement of historic acquaintance is a bankrupt attempt to cast the Mall of Berlin as a spiritual entity rather than merely a corporal one: as an uninterrupted continuation of what went before, and therefore in full possession of a soul which never went away. It is the mall reincarnate. But what has come back?

In one section, a wall is a free-for-all community blackboard, dense with the chalky scrawl of tweens: all hearts, names, erasures, greetings to absent friends, occasional profanity and surprisingly few dick drawings. I stop here to admire this unexpected moment of interior-design anarchy, this concession to self expression in a control-zone of identity-by-proxy. Whilst contemplating the logistics of it all (who wipes the slate clean? how often?), that creeping unease from outside returns. What came to mind was the image of a wall covered in missing-person notices, written by desperate hands after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Mirrored in fiction, the image returns a year later in Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later, in which a bike courier awakens in hospital one month after a mutated virus zombifies the population of Great Britain. The clue is unmistakable.

left: 28 Days Later, 2002; right: Dawn of the Dead, 1987

It was George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead that first linked shopping and zombies by setting his film in Pennsylvania’s Monroeville Mall. The film follows a group of zombie-apocalypse survivors as they take shelter in a mall, violently ridding it of the undead before settling in with a bit of recreational plunder. The characters speculate that zombies flock to the mall because of deep-seated instincts which have somehow survived death. The critical thrust of the film resides in the idea that shopping has become an inherent, inborn tendency. At the same time, the survivors remain unaware of the irony that they were attracted to the mall themselves for the very same reason. On the brink of death, one of the characters says “I’m gonna try not to come back”. He meant to life, of course, but it’s what I was thinking too whilst roaming the aisles of the Mall of Berlin.

I observed a lot of zombie-vacant mugs in the Mall, to be sure. I was probably one myself. But for every long-faced sad-sack jammed into a winter coat, schlepping their way through another Saturday afternoon at the mall, there were at least two or three mall-pros, or mall-natives, or alpha-mallers. These are tanned guys in machine-distressed jeans and t-shirts screen-printed in Bangladesh with fictitious shipping instructions, or counterfeit seals of authenticity. Their hair is gelled back into mall-odynamic helmets, and all have been savvy enough to leave their winter gear in the car in the basement. Twelve-year-old girls navigate the terrain with ease too; as yet unfettered and unflummoxed by the glare and manifest cynicism of the Ghandi, Reagan, Merkel and Constitutional Basic Law quotes etched into brass plaques at the foot and head of each escalator.

Article 1 of German Basic Law marks the direct escalator to Saturn (an electronics store): “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority”.

Did you say “mall”? Reagan’s 1987 petition to Gorbachev: no détournement required.

Yeah, let’s walk all over the words of Gandhi, and take our freedom back home in a plastic bag. Oh, and do typographically incorrect quotation marks dim a statement’s validity? The symbol for inches has been used rather than German marks („korrekt“) or English ones (“correct”).

It seems clear to me that shoppers aren’t the zombies at all, even though they’re still going through the motions. They’re just polite funeral guests who’ve been invited to a christening and arrived too late because they were busy curating their Amazon customer reviews. The Mall of Berlin is a corpse risen from the grave: a zombified department store invoked from the beyond by shamans of the market in mysterious voodoo-capitalist ceremonies. Here it lumbers and flails in the land of the living, just another epidemiological vector in the pathogenic spread of Berlin malls: sixty already lurk in the city, with more planned. In Horror in Architecture, Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing describe the scene:

“Take the zombie, whose body continues to labor under a horrid automatism after the soul and intellect have been evicted.”

In establishing his concept of the modern myth, Roland Barthes described a “peculiar” system, grafted to a semiological-predecessor, in which signs (black and white photography, in the case of Mall) are reduced to a signifying function when “caught by myth”. In an eviction of another kind, Barthes suggests that the meaning of the form “empties itself”, becomes impoverished, with the result that “history evaporates”. This suggests that the Wertheim photos, taken with documentary intent, have, along with the political quotes with their botched speech-marks, and – hell, why not – all of LP12, transmogrified into a system of what he calls “depoliticized speech”. Myth, Barthes says

“… abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organises a world which is without contradictions, because it is without depth …” — Myth Today, in Mythologies, 1957

Keeping an eye on depoliticized speech: the German Bundesrat (Federal Council), prominently framed by the Mall of Berlin’s atrium.

The investor, Harald G. Huth, labouring under horrid automatism himself, has partially moved on. Not far away in fact. His company, HGHI (High Gain House Investment — I shit you not) is to build another mall in Berlin’s north-west district of Moabit, where residents have already sued the district council. Meanwhile, the general contractor, Fettchenhauer Controlling & Logistic, is insolvent and is also being investigated for fraud. Scores of subcontractors’ invoices were left unpaid, and thirty Rumanian building workers who hadn’t seen wages since June 2014 protested in front of the Mall in December. Shops were then ordered to turn off their music in case the fire alarms couldn’t be heard. Sometimes they would ring for no reason. In a press conference, Huth claimed that a series false alarms was proof that the fire-detection technology worked. It was also discovered that smoke exhaust flaps in the upper floor were faulty and that the systems for automatically alerting the fire services didn’t work. One unnamed building contractor reported that during construction, 3500 openings for ventilation and water circulation had been forgotten, and subsequently had to be retroactively core-drilled from solid concrete.

Avatars of adult professions (builder, cowboy, celestial being) preside over avatars of historic meaning.

The Mall of Berlin arrives at a time where Berlin-hype is on the wane, and internationally, malls seem to be too. Abandoned shopping complexes contribute to a daily stream of online ruin-porn. In 2014, Business Insider’s doom-retail correspondent Hayley Peterson dispatched several reports to this effect, embracing words like “extinct” and “haunting” in recounting their “slow, ugly death”. In the UK, entrepreneurs are busy picking over the carcasses. Zed Events organises immersive zombie-apocalypse experiences in Friar’s Walk mall in Reading where yesterday’s shoppers can role-play as survivors, military personnel or as walking dead, figures currently only partly available in the Playmobil store on the second floor.

My most recent visit, on a Tuesday evening, drew me to the basement. The colour scheme was more muted down here. The candy-coloured tiles of the upper floors had taken on a pallid hue, as if decay had long set in, and the wood-look ceiling slats pressed down like a coffin lid.

Just two other customers were drifting around like leaves in the redundant courtyard above. The place was, figuratively, dead. I’d abandoned my mission to buy replacement winter gloves: the manic taxonomy of items in one store was as bewildering as the lack of choice in another, and besides, shopping without a crowd offered no protection from the twangy attention of under-tasked shop managers. Instead I wafted passed store after store, each one more superfluous than the next, each one staffed by a lone sales assistant peering into the transparent window of a smartphone screen, beyond which the jostle and chatter of a vibrant crowd reported back with tidings from the land of the living.

Interiors ∕ Nature ∕ Ornament ∕ Spiritual

The Rome Dossier

∕ Tue 20th Jan ’15

Early morning in January, in the Basilica of Saint Mark in Rome. The visitor steps in and is immediately busy observing the beautiful marble statuary, thinking of faraway churches.

Dead but Alive

The janitor has been busy with a floor polisher and buckets and cloths. He moves with a workmanlike stomp that strikes the undevout visitor as insufficiently devout. He is transferring his equipment back to wherever it is stored. He has left the side door open, just to the side of the altar. Approaching from the back of the church, the visitor can see there are some steps leading up to it. Perhaps it leads to an upper corridor, a mezzanine level of some kind, even a storage cupboard. But no, the door contains the already-bright western sky.

Alive but Dead

Nothing prepares the visitor for this. The vertiginous elevation, the light of the sky, the trees with foliage (in January!), the romanesque framing. The officious plastic chain, striped red-white with an idiosyncratically Italian bureaucratic-ecclesiastical flourish, holds a sign forbidding access. The sign is backlit and illegible, but there is no doubt as to its meaning. Forget the altar, here is the religious experience of San Marco. From this cordoned zone, protected by forbidding accoutrements of obscurely intentioned design and meaning, shines the sublime light that reminds you of your station, that this moment of wonder will pass, and that you too will pass even sooner than the marble skull, whose solidity you are now somehow envious of.

Blurbanism ∕ Event ∕ Heavy Theory ∕ NDS

Linear, Inner-City Megastructures

∕ Fri 14th Nov ’14

Five weeks ago Slab’s Oliver Miller and myself gave a talk to the students of the Chair for Urban Design and Architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. We were invited by Sandra Bartoli of Büro für Konstruktivismus to share our experiences of circumnavigating the former Death Strip of the Berlin Wall and documenting the various built structures which have appeared since the fall of the Wall 25 years ago.

Today we return to the TU as jury members – alongside Jürgen Mayer H and Johannes Kühn of Kühn Malvezzi – for the final review of the students work. During the five weeks, the students examined 16 quadrants in the north of Berlin, and responded to these spaces with prototypical models for a heterogeneous, urban or rural live along what Slab have dubbed The New Death Strip.

We will endeavour to post a video of the talk as soon as it becomes available.

Earth Junk ∕ NDS ∕ Structural Collapse

“As far as I know – effective immediately, without delay.”*

∕ Sun 9th Nov ’14

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the last three nights, a chain of lanterns has illuminated a 15km, inner-city stretch of the old border. The lanterns supposedly are to be “released” later this evening, detaching themselves from their stalks, and rising up over the city. Yesterday I was down at my regular haunt: the roads around the Fellini Residences, and along the big open plot between Alte Jackobstraße and Heinrich-Heine Straße, where crowds passed by slowly on foot and by bike. Whilst the city pauses to contemplate the past, the march of development continues, as the developer’s sign, pictured below, attests.

Download publication as PDF

The New Death Strip, published in 2011, is Slab’s full and exhaustive response to the architecture now populating the site of the Berlin Wall.

A PDF of the publication (now sold out), can be downloaded here.

More information can be found here.

Articles on this site pertaining to the New Death Strip can be viewed here.

* The words of Günter Schabowski, official spokesman of the GDR regime, uttered on November 9, 1989, in response to a journalist’s question about when new border crossing regulations were to take effect. Schabowski had no further information on the matter, and hesitantly improvised an answer which would change the course of history.

Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Commute ∕ Damage fetishism ∕ Erosion ∕ Nature ∕ Structural Collapse ∕ Transport

Seeing Things

∕ Sun 2nd Nov ’14

The worst thing that can happen to a car is not an accident, a crash.


These are computable as part of its portfolio of risks. Death for a car is when it is ground not to a standstill but to glacial change. Its speed is denied, and so it rots, undead, changing yet not moving.


Other cars avert their eyes as they pass these monstrous reminders of death. Materials become raw again, form disappears and design disassembles itself. The speedy assembly line of production brought these things together in an ecstasy of efficiency, movement, robotics, joy and profit. Now the environment passes over the car in agonizingly slow waves.


Car-crushing machines were so common in cops and robbers films and TV of the 1970s and 1980s because they instantaneously transformed the car into what it metaphorically already was – a coffin. The society that found itself newly car-bound found narratives about cars for itself: The Dukes of Hazzard, Chips, The Streets of San Francisco, Hill Street Blues, The French Connection, The A-Team, Starsky and Hutch, Vanishing Point, Smokey and the Bandit, Herbie. The dream-place of the car narrative was the scrapyard, an ecstatic transubstantiation of the car as material, an ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust moment of death and rebirth. What is a chunk of metal but a car that was, and a car to be?

But when a car is reclaimed by nature, it comes as agonising punishment. The car has sped up our lives, contorted our cities, our bodies, our commons, it has privatised whole swathes of space, and polluted the air, ground and water. A secondary list of black marks against automobility might include fracking, oil sands, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, the Keystone pipeline, Ken Saro Wiwe, and the Corrib gas dispute (in Ireland). And I have not even mentioned oil wars. And I have not even mentioned climate change.


The Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser was in favour, among many other unexpected things, of encouraging mould to grow on his buildings. He would have definitely been a supporter of our campaign against time-lapse photography, which will be resumed soon. Watch this space. Take your time.


Blurbanism ∕ Commute ∕ Personal History

Commuting the Commute – Part 2

∕ Fri 12th Sep ’14

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.

Blurbanism ∕ Commute ∕ Personal History

Commuting the Commute – Part 1

∕ Wed 27th Aug ’14

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.

Defensive barrier in front of the Jewish Museum on Lindenstraße

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:

The inverted grilled-meat doric, also on Lindenstraße

Condos ∕ Fiction

Snazz on Spielplazz

∕ Tue 5th Aug ’14

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?

anybody home

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.

flotsom abatis

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.

indecent exposure

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.

bench press goes there