The Skips of Oxford

By   ∕  23rd Jul 2015

Earth Junk ∕ Structural Collapse

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

Creative Mornings Lecture

By   ∕  30th Jun 2015

Dérive ∕ Event ∕ Lecture ∕ NDS ∕ Shopping Malls ∕ Sick Buildings ∕ Speculation ∕ Structural Collapse

On June 19th I gave this short lecture for the Berlin chapter of Creative Mornings. June’s theme was ‘Revolution’. I approached the subject by revisiting Slab’s 2010 publication The New Death Strip, and a more recent exploration of the Mall of Berlin.

Lecture video:

Astroturf Gemütlichkeit #008

By   ∕  19th May 2015

Eurotrash ∕ Faux Nature ∕ Structural Collapse


Back after a four year hiatus, Astroturf Gemütlichkeit presents “Hot Specials” from half-way up Lindenstraße, just before you hit Mitte, in the bit where Kreuzberg sidles away like a scorned dog and you’re left adrift in the incoherent urban trialogue around the former DMZ. Confusion extends to the culinary offer, which mysteriously includes a “Fresh Salad” amongst the more orthodox hot specials of “Spicy Sausages”, “Börek”, “Toast” and “Athletes Breakfast”. But fear ye not, a “Normal Breakfast” is at hand and everything is guaranteed “Fresh, Crunchy, Daily”.

Which cannot be said for this woeful stretch of ’stro, which has been folded back by a measure equivalent to the stretch of cobblestones thus revealed. The chairs and tables remain neatly confined by the grassy-verge (safely zoned), but the characteristic jaunty bollard bears witness to an inadequate negotiation between flexible and non-flexible materials.

Whither, Gemütlichkeit? Alas, not here.

Luckily “Hotdrinks” are on offer, and you can grab your “Coffee togo”.

Astroturf Gemütlichekeit Collection

Ladies with Skylight Windows

By   ∕  15th Apr 2015

Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Conspiricy Theory ∕ Domestic Landscape ∕ Eurotrash ∕ Spiritual

Recently, whilst researching building materials for an upcoming commission, my colleague mentioned something curious: that there was a discrete aesthetic inherent to the visualisation of skylight windows.

An extensive, multi-language image-search turned up the goods. I did what any other self-respecting blurbanist does, and made a Tumblr for it.

At a guess, 98% of the images featured a female protagonist. The remaining 2% (which I discarded) included various combinations of women depicted within the nuclear family unit, or lone men shown installing the windows. The women in these images appear inside the home, although one or two show woman on the threshold, caught somewhere between interior and exterior. Mostly we see bedrooms, but home-offices, kitchens, bathrooms, stairwells, and even laundry rooms are the spaces which seem to benefit from natural overhead light. Occasionally the skylight-ladies are tasked with some menial domestic task, but mostly they are captured at leisure: some cook with a friend, some lie around reading, some tend to pets or children, some meditated or do yoga. But the vast majority stand at the window and yearn. The yearn is interesting, for it suggests that the skylight window isn’t the sole focus of desire, but the means through which desire is projected outward. Sometimes the yearn is wistful, sometimes intensely introspective, occasionally it is comically euphoric.

The window is presented as a kind of altar, or a looking glass. The light from above represents an ascension – should the window actually be breached – with the woman moving from the confines of domesticity out into the broader world of imagination. The window is a variable membrane, a filter: when closed it becomes an image of the exterior, a promise of something other. When opened, it is a portal fraught with danger: located on the roof, a fall must surely follow an attempt at escape.

The interior is no less fraught with danger, for the images exclude any other means of entry or exit. In one, a banister hints at an adjoining stairwell; in another, a doorframe in the background is obscured by a large plant. The female figure is trapped within the confines of an imagined room, and the camera frame ambiguously defines its extent as a superposition between the fiction of an unbroken spatial continuum, and the strict limits of the picture plane.

The images are uncanny for their inadvertent recreation of an archetype from the Victorian novel. D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow frequently portrayed women standing at windows, gazing outward towards the horizon, and forward through time and down the generations where personal fulfillment might be eventually lie. But the images also recall Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1979 feminist reading of the Victorian novel, The Madwoman in the Attic, which takes its name from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which Bertha Mason is kept locked in the attic by her husband Mr. Rochester.

The perpetuation of such images by the marketers of roof-windows indicates that some societal tropes can be passed down from one generation to the next, pretty much unamended, like a dormant virus waiting for a new host. Either that, or window manufacturers have recently started hiring literary scholars.

Ladies with Skylight Windows

Line Drawing

By   ∕  7th Apr 2015

Dérive ∕ Miscellanea ∕ Objects ∕ Space Frames ∕ Weather

Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha – Your Space on Building (2006)

Christmas Eve. A bright, freezing day. Sunlight is valuable. Up the mountains we go. The destination is the peak of Annaverna, where there is a large antenna, which is just visible over the crest of the hill, right of centre.

distant annaverna

On the way up, we pass a dolmen and (in background of picture) a circle of standing stones, arranged in alignment with the western sun. But we suspect that these are in fact recent (19th century?) reconstructions of prehistoric megaliths.


We leave behind this cosmic calendar, however ersatz, and set our sights firmly on the omnidirectional antenna, also a keeper of time and time signals.



The windspeed climbs and the temperature drops with almost every step.



As we approach, the wind makes it difficult to hold the camera steady. We can no longer hear anything. The total noise of the wind blasts our eardrums.


At the top, the whizzing food-mixer noise of the vibrating guy lines adds itself to the din. But the view rewards. Leinster meets Ulster, Republic of Ireland meets United Kingdom (for the time being, at least). The landscape is divided, Ed Ruscha style. The guy lines produce a strange foreshortening. The mountain becomes comprehended as so many data points, subject to transmission. The perspective both plunges and remains resolutely inert, as in Ruscha, the portraitist of axonometric captialist infrastructure. We are totally alone. It is so cold, we can spend no more than a couple of minutes here.


Then all of a sudden a car drives past very slowly, a few feet behind us. It simply appears. A four-wheel-drive American-style pickup, its fat tyres clambering carefully on the line of loose scree that until now we had regarded as a path and now we see is an access road for the maintenance engineer. Is that an open glass bottle on his capacious arm-rest, where his elbow rests, his wrist poised? Is he drunk? It is Christmas, after all. His supervisor won’t be checking up on him today. May as well enjoy the shift. He gives that part-hostile, part-condescending look that outdoor workers give to bourgeois nature enthusiasts such as ourselves, or that people like us interpret in that way as part of the broader outdoor experience. You know nothing, says the look. And you are fools to stand out in that wind when you could be safe and warm in your car, and a little bit drunk too.

Either he is some evil pixie of capitalist efficiency, maintenance and technics who patrols the area, frightening the easily-frightened passerby; or he is a freelance weirdo. He smiles enigmatically, a little crazed, a violent guardian, in his element. In my pocket, my fingers want to take out my one-eyed spirit-stealing light-capturing time-stopping juju. But what would this threatening spirit say, think, feel and – worst of all – do if I photograph him? I cannot take his picture.


A couple of hours later, we’re back on parental duty, patrolling the local playground. The warm winter sun is setting. I call the kids. Soon it will be so cold, we can only spend a few more minutes here.

Modern Façades Today, Now #007

By   ∕  31st Mar 2015

Damage fetishism

How to extract the “good” from the goods? The goods are, in their very essence, “good”. The Old High German “guot”, meaning favourable – that which is virtuous and desirable – seems bound to the saleable commodity by virtue of etymological lineage. We can retreat further, to the proto-Germanic “gōdaz”, itself related to the strong verb “gadaną”, which in turn stems from the proto-Indo-European “gʰedʰ”, meaning, “to gather, to unite”.

This entrance to a subterranean loading bay behind two local supermarkets represents the point at which gathered and united goods are broken into lots for consumption at point-of-sale. Difficulties at this crucial point of transition are rendered legible by modern construction materials, and highlighted by multiple layers of repair.

Successive attempts by goods vehicles to penetrate the market have resulted in scars of various kinds: the dint and gash at the initial corner, the chafing at the bollard and door-frame, the grazing and sooting of the ceiling.

The architectural body, bloated by a layer of functional/decorative Polystyrol blubber, has tightened its orifice in an act of defiance. The point of ingestion seems to find the regular feeding repellant. The procession of deep-frozen pizzas, of processed, pre-portioned microwavable ready-meals and sugar-based soft drinks has neither the virtue nor the desirability promised by the good of the goods. The etymological lineage breaks down at the gates to the market, traditionally, too, a place of judgement, justice and control.

Modern Façades Today, Now


By   ∕  23rd Feb 2015

Buildings ∕ Field Trip

A couple of weeks back, myself and Mr Miller went to the Domestic Relations Court, Tempelhof-Kreuzberg, on a combined architectural field-trip/canteen-lunch. It was built between 1993 and 1996 by the late O. M. Ungers, who died in 2007. Ungers was a man who loved the square, the cube, the square, the cube, the square, the circle, but mostly the square. Elementary forms, which I imagine he got spiritual kicks out of. The court building is no different. The square is everywhere. Most obviously on the façade, whose mathematical rigour manages to unify rhythmic variation and unity, and even a wee joke. Personally, I was expecting a grim, soulless place, void of character or nourishment. But that only really applied to lunch itself, and not the building lunch was prepared in.

The canteen is open to the public, and is on the fifth floor. It has a terrace, but it was too cold to use. This was going to be a joint rambling account written by myself and Mr Miller, and illustrated with sub-standard, mobile-phone snapshots. That only partly holds. Mr Miller’s punishing workload as manager of Nalu Diner, means he has scant time for the generation of words. I hope I can come close to encapsulating the shared spirit of our Unger-encounter. You are kindly asked to note that my own snapshots make liberal use of the ‘square’ function on a decrepit iPhone 4 hand-me-down, as well as the popular ‘smeary lens’ function, which is not an app. It’s smear.

That big grid of windows is actually quite clever. Two columns of 3 x 3 windows. Two columns of 2 x 3 windows. And one column of 1 x 3 windows. It adds up to another big square.

The cassette ceiling is a nice classic touch. Mr Miller in foreground, pondering the wisdom of lunch.

The chairs were very uncomfortable, due to their low backs, which are also segments of a perfect circle, containing a square seat. They’re probably like this to stop the court staff from loitering over their pork steak and thawed deep-freeze veg.

The tables were square, and gosh darn it, so too were the pink doilies.

This can happen to the best of them. I wonder how many more they have in storage. Come to think of it, are they custom-designed, or off the shelf?

Outside on the roof terrace.

Mr Miller gets ill props for recognising that the white square was a lamp. And he also ‘disovered’ their cubic twin on the inside of the stairwell. Nice touch.

Mr Miller flicked one of these with a deft digit, to make sure it was made of glass, and not plastic. Glass it was. They don’t make them like that any more.

Just look at that hand-made sign. Just look at it.

OK. This is where things get a bit Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Cute bench. Looks like it was made for toddlers. But it was roughly adult-sized. Also, our first encounter with the 100-hole air-vent.

Square signage. Things are getting a bit anal-retentive now. But I still reserve special admiration for Ungers’ persistence. Did I mention that the ceiling vents in the canteen were also …

Awesome with a capital OMFG. Presumably an emergency exit for some as yet unknown, square-based catastrophe. Take a look at the arrow: it’s half a square.

This fourth-floor atrium is where members of public arrive by the lifts. So it’s a kind of reservoir for people transitioning from the general to the specific. It’s where Mr Miller and m’self both began to feel that Ungers had cracked it, and really showed that he knew how to make ‘human scale’ architecture (squares). I felt very at ease in the space. Almost welcomed. That’s a rare thing in municipal buildings. Especially German ones, which are designed to make you feel tiny and alone in a hostile universe in which 99.999999% of everything is lethal to humans.

Where the waffle and upholstery arts meet, and make sweet waffly love.

This room was intimate and solemn, but light and optimistic.

A coat stand.

Loved this little anteroom. How long could I stand waiting here? Oh that I knew. Just long enough, one hopes, to count all 200 square holes in the vents. But no longer.

That tea-room icon is the best. It’s a square. With a circle attached to it.

The stairwells were swiftly dubbed “squarewells” by Mr Miller and m’self. They were positioned at the extreme ends of the building on its outer corners. Light could enter from two sides. Also very ‘human scale’: the stairs are just wide enough for two-and-a-half humans.

This shot was done without thought, but look how everything aligns within the central window.

I think I’m going to wrap this piece up by throwing in some pictures of foods I’d liked to have seen in the canteen.

That is all.

Two Hundred to Five to One

By   ∕  6th Feb 2015

Architects ∕ Buildings ∕ Earth Junk ∕ Faux Nature ∕ Public Space ∕ Speculation ∕ Urban Environment

Some architects may have heard of the 1:5:200 ‘rule’, which describes a ratio between the initial cost of constructing a building (1) to the cost of maintaining it during its life (5) to the cost of paying the people who work in it (200).

Whatever about the poor accuracy of the rule in the normal run of things, how useful is it when a building boom is halted by a catastrophic property crash and a bank strike? The evidence of this part-finished development near Heuston Station in Dublin suggests that the rule could be completely inverted.

You spend a ton of money on a site and get some foundations down and drive in a few piles (200), then you stop building it and wrap it in astroturf (5), and then you get a guy in for a couple of hours every five years to staple on the bits that have come loose (1).

On the other side of the same development, it’s unclear quite how finished or unfinished the underground car park is. Either it is indeed complete, but somehow unenclosed, and the open space was always earmarked for some kind of ornamental garden. Or it is not complete, and remains unenclosed, and a few days’ work with some boats that the builder had picked up somewhere along the way were devoted to this particular turd-polishing garden project. 200:5:1.

The finished/unfinished thing about the boat garden (I’d describe it as ‘tension’ if this was an artwork) tells us everything we need to know about the casino capitalism of the period up to 2008, and about the neoliberal papering over the social cracks that has come in the following years. The smoothing over of the disastrous failure of this development (called ‘HSQ’ because words just take ages to type on your phone; see Ian Warner on the similar ‘LP 12’) with hipster whimsy invites us to contemplate the outcome as serendipitous (the supreme hipster category), cute, and worth taking out your phone for to take a photograph.

You want more finished/unfinished crap strewn all over the commons? Here ya go. Photograph these and share them. I’ll like them.

The myth and the mob

By   ∕  27th Jan 2015

Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Shopping Malls ∕ Sick Buildings ∕ Spectacle

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 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, where 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.

The Rome Dossier

By   ∕  20th Jan 2015

Interiors ∕ Nature ∕ Ornament ∕ Spiritual

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.