16 June 2016



Activism ∕ Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Art ∕ Earth Junk ∕ Exhibition

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.

TO-PlatformTimo_Ohler Andrew Thomas Parry’s installation Let ’em Kuchen essen at Platform. Photo: Timo Ohler

LP-Talk2 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.

Careme 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:

by Daniel Schwaag:
Towards a New Scummytecture – The Revenge Of Alonzo Hawk
Snazz On Spielplazz

by Ian Warner:
Modern Façades Today, Now #006

7 June 2016

Une manifeste nicoise


Blurbanism ∕ Personal History ∕ Walking

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.


Continue reading this article →

5 April 2016

Astroturf Gemütlichkeit #009


Faux Nature ∕ Social Engineering

This indagine lentissimo into lawn-like ground coverings is in no way constrained to the grimey confines of Berlin. And in case a quick peruse of our archives might lead you to believe that Astroturf deployment is limited to workaday eateries unencumbered by an aesthetic education, you would be quite mistaken.

FLFL, Skånegatan, Stockholm

Here in the Katarina-Sofia neighbourhood of Stockholm, we find that Astroturf is predestined for hipster re-appropriation. How can we be sure that hipsterism is a factor? By being mindful of Freud’s narcissism of small differences and how they might apply to consumer culture. An aggressive investment in the specificity of detail in order to assert a superficial sense of uniqueness over the general, is the underlying mechanism behind all hipsterism.

We can see it at work here, at FLFL, where vowels have been cast aside, lest you imagine you’re dealing with some run-of-the-mill falafel joint. And we see it also in the four-step instructions which defy comprehension, on how this particular establishment handles the routine of seating and serving its guests. Salad should be collected first, menus obtained, dishes selected, table numbers noted and orders submitted at the counter. Expect to be ostracized for any deviation. You will be escorted to the door, and ejected into the gutter via the unfurled length of green carpet and black braided rope, reserved for anti-celebrities, it seems, and installed as an insincere debasement of the common by inverting rituals reserved for monarchs.

→ Dossier: Astroturf Gemütlichkeit

5 November 2015

Diminished Mound


Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Faux Nature ∕ Hardscape ∕ Interiors ∕ Personal History ∕ Sick Buildings

I recently toppled off the edge of the above ramp, built for wheelchair access to my local drug store. It was one of those anti-heroic moments, where for a split-second I pictured myself caught freeze-frame, arms flailing in an attempt to restore balance as the ground teetered beneath my feet. I stayed upright, but at the expense of my foot, which suffered a nasty inverse strain.

I sought help from an orthopedist whose practice is wedged into the first floor of the Axel Springer Passage, a warren of carpeted offices and small businesses arranged around six cavernous atriums. The complex culminates in the golden, 1960s-era headquarters tower.

Peronœus brevis: ramp challenged (Image: Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body)

“Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.”

The orthopedist practice is actually one of many doctor’s surgeries, arranged around the periphery of a glass-roofed garden. It is the waiting room to further waiting rooms: an interior exterior; an inter-terior; an extra-terior, or maybe an infra-terior space designed to resemble a lacklustre park, caught in the never-season of a machine-regulated anti-climate.

The steely clouds of Berlin scud by overhead. People drift here, into Röntgen’s purgatory, as leaves might if there was wind. Like an absurd scenographic reinterpretation of Waiting for Godot, the low mound which accommodated Estragon in Beckett’s play is rendered as red-brick intarsia: a suggestion of topography where there is none. Estragon is preoccupied by his boots. I tighten the velcro of my Aircast® Airgo™ ankle support. A foot seeks contact with the earth. We wait.

18 October 2015

Etruscan Telegraphy: Twigs, Self and Memory


Hardscape ∕ Memory ∕ Place Making ∕ Spectacle

A comic aside in a future screenplay describing the social history of the smart-phone would show how, for a brief moment at the dawn of the post-human era, its functional value was unexpectedly boosted by its being mounted onto the end of what was essentially a long twig: the proto-tool of ancient primates which begat all human technologies.

Tourists at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The selfie-stick is an extension of the post-McLuhan arm, and on its end – depending on the preference of the contemporary primate – one will find an Apple, or other pendulous fruits of our labour; a succulent Samsung, a fragrant HTC. The tree bearing these fructus (let’s not tread far from Latin roots which talk of use, benefit and enjoyment), sheds them each season, but their function is fulfilled during their fall back towards the earth: the dispersal of seeds across a network, reconstituted into texts and images by distant devices, and planted in fertile minds beyond the glassy medium of a reflective screen.

Etruscan mirror, late 5th-early 4th century B.C., Dallas Museum of Art

The smart-phone on a selfie-stick is an Etruscan mirror for the networked self. Made from highly polished bronze, not glass, the Etruscan mirror was simultaneously a story-telling utensil and a means to review one’s own gaze. Scenes from Greek mythology or religious accounts were often depicted on the rear, just as the iPhone bears the symbol of original sin, hewn from its case by the divine light of a laser. Crucially, the Etruscan mirror was slightly concave: when held at arm’s length, it would have reflected much of the head and torso whilst positioning the user’s reflection within a wider scenery: the self framed within a landscape, and – flipped around – placed in moral relation to a mythical continuity.

A reflection in the Etruscan mirror would have been yellowed by the high copper content of the bronze alloy. The self-portrait in the screen is represented by the indifferent disposition of pixels. Neither is a true image: more a fleeting expression of the device’s materiality. The selfie-stick’s trigger is mounted where the thumb would have rested on the wooden handle of the Etruscan mirror: at the point of fulcrum. This configuration ensures a stable image, but now issues a command for the gathering and dissemination of evidence. The mirror stage confirmation of ego is re-fragmented into an imaginary of the body as binary information, and condenses in the memory banks of Instagram’s server rooms.

Memoria, the fifth canon of rhetoric, deals with the recalling of accumulated arguments. The 80 BCE text, Rhetorica ad Herennium, calls memory “the treasury of things invented”. The reconstitution of the body as a framed depiction is a rhetorical act of (self)invention: an argument made to assert the ego in time and place, confirmed by a distributed audience with a “like”. The capture of an image is latter-day kairos (καιρός), the right or opportune moment, seized in order to drive an argument home: for Aristotle, the time and space context in which proof is delivered. Metadata – date-stamps and geotags – are the aristotelian treasury of Instagram: a gigantic machine for the defragmentation of self, for the collective identification with, and the memory of our specular image.

Ein von @samantha_chamorro gepostetes Foto am

Ein von Emma Smira (@emmasmira) gepostetes Foto am

Ein von alberto martínez (@alberto_mtnez) gepostetes Foto am

Ein von Rocio (@rociocanaves) gepostetes Foto am

Instagram location addresses for The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:

Selfie-sticks banned at Wimbledon (BBC)
Selfie-sticks facing ban in France, UK (CBC)
The selfie-stick at the 2015 Las vegas Consumer Electronics Show (WSJ)
The criminalisation of selfie-stick retailers (Quartz)

27 September 2015

Artificial Natures – The 2015 KAM Workshop in Chania, Crete


Education ∕ Faux Nature ∕ Heavy Theory ∕ Landscape ∕ Lecture

I recently returned from Crete, where, together with my wife Evi Chantzi, I was involved with the coordination and programme of this year’s KAM Workshop in Chania. The KAM Workshops have been running since 2002, and were conceived as an investigation into architecture through the study of its expression as a local phenomena. The workshops are organised by the core team of Elina Axioti, Aristides Antonas and Yannikos Vassiloulis, of the Athens-based Architecture Syndicate collective.

Venetian Grand Arsenal, Chania | KAM Workshop
An altogether too picturesque photo of the Venetian Grand Arsenal (center) at the old harbour, Chania

Held annually in the Venetian Grand Arsenal of Chania, this year’s workshop, entitled Artificial Natures, brought together students of architecture and design from Greece and beyond, with practitioners and academics from a range of disciplines. The workshop title, with its deliberate use of the plural, asserts the multitude of narrative constructs which might define our notions of nature and the artificial. The larger debate surrounding the term and consequences of the anthropocene was an ever-present backdrop to a series of lectures to which I also contributed. More on the lecture series below. At a later date I will turn my own presentation into an article for publication here.

Students in conversation with Heike Schuppelius, Elina Axioti and Stavros Vergopoulos

In seven days, the participating students conceived and presented a wide range of proposals for, and inspired by Chania and Crete: a bio-architectural proposition for Chania’s streetscape; staged interventions manifesting from the water infrastructure; a meditation on modern ruins; an investigation into the extraction, use and values of marble; a proposition for a post-internet, “civilization-kit” based on Deleuze’s critique of Robinson Crusoe.

Although I’ve spent time on Crete before, the workshop week was one of those context-shifting experiences which makes travel such a potentially profound experience. Most of the participants and organisers of the workshop (including myself and my wife) were housed in the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh), on the outskirts of town, whose multilingual welcome banner, hung over the main entrance, refreshingly and conspicuously lacked most Northern European languages. Having independently come to the conclusion that Crete has a specific geo-cultural potency due to its snug Mediterranean centrality (parts of the island are closer to Libya than to Athens; Chania is further south than Tunis), the banner and the Institute’s program was a reminder that I was in a completely different space, distinct from my own northern notions of Europe.

Here’s an overview of the KAM-Workshop lecture programme:

Image: Stavros Vergopoulos

Stavros Vergopoulos, Associate Professor for Representational and Architectural Design at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, presented an overview of his teaching. His program, Natural Systems and Design Processes, encourages students to experiment with small-scale natural phenomena in order to arrive at unexpected structural and spacial models, which are then vigorously analysed and digitally re-modelled. Melted wax, shock-solidified in cold water, or molten caramel extruded into a mesh of threads were some of the starting points for deeper investigation.

Elegant Embellishments in conversation with Evi Chantzi

Braving a wobbly Skype connection on Tuesday morning, Evi Chantzi hosted Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag of Elegant Embellishments (and both contributors to Slab), who presented their research into biochar as a carbon-negative construction and manufacturing material. They also introduced the students to their smog-busting Prosolve 370e façade elements, installed at Mexico City’s Hospital Manuel Gea Gonzales.

Artist and curator Petros Moris presented Notes on Recurrent Forms. Using broad associative strokes, Moris’ dense talk managed to encompass the mythical bronze giant Talos (forged by Hephaestus and given to Europa, the lover of Zeus, in order to protect Crete from pirates); early industrial-era production lines; Marx’s “ideal machine”; the role of natural forms in the extruded grids of Superstudio; Google’s Deep Dream algorithm; and the collapse of space-time ensured by the invisible infrastructure of logistics. Moris also proposed a succinct definition of nature by suggesting that it is “everything which escapes design”.

A rainwater-collector on Crete: presentation photo by Heike Schuppelius

In an absorbing presentation, scenographer Heike Schuppelius talked about the thought and work involved in the creation of Natural Habitat, a performance installation with dancer Laurie Young. The piece imagines our world 200 years from now, with Young playing a survivor of some unnamed ecological disaster cast into a surreal landscape where she encounters a host of other desperate creatures. Natural Habitat was performed in 2011 at Berlin’s Natural History Museum, inside a specially constructed diorama. Schuppelius ended the talk with a neat aside. For years she has been documenting her observation of rectangles and squares within supposedly natural landscapes. The mountains of Crete, it turns out, are peppered with concrete rain collectors whose function is to provide sheep and goats with drinking water.

Berlin’s second highest point

Wednesday began with my own presentation, entitled Landscapes of Leisures as Systems of Exchange, or, How to Find the Wrong Horse, which focussed on an area of The New Death Strip around Berlin’s highest point, the 86-meter-high Dörferblick, made of war rubble and domestic waste. The hill forms a vantage point from which a landscape of interlocking systems of economic and cultural exchange can be surveyed. My return to this area after five years was prompted by 2010 plans to retain a herd of Przewalski’s horses in the area, a Mongolian wild horse extinct in the wild only until recent reintroduction.

Jenny Rodenhouse

Multimedia designer Jenny Rodenhouse, who also participated in the workshop’s studio-work, introduced us to her research work on various designated test sites dotted around the USA. Her talk, The Tornado is Staying but the Lightning Will Need to be Replaced, focused on a speculative narrative spun out of the discovery of precipitation-modification test sites embedded within California’s San Gabriel Mountain suburbs, whilst referencing UniStorm, a weather-simulation engine for the game development platform Unity3D.

Inside Google’s Dublin campus

Mona Mahall and Asli Serbest of studio m-a-u-s-e-r and the Stuttgart State Academy of Art presented Natural Wifi, an investigation into the material culture of the internet. Mahall and Serbest offered a reading of the internet as a “total environment”, in which an aesthetic obsession with nature manifests itself in Californian hi-tech campuses designed to resemble jungles, or Feng-Shui tips for organising computer desktops.

The Temple of Holy Shit

Via another very wobbly Skype connection, we were joined on Thursday morning by Valentina Karga, an artist with a background in architecture who I have known for several years after having met at the Berlin offices of LIN Architects. Valentina’s interest is in the study of waste. Referencing, among others, Graham Caine’s Ecological House of 1972, she described various recent projects including the award winning Temple of Holy Shit, which transforms a custom-made public toilet into a factory-like performance space, ritually turning visitors’ bodily waste into vital terra-preta soil for the surrounding park and gardens.

Against Nature

Elina Axioti’s lecture, Against Nature, took its name from the English title of French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1884 À rebours. In a key episode of the novel, the reclusive protagonist Jean des Esseintes decides, on reading the work of Dickens, to leave his countryside retreat and travel to England. Whilst waiting for his train in Paris, he eats in an English restaurant. On realising that his fellow diners esentially embody his image of the English, as derived through literature, he cancels his trip and returns home. Axioti made the point that Huysman seems to have anticipated modernity’s propensity to manufacture artificial realities.

From Walden to Minecraft

In Thoreau, English Gardens and Post‐internet Natural, Juli Vlassi asked how we should re-define the idea of wilderness from within a mode of thinking which acknowledges the redundancy of separating the natural from the artificial. From the 19th century recluse to Minecraft hermits, the retreat into wilderness appears to have shifted from an extra-infrastructural act of dissent, to an inter-infrastructural leisure pursuit.

Image: Aristide Antonas

In the final presentation on Thursday, Aristide Antonas presented The Shelters of Spengler. The project is an architectural investigation which imagines a series of provisional dwellings as a performance within a “constructed nature”. The unpopulated Greek island of Petasi, just off the coast of the tourist destination, Hydra, is the nominal location for these structures. Their hidden infrastructure forms an “unreal scenography” in this meditation on Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West which asserts that every civilisation fails when it produces no more values.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Elina Axioti and Aristide Antonas for the opportunity to be involved, as well as to all the participants and lecturers who took part, for making it such a fun and rewarding week.

KAM Workshops
Artificial Natures on Tumblr