Ian Warner is the founder of Slab Magazine, “the heuristic journal for gonzo blurbanism”. Slab, in the style of a blog, has explored architecture and urbanism from a uniquely subjective perspective for a decade now, assessing buildings and designs in ways as much informative as humorous. See all of Ian Warner’s recommendations.
At Slab, you write of exploring buildings and cities from the point of view of an amateur, what is it that you’re actually qualified to do?
I studied Communication Design in Portsmouth University in the mid-90s. It was an interesting time to study because of the technological changes taking place: the first websites were being published and CD-roms meant that designers suddenly had to be able to address issues like multi-linear narratives. The BA was also set up as a contrary model to what had happened to design teaching during the late 80s under Margaret Thatcher. There was a lot of critique about it at the time because while universities were generating new staff for advertising agencies there wasn’t a critical approach to design: of course there were a few schools in the UK doing it, but it wasn’t prevalent. The course at Portsmouth was set up by people with a background in punk, who saw design as a political or critical discipline.
So what took you to Berlin?
It was originally one of my tutors, Simon Clarke, who still teaches at Portsmouth university. He had been taking groups of students to Berlin during the 80s, often going over the border with 24-hour visas into East Berlin. I arrived a bit too late for that but with one group of students I went to Berlin in 1995, for a design conference and several studio visits. I decided then that I wanted to come to Berlin and live there. I had a very romantic image of Berlin post- the fall of the Wall. I had been seduced by the photographer Anton Corbijn, who had done the photography for U2 and their album, Achtung Baby. It was this dark, really grainy, supersaturated photography of both the former East and West Berlin that captured my imagination. In Portsmouth I was also introduced to Wim Wenders’ film Der Himmel über Berlin, and at the time I was listening to a lot of the Berlin band Einstürzende Neubauten. So I was really absorbing Berlin and came over to find out what it would be like to live in all that.
What was it like in ’94? That must’ve been very soon after the Wall came down.
It was surprisingly close to when it came down: by 1996, when I emigrated, it seemed to like old-hat, but when you look back everything compresses, so of course my first visit was only five years later. The city was really grungy back then, especially in the Eastern districts of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The amount of open space from bombed-out lots was exciting and disorientating. I remember how me and a friend from the BA course spent a whole evening looking for the techno club Tresor, which for some reason we never actually found, and we ended up walking up and down the street asking people, and no one could really say. I mean, it was weird: Tresor for us was a kind of techno Mecca, and none of the locals could tell us where it was. Later we got into a taxi completely disillusioned. When we told the driver where we were staying, in one of the more distant Eastern districts, he almost flatly refused to drive us there because he said he didn’t know the East. Four years into reunification, for many people crossing that absent border still meant going off into unchartered terrain.
Berlin was a clean slate, and I had the feeling that something really amazing could have been achieved here, and what I saw instead was a lot of wilful mediocrity.
Tell me more about Slab magazine, what would readers expect to find?
I started Slab almost 10 years ago. Before that, I’d always liked to write. Back in my sixth form days I liked to write pieces of teenage-angsty fiction, and I think that the need to write must’ve returned at some point. I started by venting my anger at Berlin’s supermarkets, which were so awful when I first came here. The first blog posts on Slab were these dreadful diatribes against the local supermarket, berating them for running out of this or that on a Friday evening. But fairly quickly they began to address architectural details, like the obstructive use of revolving turnstiles at the entrance, which was common here for some reason. So it began as an exercise in creating entertaining, humorous writing about architecture, which has interested me since my school days. In fact, my BA-thesis was about urban planning in Berlin, and graphic design was just a means to present it. I did a multimedia project about the development of Potsdamer Platz, and my written piece investigated Berlin as a modern myth, in the Barthesian sense. So that investigation really stayed with me, and I found I really wanted to continue by writing about the kind of building that had been going on in Berlin, which didn’t live up to the expectations I had for the city. Berlin was a clean slate, and I had the feeling that something really amazing could have been achieved here, and what I saw instead was a lot of wilful mediocrity. I wanted to address this, first of all, in a superficial manner, I wanted to explore what it meant to critique something that I didn’t feel qualified to write about.
By your own admission on the site you’re not qualified to be reporting on those topics, but this is not just a subject of the site it is its reason for being, I wonder why the subjective experience is so important to you?
I’m still finding that out. A few months after I started Slab, I had a very informative conversation with one of my fellow writers, Oliver Miller. He had studied architecture at Princeton under Peter Eisenmann, but his suspicion of architectural practice had lead him to Berlin where he runs a table-tennis bar and a restaurant. I have to give him a lot of credit for what Slab turned into because he convinced me of the legitimacy of very subjective, personal narratives forming the basis for criticism. I think there is a legitimacy to subjective experiences which is suppressed in mainstream discourse on architecture and urban planning. This isn’t a conscious effort by individuals, but a continuation of Western academic thinking which rewards evidence and reference over narrative and experience. Of course, I don’t want to discredit academia, but with Slab I want to address this imbalance through personal exploration. That’s the tagline of the website: it’s a “heuristic journal”. If we have a dogma for Slab, then it’s that each piece is written from first-hand experience: we never write about buildings that we haven’t met.
I can think of examples, in recent times, where everyday experiences are a part of architecture criticism. I think of public writers like Owen Hatherley or Alain de Botton, who seem to be yearning to untrain themselves, to be writing in plain language and respond viscerally rather than academically, is that a surprise to you? And from the outset of Slab was that a phenomena that you were responding to? Or were critical approaches more obscurist at that time?
No, not at all. I think initially it was a suspicion from afar: I’d read more poststructuralist theory than architectural criticism. But the way I started out was very naïve, and that naivety was very important creatively, and in a certain way still persists. I’m not sure if embracing plain language is necessarily a trend. Ada Louise Huxtable, who wrote for the New York Times in the 60s and 70s is someone whose writing I really appreciate. There’s a great collection of her essays called Kicked a Building Lately? The title is perfect because she was also trying to readdress that imbalance I just spoke about. She championed plain language and direct experience, and I think that approach is especially important now, as a counter-proposal to the kind of image-heavy architectural gloss of Architizer, Designboom or Dezeen, but also to the kind of “colour-supplement-criticism” with its detached journalistic gaze.
10 years is a fair amount of time to be dedicating yourself to a single topic, do you still consider yourself an amateur?
There was a watershed moment for Slab in 2009. I had met Oliver [Miller] for lunch, and he was gushing about a building site that he had seen around the corner from my office. So we went to have a look and the whole building site was pretty much open. We found a concrete frame of a building, it wasn’t guarded or fenced-off so we walked in and had a look around. As we were coming back down to the ground floor we bumped into the architect, Arno Brandlhuber, and because Oliver had googled him that morning, he recognised him and we gave him our Slab card and said “Hey, nice stuff, we’re watching you”, because we thought it was a very interesting building proposition, which addressed Berlin’s real-estate situation in a very bold manner. A few months later he invited us to give a talk for his students on the Masters program of architecture and metropolitan studies at the University of Nürnberg. The talk culminated in us being invited to write a publication on one of the themes which we spoke about, and that’s how the publication The New Death Strip came into being, which I co-wrote with Oliver Miller and Daniel Schwaag, another co-writer at Slab. In this publication we wrote much longer articles, perhaps more rambling, but a lot more research went into it. Ever since then I’ve become a less prolific writer, and a more cautious writer, but maybe a more thorough writer as well. So that’s a difficult balancing act, because in some ways after all these years I’ve become an expert in some limited way, but not in the sense of being specialised. To overcome this, it’s become more and more important to create devices with which to write. For me, it’s now about creating a situation from which I write, my favourite one is pretending to not have a sense of humour, or deliberately missing the point of something, or in the case of The New Death Strip, writing a travel journal having made the act of travelling artificially more difficult. We circumnavigated West Berlin by following the route of the Berlin Wall. We did this in a series of trips, and for the main one we hired a beach buggy and a quad bike and tried to stick as close as possible to the Berlin Wall site, which is nearly impossible, because in the periphery it’s a footpath and cycling track, and in the city centre you’re forced to stay on-road. So that was a deliberate strategy to make the journey more challenging; we could never adhere precisely to the objective, and had to meander around so as to get as close as to it as possible. That became the story, and informed the way we wrote: the absent Wall was a double-enigma.
My narcissistic fantasy was to produce the kind of scathing, rag-tag zine which every architect would secretly read, hiding it within their copy of AJ.
Can you contextualise what online publishing more generally was like a decade ago? Were you responding to anything at the time?
Primarily I had very pragmatic needs, I wanted to publish quickly and cheaply. Slab still runs on WordPress, as it did back then; it still uses an ancient template which I’ve been modifying constantly over the years. I learned a little CSS, HTML and very rudimentary PHP on the way. 2006 was the year-of-the-blog, when it really all started. Being a graphic designer, the first thing I thought of back then was creating a print magazine. My narcissistic fantasy was to produce the kind of scathing, rag-tag zine which every architect would secretly read, hiding it within their copy of AJ. But then I realised that if I went the way of a print publication, I would have to spend half my time doing that, and I wasn’t ready for that commitment next to my role as partner of a design studio.
As the years have passed have you found that there’s more competition for the space that Slab sits in? And what other sites would you say occupy that position too?
I don’t feel like I’m competing, I think if I did I’d go crazy, because there’s so much to compete with. I feel like we’re another niche voice in a rich little eco-system of architecture-related journals. I’m a regular reader of Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG for example, as well as socks-studio.com, and Cosmopolitan Scum. Uncube magazine, which is published by the BauNetz (German for “building network”) media group, is also a stand-out site. It has an issue-based editorial format, with monothematic editions. The latest, Number 35, is just about bricks. It’s a very interesting, serious, and successful attempt in my opinion to create an online magazine, which hasn’t shied from rethinking the user-interface of the online magazine format. I don’t know much about Slab’s readership to be honest, but our writing has lead us to do more talks in the past couple of years, for Berlin’s Technical University, for example, and also at the upcoming KAM summer workshops held in Chania in Crete. So the attention is shifting a little bit outside the blog.
For Slab, is Berlin overwhelmingly its subject?
I think probably 80% of our posts are about Berlin, simply because of the fact that most of us are here. Although, that figure is misleading because Cormac Deane, who lives in Dublin, is a prolific contributor. In the last few years he has been especially critical of prevailing neoliberal politics and the aftermath of the economic crisis which hit Dublin especially hard: it’s traces can be read in the architecture. He inspects new ruins, empty lots and failed buildings, but he also dispatches very intriguing posts from France, England, Italy and Holland, as well as diatribes against golf and time-lapse photography. Often, when the contributors travel to places, they report from there too, like with the five articles I wrote in Athens in 2009. Slab is an attitude that we take with us.
You’ve mentioned a few, but how many contributors does SLAB have?
So there’s Oliver Miller, Daniel Schwaag, Cormac Deane, Allison Dring, then of course there’s Karen Eliot. In the past we’ve had a couple of single-article contributors who are also listed as guest writers.
I know Slab is your labour of love, but what else are you involved in?
I’m involved with a long-term music project called Truant Monks, with my friend, the artist Jens Nordmann. We improvise using live sampling techniques and field recordings. Occasionally we do live performances on the fringes of Berlin’s very active improvised / noise-music scene. For me, field recordings are another way of approaching architecture and space.
But I’m also a partner at the design agency State. I co-founded State in 2014 with Johannes Siemer, one of my partners from the company where I’d previously been for 13 years. After a few years of working together, Johannes and I reached a point where we wanted to start something new, and try out new things with new people. We were fortunate enough to be able to take some of the clients we’d been working for over the last few years with us. State keeps up to ten employees and freelancers busy at any one time, working mostly in the cultural sector on anything from large identity projects, to way-finding design and web-design. We also work for a fair few architects, funnily enough.
Have there ever been conflicts of interest because of that?
There was one actually. I wrote a series of articles called Property Marketing Balls, which is basically a written investigation of new Berlin domestic architecture, in which the object of investigation is not just the architecture itself, but the way in which it is marketed. I wrote a series of articles attacking a place called the Fellini residencies, which is a very strange development that I have a love/hate relationship with. It’s program is based on inventing an Italian quarter in the middle of Berlin, and Berlin doesn’t historically have an Italian quarter. The marketers of this building development have created the fiction that it does, and the epicenter is conveniently right underneath the foundations of this building. So after writing three scathing articles, about two years ago, out of the blue, I got a phone call from the architect who was after a new website. When he said his name, I was speechless. I let him talk and talk and the blood drained from my head. He had no idea of course about Slab, and so we had this conversation, I made some notes and stayed cool. But a couple of days later I emailed him and came clean: “I’m very sorry, but we can’t do this, I’ve written this series of extremely harsh and critical but humorous articles about you and your work, and this is a partnership I can’t enter into”.
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