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The text below is the transcript of 61 text messages (SMS) sent back and forth between Markus Miessen and Magnus Nilsson from October 2 to November 30, 2009.
Markus Miessen: Why did you first move to London?
Magnus Nilsson: Because of a very personal reason. I was living in Berlin at the time and I simply had to leave. London was pretty much the only option because of the language and Scandinavia was a no-go-zone – a mixture of pragmatics and naivety. I lived in London for six or seven years and returned to Berlin a little over a year ago.
Markus Miessen: Why?
Magnus Nilsson: The reason for my return to Berlin was exactly the opposite of my departure. Why did you leave London? You then moved to Zurich for a few hours. Why not Zurich? Why Berlin?
Markus Miessen: In London I became too focused on my own economy. Not enough space to think. Zurich seemed interesting for its physical location in the centre of Europe, its efficiency in terms of travel. In the end, however, it was the shortest move of my life. I only stayed for one day in the end. The removal van had to move straight to Berlin.
Magnus Nilsson: What happened?
Markus Miessen: I arrived and immediately felt claustrophobic. It was the result of a pre-romanticisation and the fact that it’s easy to talk about different cities but sometimes traumatising when you move there.
Magnus Nilsson: No wonder. I remember you once got lectured by a Swiss well-meaning citizen for doing something – I can’t remember what. Not only that Zurich is so much smaller than London, but the social networks are also much tighter and, thus, perhaps less forgiving. Minding one’s own business is probably more difficult there than in London, I could imagine.
Markus Miessen: Yes, London can be either a solitary or full on experience, there is very little in-between.
Magnus Nilsson: When I think of London, the first thing that comes to mind is 'shoddiness'.
Markus Miessen: Why?
Magnus Nilsson: It seems to permeate all levels of society. Think of, for example, the Strand, which, sort of, forms an axis with The Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace. Strand is not straight, the buildings misaligned; it hits Trafalgar Square seemingly randomly at one corner and then via a slight bend turns into The Mall. In Berlin or Paris the axis would be unforgivingly straight and centred.
Markus Miessen: The result of too much testosterone?
Magnus Nilsson: Or what a about sticky carpets in pubs and the ever under-achieving national football team?
Markus Miessen: That is a phenomenon indeed. I never understood this. I like the sticky carpets though. And fireplaces. In my former local, the Golden Heart on Commercial Street, the owner’s dog always tried to chew on my shoes.
Magnus Nilsson: Within architecture, Sergison & Bates wrote an article called 'Work with Tolerance' as a programmatic statement how to deal with the shoddy quality of British construction by means of simply embracing the dubious quality by embedding it within construction tolerance.
Markus Miessen: The economic potential of the margin.
Magnus Nilsson: Now there's even a (relatively) new music style called 'wonky' (Zomby & Rustie et. al.) where the beats are equally misaligned as the wonky axis of Strand and The Mall.
Markus Miessen: So shoddiness from your point of view becomes something productive.
Magnus Nilsson: Partially, yes. The notion of 'shoddiness' is not only a cultural state, but also a means for dealing with unstable conditions by means of improvisation. The most compelling notion of all this is the very non-preciousness of it all.
Markus Miessen: Hmm, I am not so sure about this. Maybe in the way it is produced but not necessarily in the way it is presented. London is surprisingly good in advertising itself, something that Berlin is incredibly bad at.
Magnus Nilsson: I personally feel that the non-preciousness is rather liberating. There’s not so much pressure in that sense. It’s harder to fail as it a more open condition. This sounds perhaps a bit paradoxical if one compares the situation with, for example, Berlin, which is a city with a relatively high degree of openness in terms of its physical structure.
Markus Miessen: A city of residue.
Magnus Nilsson: What concerns me here is not so much a tangible reality, but more a social dimension. In Berlin, contrary to London, it sometimes can feel like a heavy judgmental lid is put on top of everything. London in that sense tends to have more of a certain productive lightness.
Markus Miessen: But then again, is this not a question of its economic framework?
Magnus Nilsson: The situation is of course always ambiguous. What comes first to your mind when you think of London?
Markus Miessen: A city of anonymity. Cedric Price. John Soane’s house. Wunderkammer. Serpentine Gallery. Barbican. Southbank. The AA. The Coach & Horses. Not knowing my neighbours. Ian Sinclair’s London Orbital. Rodinsky’s Room. Uncritical shopping culture. Prepackaged food. Chain stores. A liberal complexity.
Magnus Nilsson: Yes, Cedric Price perfectly fits into this notion of a programmatic non-precious British ‘shoddiness’. Precise ‘shoddiness’. Look at the now demolished Inter-Action Centre in Kentish Town. It’s difficult to imagine an uglier building than that! But exactly this was what lent the building its freedoms. Although, this is not to be misunderstood as a blanket solution that can be rolled out everywhere. It’s great the building is demolished.
Markus Miessen: What about the Aviary? By the way: in Berlin, did you ever go to the
Volkspalast, the re-interpretation of Cedric’s Fun Palace based inside the Palast der Republik?
Magnus Nilsson: I only went there when most of the entire interior was ripped out. It was pretty impressive – this massive raw cavernous space. In the space there was also an installation by Raumlabor: a large-scale mountain landscape with fake alpine huts and stuff. Through this mock-Tyrol environment there were tours given by weird Swiss-German-speaking obtrusive guides in traditional costumes that also served you copious amounts of Schnaps.
Markus Miessen: Interestingly, in the context of Cedric Price, there is a Berlin architect called Ludwig Leo, who has – to a certain extent – a similar portfolio in terms of work and infrastructural thinking. He is still alive. He has built relatively little, but all physically realized works are masterpieces of sorts.
Magnus Nilsson: Leo is one of the most elusive characters in recent architectural history. There are no publications, he doesn’t give any interviews and he doesn’t answer the telephone. In many ways they’re very similar, but also different. It’s difficult to pin down the difference and I’m most likely totally wrong here, but I’d say Price to a certain extent operated from outside what is commonly understood as architecture whereas Leo operated more from within.
Markus Miessen: Yes, the strategic quality of the uninvited outsider. Crossbench politician. Urgently needed today, no?
Magnus Nilsson: As long as it’s not based on opportunism.
Markus Miessen: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Armin Linke and I are currently working on an archival project that attempts to unravel some of the specificities of Cedric Price’s work, based on the video material from Hans Ulrich’s archive. We are treating the existing material as a source for continuous production in which historical material becomes the starting point for a virtual, ongoing conversation.
Magnus Nilsson: This seems to be a very productive way of approaching his work as it, in some ways, is more about communication than architecture as a fixed phenomenon. In comparison to Leo, although he bent the rules, I have a feeling he always accepted the boundaries. In that way the work is more silent, autonomous and perhaps less open to interpretation. I’m not making a value judgment here as I find both super-interesting.
Markus Miessen: What would you describe as one of the driving factors for a certain quality of life in London? I always found it quite difficult to come to terms with this. Maybe the fact that one never has to think about it?
in: The London Review
Magnus Nilsson: The necessity to earn enough money to pay rent – a primal driving force that propels all thought and action.
Markus Miessen: Not only the rent. It is a substantial package if you want to live an OK life and also be located more or less centrally. What are the key urban moments in London where you think the city is unique?
Magnus Nilsson: Despite all recognisable edifices the city somehow manages to avoid becoming unique. Sure, London looks like London, so there must be some uniqueness at hand, but it is a form of generic uniqueness. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the city was built by speculative developers – historic and present. It could be seen as a negative thing, but the positive aspect is that the city – so far – avoids becoming too much of an oppressive city-wide museum like, for example, Paris. The city, in this sense, remains productively malleable.
Markus Miessen: London is spatially much more organised than Berlin. What are the interfaces at which people meet?
Magnus Nilsson: It’s interesting you consider London to be spatially more organised than Berlin. Could you explain how you think?
Markus Miessen: London has this amazing ability to cluster programmes as if it was a mall on an urban scale. Tottenham Court
Road has all the electronic shops, Kingsland Road all the Vietnamese restaurants, if you want to watch a movie you go to Leicester Square, China Town is self-explanatory. Berlin is a place where most producers stay as one of two places where they spend their time. In London this does not exist. You either live there or not.
Magnus Nilsson: Although I lived in London for seven years I never quite lived there. It’s the most transient city I’ve lived in – it’s even more extreme than New York. You’re totally disposable.
Markus Miessen: Yes, I agree. Being disposable – also being eaten up. One of the strange things about London was that I did not feel like I would be missed, after leaving. This was totally different when I left Glasgow or Berlin.
Magnus Nilsson: London as a city of non-commitment?
Markus Miessen: Depending on the scale. On an urban scale, it is totally anonymous. On a 1:1 scale of course there are great friendships, but also it is interesting that my London friends for example are much less staying in touch than people who are living elsewhere. It’s the eating up phenomenon. And I think this is not necessarily because they are busier work-wise than elsewhere. On the contrary: they are burning more time.
Magnus Nilsson: Why do you think so?
Markus Miessen: Because it is so inefficient. I have never wasted more time than in London. If you would use productively the time that you spend travelling inside the city, waiting for people being late, missing flights because of slow trains et cetera, you would be laughing. It’s strange as on the one hand the city is about money, on the other hand it burns it. Like the millions of litres of water that apparently just disappear in the London soil every day due to leaking pipes of Thames Water.
Magnus Nilsson: And the thing is that everyone else you know is also living in the disposable bubble. I never knew any English people and
I certainly never knew anyone who grew up in London. The existence of real Londoners is a myth.
Markus Miessen: But it’s also a myth that it’s a myth. Any metropolis thrives through its non-locals. I also don’t know any Berliners, do you?
Magnus Nilsson: Luckily not – they talk too much!
Markus Miessen: I find it difficult to think of interesting architecture in London, which is super weird taking into consideration that it is probably THE European melting pot of creative minds. Is
this because it too quickly channels all efforts into financial stability?
Magnus Nilsson: Yes, what a phenomenon! The financial aspect is surely part of it. Another issue is that after the so called failure of modern architecture in the UK, a lot of people seem to be clinically afraid by the very thought of contemporary architecture. Not a very fertile ground.
Markus Miessen: Probably the most interesting aspect indeed: on the one hand a total resentment towards the contemporary, on the other hand, content-wise, churning it out like there’s no tomorrow.
Magnus Nilsson: Do you think the British and in particular the London condition is marked by a strange collective repression? They sort of want to be “design driven”, but – apart from when it comes to easily demarcated territories such as packaging that do not interfere or question the everyday realities – they tend to go for extremely safe consensus agreements.
Markus Miessen: It’s a bit like buying all sorts of baby clothes and constantly doing baby talk with your partner but actually being infertile. I am wondering: obviously London is an amazing city – maybe we can also speculate to which extent it is a city that promotes shorter residencies as opposed to long-term inhabitation.
Magnus Nilsson: When I lived in London I very much enjoyed the first few years, but gradually this indefinable dissatisfaction starting to seep into my existence. To this day, this nagging feeling of not being content in a place eludes me. I still cannot really explain it, but I somehow can identify with the characters in J. G. Ballard’s novel High-rise, in which what seems to be an ideal place to live, slowly deteriorates to become a claustrophobic nightmare of malfunctioning social relations and crumbling infrastructures.
Markus Miessen: Politically of course this claustrophobic nightmare has culminated in the pseudo-bottom-up framework put in place under Blair at the tail-end of New Labour.
Magnus Nilsson: Admittedly, I’m relatively hesitant when it comes to participation. Politically, I think we’re entering a dangerous situation where the notion of participation is used simultaneously as an excuse and legitimisation for the withdrawal of responsibility by politicians. Bluntly put, ideology has become a liability and thus politicians now outsource the decision process by means of a plethora of referenda. It might sound a bit paradoxical, but too much participation in the long run might result in the dilution of democracy.
Markus Miessen: Totally. Sometimes democracy has to be avoided at all cost! New Labour has taken the notion of phoney solidarity and the absurdity of modes of
participation to the next level, although the Dutch Polder model was already based on a full consensus mode, pretending that everyone can and should be part of the political decision-making process. This false assumption has led to a situation in which the notion of participation has become a tool for political legitimisation. The dirty reality is that not everyone can always be included. What urgently needs to happen is an inverted reading and practice of participation: as a first person singular mode of action rather than passive first person plural – a practice of conflictual consensus.
Markus Miessen and Magnus Nilsson