Urbanism is one of those malleable concepts that defy definition. A flexible subject where, by trying to lock it within a specific scope, its validity sometimes gets undermined and its potential spoiled.
But when a magazine develops and maintains its own way to portray the multiple faces, forms, shapes, relationships, arguments, contradictions, images, consequences, and messages of the discipline that is supposed to carry the unbearable load of thinking the city, then the exercise of defining urbanism becomes an enriching intellectual journey.
MONU (Magazine on Urbanism) was born in 2004 in Rotterdam. What was originally an almost underground magazine made available through a pdf dossier and a stapled black and white print has evolved into one of the main independent publications, a reference for the collective intelligence of urbanism, and an icon of exquisite aesthetics.
Set to satisfy a growing urbanophilic hunger, MONU has thrown into the mix an intoxicating mixture of up-and-coming talents with household names. A microcosm of the urban intelligentsia, the magazine includes works, interviews, provocations, cartographies, analytical essays, critical manifestoes, political outcries, and fairytales. An expanding list of worldwide contributors form a global network of artists, thinkers, urbanists, architects, photographers, ethnographers and urban provocateurs to assure the inexhaustible variety and compelling heterogeneity of the publications.
Bernd Upmeyer’s intelligent elaboration of the call for submissions sets the tone for intense debates that question the status quo of urbanism through projects that flirt between pure research and dark humor.
WAI Architecture Think Tank discussed with Bernd Upmeyer the ideology of publication.
WAI: To start the discussion, we would like to retake a topic initiated in the 15th issue of MONU dedicated to “Post-Ideological” Urbanism, and specifically to the call for submissions that argue that after the end of the times in which “revolutionary urban ideologies were not only conceived but actually, unlike today, also truly believed in”, if it is necessary today to bring back new or true ideologies when it comes to the city.
But, would it be accurate to still rely on the western perspective of post-ideology even when the basis of the argument of Fukuyama has been severely threatened by the social composition of rising powers in the East (China for example) that respond to a completely different set of structural values?
Bernd Upmeyer: I believe that, apart from the conservative neoliberals, most of the people never really relied on Fukuyama’s idea of “The End of History”, but did not see any real working alternative to liberal democracies and free market capitalism, which you could call post-ideological. But I think that that should not frustrate us as the possibilities within this supposedly final form of government have not been entirely exhausted and explored yet. In that sense, it is still the right thing to do in my opinion. Today, people are less naïve when it comes to ideologies. Everything is more about the small details and the grayscales after the black-and-white thinking of the past.
Following that line of thought, is not urbanism (as a profession) very much a tool that responds directly to ideology? If it is not to an ideological command, then to what form of social input does urbanism respond?
Yes it does, but urbanism is a huge field and cities are big and complex things and the production, organization and maintenance of cities involves so many different people and parties that all bring their own ideology into the different negotiations and discussions, meaning that you cannot speak of direct responses and impacts of singular or all-encompassing ideologies any longer. Everything gets compromised and diluted, at least in the Western Democratic World, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it reveals the level of democracy in a city. How a city responds to the input of people can be compared to how, for example, a harbor responds to the input of people. I experienced that when I recently had to pick up a package directly from Rotterdam’s harbor and had to drive around 30km to fetch it, having received only an address called “Harbour 5044”. Before that moment, I had always perceived Rotterdam’s harbour as one entity, but when I arrived at number 5044, it became clear that there is no such thing as “one harbour”, but thousands of individual people, mostly company and property owners, with thousands of different ways of looking at things and each of their individual decisions and actions make up what we think of as the harbour.
At the beginning of the 20th century in Europe several magazines started proliferating as a way to portray a new set of aesthetic and social values. De Stijl, L’Esprit Nouveau, G were just a few examples of the universe of publications that questioned the state of design in relation to society. These were critical magazines with an obvious agenda.
Simultaneously, other magazines were digging even deeper into their political affiliations in places such as Italy.
Up to what point could a magazine such as MONU today either become part of the communication apparatus of a bigger ideological agenda, or – in opposition – become part of a strategy to break away from predetermined ideological postures?
The biggest difference of MONU to magazines such “De Stijl” or “L’Esprit Nouveau” is that we never wanted to question “the state of design in relation to society” as you call it, but to understand how cities work. What MONU has been aiming at since the very beginning is exploring every kind of urban aspect, everything that appears around the city. The magazine was always intrigued to find out the hidden political, social and economic truths, formal realities and interdependencies in cities. Part of cities is of course also its design, but when we founded MONU at the start of the new millennium, it felt much more appropriate, in a globalized and increasingly complex world, to investigate topics such as architecture or even design as a part of a wider field – in our case urbanism. In order to investigate how ideologies impact cities, for example, we dedicated recently the entire issue #15 to it and called it “Post-Ideological Urbanism”. But since we have put that topic on our agenda and drew up quite a few conclusions around it, we wanted to move on and discuss other topics. There are still so many other topics to explore around cities. In that sense “Ideology” was only one topic besides others in the past that we don’t wish to stretch out and extend necessarily for ever. The important thing is that MONU remains critical and uncompromised, which is our main ideology. But I doubt that it would be a good idea that MONU becomes a part of a communication apparatus of a bigger ideological agenda that will make the magazine very inflexible and compromised in the years to come. In that sense, I would also never call a magazine “L’Esprit Nouveau”, because it is just a matter of time that it becomes “L’Esprit Rétrogarde”. Such a magazine would be too dependent on short-lived trends. MONU has been created to last for a long time. However, MONU is not a neutral platform. It has opinions and is, for example, generally critical of the fact that often urban spaces only fulfill the wishes and dreams of a powerful minority, who neglect the needs of most other people (MONU#12). The magazine also dismisses the lack of interest among architects and urban designers in dealing with the enormous potential of the existing urban material and topics such as urban and architectural restoration, preservation, renovation, redevelopment, renewal or adaptive reuse of old structures as socially irresponsible and economically and culturally unacceptable (MONU#14). And MONU disapproves furthermore of the non-ideological – or better post-ideological – conditions of our society when it comes to cities and aims for a new sincerity that is needed in a world consisting of a multiplicity of choices and urban outcomes without a single consistent urban ideology (MONU #15).
Being based in the Netherlands, and particularly in Rotterdam which can be considered the epicenter of both the Dutch architectural avant-garde and the architectural establishment, what strategies do you apply to keep MONU within a neutral international focus, and avoid (if this is the intention) reflecting the doctrines of the ideological influences of the Dutch architectural scene?
I could not say that we follow any strategy to avoid reflecting Dutch architectural doctrines. The Dutch scene does not have one particular ideology or one particular doctrine anyway when it comes to architecture and urbanism. There are several and completely different ways of thinking to be found. Nobody would ever try to influence or force you into one. It is rather the opposite. From an outside perspective it might maybe look as if certain relevant figures in Rotterdam rule and influence everything, but I don’t experience that being here. Maybe it is like being in the eye of a cyclone, but everybody is very open to new ideas and directions and most of the people have an international focus. In that sense, I don’t need to avoid anything, but join the ubiquitous international atmosphere and open-source mentality and try to contribute to it. However, MONU does not focus on neutrality, it clearly has an international – or better global – focus, but it is not neutral. I think that a magazine should never, and can never, be entirely neutral, but should only try to be as open as possible. Just by favoring certain topics and certain contributors and viewpoints the neutrality is already gone.
Along that same line, do you see MONU as an international magazine made from a Dutch point of view, or from a European perspective or simply as an international intellectual outlet in its purest sense?
I think that MONU would be pretty much the same magazine as it is, if it were produced in another country and another city in Europe or elsewhere. It is quite independent from its context. I believe that today, in our highly globalized world, viewpoints neither need a location nor to be influenced only where they were created. In that sense, you can probably find much more “Dutch” magazines in other parts of the world than in the Netherlands. But although we try to create a truly global magazine, its departure point for some topics is probably still pretty much from a European point of view, although our new topic “Next Urbanism” is clearly independent from a European viewpoint. And also, at the time when we introduced, for example, the device of “open calls for contributions” in our first issue as a tool of finding contributors, this was not very common for architectural and urban magazines in Europe, but more established as an academic method to finding conference presentations in the US. In that regard, MONU is clearly an international intellectual outlet, as you call it. However, you can still sense a European background, for example in topics such as “Editing Urbanism”. In that sense a lot of our topics are still motivated and initiated by European urban phenomena that we then try to expand and project onto the rest of the world. Furthermore, you might be able to see certain Dutch influences in MONU, such as the belief in the value of diversity in perspectives and viewpoints, as I mentioned before. But at the end of the day, you have to give us some credit here. With MONU we developed a magazine that is not just a product of its context. It has its own independent identity and pursues its own interests.
Is the critical agenda of MONU and the selection of topics related to specific events or moments of contemporary urban history, or are selected themes the product of more personal reflections on the evolution of the city? Have you noticed the development of a major “issue” with regard to the city or urbanism since the magazine was founded?
MONU’s critical agenda is truly based on the belief that it is necessary to criticize and question prevailing urban conditions in order to understand better how cities work, to fuel the debates around them, and ultimately to improve our living conditions within them. But generally speaking, we are most interested in contemporary urban phenomena that we usually try to evaluate in relation to their potential to impact cities in the future, and their relevance to the history of cities, before selecting them as topics. To what extent a topic may be directly related to a specific moment of urban history – for instance the financial crisis of 2008 – can probably best be seen in issue #12 of 2010, on the topic of “Real Urbanism” that investigated how the real estate industry shapes and influences cities on all kind of levels. But it has to be said as well that although this topic did fit very well and was clearly related to the aftermath of this crisis, it already had been bothering me for years, while walking around Rotterdam wondering who is actually responsible for all those uninspiring plans, all those faceless glass facades, and all those dysfunctional public spaces that comprise 98% of all our cities. I became desperately curious to find out more about the impact of the real estate industry on cities. I think that the example of how the topic of #12 came about shows quite well how MONU’s topics are arrived at in general. Nevertheless, every new topic of MONU has its own little history and its emergence could be described with one or another little anecdote. In that way, you could say, that most of the themes are both the product of personal reflections and experiences, and of specific historical events. But the proportion of these two sources of inspiration, if you could call them that are different with every new topic as no clear method is followed here, but only the conviction that a topic must be relevant, if it truly feels relevant. And, in the end, that is a very personal thing.
MONU is willing to explore the concept of urbanism from every possible angle, including the social, political, ideological and artistic spheres. However, something that is not being discussed is the contribution of MONU to the visual culture of architectural publications. An important element of the unique attraction of MONU is its layout (varying from article to article), typography and provocative covers that have featured Godzilla, Jesus, Marilyn Monroe, Superman, and John Lennon. Was the aesthetic approach for MONU a derivative of the content or was it a choice assumed from the beginning as a main concept for the magazine?
The fact that every article is different in terms of the layout was a clear choice from the beginning and we have been applying that concept ever since – although a little less wildly today. From the beginning, this choice was meant to emphasize the multiplicity and diversity of the articles and viewpoints and, on the other hand, the result of the fact that I always had trouble with magazines in which I got lost, not knowing whether one article ends, another one starts or images in between are merely advertisements. Some magazines are doing that excessively. I have always considered that very annoying. Therefore, this principle of the layout is not a derivative of the content – however, the emphasis on diversity clearly is. Principally MONU’s content always comes first and its layout only serves the content and its readability. MONU’s visual culture should not be overrated. When it comes to the covers, we started very naïvely, not knowing how relevant and important a meaningful and attractive cover for a magazine is. We started getting a bit of a clue when the magazine was already three years old and on display and for sale in more and more bookshops. Seeing the magazine on the shelves, especially in the bookshops in Rotterdam, made us think more about its cover, as the cover was the only thing people would see while walking around the store. In addition to that we recognized an increasing interest in the magazine and the moment more people are looking at you, you better get a better haircut, so as not to look like a fool. Thus, you can say that ever since the summer of 2006, starting with issue #5, we are putting more energy in finding interesting and inspiring images that represent the content of each issue. Since the “Godzilla” on the cover of #5 we are trying to provide more direct access to the still invisible content of each issue. But it is not simply about provocation, but more about the belief that a magazine with uncompromising and daring content also needs uncompromising and daring covers.
While the value of MONU as a platform for open discussion and experimental speculation is undeniable, the importance of strategies such as the “open call for contributions” should not be overlooked. Recent exhibitions like Archizines highlight a resurgence of independent publications that very often are created following this selection tool. When you created MONU, did you see it as an independent exercise or did you anticipate its paradigmatic potential? By the same token, do you feel that MONU, apart from its intellectual contributions, has served as a model for a young generation of independent magazines?
No, we definitely could not foresee its paradigmatic potential, but we were only hoping that it would help us making an interesting magazine. You have to understand that at the time we founded the magazine, we neither knew how to make a magazine, nor did we know any writers or potential contributors. We had no network whatsoever. Not that we believe in networks. Today, we actually avoid making use of our network, as we want to keep the magazine open to new people while avoiding inviting people that we know as most magazines traditionally do. But what is a choice today was a constraint in the past, as we simply had no idea how to get contributors for the magazine. We had a lot of ideas for topics, but no ideas for authors. Therefore, the “open call for contributions” was for us at that moment the only way to start a magazine. That we receive today so many proposals and submissions of such a high standard is incredible and fantastic and we are very grateful for that. I would be very happy if MONU served as a model for a young generation of independent magazines as I feel that that we truly did some kind of pioneering work here. As I mentioned before, in 2004, when we introduced the device of “open calls for contributions” in our first issue as a tool of finding contributors, this was not common for architectural and urbanism magazines. Being a role model shows that we have created something meaningful and interesting. That is a big honour for the magazine itself and for its authors. But what is more important is that in recent years MONU has contributed to bringing back a new critical edge to the architectural and urban discourse and if this approach has inspired others to start similar magazines, that can only be judged positively.
How would you describe the evolution of MONU from the first issues to the current ones and how do you envision the future of MONU?
The evolution of MONU has to be understood as a continuous attempt – driven by tireless curiosity – to improve the magazine with every single issue with regard to the diversity and quality of the contributions, the relevance of the articles in general and in relation to the particular topic of the issue, the relevance of each topic taken by itself, its appearance and layout, and finally its financial sustainability. In that sense, I believe that our last issue was the most elaborate – however, most of the earlier issues contain a lot of very good and relevant contributions too, coupled with the charm of something that is in the process of becoming something very special and unique. I see the future of MONU in the same vein: as a magazine that will continuously improve, yet will continue to take risks and flirt with failure. And as long as people are still motivated to contribute and we are not getting tired of initiating new topics and investing time and energy into something that will probably never have a secure and stable financial base, MONU Magazine on Urbanism will keep looking forward to its next issue.
Bernd Upmeyer / MONU
Bernd Upmeyer is the editor-in-chief and founder of MONU magazine. He is also the founder of the Rotterdam-based Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD). From 2004 until 2008 he taught and did research as Assistant Professor at the department for Urban and Architectural Studies at the University of Kassel. In 2010 he taught as Adjunct Professor at the department of Urban Design at the HafenCity University Hamburg.
MONU is an English-language, biannual magazine on urbanism that focuses on the city in a broader sense, including its politics, economy, geography, ecology, its social aspects, as well as its physical structure and architecture. Therefore architecture is one of many fields covered by the magazine – fields which are all brought together under the catch-all term “urbanism”. MONU is edited in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Continuous publication began in June 2004. It refers to itself as an independent, non-conformist, niche publication that collects critical articles, images, concepts, and urban theories from architects, urbanists and theorists from around the world on a given topic.
WAI Architecture Think Tank
WAI Architecture Think Tank is a Workshop for Architecture Intelligentsia based in Beijing. Founded by Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia in 2008, WAI asks What About It?
This interview is part of What About It? Part 2, a graphic narrative in magazine format made available in limited edition printed copies, and as a free digital resource on the internet.