27-06-09 // THE BEGINNINGS OF MONU MAGAZINE – INTERVIEW WITH BERND UPMEYER
The “Paid Urbanism Project” was created to inject artificially life into dead urban areas, ©BOARD
Luca Vandini from the University of Ferrara, Italy interviewed Bernd Upmeyer about MONU Magazine.
Luca Vandini: When was MONU born, how and why did you decide to give life to this kind of experimental magazine?
Bernd Upmeyer: The idea came up in 2003, but the first issue appeared a bit later, in the summer of 2004. Originally it was conceived as a way to keep in touch with a friend of mine. We studied together in Kassel, but in 2002 at the end of our degrees, we decided to take different routes: I came to the Netherlands, and he moved to the United States. We were searching for a way to keep in contact, and continue to intellectually challenge ourselves, as we did during our studies.
LV: “MONU” – the title of your magazine is an acronym, where the U stands for Urbanism. Does this refer to the phenomenon or to the field of studies? In other words, is MONU more about urban phenomena or about discussions inside the urbanism discipline?
BU: MONU is more about urban phenomena. What we were aiming at since the very beginning was to explore every kind of urban aspects, everything that appears around the city. We were always intrigued to find out the hidden political, social and economical truths and interdependencies in cities. Nevertheless I could still imagine one day making an issue on traditional topics, such as space and density. The great thing about using the city as a subject is that it allows you to talk about almost everything, and that is what really attracted us since the very beginning.
LV: The choice to publish an entire magazine about urbanism is quite particular in a world overloaded with interior, landscape or architecture publications. Does this choice arise only from a personal feeling, is it a way to fill up a presumed lack, or does it stand on a modernist conception that sees urbanism coming before and going beyond architecture?
BU: I think that this choice has a lot to do with the kind of education I received at the University of Kassel, where I studied in the nineties. There, even if you were a student of architecture, like me, you were always forced to start thinking large-scale. For whatever design we had to do there, we were always asked to think not only about the urban context, but also about the city as a whole. I think that this start to every design really shaped my mind and has been projected onto MONU. At the beginning I thought this way of being trained as an architect was cutting away a lot of interesting aspects, as I originally started studying architecture in order to design first of all architectural objects and not cities. But after a while I understood the power and the potential of this interdisciplinary design approach, and as you can see I am no longer able to escape from it. In Kassel as an architecture student I was more or less forced to do projects together with urban design and landscape design students. Therefore the urban scale became the basis of our discussions.
LV: Every issue of MONU has a title or topic that puts a different adjective or noun next to the word “Urbanism”. Why did you make this choice? Do you think you will be able to keep going on this way forever?
BU: Everything started with the topic of the first issue entitled “Paid Urbanism”. Paid Urbanism was originally a University project. It was based on the idea of paying people to appear in public spaces that are deserted after shops were closed. We created the “Paid Urbanism Project” to inject artificially life into dead urban areas. It was a reaction to the conditions that we witnessed in the city centre of Kassel after 5 p.m. What was at the beginning only a joke to entertain ourselves as students, became more serious with the time and finally ended up as the topic of the very first issue of MONU. The second issue we wanted to deal with the middle classes and their impact on cities and spontaneously decided to continue with the term “Urbanism” in the title and called the issue “Middle Class Urbanism”. After that it became a routine and continues until today. At the beginning we had of course a lot of doubts about using again and again the term urbanism, but we also started appreciating the power of its repetition.
LV: What is the idea behind the “call for submissions”?
BU: This device of “call for submissions” was based since the beginning on the realization that the view of one person is limited. We wanted to open the magazine to different and changing perspectives. We realized that it was not very interesting if every issue would be written by always the same people. So we decided to focus on diversity as the core of the magazine. I believe this way helps MONU to stay fresh.
LV: Can you explain a bit more in depth what the role of the editor in chief of a magazine like MONU is?
BU: The idea is that the editor in chief has to be a sort of moderator, who initiates topics. Like in a conference, congress, or debate the moderator throws the ball and helps it to go as far as possible. You create a topic and hope for interesting reactions that together make the magazine. But one of the most interesting parts of that process is that the result is unpredictable and usually also for me surprising and unexpected. I always learn a lot of new things. That is very exciting and challenging for me. The involvement of different perspectives of different authors always creates something that was not completely intended at the beginning. The calls for submissions are always very speculative and are mostly led by a hope that a topic really might have potential.
LV: In MONU #10 you borrowed the work of an artist for the cover page. What is the role in the magazine of other disciplines such as art; is MONU a publication that is trying to go beyond urbanism or does it look more inside the phenomenon itself?
BU: The integration of more art work is also based on the belief in the quality of diversity and the quality of different perspectives that lead eventually to a greater understanding of things.
LV: Let’s talk a bit about the structure of MONU. Your magazine, for example, lacks the classic editorial and doesn’t have any periodical column. Why is that?
BU: Actually there is always an editorial. On the first page I always write an editorial that describes and explains the content. It is an overview of the most interesting and most relevant contributions to the magazine. It is a sort of summary that allows you to understand what that issue is made of. Maybe when you talk about an editorial you expect a traditional small article, were the editor gives his personal view on the matter. We stopped writing such editorials after the second issue, because we didn’t want to appear too heavy. Magazine editorials can become easily too self-referential. We wanted simply to provide a wide overview of what you could find inside. I think my point of view appears strong enough through the selection of the published pieces and the selection of the topic. I don’t think that I need a specific article to express it. I don’t want to constrict the audience to bear my opinion every time. What I find most annoying in typical architecture magazines is to be confronted all the time with the very particular opinion of the editor in chief that enjoys too much expressing himself and his view on things. I really want to avoid that. MONU is not about me, it is about its topics.
LV: Moving to a more general approach, what do you think is the role of written words in contemporary urbanism?
BU: Thinking about something is different from thinking and writing about something, because writing helps you to organize ideas and to discover new aspects. Writing is like placing a lot of pieces on a table, assembling them and finding relations between them. When you write about things you are able to connect things that cannot be connected or understood in a conversation. It is a bit like in a design process, where you start with some rules that get transformed during the development of the project. Something new and unforeseen can happen and you get the chance to learn more about certain topics. To find out more about cities is one of the main motivations to produce a magazine like MONU.
LV: If you should engage in some self-criticism, what aspect or point of MONU would you consider less powerful?
BU: I think MONU is way too ambitious and too meaningful for a magazine. MONU is not easy to consume and is therefore not meant to reach a huge audience. MONU is damned to stay small. But although it makes it very difficult to survive, I would not be interested in making it more superficial only for the sake of reaching a greater audience.
Title: The Beginnings of MONU Magazine
Project: Interview with Bernd Upmeyer
Date: June 2009
Type: Commissioned interview
Topic: MONU Magazine
Organizer: Luca Vandini
Interviewer: Luca Vandini