MONU: understanding cities

Interview with 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).
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Monu.... 

Bernd Upmeyer: The MONU-journey began in 2003, about one year after my graduation as an architect from the University of Kassel in Germany. At that time I was working as an architect in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The motivation to found a magazine was not based on the conviction that there was a particular need for a new magazine, nor did we feel that the world or our society needed a new one. It was based, rather, on a very personal and intellectual need to continue working on - and thinking about - urban topics with some of my former student colleagues from University, who were spread around the world after having finished their studies. I think that we all missed the intensity of discussions and debates that we experienced during our student projects in Kassel, something that was pretty much impossible to experience in the daily routine in an architecture office, where things had to be produced and not always discussed.

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 Editorial policy. 

BU: I think what I look for today is what I looked for at the beginning: intellectual exchange and the possibility to question, put also topics on the agenda, and discuss issues surrounding architecture and urbanism. Last week, I met an old friend from high school, who asked me what drives me to continue producing the magazine - which I have been doing now for quite a while - and what I am looking to achieve. I told him: answers. I am full of questions and the magazine is a kind of outlet for that. Questions usually appear while not working actively on the magazine, but rather while working in my office, BOARD, on other things that are related to architecture or urbanism, or while reading a newspaper, traveling, or simply walking around in the city. They are usually by-products of other activities. But the magazine’s mission also changed a bit over the years, especially after we became aware that it has a certain power to influence and shape debates, which we wanted to deploy for a good cause. Thus, what started out as a rather selfish intellectual pursuit transformed over the years into a tool to criticize and question prevailing urban conditions in order to understand better how cities work, to fuel the debates surrounding cities, and to ultimately improve our living conditions within them.

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 tell us something about yourself.

BU: I am very much a curiosity-driven person, who is interested in a lot of things and especially in everything that is related to urban topics. Although I began studying architecture to become an architect in the traditional sense, in Kassel, where I studied, you have the possibility of pursuing interdisciplinary group work and self-initiated projects with urban and landscape designers from the very first semester and as part of a normal study. That fascinated me from the very beginning and I saw and grabbed this great opportunity to acquire a more complex view of architecture and to enlarge my field of work, for instance thinking about the appropriate scale of cities, but also engaging in different disciplines. This fascination impacted MONU as well. The belief in the value of diversity in perspectives and viewpoints and the belief that a combination of writings and projects created within different cultures and from different professional backgrounds can generate new insights into the complex phenomena relating to cities remains until now an important aspect and quality of MONU.

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Why did you choose to print the magazine? What kind of paper do you use and why? What typography?

BU: I think that printing is still a very good technology. The idea, for example, that printed publications would one day be replaced by digital publications never convinced me. I think that over the last couple of years certain technology companies have tried to convince us of the quality of reading from screens. I am still trying to find that quality. So, the choice to produce a printed magazine has a lot to do with that, among other considerations. But I also believe that printed publications provide a greater value than digital ones because most likely they will last longer, while everything digital has a much more ephemeral character and easily disappears after a certain period. Printed publications, on the other hand, usually survive for a very long time. Thus, every issue of MONU, or at least a few copies, will survive for generations to come. That provides a particular quality to every contribution that is published in the magazine. I have the impression that the contributors - but also the readers of MONU - appreciate that. The choice of the type of paper we use in the magazine is very much related to the fact that it contains a lot of text that can be read better on mat paper than on glossy paper, where light reflections can be a problem. When it comes to the typography we try to design every article in a different way and with a different font to emphasize the multiplicity and diversity of the articles and viewpoints, and to make it easier for the readers to find their way through the magazine, as they will see when a new article starts and another one ends.

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What is the public response?

BU: When recently I was presenting my new book “Binational Urbanism – On the Road to Paradise” in The Hague, in the Netherlands, MONU was mentioned by the organizers of the event as a “secret hidden among architecture publications” and one of our distributors described it recently in one of their newsletters as a “surprising little gem from the very urban Dutch city of Rotterdam”. Thus, in general, public responses to the magazine are very positive. I think that these positive responses have a lot to do with the fact that the readers, but also the contributors to the magazine, which can easily be the same people, appreciate the collaborative and collective aspect of the magazine and the fact that a platform is created that generates novel knowledge as a kind of collective intelligence that is smarter than each of us individually. Also, I think that contributors, in particular, appreciate the freedom that they have when contributing to the magazine. As an editor, I usually try to keep my influence on the authors’ pieces to a minimum. I see my role more in kick-starting the topics than in telling the contributors how and what to write.

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Good, printed magazines get a lot of love, but this is not always translated into sales or advertising. What are the sales like? In terms of advertising, do you use the normal approach of selling ads or do you use a more branded ad approach?

BU: Love is a very powerful source of energy! The magazine survives, because we really love doing it and, so far, we don’t get tired of initiating new topics and raising new questions. And that interest exists independently from sales or financial revenue. Nevertheless, as it is very difficult for a niche magazine such as MONU to attract advertising or sponsors, a certain number of copies must be sold to cover the most basic expenses of the magazine, such as printing costs, etc. Thus, every reader and every copy sold contributes to the survival of the magazine. But the value of MONU could never be quantified in monetary terms. I personally can afford publisihing this magazine, because it is not the only thing I do, but one of many activities of my office BOARD in Rotterdam, where I work, for example, on architectural and urban projects, but also produce research studies, such as the project we have been working on for about three years now for the city of Paris, as part of the Atelier International Grand Paris (AIGP), a project that was initiated by the former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. So, I always have to take care not to spend all my time on the magazine, which is very tempting, but possible because MONU appears only twice a year.

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 Could you tell us a bit more about any upcoming projects?

BU: Currently I am involved in the design of the facade of a geothermal power station in Ivry-sur-Seine, a commune in the Val-de-Marne department in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris. Construction of this project will commence very soon. On the same location, we are also busy designing a public square. Over the upcoming months, I will also be involved in some projects relating to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, including some lectures, debates, and symposia. So, these are some of my upcoming projects for this year. But at the moment we are also very busy with the upcoming issue of MONU, which will be released in April under the title “Domestic Urbanism”. This new issue will deal with the domestic aspects of cities and everything that is related to the human home, the habitat, and the scale of the house, people's own universe, something that is usually hidden and private. We want to reinvent and evolve the concept of the "domestic" and the concept of the "home" radically, because we believe that a rather small urban unit, such as the apartment, can have a tremendous effect on a city and that - in turn - a city can have an incredible influence on homes and the way we live.

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