pulp #58: uncube
published on Friday, September 21, 2018
Sophie Lovell and Fiona Shipwright are from the editorial team of the late, great uncube magazine. Sophie was the editor in chief, Fiona an editor. By February 2016 the four year old magazine’s issues had been visited by 1.2 million readers, its 100 most popular blog posts had 580,000 visits, and it had over 14,000 newsletter subscribers. Both hail from London – Sophie moved to Berlin in 1994, Fiona moved to Berlin in 2014. Both are still writing and editing, now as members of &beyond, an international creative collective the co-founded, specializing in print and digital publishing.
In an architecture publishing world split between fresh but short-lived zines and tired stalwarts, before its premature death uncube managed, in the course of just four years, to be both fresh and seem like it had always been there. I had a conversation with Sophie and Fiona – or rather I posed a few questions while they had a conversation – about their meteoric rise, and what it was like behind the scenes at uncube.
FEATURE: INTERVIEW WITH SOPHIE LOVELL & FIONA SHIPWRIGHT
SL: Sophie Lovell
FS: Fiona Shipwright
NK: Nicolas Kemper
FS I came to Berlin four years ago to work for uncube – before that I worked on architecture, art and design print books in London and was frustrated because the approach was that digital was just seen as a tacked-on thing – a 2d version of the physical thing – uncube had a different approach.
SL I came to Berlin 24 years ago, have edited, started and worked for all kinds of magazines including Wallpaper and form. I actually turned down the job at uncube three times before the publisher convinced me to take it. “I do not understand this thing, I think it is clunky…” I told them. But then I realized that, partly because it was a publishing experiment, I had completely free rein. I said, “Wait, that means I can do whatever I want?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure” – within the parameters for the back end.
FS We more or less broke the back end every issue.
NK Who were “they” – where did uncube come from?
SL It came from Baunetz media. Baunetz was founded in 1996 as a purely online platform for architecture serving the German-speaking world and is really big and comprehensive. Since there was nowhere left for them to grow but into English and the rest of the world, the then publisher and director Jürgen Paul and Florian Heilmeyer, the first editor in chief launched an experimental digital magazine in English, uncube, in 2012.
FS Not such a straightforward process…
SL The original intention was to make a kind of digital Wallpaper magazine, I think. The publishers wanted it to be quite glossy and lifestylely, which is I think why they hired me, since I had worked for that sort of magazine quite a bit before. That is what they were aiming for. They spent over two years developing this software, with the Berlin-based graphic design firm Henkelhiedl. What is interesting about it how you navigate horizontally. Even then… how old is it now?
FS Six years.
SL Six years old! It is ancient. And there is still sort of nothing like it.
FS It reminds me of something I saw last week on twitter somewhere saying, “If you call your publication a digital magazine, it is probably just a blog” – which I think is true, for vertical scrolling stuff, but uncube, it is sideways, there is a different rhythm to the reading experience.
NK And there are columns. Almost nothing online has multiple columns of text.
SL Yes, “like print but without the paper” is how we described it. It was very dynamic and became more and more so as we developed the technology for the back end. Working with it was almost like film. I felt more like a director than an editor sometimes. We had to choreograph and plan the pacing of the stories and how the images moved. We would print out all of the pages of each issue and lay them on this huge table, and arrange them so this whole thing flowed both visually and kind of intuitively.
FS And what you saw on screen lacked anything skeumorphic – no animations to indicate, “Let’s pretend that you are turning the page,” – it is true to a digital experience. It is appropriate to the medium on which you are receiving it.
SL One of the biggest problems online is people’s attention span. Our essays in the magazine were 1,500 words, absolute top limit...
FS And that was a longer one.
SL …10-12 pages and we felt we were stretching people’s patience.
FS We could see from the stats where in a story readers would drop off, and that is when we began to spend such an amount of time pacing stories – to keep people in the flow.
SL That was amazing. Responding to those stats, without just pampering. Not succumbing to that whole click bait mentality, except by using more careful imagery, or more powerful graphic design.
NK uncube was novel in its digital format – was it also novel in its editorial structure?
SL Myself and Lena Giovanazzi, the graphic designer, were there four days a week, everyone else was two to three days a week – our team was seven or eight in total, all part time. It was a really small team.
FS And all in one room.
SL Tuesdays, we all had lunch together. The office of uncube was in a former shop-front, we had this massive meeting table and a kitchen at the back, so we took it in turns to cook – the interns and everyone else – and we sat over long communal lunches and thrashed out the upcoming issues.
FS It may sound hard to believe but in fact a huge amount work happened during those conversations, sitting at the table, eating.
SL We came from so many different disciplines – art historians, architects, designers –and it shows in the themes of each issue, the things we felt needed to be talked about….
FS And dared to sometimes. Sometimes we felt we should not do something, which is exactly why we should do it. Like the Zaha issue…
NK What was the story of the Zaha issue?
SL We had these occasional single-architect issues, and were sick of featuring old white men, so we had this big discussion about who we were going to feature next and someone said “Zaha” and we all went “Nooo!” – and then, because we did that, because of that immediate response – I said, “that’s why we need to do it.” And everyone said, “We cannot do that!”
FS It was at the height of her unpopularity with the controversial Qatar stadium.
SL But Zaha ended up being a very popular issue. It was a huge amount of work – getting colleagues of hers, friends to write pieces and be involved, deciding whether we wanted Patrik Schumacher in it, getting unpublished sketches from her archive, getting the interview with her…
FS Getting access was really hard but once she and her office were into the idea it went really well.
SL And bizarrely, sadly, the interview I did with her was one of the last interviews she gave. I think it might even have been the last interview she gave. She died a couple of months after it came out.
FS That was quite haunting news to receive.
NK What were other editorial risks you took?
SL Already the second issue with me at the helm, “Carbon” mortified the publisher: “But where are the buildings?”, he said. We were not really interested in buildings. For me, there are many blogs out there saying “This is new building, here is another new building, here is a gallery, here is a villa…” We were at no point competing on that level. uncube was about reading around the subject – important and relevant subjects for contemporary architects.
From the beginning this was about saying to architects: “This is shit you need to know about, it is happening around your profession, around this thing you think you know about.” It’s about stepping back and maybe considering things from a different angle. That is why we did the Space issue. And an Acoustics issue. And the Soft Machines issue about biotech in architecture. Or Uncanny Valley, which is about robotics.
FS The word I heard more than any other in editorial meetings was context. We were basically providing what we viewed as contextual background, or contextual information for architects. And I am not an architect, Sophie is not an architect. We did have some on the team and there was a huge audience of architects, but it was not aimed solely at them.
NK Where did the name uncube come from?
SL Actually, I was consulted when they were devising it. They called me, gave me some names, and asked me what I think, and I was like “Nnnuh-uh – I think you need to have ‘Archi’ in the title, because of search engines.” I did not hear anything from them for a couple of months, then they said, “O, we got it! It is called uncube!” And I was like you’re kidding me”. And that is part of the reason I did not want to work for them, “No, I do not want to work for a magazine called uncube! It is the worst name ever!”
NK In its defense, it does summon an image of a deconstructed box.
FS I’ve always like that about it. Though I still don’t know if it is a noun or a verb. It changes the pronunciation, I think.
NK Did the office actually have a photo booth?
FS Not on site, unfortunately.
SL There are still old-fashioned photo booths in Berlin. We gave the photo booth interview subjects (who were people visiting Berlin) a map showing where the photo booths.
NK Was there a Berlin perspective embedded into uncube?
FS Yes and no.
FS We did not want to adhere to one that fetishizes Berlin. I mean we covered Berlin…
SL We had the Berlin issue. Maybe we had a Berlin perspective – uncube in terms of out of the box – maybe out-of-the-box architecture has a great deal to do with the Berlin approach to things.
NK Markus Bader talked about the tendency among performers, musicians, and theater people in Berlin to organise around projects, not firms…
FS The “Freie Szene” [the “free scene”].
SL Yes, we call it the prekariat
NK You are now both members of a freelancer collective, &beyond – what are some of the projects you are working on there?
SL Our biggest right now is the print and digital Archifutures project - a different beast but definitely deeply infused with uncubian spirit… Volume 5 is incoming very soon this autumn.
NK What is it like being part of the Freie Szene, the precariat?
SL Depends on the week.
FS Sometimes it can be really tough.
SL Sometimes you think: “why don’t I have a proper job, with holiday pay and all that kind of thing, where I do not have to pay everything myself”, but, having said that, I wouldn’t have changed this life for the world. Being in Berlin for the last 20 years, I have watched the creative scene here grow from early kind of crazy artists and musicians into this huge multi-million thing which is going to have google-campuses and stuff.
FS It’s now a brand in itself.
SL Yes, gentrification – the rising property prices are going to kill it completely. I do not know how long it will last. But from the beginning, you could come to Berlin to get away from stuff. People from all over ran away to Berlin. They ran away to be artists, or ran away to be actors, or ran away to make a club, be a DJ or whatever they wanted to do. And they all helped each other, so it has turned into an extraordinary network.
FS Though it’s just as hectic, my working life in publishing here is completely other, it is completely different from my former working life in London. I cannot stress that enough. And I know which one I prefer. The &beyond collective, which is basically the former uncube team, are now scattered around Europe. All of us miss the regular big table experience – but when we when we are back together in the same place, like at the Venice Architecture Biennale this summer…
SL Then we just got a flat together and had a little commune.. It is a bit of a dream team to work with – we all get it, and we all fit.
NK Markus said it was less common to see architects among the Freie Szener.
SL Well, I think there is a massive concentration of architects in Berlin who are busy not being architects. It has always been like that. I had two next-door neighbors twenty years ago, both of them architects. The DJ-ed and made pop-up bars and parties. One of them set up a thing called “Hit and Run Kino” – a piratical cinema where you would only be notified by e-mail of when the next film screening was. And then they would go break into some kind of disused switching station on the rail tracks, and fifty people would show up and drink warm beer and watch Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
NK How did uncube come to an end? It did seem from the outside perspective you had just become a rock, as it were. A part of the architectural landscape.
SL Basically it was the parent company, not Baunetz specifically, but a bunch of suits in Bavaria who didn’t get it. All of them seemed to be stuck on the old model of financing by selling advertising, and they were not set up for international advertising sales – only regional German experience and people. Ironically the company already made plenty of money. They didn’t actually need uncube to make a profit at all. They probably could have just continued to fund it quite comfortably. It was really frustrating.
FS We were also strictly opposed to advertorial.
SL Yes, we flatly refused to do puff pieces.
NK Which are very common in architecture publishing.
FS Yes, yes they are...
SL All publishing. The only chance we had in this world of copy paste, and product placement and press promotion was to make a magazine that had a really genuine, independent, critical voice. We wanted to do a symposium series, traveling talks, a jobs exchange and so on. We had amazing supporters, this great name and reputation and said: “let’s look at financing from another angle”. And the suits did not get it. I think that is a very common problem. People like us get digital, but they were in the stone age.
FS It was not just the magazine’s owners. So many people see print and digital as an either/or thing, and we kept saying: “and – print and digital, they are not mutually exclusive things.” I used to get that a lot when I worked for big publishing companies. People said “Books will go extinct one day”, and I thought: not necessarily – it depends on what you want to do.
SL It was the most common question we were asked, and are still asked – print or digital? Which is going to win? And we were like, “Wrong question.” It is both. And more. And different. And…
Sophie Lovell and Fiona Shipwright were formerly editor-in-chief and editor of uncube magazine respectively. Together with the rest of the former uncube team – Florian Heilmeyer, Robert Guy Wilson, George Kafka, Diana Portela, Janar Siniloo and Lena Giovanazzi they founded &beyond, a freelance collective specialising in print and digital publishing.
While the ideas he kindled sit stronger than ever, Robert Venturi died on Tuesday, at 93.
ELISA ITURBE has began teaching her class, ‘Environments: The City and Carbon Modernity’ at the Cooper Union, arguing that getting to post-carbon means getting to post-capital. Or, in her own words:
Tafuri argued in Architecture & Utopia that the form of the modernist city echoed the logic of industrial production. Each subsequent phase of the city under carbon, then, should also reflect its own logic of production. A study of the city through this lens will yield a better understanding of the dynamics that have produced carbon modernity. Lectures will focus on seminal urban proposals from architects working in each phase, such as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Superstudio, Aldo Rossi, Rem Koolhaas, and Patrick Schumacher. As a class, we will infer from these urban visions the relationships between labor, production, economics, and politics, and do the work of tying it back to carbon. Through this work, it will become apparent that the character of carbon energy defined much of the urban thought of the twentieth century.
MADELYNN RINGO charged into the world of fashion, working on several events in New York and a pop-up in Chicago. Link.
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Kristin Nothwehr & Noarm Zerubavel
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