January 5th, 2005


He gets all gushy about his favourite magazine

In Britain I spent a lot of time in art and design bookshops, flipping through magazines, researching an article I'm writing for AIGA Voice about design as religion and these bookshops as its chapels and temples. But I must say that, although I saw some nice magazines, none of them comes as close to the things of my heart as Japanese magazine Studio Voice, the latest issue of which, the Life in the Woods issue, was waiting for me in a pile of post when I got back to Berlin last night.

Now, you might say that the timing for this issue is not great; the tsunami has made nature seem less like a benign force, less like a good in itself, than it has for a long time. But trees and forests are a perennial symbol of nature's benign side, its healing and restorative properties. A whole issue of a culture magazine about them is welcome, and this issue more than repays its debt to the pulped trees which were needed to make the recycled paper it's printed on.

The issue proposes its themes as 'dialogue with the life of the forest, the will to freedom'. A quick flip-through gives an idea of the cultural reference points ('keywords', as the Japanese put it), even if you don't speak Japanese. Starting at the back, we get an article about 'Self-Build in the Woods'. Studio Voice has long run photos of self-built houses. (In other magazines and books recently it's been architecture features which have most excited me: Jonathan Glancey on the architecture of Antarctica in the Guardian the other day in an article entitled Cold Comfort, and a book about prefab architecture featuring the work of Adam Kalkin.)

Amidst gorgeous photos of woods and forests, lakes and mountains, Studio Voice continues with an article on the philosophers of the woods, Emerson, Thoreau, Muir and Leopold. The Japanese nature-love and Japanese thoroughness continues; there's an article on 'New Aspects of Thoreau', a study of Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Falling Water' house, three pages about James E. Lovelock and Gaia, two on John Cage's 'Thoreau Mix', a piece on the concept of universality in civil disobedience (it seems to be about Martin Luther King and his concept of nature), an article linking Thoreau to the Beat Generation, an article about the Walden House and the Kit-Kit Dizze Houses (more log cabins in the woods), an article about Rachel Carson's book 'Silent Spring' (appearing in 1962, it's a piece of radical environmentalism which attacks the unsustainable practices of agribusiness), then an article about nature as it appears in children's books, 'The Genealogy of Nature Writing'.

Next it's 'Eliot Porter and Nature Photography', a piece about parks and shrines as 'forests in the city', a lovely piece about 'Thinking in the Woods' (forest cabins as places in which to 'get your head together', write poetry, etc), a nature book guide, a nature CD guide, then Studio Voice's regular round-up of fashion, art, film and music. Plus a special portfolio by Christine Rebet, the French artist whose Robin Hood show last year inspired the song of the same name on my forthcoming album. Robin Hood, a man for whom the forest is a symbol of justice, a corrective to the inequalities and evils of the city.

Many western style mags leave me cold with their brash, nasty, silly and selfish consumerism. Literary reviews recently have been all about the awfulness of the Bush regime or the Iraq war. More specialised magazines about visual culture and taste alienate me with snobby intellectualism which seems, ultimately, to be a matter of class distinction rather than a real interest in the subjects discussed (even favourites like The Wire and Frieze seemed a bit tedious this month). But Studio Voice just confirmed, once again, why it's my favourite magazine. I admire the thoroughness and research that goes into its theme issues, but above all I admire its love and positivity. In a humane and intelligent way, the magazine is showing a way forward, campaigning for values which are both ethical and aesthetic. There's a tender-minded utopianism here which is also a style, a way of being.

That phrase 'a way of being' was knocking around in my head the last couple of days in London as I tried to analyse why the city grates on me so much these days. I decided that it's London's 'way of being' which disturbs me, its 'habitus', its soul. London drags me down to a dark place of the soul; its way of being seems to me to be fundamentally wrong. Back in Berlin the air is fresher, people are quieter, slower and more serious, the buildings are more solid and the forest doesn't feel far away. Next week (and for the next two months) I'll be in Japan, a land of mountains, forests, cities and sea. Although many of this month's articles are about the forest in American culture, Studio Voice reminds me of how important the forest is to the Japanese too. Even for city-dwellers, the forest can be an important template, a part of our soul, our sensibility, our habitus. Perhaps all London needs is a corrective forest. Perhaps only forest – forest planted through all its streets, thick cone-thudding, car-banishing forest – could save the place.