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Who’s going to clean it?

Isabelle Priest

Hilary Sample joins the battle against the damage of poor maintenance – but her armoury needs honing

Bain News Service, “White Wings” Who Have Not Struck, November 8 11, 1911, New York.
Bain News Service, “White Wings” Who Have Not Struck, November 8 11, 1911, New York. Credit: Library of Congress

Isn’t it satisfying shouting rhetorical questions to express dissatisfaction? It happens in architecture too. Just last month one disgruntled reader tweeted in response to an interior in Acme’s Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds: ‘@RIBAJ who’s going to dust it?’

What such comments take issue with are the design; that it is too complicated and fiddly, and how ‘they’ that designed it don’t care about ‘us’ that must maintain it – we who truly understand how buildings work. 

It’s the populist response. But actually it is a better question than the passive aggression it displays on the surface.

For a start, it conflates intricate detail with dirt; colour with unclean and texture with labour. Which means the commentator is fundamentally a modernist, knowingly or not. Hurrah! Whoever they are, they have bought into the whole thing. Corb would be proud. 

It’s nonsense of course that architects don’t think about these things. But the subject has been largely left out of architectural discourse, which may account for the assumption. 

And so Hilary Sample’s new book Maintenance Architecture comes not a moment too soon. Finally, a response to these lumpen questions – who cleans, who maintains, who dusts. Sample’s argument is that maintenance has been cast aside, that its disciplinary disaffection is underserved and that maintenance has been dismissed as irrelevant to form-making and design. Her mission is to show it isn’t; maintenance is needed if the beauty of the creation on completion is to endure, and labour should be understood as skilled – especially when it involves large-scale buildings. A quick scan online reveals the book really is one of the first of its kind. Until now maintenance in architecture has mainly been dealt with in books about conservation – not at a historical and theoretical level. Sample’s objective is to broaden the conversation. She does what is necessary, setting the groundwork in a kind of literature review by bringing an extraordinary collection of references from private houses, pavilions and high-rise buildings together for the first time. 

  • Cleaning the streets of Billingsgate, twentieth century.
    Cleaning the streets of Billingsgate, twentieth century. Credit: Yale Center for British Art.
  • Anna Dormitzer, Window Washing Chair
    Anna Dormitzer, Window Washing Chair
  • William Powell Frith, The Crossing Sweeper, 1872.
    William Powell Frith, The Crossing Sweeper, 1872. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

Across five chapters, the book looks at buildings built with novel and developing materials, technologies and detailing, treating examples as individual objects of study with descriptions like extended captions. There are all manner of treasures – Ettore Steccone’s patent drawings for the first squeegee, Jeff Wall’s photograph of a cleaner in the Barcelona Pavilion, the ‘White Wings’ street cleaners of 1930s New York, SOM’s Lever House facade – designed to accommodate a motorised window washing rig and stainless steel mullions with built-in tracks, and Vanessa van Dam’s idea for facade windscreen washers. 

Yet in structure and content, the book is confused. So many artists and artworks frame the discussion that ultimately it reads as a niche topic in the history of art rather than architecture. It is more concerned by the image itself than using the building as evidence. Examples chop and change, then struggle to amount to a larger discourse. The social agendas Sample occasionally slips in lack conviction too.

Nevertheless, there is critical thinking. ‘Maintenance and urban image’ deals with the iconography of skyscrapers in the city; ‘Cleaning and the politics of labour’ deals with public and private maintenance through the workforce; ‘Visualising decay’ on related art practices; ‘Modernising maintenance’ on the influx of technology and devices to reduce labour and ‘Post-occupancy and alternate architectural futures’ on contemporary projects and preservation techniques that deal with the afterlife of buildings. Such analysis, although light, provides interesting food for thought: the distinction between maintenance and cleaning for instance.

Where the subject really lifts off is how maintenance is deeply connected to photography. Within that, the way modernism sought to minimise the spectacle of maintenance through technology to create a fixed post-construction image of the building is particularly compelling – influencing not just architects’ thinking then, but the population at large still now. Sample writes: ‘Over the course of the 20th century, as new technologies emerged and cleaning processes became more streamlined, dreams of eliminating the labour of cleaning took hold. From traditional cleaning of the domestic setting to houses such as Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House [which had a centralised vacuum system to draw dust through cracks in the baseboards]… the modern period saw a steady displacement of the human hand... and technological advances have yet to completely eliminate manual labour, but the legacy of "maintenance free" visions has been important in contemporary discourse.’

We could, of course, be misreading ‘who’s going to dust it?’, but it doesn’t matter – at least we have the beginnings of some answers. 

Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT Press, out 10 February 2017, £19.95

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