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Favourite books: Mierle Laderman Ukeles' analysis of care and maintenance hits home

Astrid Smitham

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art strikes a chord with Astrid Smitham, who finds resonance with Apparata's ambitions and its explanation of the artist's approach to care and maintenance

Care and maintenance is the glue that holds everything together. We’ve seen this by its absence over the many crises, emergencies and tragedies that we’ve witnessed in recent years. Why are these things only visible when they’re not present? And how can care be the integral component of how we make buildings, cities and habitats? This was the thought that brought me to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! which, in its aims to reposition the role of maintenance in society, is still extraordinarily compelling and relevant 50 years on.

This book compiles a series of essays and images about Ukeles’ works up to 2016, when she had her first major retrospective.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is an artist whose work interrogates the gendered nature of care, the culture of maintenance and labour, and ecology. The work is boldly feminist. She describes how the hard-won freedoms she’d fought for as an artist were removed when she became a mother and had to carry out repetitive roles of care – the unpaid, unseen labour of women in the home. She describes this as akin to becoming a maintenance worker. While in this state of crisis, with two identities as both artist and maintenance worker, she had an epiphany and declared maintenance work as art. This is a beautiful insight as it gets to the heart of how our society structures value and recognition.

Very quickly, she expanded this idea and strived for an inside-outside coalition between unpaid women in the home and poorly paid maintenance workers outside the home. She describes maintenance workers as keepers of the exterior city, drawing parallels between the city and the home, which starts to break down the historic structure of the public being the man’s realm and the domestic being the woman’s realm. 

House For Artists, Julia Forsman.
House For Artists, Julia Forsman.

In the 1969 manifesto she proposed an exhibition, Care, where containers of different everyday refuse would be delivered to the museum: polluted Hudson River water, the contents of a sanitation truck, polluted air and ‘ravaged’ land. These would then be ‘purified, depolluted, rehabilitated, recycled and conserved’.

In one of her other works, Touch Sanitation, she shook the hands of all 8500 sanitation workers in New York City and told them, ‘Yhank you for keeping New York City alive’. Alive – not just clean!

For me, the question of maintenance, a term which Ukeles often switches with care – the care of bothbuildings and people – is a profoundly important one that has been dismissed too readily in the UK over the last 40 or so years. Maintenance has been trivialised, treated as something that doesn’t exist, or doesn’t warrant paying for properly, as in some ways design is at times. This absence of thoughtful maintenance is active neglect; the absence of thoughtful design is neglect. Across the UK, housing is often left to decay until homes become dangerous and uninhabitable, leaking or covered in mould, life threatening.

Ukeles asks, ‘what is the relationship between maintenance and life’s dreams?’, making connections that most people wouldn’t. It makes obvious sense when she describes how maintenance allows us to live in the present – not to be swamped by yesterday’s detritus, not to be held back by things that are broken. It’s a gift not to have to worry about these things.

For me there are deep resonances between her work and the more recent ‘Working at Copan’ by the artist Peter Friedl (Sternberg Press), another book I really enjoyed re-reading this year. This is a collection of interviews with maintenance workers at Edifício Copan, a landmark residential building designed by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo in Brazil, a building as a city. It’s a great ode to the people who care for the building. We see the building through their eyes and the result is incredibly evocative and visual. By the end of the book you feel as though you have visited the building, simply through their words, and much more powerfully than if you look at photos.

Transferring this kind of thinking to individual buildings and design is crucial at a time when we have a huge responsibility to extend the life of existing buildings – not only through one-off renewal but also the mundane, ongoing rituals of care. As architects we have to think of longevity, decay, adaptability, and how things can be fixed in a way that’s straightforward. Every building is a vision of a city, so what might an architecture of care be like?

In our work at Apparata we try to integrate themes of maintenance into design, in a light and intuitive way. I see A House for Artists as a feminist building in that it allows for different ways of living by accommodating, for example, the extended family or enabling shared ways of living beyond the family and working in the home. The residents feel that care for their neighbour is made much more possible though shared verandas. Maintenance is made manageable – you can clean the outside of your windows from the verandas, which are simultaneously places of encounter. A couple of months after moving in, one of the residents sent me a photo of her young daughter cleaning the windows as a shared activity with her father. Instead of being invisible, maintenance was sociable and worthy of recording and sharing with others.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, Patricia C Phillips, Prestel, 2016

As told to Pamela Buxton

Read more on books and see what books Conrad Koslowsky, Geoff Shearcroft and Katy Marks picked