The Squeegee - the secret hero of Modernism

The key figure in Modern architecture? Le Corbusier? Frank Lloyd Wright? Mies Van Der Rohe? As students of Scooby Doo know, it’s always the janitor, writes John O'Reilly

Like buildings, some books immediately announce their importance, their big idea, their significance and scale with their façade and cover, like Herzog & De Meuron’s Tate Modern extension. I enjoy spending time with such buildings and books, conspicuous in their confidence. 

But sometimes the pleasures of spaces and reading feel more visceral for the modest and low-key fashion in which they reveal to the visitor wholly unexpected rooms. Take for example Hilary Sample’s Maintenance Architecture.

One of the many pleasures of Sample’s alternative, post-heroic history of modern architecture, is her assessment of the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill design of Lever House (1952) in Midtown Manhattan.

(Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT. Lever House)

Lever Brothers, known for soaps, detergents and cleaning products, turned their building into theatre for their business, the constant cleaning of the skyscraper’s glass façade became the public performance of maintenance, advertising the idea and value of maintenance in 20th Century America. Whether corporate advertising, seamless organisational thinking, or corporate neurosis, this building is not the modern secular cathedral but a spectacularly epic vast theatre of window-washing. 

Sample brings a busy cleaner’s eye to the washing away of maintenance itself from the official story of modern architecture, sweeping away some of the fusty mythologies of architectural history and criticism. The book’s opening section, ‘Maintenance and the Urban Image’ features the image of Lever House as it appears in Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of the well-Tempered Environment, where clearly visible on the roof is the window-washing rig. But it’s only visible if your perception hasn’t been framed by beliefs about what actually constitutes architecture, about what you need to pay attention to.  

Banham “describes the novel technical details that enable the thinness of the curtain wall,” writes Sample, “but he makes no mention of the window-washing gondola.” This despite that fact that while the Lever Building certainly didn’t have the first window-washing rig, it did have the “first large-scale façade designed specifically to accommodate a motorized gondola, with stainless steel mullions and tracks built into the façade.”

I confess I made a similar error to Banham’s in respect of Maintenance Architecture’s cover image. Like Banham, I needed to attend to my own expectations of the architectural. 

(Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT. Vanessa Vann Dam, Facade of Pharos Building, 2002)

The cover image is a 2002 concept work by Dutch artist Vanessa van Dam for a window washing installation for the Pharos Building outside Amsterdam. The brief from the Rijksgebouwendienst Institute was to create something that was welcoming to the city and drew attention to the idea of maintenance.

Though the project itself was never realized, van Dam created the image of the glass façade, a proposal where each window with its own window-wiper would respond to information from sensors delivering weather data – the wipers could wave at the citizens and tourists like robotic synchronized swimmers. The careless viewer, such as this reader, missed the wipers on first viewing.

In examples of ingenious architectural storytelling, the book’s five sections break down the different contexts of maintenance: ‘Maintenance and the urban image’; ‘Cleaning and the politics of labour’; ‘Visualizing decay’; Modernising maintenance’; and ‘Post-occupancy and alternate architectural futures.’

Sample addresses architecturally significant intrusions of maintenance into the image of buildings such as the competition drawings for the Pompidou Centre by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (which not only exposes the mechanisms of maintenance realized in the final building), but also includes window-washing rigs.

What’s most valuable about the book (often missing from architecture writing)  is the way in it helps contextualise the built environment in wider debates, and Sample explores how other disciplines address buildings and maintenance, featuring photographer Jeff Wall’s 1999 work Morning Cleaning which recreates Mies van Der Rohe space for the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929 (Wall includes a window washer in his image), to adverts from Pilkington Glass whose self-cleaning glass remove human and even machine labour from the surface of the building.

(Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT. Folded arms and the luxury of time. Self-cleaning glass, Pilkington advertisement 2001)

And while architecture discourse has waxed (maintenance metaphor, think floors) lyrically about its starchitects, Sample highlights a true star of modern architecture – the squeegee, invented by Italian immigrant Ettore Steccone while living in Oakland in 1935.

(Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT. Squeegee patent, 1938)

Sample is not the first to rethink architecture and its social, cultural, and design contexts through the practices and materials of maintenance. Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift’s 2007 paper ‘Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance’ is equally eye-opening on city infrastructure, buildings, materials and the systems generated around repair and maintenance. Graham and Thrift suggest the practices of repair prompt architectural innovation, “when things break down, new solutions may be invented. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that this kind of piece-by-piece adaptation is a leading cause of innovation, acting as a continuous feedback loop of experimentation which, through many small increments in practical knowledge, can produce large changes.”

 

(Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT. Koolhaas Houselife, 2008. Sample writes that Koolhaas' disappointment with the cleaning practices for OMA's Maison à Bordeaux, is that, "his architecture has failed to inspire a particular kind of organization...that a kind of coherence or clarity of form, which is simplifying life, unravels through the cleaner.")

While Graham and Thrift approached maintenance from the perspective of the disciplines of Human Geography and Urbanism, Hilary Sample is an award-winning architect, co-founding Mos Architects with Michael Meredith in 2005.

 

Maintenance Architecture is a timely book executed with an untimely approach, connecting with highly topical concerns such around the Circular Economy (see the launch issue of BE: journal of the Built Environment Trust, from Walter Stahel’s vision of new jobs which we will need in the future such as ‘unmaking buildings’, to Stuart Smith and Lewis Blackwell’s discussion of The Circular Building Project – the circular economy is where the Internet of Things, Big Data and upcycling meet maintenance).

As Sample writes in her introduction, “in the rush to build, to make new world(s), there has been little consideration for the unmaking – those things that cause wear and tear on the building, from use to weather, and so on…as time passes it will increasingly become an issue for cities in the future, much as it will for the individual and society.”  

As the forces driving the Circular Economy increasingly pushes it centre stage, the unfashionable but fascinating and valuable concerns of maintenance, repair and strategic unmaking are likely to challenge the mythologies driving architectural business and culture.

Sample’s Maintenance Architecture gives architectural history some much needed maintenance and repair of those spaces hidden by our focus on the heroic in buildings. 

Maintenance Architecture, Hilary Sample, MIT Press, 

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