window washing – mammoth // building nothing out of something

window washing


[Facade of Pharos Building, Hoofddorp, Vanessa van Dam, 2002 -- never realized.]

Given our recent thinking about the role of maintenance in urban design, I was quite interested when I noticed, in a couple-year-old copy of 306090, an article by Hilary Sample (of MOS) on the potential of maintenance in architecture.  The piece, “Towers, Maintenance, and the Desire for Effortless Performance”, is well-worth reading in full, but I’ll quote one section, which deals with the project pictured above:

“Architecture relies upon a never-ending regime of labor called maintenance.  The purpose of maintenance is to restore newness to architecture by offsetting the effects of climate, environment, and time — it is an ongoing and continuous act.  Within crowded urban environments, where maintenance is unavoidably public, it has become a spectacle in its own right, fuelled by new technologies and novel techniques.  This spectacle is especially evident at the site of large transparent exterior surfaces, where the distinct machines, apparatuses, materials, and techniques of maintenance have become part of the image of the city…

Artist Vanessa van Dam’s window washing installation at the Pharos Office Tower (2003) near Amsterdam by Kohn Pederson Fox Architects, offers one such critique on the anonymous glass office building.  To explore the relationship between architecture and maintenance, van Dam proposed the installation of 85 industrial-sized window wipers typically found on airplanes and lighthouses.  While the project was never built, the wipers were designed to respond to a programmed script activated by sensors in tune with shifting local weather conditions.  The synchronicity of the mechanical facade in action, ever vigilant against the effects of weather and dirt, embodies the modernist injunction of cleanliness in robotic hyperactivity.  The addition of the black and heavy arms on the light glass and aluminum facade brings maintenance to the foreground, revealed as an object of a mechanized fantasy that threatens to overtake the architecture itself.”

Of course, the relationship of maintenance to buildings and landscapes is potentially quite different.  Where, as Sample notes, maintenance has the potential to reveal architecture “at its most vulnerable: weak and prone to constant decay”, what has excited us about maintenance in relationship to landscape is just the opposite: the potential of maintenance, as an on-going act of intentional cultivation, to harness the capability of landscape to become more complex and more productive over time, rather than decaying inexorably.  (That the traditional landscape capital project typically follows, albeit at a slower pace — first building towards maturity, before entering decline — the same pathways as buildings is, in fact, entirely the point, because it is that trajectory that we set out find alternatives to.)  It is more difficult to imagine maintenance playing this role in relationship to buildings, but that does nothing to diminish the value of the investigations Sample suggests.

2 Responses to “window washing”

  1. Simon says:

    In this context you should take a look at the ‘Bank of Beirut’ Project by lebanese architect Bernard Khoury: http://www.bernardkhoury.com/ProjectDetails.aspx?ID=100
    Most clearly here: http://www.bernardkhoury.com/Videos/104_0405.AVI