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Clean lines

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Sam Jacob on why dirt is so ‘real’ for rock and rollers – and architects

‘In theory, the patio would have been a nice place, the size of a barbecue and a chair, but instead there were bags of beer cans and booze bottles piled up so high that we’d have to hold back the trash to keep it from spilling into the house every time we opened the door.’

This is from Mötley Crüe’s autobiography, The Dirt. It’s a no-holds barred chronicle of the band’s descent from debauchery and addiction to further debauchery and near-death. What the Crüe mean by ‘Dirt’ isn’t just their patio trash. They mean the whole unexpurgated story. In other words, ‘The Truth’.

In rock and roll, being dirty means being real. Dirtiness has evolved into a complex cultural language, capable of articulating complex statements. Rock dirt is evidence of a hedonistic lifestyle, hippie dirt is about being ‘natural’, and punk’s filth is Dickensian dirt magnified.

If we trace the history of 20th-century dirt, we can see its significance in the development of modernism’s political and social project. For early modernism, dirt meant the squalor of the recently industrialised city: slums, disease and poverty.

Architects and planners wanted to erase these old cities and build clean environments fit for the ‘industrial artisan’. Perhaps this explains the significance of whiteness to modernist architecture. Those gleaming villas of the 1920s and ’30s were to be read against a backdrop of 19th-century pollution.

Cleanliness was central to modernism. It used logic and science to combat ignorance, dust and disease

The moral dimension ascribed to pollution can be seen in the way that smog often assumed a characterisation of evil. We see it in Dickens’ and Engels’ descriptions of its social effects in industrialised cities. In a more extreme form, smog assumed solid form in the mythical Spring-Heeled Jack, who terrorised the imagination of Victorian London. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the image of smog descending upon the city is used as a device obscuring not just visibility but also order - a symbol of moral decay.

Modernist architecture used logic and science to combat ignorance, dust and disease. Cleanliness was central to the modernist project, a medium by which its social and political concerns could be manifested. Cleanliness was utopian; it meant honesty and authenticity. The idea of cleanliness was invoked by the futurists in Marinetti’s reference to the ‘hygiene’ of war. It was politicised by architects such as Le Corbusier and Berthold Lubetkin, and resolved aesthetically by Mies van der Rohe.

Dirt - or the management of dirt - is an intrinsic part of architecture. Architecture’s environments help define what dirt is. Just look under your sink at the products designed to help keep your house clean. Think of the time, money and physical effort spent cleaning architecture. Think of contract cleaners polishing the lobby of a five-star hotel, the revolutions per minute of the machines buffing the marble floor until it glosses as though it were liquid. Picture the action of a vacuum cleaner as it disturbs the carpet fibres, dislodging particles of dirt and then sucking them away through a stainless-steel tube.

This is the magnified view that we see in the ‘science bit’ of commercials for cleaning products. Perhaps these clips are a residue of the concerns of modernist cleanliness. But rather than representing a utopian project, they market a range of different kinds of ‘clean’ from which you can choose one that best suits your lifestyle and reflects your personality and ethics.

Just as rock and roll developed a language of dirt, cleaning products have developed a complex and sophisticated language of cleanliness. As we apply them to the surfaces of our bodies and homes, we are essentially applying a kind of coding. The way we clean our homes - how we remove the leaking, flaking, staining, smearing, shedding and spilling of everyday life - is a way of applying an invisible, microscopic cultural state to the architecture we inhabit.

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