Dirty Details

The civil practice of social democracy, especially the Dutch ‘polder model’, idolizes blissful, prosperous mediocrity. People preach a humanism that is neither able nor allowed to go beyond nurturing and domesticating. ‘The humanist gets hold of the person and subjects him to his taming, training, educating regime – convinced as he is of the necessary connection between reading, sitting and calming,’ Peter Sloterdijk notes in his article ‘Rules for the Human Zoo’ (1999). Mankind has instituted a system that turns people into domesticated animals. Mankind creates a park around itself, a park that testifies to absolute beauty, consensus and order. Every hazard, every form of signal noise, every trace of roughness, ugliness or incompleteness, every hint of alienation and schizophrenia, is barred. This is contrary to the idea of a radical democracy which instead sees potential in the antagonism of the beautiful and the ugly, of the wild and the domesticated, in convention and liberation, in the one and the other, in design and non-design, in good and evil, and in place and non–place.

There are two strategies in contemporary architecture, film and art, both of which embrace a radical democracy of this kind, and which at first sight show considerable similarity. They both lead to innovative work which bears a conscious relation to this antagonism, to this dirtiness1 that is produced by the ongoing rush of modernization. My preferred labels for these two attitudes, which take the absurdity of our everyday dirtiness as a starting point for renewal, are ‘fresh conservatism’2 and ‘and/otherness’.

The society of The And

The photo, which I took from the peak of a tall mountain in Umbria, Italy, of a container festooned with satellite dishes and a crucifix gives rise to the following observations. First of all, we see the symbol of the Roman Catholic church, a transparent example from our ‘first modernity’. It was placed there several dozen years ago. What we are looking at is an industrial product. It is a fine tectonic work, a steel structure that symbolizes what the faith stands for. The design represents an institution of collective trust and belief. This crucifix is not made of stone. It does not emerge from a rural society with a longue durée of values, accumulated over centuries. This steel cross is a symbol that originates from the first industrial modernization, where the dialectical difference between ‘home’ and ‘homeless’, the technology-driven alienation of the authentic experience, is already in place.

Next to the crucifix, we see a totally contrasting world. This is a prototypical example of our ‘second modernity’. It is an architecture that no longer has the least symbolic function. It does not represent any normative value. We may wonder, when we consider this object more closely, what new role this architecture fulfils. Whatever it may be, it is a structure that may be extended continually according to requirements. The network of high-speed links promises maximum efficiency. A new tectonics arises, an architecture as infrastructure. It is a fuzzy logic with no need of symbolism. Whereas the crucifix in the photo stood for the Society of Either/Or, this new world can no longer be interpreted in terms of dialectics. It is the Society of The And.3 The conjunctions of The And are responsible for the complex transnational conflation of the global with the local, sometimes called the ‘glocal’ condition.

The second photo shows us two revelling football fans. They meet in France. The man is a member of the new managerial elite. He is one of those who turn the Dutch polder model into reality. The woman had a snowball fight with her grandmother in the sauna yesterday. A few hours before that, she was eating ostrich steak at the Copa Cabana with her grandfather. The man, a deconstructivist, dreams of owning a traditional single-family house near the Las Vegas desert. The woman designs computer chips and likes opera. They have just had an amusing conversation about a report in the New York Times about the discovery in Spitsbergen of female polar bears with diminutive penises, the result of PCB pollution. At the moment the photo was taken, they are somewhere in Marseilles, where they have gone to watch the Holland–Brazil match in the World Cup finals in France. He is dressed in a traditional Dutch costume from Monickendam, and she wears a replica of the shirt worn by the Brazilian star player Romario. Never before had the samba been so liberating yet at the same time so conventional.

The meeting between two football fans in France aptly illustrates the point that in the Society of The And, the traditional landscape no longer has any influence on our sense of community. Everything that once had a significant impact on our social life used to be localized in our physical vicinity. In the Society of the And, it is not so much objects as the diffuse fields produced by electronic mediation and mass migration that give direction to our identity. Arjun Appadurai calls these fields ‘imaginary scapes’. They are a source of continual turbulence, because both spectators and images are in motion. Neither images nor spectators still form part of circuits that are easily demarcated as local, national or regional spaces. This condition is dominated by a new order of instability. Although everything coalesces in the dirtiness of these ‘And scapes’, it does so without ever forming a delimited whole. It is a kind of discontinuousness which should not be interpreted as a threat to civic freedom and political will, but as a precondition for them. The discontinuousness is thus not an obstacle but rather the beginning of freedom, as with our football fans in Marseilles, for whom a liberating moment is set up by an accumulation of clichés, by the dirtiness of the conventions.

The sociologists Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash explain that in this Society of the And, instead of being ‘lived’ by the system, as in the 1950s, we operate reflexively. Every individual, moulded by lengthy education, possesses the knowledge to reflect more and more on the consequences, problems and assumptions of our modernization processes. But there is another kind of reflexivity. It is not unlike the knee-jerk reflex produced when the doctor taps a certain point on your knee with his little hammer. Strikingly, our modernity also has all kinds of unintended consequences, and it inevitably takes tremendous risks as the result of an abundance of specialized knowledge. Who would have thought, for instance, that globalization would reach the point where the democratic parliamentary structures of nation states are increasingly dominated by the international economy? Or that the inhabitants of former colonies would wish to ‘integrate’ en masse into our ‘First World’ societies?

We cannot dismiss this reflexive modernization, bulging as it is with superfluous consumption, tourism, individual self-fulfilment without regard to the consequences for others (a product of the ‘do-it-yourself biography’ we all have), renewed imperialism in the guise of globalization, junk space, snacking, etcetera, as merely frightening. According to Ulrich Beck, it is precisely the unintended consequences, such as environmental disasters and the accumulation of uncertainties, in other words the many risks in our own lives, that almost inevitably generate a new politicization of individual life.

Dirty details

Sociology is not the only discipline that tries to understand the complex dirtiness of everyday life. Architecture, art, film, philosophy and economics all seek to achieve new insights by delving into the dirtiness of the artificially urbanized landscape of the Society of The And. The new architecture which results is relational; it consists of the interpersonal experiences it generates, and it makes the visitor into a spectator, a conversation partner and a neighbour. This new architecture does not try to restore contact with the user and spectator by means of passive experience but by means of active participation. It seems to attempt fusion with the dirtiness of reality. This is not so much an aspiration to abolish the profession as an emancipation from the institutional/representative structures, from the adulation of autonomy, and from the tradition of the critical margin. It is a plea for dealings, experience and doing. It expresses a longing to establish a link with time and reality, which are to be understood as fragmentary. The time-honoured role of the architect has changed. In its quest for reality, the profession has to reinvent itself. It develops strategies and programmes that stem from getting one’s hands dirty in everyday reality. The new architecture speaks the language of our mass production, of distribution and popular culture. It is an ‘architecture against architecture’4 which does not open an attack on the profession, but tries to escape space in the sense of delimitation, dependancy, and a centre of management, order and control. Architects try to join disparate places together, so as to avoid an enclosed quality, to avoid suffocation. It is an architecture that is not particularly focused on the architectural object, on representation or on the structure of the building itself, but is chiefly concerned with creating conditions for all kinds of topical activities. It is architecture as ‘scape’, which leaves room for the dynamic of our reflexive modernity. It takes paradoxical reality as its point of departure. Consumption, for instance, is no longer dismissed as pure impoverishment; on the contrary, consumption is accepted as a condition in which countless exciting qualities can – indeed must – be activated. Some useful aids to thinking in this context are what are known as millefeuille or puff-pastry concepts: refined systems in which countless layers lie above, below or through one another, or are stuck together in an ensemble of continuous fields without necessarily having a beginning or an end. And we, the users and the programme, are the freely moving raisins in this puff-pastry concept. It is up to us to seek zigzag routes through the layers in order to tie up as many loose ends as possible. The puff-pastry concept can develop as easily in an orthogonal space as in an animated form.5

Being prepared to delve into the dirtiness of the Society of The And does not mean abandoning oneself in principle to the status quo. However, in order to activate innovation, we have to build a deliberate absurdity, or friction, into the layers of pastry. The aim of this aesthetic complex can be summed up as ‘dirty detail’. The architects who employ this aesthetic deliberately try to turn reality upside down. A dirty detail can be the result of a minor inversion. A subsidiary element, unimportant to the whole, is changed, but thereby produces an entirely new configuration of meanings. In OMA’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam, for example, the tree acting as a column introduces just such a transforming disruption into the whole. The concept of the white box, which is characteristic of the ‘neutral’ museum, is deliberately transgressed and criticized.

Fresh conservatism

The dirtiness of our Society of The And nowadays generates, almost automatically, an endless series of antagonisms which inspire many designers to make the move to a dirty details aesthetic. Droog Design and many other Dutch designers, especially younger ones, operating in art, graphic design and architecture provide good examples of this. The dirty details, which our society generates in profusion, can be plucked from the street as it were (via ‘datascapes’) and incorporated into a new absurdist design approach.

Assuming we interpret the dirtiness of our Society of The And as a potential field for arriving at innovative architecture, we are forced to ask ourselves what the aesthetic of dirty detail refers to. If the dirty details are not intended to be self-referential, as much design aims to be, but to bear some relation to the context, what are they supposed to achieve by their absurdity? The dirty details of the Asian woman as European phenomenon, reading a Japanese Bauhaus catalogue in a room defined by Bernard Tschumi’s ‘event space’, provoke the spectator. High culture and low culture meet in this pornographic image – dirty details as the copulation of clichés. Ultimately, it is a highly reactionary interpretation of both sexuality and womanhood. Another example is the green TV remote control that Philips launched to coincide with the football World Cup. The green colour denotes ecological correctness and concern for all aspects of nature. The word Universal on the unit suggests that it is capable of controlling every TV set in the world. And you can use this dirty-detail design-object to open a bottle of beer at the same time as you channel-hop from match to match.

These two dirty details find their inspiration in the antagonisms of our Society of The And, but they are devoid of any form of resistance. They are politically and economically correct thanks to their dirtiness. They supply our dirty reality, which bursts with eagerness for new and marketable brands, with original, fresh, challenging design. The rich diversity that flourishes in the Society of The And is smoothed away. The designers set a new stylistic trend, but before you know it, it has degenerated into a new conformism. It is an inclusive conformism that unites the old and the new, the One and the Other, in a paradoxical Either/Or configuration. This ‘fresh conservatism’ is not really interested in traditional values but is fascinated by the present and the near future. It is a kind of ‘lounge futurism’ of a do-it-yourself avant-garde. The work produced by this fresh conservatism is a kind of avant-garde junk space.


Is it possible to deal with dirtiness in some other way than that chosen by fresh conservatism? Fresh conservatism lacks two essential aspects required for achieving liberation.

First, the absurdity of these dirty details does not engender a true alienation that forces use to think further than what we already know. It does not generate an alienation that forces us to act or, to put it another way, that helps us develop more freedom in the struggle against unfreedom. The Kunsthal in Rotterdam exemplifies a different attitude. It demonstrates how the aesthetic of dirty detail, the strategy of alienation, can be used on different fronts to play out various conventional positions of the museum against one another. The politics of the ‘neutral’ exhibition space, which is meant to eliminate the subjective choice of the curator, and which robs the work of art of its context and sunders its relation with the outside world, are undermined in the Kunsthal in a variety of ways. Diverse functions coincide at several places in the building. The monumental entrance preferred by the majority of museums has been replaced by a cutaway which involves everybody with one another in an unexpected way, and liberates them time and time again from a preoccupied gaze. The museum and the city slide continually past one another. The selective world of the museum and the everyday world are brought into relation and continually forced to take new stands. It is the very opposite of the museum as a temple, where art is subordinated to the imaginative sculpture of an architectural form which preferably refers only to itself, as exemplified by Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao.

A second aspect that fresh conservatism overlooks is that the alienating aesthetic of dirty detail is supposed to instigate a certain politicization. It is not a matter of making political architecture, of creating a conservative or a progressive configuration, but of politically activating the whole. Dirty details can not only challenge, or be developed so as to create the shock of the new on the basis of the many And/Also conditions in our Society of The And. Besides the things one encounters in the dirtiness of our Society of The And, there also exists such a thing as The Other. In the example of the Kunsthal, a particular ideology of exhibiting with roots in the Netherlands of the 1950s, is developed further. As in Willem Sandberg’s 1960s extension to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, urban life penetrates the building. Sandberg justified this political standpoint as follows: ‘Today we don’t want to live with what we are expected to venerate. We really don’t know if museums, and specially museums of contemporary art, should exist in eternity. They were created at a time when society as a whole was not sufficiently interested in the work of living artists. Ideally, art should once again be integrated in daily life, should go out on the streets, enter the buildings, become a necessity. This should be the major aim of the museum: to make itself redundant.’6

Sandberg eliminated all walls from his new wing. The floor of the exhibition space is on the same level as the street outside. Every vertical surface is made of glass, and all the windows can be opened onto the street. Sandberg challenges the curator to ponder how a particular exhibition relates to the city, and what kind of route a particular exhibition requires in the space. There are no walls where the curator can ‘simply’ hang everything. The curator is challenged to take a stand. This is the museum as a place of meeting, as a workplace, as a debating platform, as public sphere in contrast to conservative institutions such as the classic museum.

Koolhaas, like Sandberg, breaches the autonomy of the neutral, isolated exhibition space. Also like Sandberg, he opts for a very specific museum politics. The work of art and the public sphere are brought face to face. The goal is not ultimate reconciliation. The freedom of possibilities has to be reconquered time and again. This radical idea of freedom7 makes it clear that liberation is only possible if the interpretation of a particular programme still implies a certain hesitation or alienation. In a certain sense, all the functions of a museum are still present in the Kunsthal, but they function in countless different ways at the same time – something that Bertold Brecht called ‘re-functioning’. As we saw in the photo of the samba-dancing football fans, a moment of liberation takes place precisely because of the odd coincidence of different conventions. Suddenly the commonplaces, which are extensively commercialized (and in this case even sponsored by Heineken’s) function in an entirely different way from before. The man, dressed in a traditional woman’s costume, without any suggestion of transvestite or homosexual proclivities, is chatting up the woman, dressed in the mannish shirt of footballer Romario. On the basis of the alienating, indeed perverse, effect of the dirty details operating during this samba, the dancers liberate themselves from all kinds of unfree moments.

The antagonistic demands of the dirty details call for a certain balance between freedom and alienation. It is a matter of reaching a kind of social equilibrium, which is quite a different matter from striving for reasonableness, harmony or the taming of humanity. Occupying a standpoint and defending it always presupposes a dialogue full of ifs and buts, a struggle for power. A sense of togetherness does not arise here through a fixation of facts but through a continual dialogue in the awareness of all existing contrasts.
Dirty details are capable of bringing about a kind of radicalization of the everyday, by the addition of elements that speak a foreign language. This foreign language obligates us to speak – not in the sense of who is allowed to speak and who is not, a distinction that may be left to the police – but in the sense that a dialogue will arise in which those who were silent will now have their say. The dirty details rely here on an antagonism that does not lead to consensus but to multiple points of difference. Through interaction, the battle for liberation is engaged repeatedly. What matters is to take a political stand and to challenge it with an absurd aesthetic intervention. Dirty detailing is here a strategy of resistance and alternative.

1. This term refers among other things to ‘dirty realism’, a concept first used in a literary context by Bill Buford in the magazine Granta. For a treatment in the field of architecture and urbanism, see the similarly named special issue of Archithese, no. 1, 1990, edited by Liane Lefaivre.
2. See also Roemer van Toorn, ‘Fresh Conservatism’, Quaderns no. 219, 1998 (special issue on ‘(Re)active Architecture’). A shorter version of ‘Fresh Conservatism’ was published in Archis no. 11, 1997, pp. 15-21.
3. See also Roemer van Toorn, ‘The Society of The And. Constructing Progressive Reflexivity in The And’, History and Theory Reader, Berlage Institute, 1998. The sociologist Ulrich Beck also uses the term ‘And’ to typify the current social condition. In his book The reinvention of politics, rethinking Modernity in the Global Social order (Cambridge, 1997) Beck writes: ‘The dancing at the Berlin Wall symbolizes the peaceful revolution of And, starting from nowhere and unexplained, unexplainable, to this day. If the borders in Europe that had fallen away are now being reconstructed, invoked and reflagged, this still remains a reaction – a reaction to the sheer intolerability of And. The global, diffuse and formless character of And is upsetting to many people. The dis-alienation of the alien and the concomitant dis-possession of that which is one’s own, both involuntarily produced by the age of And, are experienced as a threat. Without either-or, they say, they cannot live and, they add, cannot even conceive of the And. So And is by no means the beginning of paradise on earth. Circumstances of a completely new type are probably beginning here. The world of either-or in which we think, act and live is becoming false. In one way or another, this is the beginning of conflicts and experiments beyond Either/or…’
4. ‘Architecture against architecture’, in Film+Arc 2, Charlotte Pörchhacker (ed.), 1996.
5. We can broadly distinguish two types of puff pastry: firstly that of the abstract, almost science-fiction like, often fluid, relatively strong and autonomous form (such as we know from Greg Lynn, Jessi Reiser, Kas Oosterhuis, Hani Rashid and Lise Ann Couture, Van Berkel and Bos, Zaera Polo and Moussavi, Spuybroek, Ocean etc.); and secondly the concepts that distance themselves from this explicit expression of the relatively strong, autonomous aesthetic form (for example the work of MVRDV, One Architecture, Xaveer De Geyter, Koolhaas etc.).
6. Willem Sandberg, Herbert Read Lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1973, published in Carel Blotkamp et al. (ed.), Museum in motion, The Hague, 1979.
7. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso Books, 1985 and Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Dimensions of Radical democracy. Pluralism, Citizenship, Community, Verso Books, 1992.


Perverted architecture