Maintenance Criticism

Last year (soon after moving to the SF Bay Area) I decided to pay a visit to one of the buildings that established my interest in modern architecture — The Oakland Museum of California (Roche Dinkeloo, 1968). The Oakland Museum combined three independent museums into a huge, block-long building that includes galleries, exterior terraces and a large central garden. In a recent interview in Perspecta, the architect of the building, Kevin Roche, argued that he was attempting to relate the building to the infrastructural scale of post-war California. He was inspired by the engineering of highways, and surely his work with the landscape architect Dan Kiley on the project suggests that they were both inspired by the unusual scale of the plantings in the California Highway System–those strange zones where redwood trees rise from cloverleaf interchanges. The Google Earth view below is a particularly potent conveyor of the building’s concept — the museum operating at the level of a transit system (not just in terms of size but its relation to nature as well).

When I visited the building last year it was upsetting to see such an important structure in such horrible shape. I counted at least three buckets in the building’s interior spaces to catch leaks from water; many of the beams for the building’s exterior pergola were askance; plywood was draped on many sections of the building from former, unfinished projects throughout the museum. I cannot recall any time visiting a building in which I felt so compelled to take it upon myself to remove, fix and correct the various problems with the maintenance of the building. My removal of pieces of plywood, shoring up of beams on a pergola, and other small acts were forms of maintenance and forms of criticism.

I was reminded of my small acts of maintenance last week while observing the official “Coastal Cleanup” of the East Bay’s Bay Area Trail — an 8 mile zone bordered by one of those California highways that inspired the Oakland Museum. In the coastal cleanup (part of a nation-wide effort) teams of volunteers swarm the length of the Coastal Bay Bike Trail pulling trash, detritus and other forms of removable pollution out of the Bay. They are overseen by experts who determine whether a log is pollution or a habitat for some species being cultivated by conservators.

The Oakland Museum is now undergoing an official renovation, like many museums do once millions of dollars have been raised. But I wonder if the impulse to maintain, as an act of critique, that we see at sites of great beauty like the bay or along highways by volunteer and hired crews, could not be reoriented toward a building like the Oakland Museum. If, as Roche argues, this building’s concepts operate at the scale of California’s infrastructural systems; then why not appropriate the techniques used to maintain these blurred zones such as the East Bay trail? Why not launch a maintenance critique of the Oakland Museum under the supervision of architectural experts and historians? I could easily imagine many of the people I saw at the Coastal Cleanup  pulling trash and errant plants out of the Oakland Museum’s planters and pools; and teams of architects could surely donate time to repair the pergola and other misshapen elements of this place. But the larger point is that we might consider launching forms of maintenance of buildings that operate within those building’s particular conceptual logic. Some buildings demand official renovations, but surely other buildings can begin by attempting some form of renovation that is far more experimental.


  1. After reading your post I thought of the summer ’08 issue of 032c. It has a conversation between Mark Wigley, Jacques Herzog and Rem Koolhaas. It deals with Herzog and Koolhaas’ thinking through the issues involved in the renovation/preservation of the _Haus der Kunst_ in Munich given the nazi history of the original architecture. Also comes to mind one of the Chapters/Episodes in _How buildings learn_ by Stewart Brand I think it was called _The romance of maintenance_ .

  2. dlgissen

    Dear Sebastian:
    Sorry I missed this comment; I will definitely check out these readings. I actually am a bit obsessed with how the maintenance of buildings might become a more extended aspect of architectural commentary. Any additional recommendations would be appreciated. D.

  1. 1 Maintenance Criticism - #2 (2006) « Experimental practices in history, theory, criticism

    […] Uncategorized I was responding to a comment today about “Maintenance Criticism,” and I remembered that two years ago I  completed an earlier installation engaging with the subject […]

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