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Dirty Words

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 17 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0040

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

What is one to make of a sturdy, brown, mud-dabbled tome with a curt title incised by stick in sand, finger on pane, or geek advocating a fresh font for Unicode? Beneath Dirt on the title page, in legible print: “viaBooks, a PennDesign Publication, Volume 2”; further down, almost too small to read, the several editors. This detail mimics dirt itself, being both there and not there, both obvious and unnoticed, and when noticed, often rejected, like refuse.

The already hooked reader of this “Volume 2” will be chagrined not to have encountered the first volume of such a provocative series. This reviewer set out to find volume 1 so as to render a more consummate review of volume 2. Relax. There is no volume 1 of Dirt. Volume 1, of viaBooks in 2008, was titled Occupations; volume 3 will be Camouflage, whenever it arrives. Perhaps there is a deliberate narrative, with designers warming up with shelter, occupations; then honoring their substrates, dirt; and finally anticipating the survival value, or fun, of camouflage?

Inside Dirt, the reader will be absorbed in and by thirty-one incomparable chapter-like units in five fortuitous, non-intuitive but titled sections, involving in all over forty contributors: a salmagundi of essays, expositions, rhetorics, projects, interviews, and cartoons. The text is handsomely planted in paired rows, most pages burgeoning with graphics: tables, statistics, graphs, charts, timelines, sketches, blueprints, photographs, paintings—all set up as arguments among and between illustrations, decorations, and subject matters.

The only explanation for such a splendid panoply of eye-and-mind candy is that Dirt and its sibling volumes have been vigorously designed and produced by students rather than rigorously dictated by professors and professionals. These graduate students in architecture, landscape architecture, and graphic design at The University of Pennsylvania School of Design, ably roped-in collaborators (including professors ad professionals) from their own and other realms (such as art history, visual arts, city planning, historic preservation, and even medicine and engineering), coast to coast and from three other continents.

Overall, these arresting collaborators are scholars whose minds and hands get dirty in their engagement with the material world. They recognize that buildings have substrates; that substrates can be subjects; that soil both giveth and taketh away; that filth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; that trash recycles; that dust breathes; that detritus incubates fresh ideas; that refuse need not be refused; that dirt, whether dirty or not, transmogrifies all it touches, for better and worse.

Metaphor sutures together the diverse, fertile undertakings in Dirt. As loose rubrics, each of the sections frames from five to eight chapters that might otherwise never be linked. Messy contiguity serves to reveal noise, tentative harmony, cohesion, coherence, finally a possibility of similarity. So, each section turns out to be more than, and different from, the sum of its parts. Indeed, the same can be said for the volume. In Dirt, the medium and message reverberate with wanton abandon.

Narratives in the “Story Lines” section recycle and recharge gossip, memories, and experience. In “Fertile Minds,” the next of five sections, structural plans get hijacked by adversities of style and finance to take on spectacular new forms. In the third section, “Process Work,” projects transcend challenges through fertile innovation. The fourth section, “Active Agents,” exposes the variety of informal infrastructures in urban life, allowing the city to persist in spite of, not because of, formal models. With eight chapters, the longest and culminating fifth section, “Rich Ground,” emphasizes the undercover role of dirt, ubiquitous though often unnoticed, fertilizing fresh rounds of possibility. Here, ecology, the very science of connectedness, comes out of the closet to initiate its own designs—with compost, for green roofs, of habitats, in networks—probing sustainability, embracing change. Indeed, the original three arrows depicting the 3 “R”s of “reduce, recycle, reuse” (or sometimes “reduce, reuse, recycle”) have already expanded to 5 “R”s: “refuse, reduce, reuse, reform, recycle,” conveniently alliterative in many Indo-European languages.

Several contributors to Dirt recall with relish Mary Douglas’s droll observation that dirt is matter out of place (in Purity and Danger [1966]). Hence, dirt is both relative and magical, as...

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