DIRTY WORKS: Constructing an Efficacious Practice – Neal Robinson
“To break ground is the first architectural act.”
– Peter Waldman (architect), citing Gottfried Semper (architect), on sighting the primitive hut.
“…and by breaking open the idea of ground, all Hell is loosed. There’s a reason Modernism wanted to float above it.”
– Neal Robinson (architect)
Dirt is all that lies beneath (the idea of) us. It is the relative stigma from which technology, fine moral character, and notions of good health have sought maximum distance. Historically speaking, the urban and imagined intellectual worlds of the learned equated dirt with filth, and its cultural legacy is equipped with strategies of eradication and containment that all but the most rural (read: poor) can readily accomplish. The modern disposition, with spic-and-spanned white walls, large expanses of floor-to-ceiling clarity, and the use of innovative foundation strategies to float above the earth’s soiled surface in order to attain a more rarified, machined, dead-level “clean slate,” constructed a fantastic dirt-free world of crisp, bright denial. Philosophically, air – the domain of “pure” thinking and resoluteness of breath – triumphed over all things earthen and dirty. Complimentary to this position stands the rural attitude toward embracing dirt as a productive medium that requires care and reverence. For the liturgical farmer, “Good Dirt” is a reference to not only the virility of the soil but also to the spiritual promise it holds. Dirt is toil. Toil is value and value is divine. Sweat and lean muscle become outward testaments to one’s dialog with weighty, difficult dirt, and in turn, dirt often functions as a positive descriptor of moral character. For example, “He’s from good dirt,“ implies a hard-working, trustworthy person on whom one could unfailingly depend. In this archaic (?) scenario, living close to the ground with “know-how” prioritized over “know-of”; airish intellectualization has a tough time competing with tactile pragmatics. Care-full strategies of execution and figuring (out) seem far more revelatory in a condition where the stout mores of the inhabitants are often seen as more solid than the spaces they inhabit. In this case, Dirt is indeed fundamental.
It is in the grotesque production of fundaments that Dirty Works take hold. Mixing geographies of modern culture (pseudo-scientific precision, whiteness, thinness, denial of gravity) with agencies of rural craft (quilting patterns, communal production, animal logics, material sensibility), the efforts strike a dialog that position (the architect’s) “work” as having the primary responsibility of structuring social metrics through conscientious constructions. Providing evidence and strategies for accomplishing this is ultimately independent of both form and the hermetics of building.
Using “good dirt” from the rural veins of middle Georgia, this “Dirty Work” takes up colloquial earth as both building material and recalibrated “promised land.” Kaolin – a dense, white, hard-working mineral that is also ingested as part of geophagic medicinal practice – becomes host to the architectural inquiry. This work then games with the perceptual alignment of dirt with mass, density, dankness, and mute weight, and trades it in favor of light, thin, and fleshy. Operating somewhere between the aerial expertise of a dirt dauber and the evangelic side of Shakespeare, we practiced with tacitly informed understanding, relative tolerance, and literal material slip as assets to discovery instead of a more exacting, clean, and arguably remote conceptual practice. Giving figure to form in this way – with surface, line and dimension – produces a material anxiety that squared us between informed hunch and all-out faith. While neither fine art nor pure craft, these constructions witness a polluted, more homeopathic approach toward design.
We kind of dig it.
 “Beneath” is asked to perform several duties in this opening sentence. It is intended both as a “fundamental3 support to the conceptualization of” and as a tentative, relative direction in relation to the upright body. It references the Christian narrative of God breathing life into the dust/dirt of earth in order to establish man as a living thing, the primordial “dirt soup” from which evolutionist theories sprout, and finally, in its atomized state (cosmic dust), the Higgs boson particle collection that gives “all” mass.
 Alluding to my own protestant schooling in which the degree of effort expended towards a goal is commensurate with the concept of worth and the establishment of something’s value. I.e. “It has to hurt to be worth it.”
 fundamental as in adhering to both the essential structure of or beneath1 an idea and to Fundamentalism – contemporary Protestantism.
1. Neal Robinson _6 – Quilt
2. Neal Robinson _1 – String
3. Neal Robinson _14 – Neuron
4. Neal Robinson _4 – Flesh
5. Neal Robinson _5 – Quilt
Design and Fabrication: Neal Robinson with Julie Simpson + William Liow
Ceramics Consultant: Abigail Murray
Production Assistance: John Leyland, Emily Kutil, Amy Anderson
Produced with generous support from the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan – 2011 Research Through Making Grant.
Neal Robinson is an Architect and design director of n_space architectures in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also an Assistant Professor of Practice in Architecture at University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Engaging roles of craft and the “hand-made” in conjunction with post-digital logics, Mr. Robinson advocates the production and reclamation of public curiosity through attenuated socio-spatial constructions. Recent projects champion both intellectual labor and physical magic and include design-build commissions for culinary interiors, a pop-Italian gelato garden, Rockwellian specifications for suburban lawn mowing and a proposed wedding pavilion whose porcelain structure is completed by insects.
Mr. Robinson received his Master of Architecture from Rice University and his Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology. After working at SOM/San Francisco and the Atlanta office of Cooper Carry and Associates, Robinson established a community design practice, SKYLAB Architectures, in Atlanta, GA and co-founded the design + build office of WETSU in Ann Arbor, MI. He is the recipient of three A.I.A. Honor awards for design excellence and has received design recognition from ID, Contract, Wallpaper* and Wood Design + Building magazine. Current monikers include: Calorie-Counter, Dirt Dauber, Gastronaut, Quilting Mason and all-around fan of New Math.