Dubstep, The Dirty House, and the Aesthetics of Recycling

I experienced a curious bit of symmetry today between an article I discovered yesterday and some music I purchased this morning. The article was “Ornament from grime: David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the architectural ‘aesthetic of recycling’ and the Gritty Brits” by Ben Campkin, and the music was James Blake’s Klavierwerke EP.

Campkin, a Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett and Co-Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory, argues in his article that David Adjaye, in his production of the Dirty House, adopts what has been called an “aesthetics of recycling,” a self-conscious exploration of the qualities and meanings of degraded materials.

While it would have made more financial sense to remove it, Adjaye and his clients chose to keep the shell of a former furniture warehouse, gutting the interior to create a pair of sculpture studios and capping it with an open plan penthouse. Adjaye radically modernized the building while keeping its now-ghostly shell. This shell is coated with an expensive but unpretentious matte black paint. Specially formulated to prevent the posting of fliers and the presence of graffiti on the surface, Campkin describes this drab paint as a ubiquitous presence on elements of London’s civic infrastructure. Punctuating this shell are two window types, transformations of the original building’s normative openings into flush mirrored surfaces on the first floor and deep recesses on the second. Despite the new paint, the rough and uneven original shell is unavoidably present, transformed through its paint and deep window recesses into something very alien to its surroundings.

At the same time, Adjaye’s metamorphosed warehouse seems to belong. Its myriad textures absorb the atmosphere and context, changing with the weather and with sunlight from a light gray to a slick black. The simple change in color requires one to reflect on adjacent textures, placing them in a new, deeper relief.

 

David Adjaye, Dirty House (2002)

 

One could argue similar reuse and transformation occurs in dubstep, an electronic music style developed in London during the same period as the Dirty House was being constructed. Dubstep, like most electronic music, makes heavy use of sampling, but one of the things that makes it different is its clipping, cropping, and stretching of said samples, specifically vocals, to the point that they are almost unrecognizable. Dubstep artists like Burial make heavy use of digital effects to transform human voices into sounds more at home in science fiction than the dance floors of London.

James Blake, a young London producer in the dubstep tradition, constructs deceivingly simple tracks using pieces and parts of his own piano melodies along with heavily altered samples. What makes his Klavierwerke EP so striking, however, and what had so much resonance for me with Adjaye’s Dirty House, is his use of silence. The centerpiece of the EP is “I Only Know (What I Know Now),” an incredible track that at times seems to disappear completely, completely stopping in a way that makes me concentrate strongly on ambient sound. Blake’s music is far from minimalist, but it focuses my attention on the context of my aesthetic experience the same way a sculpture by Donald Judd would.

Similarly, the Dirty House is an extremely silent piece of architecture. Its matte texture, mirrored glass and cantilevered roof all seem to draw London in, to make the context a part of the experience instead of the other way around. By creating difference through transformation, and leaving room for atmosphere, Adjaye and Blake conflate the aesthetics of recycling with those of minimalism, and I wanted to point out their strange symmetry.

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