PRINT May 1998


Gordon Matta-Clark

NO ONE WENT TO FOOD FOR THE FOOD. One evening the menu might consist of hard-boiled eggs stuffed with live shrimp. Another night it might be necklaces of boiled meat bones. The cuisine, in other words, was often conceptual. But the sense of community was Four Star.

It was a Romulus and Remus thing, the city as substitute mother for orphans who would create a new city of their own. The founders and patrons of Food—the restaurant at Prince and Wooster opened in September 1971 by Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, and Rachel Lew—were orphans of America and its paranoid political climate of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Hardhats. Enemies lists. Nattering nabobs of negativism. “Terror bombing” in Cambodia, Kent State. Above all, perhaps, an overwhelming sense of divisiveness, orchestrated from the White House. A society writer from The Washington Post banned from covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding because she once described the president’s daughter as a vanilla ice cream cone. Those who ventured south of Houston Street sought to escape a poisonous, politically polluted public realm.

SoHo then was a strange civic hybrid, at once landmark district and dispensible slum. It was at one time called Hell’s Hundred Acres because of the frequency of fires in the area’s sweatshop-like factories. In the late ’40s, Lewis Mumford even proposed tearing down the entire district and turning it into the site of the new UN Headquarters. In the ’60s, thanks to the crusade mounted by the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, the place achieved recognition as the nation’s finest collection of nineteenth-century industrial buildings. In 1973, it received landmark designation as the Cast Iron District. But it still felt like the cast-off district, too. The facades were lovely, but the real ornament of the place was the dirt. The rust. The creaky stairs. It was an attic of a place, dusty and forgotten.

GORDON MATTA-CLARK’S LEGACY is inseparable from the transformation that swiftly overtook that neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He was the dancing star that brought a mythical dimension to the place before it even had a name. Any number of Matta-Clark’s gestures contributed to the aura: he fried photographs in a skillet and sent them out as Christmas cards, danced wildly, and arranged events, but the main thing he did was to create a climate of promise, a climate of hope. For this, and for the fact that he died in 1978, well before that climate curdled, Matta-Clark has properly become a legend.

Matta-Clark (whose drawings and films, as well as a reinstalled “cutting,” can be seen through June in a retrospective at P.S. 1) was one of a group of architects trained in the late ’60s who came to feel that the best way anyone could practice architecture was to ask why anyone should still be practicing architecture at all. If elegance, as Diana Vreeland said, is refusal, then Matta-Clark was an innately elegant kind of guy.

Jane Jacobs had pioneered the critique of modern architecture with her groundbreaking 1960 study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Robert Goodman’s After the Planners (1971) took Jacobs’ arguments against Corbusian-style master planning in a more extreme, countercultural direction. My first book, File Under Architecture (1974), pushed the Conceptual art line that a book could do more than a building to change the cityscape because the former could alter perception. “A Space: A Thousand Words,” a show curated by RoseLee Goldberg and Bernard Tschumi in London in 1975, pursued similar themes with projects by Dan Graham, Gaetano Pesce, Nigel Coates, and Christian de Portzamparc.

Circulating through these various projects was the recognition that the liberal consensus supporting modern architecture had collapsed. The modern movement had come far from its utopian roots to become the house style of corporate America. The use of modern forms came to be seen as a symbol of bad faith. The International Style was on automatic and had produced enough stuff to last for a while. Perhaps the time had come to declare a moratorium on creating more stuff.

SoHo was itself proof of an architectural surplus. In 1969, Matta-Clark moved from Ithaca to a loft downtown (he had gotten his bachelor’s in architecture at Cornell the year before). SoHo became his canvas and his stage. Rather than merely decline to produce more stuff, Matta-Clark began to dismantle existing stuff, with the famous “Cuttings,” buildings rendered into sculpture by precisely excised slices. Food, which was the subject of a recent show curated by Catherine Morris at White Columns, was his second cutting and the first to occupy public space. (Sauna, completed earlier, reworked a wooden spa enclosure in Matta-Clark’s Fourth Street loft.) Slices from the renovation of the building were displayed in 1972 at Jeffrey Lew’s gallery at 112 Greene Street. Splitting: Four Corners, a sculpturally dissected wood-frame house in Englewood, New Jersey, began his later, large-scale works: social, urban, and architectural criticism rendered without words.

Matta-Clark used the term Anarchitecture, a contraction of anarchy and architecture, as the label for a philosophy and for a group of kindred spirits, including Girouard, Harris, Jene Highstein, George Trakas, Richard Nonas, Jeffrey Lew, Richard Landry, and Laurie Anderson. The term could also be read as “an architecture,” one approach among many. It thus prefigured the breakdown of the authority that equated architecture at a given moment with a given style.

The concept of Anarchitecture was in part Matta-Clark’s reaction to his training at Cornell during the years when, under the tutelage of the historian and critic Colin Rowe, education became more cerebral, formalist, and socially detached. If you were, by nature, hands-on, Cornell could easily seem repressive, the stratification of thought, action, and things into discrete layers. Matta-Clark’s “Cuttings” symbolically sliced through those layers. The gesture became metaphoric through the physical interaction with materials.

MattaClark more or less dropped out of architectural circles after graduation, but in 1976 he dropped back in and created a scandal at a group show organized by Andrew MacNair at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies on West 40th Street. Matta-Clark’s contribution was a set of photographs depicting a group of new apartment buildings in the Bronx whose windows had been shattered. He presented these to illustrate the mutual alienation between architects and the communities they were supposed to serve. Then, to demonstrate his own alienation from architecture, he turned up on the night before the show opened, pulled out a BB gun, and shot out the windows of the institute’s penthouse quarters. This “cutting” did not go down so well.

And now there’s Balthazar, where the shrimp arrive attractively served on ice by handsome waiters and the meat bone comes with a juicy steak wrapped around it. The art of the restaurant has advanced spectacularly in New York in recent decades. SoHo has become the pinnacle of all the arts of modern living. On the other hand, the city’s architecture has been spectacularly unable to provide food for thought. It is tempting to lay some of the blame for this failure on the disaffected who withdrew from conventional practice. Fools did rush in where angels like Matta-Clark refused to tread. Mary McCarthy, writing about Greenwich Village when it was the leading artists’ community of an earlier time, spoke of a spirit that would probably not create cathedrals but would not destroy them, either. “And that,” she reflected, “is an idea fraught with pleasure.”

Herbert Muschamp writes on architecture for The New York Times. He joins Artforum’s masthead this month as a contributing editor.