Rebel with a cause
Gordon Matta-Clark - The Space Between: Thinking Through Architecture At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1, until 30 May From a cursory glance at Lisa Le Feuvre's thoughtful exhibition of Gordon MattaClark's work at the Architectural Association, you wouldn't know that this man was a scourge of that daddy of all architectural establishments, New York, such as has never been seen before or since.
For Window Blow-Out (1976), his piece at the Institute of Architectural and Urban Studies, Matta-Clark borrowed an air-rifle from fellow artist Dennis Oppenheim. He proceeded to blow out the windows of that august establishment (proprietor P Eisenman). Each window was then replaced with photographs of windows that had been blown out for other reasons in the run-down buildings of the Bronx. Matta-Clark knew that Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and Michael Graves were also exhibiting, and said: 'These are the guys I studied with at Cornell, these were my teachers. I hate what they stand for.'
It is poetic justice that an equivalent exhibition of any of the architects on his hate-list would, these days, be unlikely to attract the interest and enthusiasm that Matta-Clark's work continues to inspire in each new generation of students.
What he hated was the systematic amnesia apparently necessary to the brave white worlds of the architectural elite. The erasure of intricate social and human reality, embodied in buildings waiting to be demolished. Within the AA exhibition you will find Matta-Clark's definitive image of the myriad wallpapers revealed when the outside walls are torn away from an apartment block. What is important is that the photograph is not pathetic but heroic. This is not the revelation of private dirty linen, but a statement about the possibilities of an architectural surface, ordered by common structure and yet reflecting with dignity the varieties of lives led.
But Matta-Clark was far from just an observer. As that gun incident shows, he was an operator. It is against the background of the 1970s that the original and intriguing character of his work becomes really apparent.Matta-Clark was going against the grain of his times, not just politically and socially but in a directly architectural way.
The discipline that he pitches against the superimposition of the new and gleaming hardware of conventional architecture is the act of subtraction. Amid the serious social purpose, the photographs of his A WHole House of 1973 shows the really fun aspect of this. As Hellman's cartoon in AJ 8.5.03 suggests, his work empowers you by offering the illusion that you can tear space as if it were paper in a kind of collage. In A W-Hole House his incisions in the building's fabric seem to paint with light, as if by an effortless stroke of the brush.
That Matta-Clark possessed such a Baroque sensibility is a surprising aspect of this exhibition. He describes himself how on one of his projects he cut away the apex of a pyramidal roof with the help of a crane so that 'walls and doors, roof and ceiling were united by a centralised opening'. Architecture at this time was less about space than about surface and components. MattaClark's curvaceous cuts through the timber constructions scheduled for destruction seem to will the interior to exist for one moment in that annihilation of any division between floor, ceiling, and wall - pushing light through with the force of an activist Borromini.
The enduring legacy of Gordon MattaClark's short but effective life is to force us to confront the potential lives of existing buildings - contrary to the rhetoric of raze-to-the-ground urban renewal, which is rearing its unseeing, ugly head in our cities once again.
Katherine Vaughan-Williams is a writer and architect