Chapter 05: Deconstruction, Deconstructivism and Matta-Clark

Deconstruction, Deconstructivism and Matta-Clark

…the difficulty of defining and therefore also of translating the word ‘deconstruction’ stems from the fact that all the predicates, all the defining concepts, all the lexical significations, and even the syntactic articulations, which seem at one moment to lend themselves to this definition or to that translation, are also deconstructed and deconstructible, directly or otherwise, etc. And that goes for the word, the very unity of the word deconstruction, as for every word.

D. Wood and R. Bernasconi (ed), trans. by D. Wood and A. Benjamin, Derrida and Différance, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1988,

quoted in Christopher Norris and Andrew Benjamin, What is Deconstruction?, Academy Editions, London 1988, p.33

Geoffrey Broadbent writes:

Deconstructionist architecture is here; there’s a lot of it about and there’s more to come.

Geoffrey Broadbent, The Architecture of Deconstruction, op. cit., p.11

The architecture of which he writes seems to belong to two camps; the one of Derrida, and the one of Wigley. Certainly, the latter is more accessible, simply due to the difficulty in reading Derrida and understanding what his Deconstruction is all about.

Since a Deconstructionist approach in architecture requires the definition of an archetype, to be the equivalent of Derrida’s archetext, works such as Splitting by Gordon Matta-Clark could be described as Deconstructionist. It could be contended that for an architecture to be Deconstructionist, it must be based upon inversionist readings of widely accepted building types, and indeed, it is difficult to make a case in favour of Deconstructionist meaning in newly-built edifices. It would seem that use of the term Deconstructionist becomes questionable when removed from the literary context.

Deconstruction is certainly not simply a reversal of the process of construction, be it in architectural (physical) or linguistic (conceptual) terms. Derrida himself sustained that Deconstructive architectural thought is impossible, maintaining that ‘Deconstruction is not an architectural metaphor’, Jacques Derrida, Fifty-Two Aphorisms for a Foreword, op. cit., p.69 as it is not simply a question of dismantlement, but an affirmative attitude.

Derrida’s readings of philosophical and literary texts show that, by taking the unspoken or unformulated propositions of a text literally, by showing the subtle internal contradictions, the text can be shown to be saying something quite other than that which it appears to be saying. In fact, the text can be shown not to be saying something specific, but many different things, some of which indeed might subtly subvert the conscious intentions of the writer. In this way, Derrida shows that the text is telling quite a different story from what the writer imagines he is creating.

The main effect of Derrida’s deconstructions has been to destroy the (naïve) assumption that a particular text has ‘a’ meaning. Meaning is not encased or contained in language but is coextensive (extending over same space or time) with the play of language itself. Derrida shows that the meanings of a text are ‘disseminated’, see Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination, 1972, translated as Dissemination, B. Johnson (trans.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1981 spread, across its entire surface. The link between meaning and text is cut, going against Saussure’s philosophies of ‘signs’ and ‘signifieds’ (and later Lévi- Strauss). see Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, Cape, London 1974, and Claude Lévi- Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, Cape, London 1973

In contrast,

Matta-Clark does not undo the building, he undoes the architectural analogy that is contained within it. …Words are removed from the edifice of language in a movement that works its way through the building as if it were carefully removing its semantic backbone.

Marianne Brouwer, Laying Bare, in Gordon Matta-Clark, exhib. cat., IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez, Valencia 1993, p.363

Some critics mistakenly hail as deconstruction what is, rightly and rightfully, an illuminating autopsy of meaning.

Eugenio Trías, Art and the Sacred, in Gordon Matta-Clark, op. cit., p.382

Derrida’s deconstruction is one affecting conceptual structure, whereas Matta-Clark’s ‘deconstruction’ is one affecting, or rather illuminating, physical structure. It has been shown that the buildings with which Matta- Clark worked can be regarded as architectural archetypes to stand for Derrida’s archetexts. The slices in compositional elements reveal the structure in Matta-Clark’s works, but do not seek to undermine it. If a true Derridean process of Deconstruction was taking place in Matta-Clark’s cuttings, there would be a questioning, and perhaps a contradiction, of structure. But instead the questioning occurs in reference to the composition, providing other readings, those highlighting societal problems and addressing the issues Matta-Clark felt were being ignored by the architectural establishment.

Mark Wigley’s Deconstructivism is removed from Derrida’s Deconstruction, but has been applied to the same architecture. Deconstructivism has the immediate appearance of simply proposing a precedent in the work of the Russian Constructivists (and Suprematists). Wigley adds to this his thesis of the distortion of form by flaws intrinsic to the structure, his ‘alien’. The ideas of precedent and of the alien do not on the whole make for a coherent thesis.

Wigley’s alien pushes structure to its limit, to the point where it becomes unsettling. The walls and floors move disconcertingly, producing a sense of unease. The Modernist argument that form follows function is abandoned, in favour of distributing forms, and then applying a functional programme.

Deconstructivist architecture displaces context, producing a sense of dislocation; anti- contextualism. This creates a resonance between the disrupted interior of the architectural forms, and their disruption of the context. This results in a disturbance between inside and outside, whereby the form does not simply divide an inside from an outside. There occurs a disruption of the simple division between interior and exterior, and this tension is relieved through the walls.

The wall breaks open in a very complex way. There are no simple windows, no regular openings puncturing a solid wall. Rather, the wall is tormented, split and folded so that it no longer provides security by dividing familiar from unfamiliar, inside from out. The whole condition of enclosure breaks down.

Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, in Andreas Papadakis (ed), Deconstruction; Omnibus Volume, op. cit., p.133

This tormenting of the walls has parallells with the work of Matta- Clark. In his work, Matta-Clark creates a distortion of composition rather than form. The form of the building remains intact; it is the composition within the form which is tormented. The cuts in the walls are the release of a tension, allowing the spaces to breathe through the punctures in the fabric. Matta-Clark’s ‘alien’ is an alien which creates a distortion of composition, a de-composition, rather than an alien which creates a distortion of construction, a de- construction. Whereas the flaws in Deconstructivism are intrinsic to the structure, the flaws in Matta- Clark’s works are intrinsic to the composition. The de-composition is a breakdown, an entropological process, of the composition of elements; walls, floors, windows, doors.

[The] disturbance does not result from an external violence. It is not a fracturing, or slicing, or fragmentation, or piercing. To disturb a form from the outside in these ways is not to threaten that form, only to damage it. The damage produces a decorative effect, an aesthetic of danger, an almost picturesque representation of peril – but not a tangible threat [unlike the work of Matta-Clark]. Instead, Deconstructivist architecture disturbs figures from within.

Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, printed in Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p.16

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