Chapter 07: Frank Gehry and Matta-Clark

Specifically, it is generally felt among critics that Gehry’s personal house in Santa Monica, where he invaded a typical 1950’s California bungalow with a series of Constructivist forms, was the closest parallel to Matta-Clark’s ideas.

James Wines

James Wines, The Slippery Floor, op. cit., p.137

My wife, Berta, found this beautiful…anonymous little house, and I decided to remodel it.

Frank Gehry

transcript from documentary film Beyond Utopia: Changing Attitudes in American Architecture, interviews and narration by Rosemarie Haag Bletter and Martin Filler, Michael Blackwood Productions, 1983, p.47-48; in Rosemarie Haag Bletter, The Architecture of Frank Gehry, exhib. cat., Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, Rizzoli, New York, 1986, p.32

Gehry decomposes and simultaneously reconstructs space. Both procedures coexist in a state of tension – we might call him the first synthetic constructivist.

Rosemarie Haag Bletter

Rosemarie Haag Bletter, op. cit. p. 46

Frank Gehry, Gehry House

Frank Gehry, Norton House

Comparisons have been drawn between Frank Gehry’s own house and the work of Matta- Clark, suggesting a close parallel in their ideas. Certainly, Gehry and Matta-Clark, for example with the work Splitting, have both questioned the archetypal view of the suburban American home.

With his house in Santa Monica (1977-78), California, Gehry has taken a typical suburban bungalow dating from the 1950’s as a reference, transforming it with an aesthetic which has its roots in early Constructivism and Cubism. Gehry’s house appears as a collage, with the original house wrapped in a second layer composed of such materials as plywood and chain-link fencing. The effect is to make the original house appear to be an object contained within another house.

You would feel like this old house was still there, and some guy just wrapped it in new materials, and you could see, as you looked through the windows – day or night – you would see this old house sitting in there.

Beyond Utopia, op. cit., in Rosemarie Haag Bletter, op. cit., p. 32

The Cubist element of the extension to the bungalow exists as tilted, glazed cubic forms, functioning as windows for the kitchen and dining area. The windows ‘looked like the ghost of Cubism was trying to crawl out.’ Rosemarie Haag Bletter, op. cit., p.43 ibid., p. 34 These puncture corrugated metal sheets, at the corner and centre of the north elevation. Screens of chain-link fencing reveal the roof of the building contained inside its new housing.

Gehry’s design is generated by a desire to maintain the original house as a palimpsest, which one can clearly observe through the forms of the additions. A wall of corrugated metal extends beyond the confines of the house itself, to create a screen wall, the interior of which is lined in plywood, and is supported from the inside with bracing beams. The same unpainted wooden textures are continued along the wall of the house. The solidity of the metallic street facades become roughly finished wooden textures as one crosses the public threshold into the private domain. This is extended into the house by the stripping away of walls and ceilings to their simple wooden framework. These exposed elements form a layer of historic acknowledgement in the dialogue between the new and old structures.

This innermost decomposed core suggests…the pre- history of the original house. The “incomplete” core is enclosed by its intact, finished exterior, now partly internalized by a third layer, its contemporary mantle.

ibid., p. 34

The breakdown of these elements defines the breakdown of the pattern of the extended family as social focus and anchor to the community at large, evoked by the prairie house aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright. The fragmentation of the family, together with the intrusive nature of the car, are the factors which have created an impermanence of the typical social structure. This impermanent nature has influenced the make- up of Gehry’s Santa Monica house in much the same way that Matta-Clark’s work Splitting was influenced by a desire to question the notion of the stable middle- class American home being an immutable entity.

A portion of the house is in a temporary state resembling the stage of construction just before completion. This unfinished state, and indeed the state of much of the fabric of the Gehry House, also suggests the start of the breakdown, or decay, of the fabric. This reversal of the construction process is indicative of an architectural philosophy with its roots in deconstruction. Gehry, however, is adamant to dismiss the Deconstructionist label.

Mark Wigley writes :

…the force of the house comes from the sense that the additions were not imported to the site but emerged from the inside of the house. It is as if the house had always harbored [sic] these twisted shapes within it.

Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, exhib. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988, p.22

Again Wigley believes the Gehry House to have been distorted by an alien, the cubic forms twisting their way out of the original house. These forms;

‘[burst] through the structure, peeling back the layers of the house. As these forms push their way out, they lift off the skin of the building, exposing the structure…The original house becomes a strange artifact, trapped and distorted by forms that have emerged from within it.’

ibid.

However, the original bungalow has not been distorted; it has remained intact, with Gehry adding various elements to it. Addition is by no means a deconstruction of what is already existent. There might be a gesture towards deconstruction with the revealing of structure within the original house, but the structure itself remains intact, with no distortion by Wigley’s alien of Deconstructivism.

The aesthetic of collision, illustrative of the fragmented nature of contemporary life and culture, is continued in Gehry’s later residences, such as the Familian House (1978), and the Spiller House (1980). Less a collision than a simple stacking of programmatic elements, the Norton House (1983-84) occupies a thin site on the Venice boardwalk, California.

Here, Gehry continues his aesthetic which found its birth in the Santa Monica House, of revealing the timber framing of walls and ceilings. This has the effect of suggesting a decaying of the fabric, with only the structure and the outer skin remaining.

Matta-Clark’s de-composition has similarities to the aesthetic employed by Frank Gehry, typified in his house in Santa Monica. Here, Gehry exposed the make-up of the timber framing of wall and floor elements The effect of Matta-Clark’s cuttings in works such as Bronx Floors was to reveal what would normally be hidden from view. In this way, ‘his everyday floor became an … extraordinary artifact’, interview with Robert Kushner, in Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, exhib. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1985, p.51the removed sections being displayed as art objects. This has a parallel with the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. These were intended to remind the viewer of certain shared identifications on one level, and simultaneously to imply that this was not the only dimension. By removing sections of floor and wall, the cut pieces took on a new identity. Separated from their function as definers of space, they became objects in their own right.

Gehry’s language of architecture has been shown to be more influenced by Cubism than by Constructivism. Certainly Gehry shrugs the label of Deconstructionist. His language has been influenced by Gordon Matta-Clark, enough for him to define the strategy of ‘Matta-Clarking’. Aaron Betsky, Violated Perfection; Architecture and the Fragmentation of the Modern, Rizzoli, New York 1988, p.49 Indeed, Gehry had planned to work with Matta-Clark on a renovation of a brownstone in New York (the de Menil House, 1978). Rosemarie Haag Bletter, op. cit., p.58- 59

In the Santa Monica house, Gehry first removed the protective skin from the building, exposing its descriptive anatomy. The interior walls were stripped to reveal wood studs, and the electrical conduits that snaked through them. From the outside, portions of the facade were removed, and glass was placed over the internal structure.

What one discovers from the Gehry house is how the building was actually made, rather than how it was used or what social class it represents. This is what Matta-Clark achieved with his work Splitting. This archetypal American home had been freed from the middle-class, socioeconomic status it implied. Gehry’s language of architecture is thus one of de-composition, rather than deconstruction.

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