‘We knew it had to be a kind of ‘anti’ name, but that by itself seemed just too easy. And we were not at all clear what the second half – the cultural thing to push the ‘anti’ against – should be. Architecture did not start out being the main point for any of us, even for Gordon. But we soon realized, however, that architecture could be used to symbolize all the hard-shelled cultural reality we meant to push against, and not just building of ‘architecture’ itself. That was the context in which Gordon came up with the term anarchitecture. And that, perhaps suggests the meaning we all gave it.’
Richard Nonas, letter to the IVAM, August 1992, in Gordon Matta-Clark, exhibition catalogue, IVAM Centre Julio Gonzalez, Valencia 1993, p. 374
The group Anarchitecture came together in 1973, formed by Gordon Matta-Clark and fellow artists. Cynically, one could say that the term was derived because it sounded good, and elevated the group’s pretensions to work under such a name. Yet the first exhibition of the Anarchitecture group occurred in the same year as the work Splitting (1974), and this association of Matta-Clark’s pieces within the realm of architecture was to foresee the direction his work was to take for the next five years, until his death in August 1978.
So what exactly was this ‘cultural reality’ that Matta-Clark and his fellow artists wished to confront, to ‘push against’? In the words of Matta-Clark:
The group’s architectural aim was more elusive than doing pieces that would demonstrate an alternative attitude to buildings.
Gordon Matta-Clark in an interview with Liza Bear, Avalanche, December 1974, p.34
Matta-Clark’s architectural gestures had the potential to be statements against certain social conditions. While many architects felt that they could make a contribution to society through the structures they built, Matta-Clark felt that he himself could not alter the environment or make any significant change. His idea of Anarchitecture called for an anarchistic approach to architecture, marked physically by a process of destructuring, rather than by the creation of structure. It was thus his choice to focus on existing structures in neglected areas, to use the city’s abandoned buildings within which to execute his work.
These buildings were empty, and for Matta-Clark, they were free for him to use. The neglect of these physical structures allowed Matta- Clark a philosophical approach that sought to reveal societal problems through art.
Matta-Clark’s cuttings were simultaneously an addition to existing structures, since they afforded new passageways and views, and a subtraction, by being a void. In this way, the cuttings stand as metaphors for the layers of past references in the individual building, as well as for the disjunctures in the functioning of the individual within society. The breaking down of walls symbolized a breaking down, a rupturing, of interpersonal and class barriers. The building types were archetypal, each inferring a certain status about the inhabitants. The ghetto tenement blocks he used marked the imprisonment of the poor. The common suburban houses of Splitting and Bingo marked the self-containment of the higher socioeconomic classes. The breakdown of these building types sought an open, more liberal society.
Matta-Clark’s most notorious work, and his most powerful statement, was Window Blow Out (1976). This sought to undermine the foundations of the architectural establishment by which he had gained his architectural education. Borrowing a gun from artist Dennis Oppenheim, Matta-Clark:
… came in at 3 am while we were setting up the show [“Idea As Model” at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, New York] and he was incredibly wrecked. He said that he was going to knock out only those windows that were already cracked; at that point I said okay, only those. But in fact he shot them all out. When the Institute Fellows came in (Peter Eisenman was the director at the time), they were furious.
interview with Andrew MacNair, in Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1985, p.96
The second part of the piece was to place in each bay of the broken windows, mounted photographs taken of buildings in the South Bronx area of New York, themselves with smashed windows. The work was subsequently eliminated, the windows being replaced, with very few people seeing it. But what his actions had offered Matta-Clark was the opportunity to criticize what he felt to be a lack of attention paid by architects to the problem of decaying buildings. He knew that Meier, Gwathmey and Graves were to be exhibiting at the show, and at the time commented:
These are the guys I studied with at Cornell, these were my teachers. I hate what they stand for.
Matta-Clark was disturbed by the attitude he felt existed on the part of many architects who saw decaying buildings only as structures to be removed in the interest of renewal and urban planning, and who constructed replacements that themselves soon became objects of decay. He felt that modern architecture was not meeting the needs of people, but rather was creating dehumanized situations.