Friday, September 15, 2000


GMC: Window Blow-out, 1976.     Source: See Notes below.

Gordon Matta-Clark and the New York Five 

Darío Corbeira, editor, ¿Construir... o deconstruir? Textos sobre Gordon Matta-Clark, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca, 2000, pages 77 - 90 (in Spanish).

© 2000 by David Cohn . All rights reserved.

I. A Window on The Institute

The obvious centerpoint for any discussion of the work of Gordon Matta-Clark in the context of contemporary American architecture is his famous confrontation with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) and its Director, Peter Eisenman, in December, 1976. Invited to participate in a group show at the Institute's 40th Street penthouse in Manhattan, Matta-Clark borrowed a pellet gun from his friend, the artist Dennis Openheim, and shot out the windows of the exhibition space. The shattered windows and cold December wind were to have accompanied his photographs of blown-out windows in South Bronx housing projects, including several designed by architects associated in one way or another with the Institute. Eisenman had the windows hastily re-glazed before the exhibit opened, and deplored Matta-Clark's action, which he compared to the Nazi Kristalnacht. The reaction of Openheim, on the other hand, was enthusiastic. "It was such a radical gesture, such a definitive statement, a metaphor about architecture," he later said. Matta-Clark himself commented, "These are the guys I studied with at Cornell. They were my teachers. I hate what they stand for." (Note 1)

Matta-Clark graduated in 1968 from the Cornell School of Architecture, where Eisenman and Richard Meier had studied ten years before him. Under the tutelage of British critic and teacher Colin Rowe, Cornell was a prime source for one of the major currents in American architecture of the 1970s. (2) This movement, an academically-based, formalist neo-modernism, was introduced in the 1972 book Five Architects, which featured private house projects by Eisenman, Meier, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk, with essays by Rowe and Institute Fellow Kenneth Frampton, and a preface by Arthur Drexler, Curator of Architecture and Design at New York's Museum of Modern Art. (3)

Eisenman had founded the IAUS in 1967 with the support of several universities and private foundations. Until its closing in 1982, shortly after Eisenman's departure, it offered courses in architecture and a program of conferences, exhibits and publications, including the critical journal Oppositions. The IAUS was an important center for the propagation of the Cornell formalist movement. It also established important international contacts, helping to introduce, for example, the architects of the Italian Tendenza to the United States. The IAUS was thus one of the sponsors of the increasingly theoretical tone of the architectural discourse of the period, and the increasing protagonism of hypothetical projects and architectural drawings as an end in themselves. The title of the show that Matta-Clark participated in, "Idea as Model" (which included work by Meier, Graves and Gwathmey), was typical of the general tone.

The subject of Matta-Clark's critical attack on the Institute, on the other hand, was the urban disaster of the South Bronx. And his attack was calculated to draw attention to the place and moment when architectural discourse in the United States had turned its back on such problems. Matta-Clark's photos may have included broken windows from projects in the Twin Parks section of the Bronx designed by Richard Meier, Giovanni Pasanella, and Prentice Chan and Olhausen, which were completed in 1973. He could have also included the Marcus Garvey project in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, designed by the Fellows of the Institute with David Todd and the Urban Development Corporation, and opened in 1975. (4)

These were among the last public housing projects to be built in New York for the next ten years. They represent the end of an era of massive state and federal programs for housing construction and urban redevelopment, which dated back to the 1930s and had supplied New York with tens of thousands of housing units for middle income and poor families. Twin Parks and Marcus Garvey were built by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a New York State agency established in 1969 to apply advanced concepts in urban design to the problems of urban decay. The aim of the UDC was to reform and refine the heavy-handed methods of previous urban interventions, introducing techniques of mid-block infill, street definition, and contextual massing to programs that had previously practiced massive site clearance and the uprooting of existing neighborhoods.

But these techniques also proved powerless to halt the forces of destruction and abandonment that were consuming the South Bronx, as Matta-Clark's photos testified. The public plazas of Meier's project were soon taken over by teenage gangs, and there were shootings at the project even before it opened. The UDC was bankrupt by 1977, while the city's financial crisis put an end to other programs, and the Reagan presidency drastically cut federal funds for public housing after 1980. While the projects survive today, the neighborhoods that they were designed to stabilize have largely been reduced to rubble. When I visited the buildings in 1995, spent shell casings could be found in nearby streets, and the few surviving houses amid the vacant blocks of demolished buildings were protected by coils of barbed wire and guarded by attack dogs.

In this same period Richard Meier was involved in another well-intentioned but frustrated social project. It may seem surprising today when considering his subsequent trajectory, but Meier's first major commission was a mental hospital for New York State (the Bronx Development Center, 1970-76). The facility was obsolete before it opened, however, due to changing policies about the institutionalization of the mentally ill, and was never used in its originally-programmed capacity. And Meier's design, like his Bronx housing, was criticized at the time for the cold institutional air of his rational modern forms, which contradicted the program's aim to provide residents with a home-like environment.

Thus, architectural debate at the Institute had turned to theoretical and formal issues at the same time that commissions for public housing and other social services were coming to an end in New York, and at the same time that the best efforts of Institute-related architects proved to have little effect on the social problems they had attempted to address. Even when working under the progressive urban design policies of the UDC, architects found themselves to be little more than an instrument of larger forces. Allied with the institutionalized powers of government intervention, they were identified by critics such as Matta-Clark and Jane Jacobs as part of the problem of the American city, and not part of a possible solution. (5)

The abandonment of social issues in the circle of the Institute was not accomplished without a certain degree of bad faith, however. This is particularly evident in the introductory essays to Five Architects, where Rowe and Drexler look nervously over their shoulders to shoot down potential criticism. A young Frampton, usually more forthcoming on the political and social dimension of architecture, limits himself to an almost parodistic Rowe-ian style essay on "Frontality and Rotation." Rowe himself concedes in his introduction that, "With regard to Europe, it is possible to argue that modern architecture was conceived as an adjunct of socialism, and probably sprang from approximately the same ideological roots as Marxism." But he argues for an American difference: "In America an indigenous modern architecture was very conspicuously unequipped with any such implicit social program." After the Second World War, he continues, "the message of modern architecture was transformed, it was made safe for capitalism," and its products became "the cultural trophies of the affluent society."

The tone of Drexler's preface, not surprisingly, is more bullying, and his argument is bluntly limited to an American frame of reference. Speaking of the featured architects, he disingeniously alleges,
"They have picked up where the 1930s left off, pursuing what was implied before an architecture of rational poetry was interrupted by World War Two and its subsequent mood of disillusionment, restlessness, and resentment. The resentment, we all know, has good reason. We are all concerned, one way or another, with social reform. But this concern has flavored all discussion and criticism of anything that claims to be architecture first and social reform second. That architecture is the least likely instrument with which to accomplish the revolution has not yet been noticed by the young Europeans, and in America it is a fact like a convenient stone wall against which architectural journalists can bang their heads. ... An alternative to political romance is to be an architect, for those who actually have the necessary talent. ... The young men represented here have that talent. ... Their work makes a modest claim; it is only architecture, not the salvation of man and the redemption of the earth." (6)

II. From Soho to the South Bronx

Beginning with his first works, Gordon Matta-Clark sought out a territory of action distinct from the conventional territory of his architectural training: in the sky, underground, using refuse and organic material, and most memorably, in the complex territory of derelict buildings. He deliberately situated his work outside the abstract ground plane of the architectural plan and its material representation in the cleared building site. His territory of action was not exactly a negation or inversion of this architectural abstraction; it simply went beyond, and stayed outside, its self-defined limits.

The first premise of this strategy was to eliminate the distinction between foreground and background, between the artist's action and a neutral plane or frame or pedestal with which this act is presented or otherwise distinguished from its surroundings. This lack of background is one of the most remarkable characteristics of Matta-Clark's photographic records of his work: the way that a cutting of a Bronx floor and wall is seen not against a white backdrop or white gallery wall, but rather is photographed in the setting from which it was extracted, or in the similar setting of his working studio. There is no essential difference between the product of the artist's work and its surroundings; both are part of a single, continuous environment of action.

Matta-Clark applied this principle not only in visual terms but also in vital terms. He avoided making a distinction between his life and his art, or between creating and exhibiting or documenting his work, or other hierarchical distinctions that privilege or put into service one dimension of life in relation to another. His photos give the same importance to the void cut in an abandoned Bronx apartment, the act of cutting it, and the fragment of the cutting exhibited in a gallery. And he could turn a seemingly ordinary event such as a haircut into an documented artistic act.

This strategic stance has broad implications not only for the nature of the work of art, but also for the context in which that work takes place, the context of everyday work and life. In fact, it can be seen in large measure as a product of a very specific context, the context in which Matta-Clark realized most of his work, that of New York's Soho district in the 1960s and 70s. The occupation of this declining industrial area in the center of Manhattan by artists of Matta-Clark's generation produced a singular micro-climate, in which relations could be forged between work, art and life fundamentally different from those prevailing in the conventional North American built environment.

The appropriation of the rough and deteriorated industrial spaces of Soho lofts as combined work and living quarters for artists, as well as exhibition and performance spaces, set the stage for the substitution of a visually-oriented model of the work of art, inherited from the bourgeois and aristocratic traditions, for a model of art based on the non-visually oriented world of work. The work of Matta-Clark, who was an active force in the artistic colonization of Soho, is one of the clearest examples of this transformation.

The Soho loft, with its rough brick walls and worn wood floors, exposed wiring and plumbing, primitive winter heating, improvised kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping lofts (Matta-Clark built many for himself and friends), and dirty, deteriorated public halls, facades and streetscapes, represented a radical rupture with the bourgeois model of domestic space, and its concepts of visual order, hygiene, comfort, aesthetic finish, and the apparent stasis and immutability produced by the domination of the pictorial and representational values of the contemplative gaze. The loft was rather a space built for work, for transforming, packing, storing and selling goods. And as an underused real estate commodity undergoing a process of obsolescence and abandonment, the loft was also a space that could be worked on, a space that could itself be appropriated as a subject of human action and transformation. Matta-Clark's first cuttings are a bold realization of this latent potential. (In the transformation of a traditional domestic environment, the traces of the work process are carefully removed afterwards to restore the values of domestic order.)

When understood simply as a place of work, the loft is little different from the traditional artist's studio. In this sense, Soho was for many in the 1960s and 70s a contemporary artistic bohemia, equivalent to Montmartre in Paris at the beginning of the century. Matta-Clark however went further. Drawing on the example of land art (he had early contact with Robert Smithson and others at Cornell), he applied its techniques of the plastic manipulation of the landscape to Soho's urban terrain. Instead of using his Soho workspace to produce fine finished artistic goods for bourgeois interiors, Soho provided him the opportunity for ongoing experimental interaction with an environment in which the conventional rules of domestic and urban order were in a state of temporary weakness and suspense, vulnerable to someone with his aggressive initiative.

But the territory of action that Matta-Clark defined in his cuttings was different from that of land artists like Smithson. The work of Smithson remains based largely on a visually dominated, aesthetic appropriation of the landscape, while Matta-Clark's work is more process-oriented, in the sense developed in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. In the classic contrast between the urban visitor's aesthetic appreciation of the countryside --as an extension of the visual values of landscape painting, a product of bourgeois leisure and contemplation-- and the rural farmer's vision of the same landscape in terms of weather, labor, and other aspects of the struggle for sustenance, Smithson's work is clearly a product of urban visual values. His Spiral Jetty can be seen as a continuation, though with radically-different formal premises, of the aesthetic colonization of the countryside by the visual values of urban elites, through weekend and holiday houses, the restoration of country villages, the establishment of natural reserves and the like.

Matta-Clark's works spring instead from a political and social reading of the terrain of human settlement, more than from formal visual premises. They spring from a stance of political critique and alternative action derived directly from the situation of Soho and other declining urban areas at the time. Since the early 1960s, New York City's urban plans had called for the Soho area to be demolished and redeveloped, and for a limited-access expressway to be cut across the island at Broome Street -- another example of the destructive urban policies that triggered the decline of the South Bronx and other areas. The plan provoked local industrial tenants and lending banks to disinvest in the area, though the highway project was canceled in 1969. The future of Soho in the early 1970s was still uncertain, while incoming artists had only a precarious hold on the area, as their occupation of lofts zoned for industrial use was illegal, leaving them potentially subject to eviction at any time. (7)

The vacuum created by this political and economic disinvestment made Soho something of a free play zone for the most intrepid of its colonizing artists. And the most important dimension of this free play was the activity of community building based on personal initiatives, outside the bounds of conventional real estate development, architectural design, urban planning, etc. Matta-Clark's loft constructions, the Food restaurant, the garbage wall, the container house and other projects paralleled the creation of communal vegetable gardens in vacant blocks of the Lower East Side and Harlem by neighborhood activists of the time, and self-organized communities of squatters in abandoned buildings, as well as other artist-sponsored initiatives in Soho itself. Even his boldest cutting, the Day's End pier, was inspired in an idea of transforming an abandoned property into a dynamic public community space, "a temple of sun and water," in his words. These works suggested alternative models for building community, while at the same time drawing attention to the manifest failure of dominating political and economic institutions in their area of action.

Many of Matta-Clark's cuttings, from the Bronx Floors of 1972-73 to the large final works realized in Antwerp and Chicago, could appear motivated more by formal than political concerns. But the idea of the cutting itself has a transgressive, politicized charge: to penetrate below the finished, domesticated skin of the built environment, below its wallpapers and wood moldings and varnished floors, and to reveal the guts and processes supporting the apparently immutable pictorial surface of everyday life. Matta-Clark's cuttings are an assertion of transformational process over static pictorial image, a politicized transgression of bourgeois stasis that arises directly from his Soho experience.

Matta-Clark's action of blowing out the windows at Eisenman's Institute was evidently part of this critical project. The act itself drew attention to the failure of New York's architectural elite in the South Bronx. And its character as a direct action in the context of the Institute's static visual exhibit was an implicit critique of the role played by an overly-visual concept of architecture in this failure.

The flaw that Matta-Clark's action points to in Meier's Twin Parks and other UDC housing projects can be described as a kind of aesthetic trance, in which the domination of visual values numb and diminish the sensibility to other dimensions of architecture and its impact on the built environment and society. Frampton's essay in Five Architects on "Frontality and Rotation" describes the way that aesthetic distance was established by the different houses in the book through a mannerist formal play of layered, retreating facade planes and rotations, which constitute, like the courtly costumes and manners in the Versailles of Louis XIV, an aloof ritualistic language of representation, setting the works apart on their abstract green lawns like a painting on a gallery wall. In Meier's Twin Parks, an implicit correspondence occurs between this ritualized aesthetic distance (here muted by the limitations of public financing) and the distance that separated the sponsoring government program of the UDC, with its limited repertoire of legalistic administrative instruments and analytic methods, from the problems "in the street" that it sought to address. The distance of the framed aesthetic object becomes here identical to the distance created by various quantifying administrative abstractions, such as number of units, qualifying client criteria and other numeric rationalizations, which form the rational skeleton of the building design.

In this loss of contact with the scene of its intervention, the aesthetically-cued design ironically fails to see the context in which it is operating. Understood in a very broad sense, something similar occurred at a more general public level in the period: declining areas of the city such as Soho and the South Bronx also became invisible to a conventional aestheticized gaze, and even repellent. This visceral aesthetic repulsion (later converted again to fascination in the case of the fashionable rise of Soho) was one more factor in a wide spectrum of orchestrated forces that propelled white middle class Americans out of the nation's cities after the Second World War. The violence of Matta-Clark's action at the Institute can be seen as a desperate response to the passive violence of this willful blindness, a cry against the deformation of the cityscape through selective aesthetic sight.

III. Postscript: Beyond Formalism

When the New York City government was able to return to the growing problems of homelessness and destroyed urban neighborhoods in the late 1980s, it did so with programs conceived in dramatically different terms from those of the UDC and previous efforts. Instead of focusing on producing the greatest quantity of units with the greatest economic efficiency and massification, plans were designed to engage and promote a more subtle, locally-directed process of community building. Public funds were channeled to local churches, the strongest community organizations in poor neighborhoods, which selected sites and qualifying residents. Money was invested in the rehabilitation of existing buildings, rather than clear-site demolition and new construction. Vacant blocks were generally filled with low-density owner-occupied houses, in the form of rowhouses and even single family houses with gardens, in modest imitation of the standard American suburban house. The premise behind this strategy was that poor working families would feel more of a commitment to the neighborhood as owners rather than renters, and as owners of houses rather than apartments. The individual commitment to the neighborhood by each resident family was seen as essential in the battle to re-establish a community fabric. (8)

Thus a process-oriented model of quasi-organic and incremental community growth replaced the bricks-and-mortar models of the past that Matta-Clark and others had criticized. Significantly, the new housing was built following commercial suburban standards, without the participation of any well-known architects. Quality architecture was simply no longer part of the equation for public officials or residents.

In subsequent American architecture, only one office, the New York partnership of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, has found inspiration in some of Matta-Clark's formal techniques. Most of the duo's projects have been exhibitions and other types of installations, in which they assume a posture of critical investigation into different aspects of American culture (Diller currently teaches at the Princeton School of Architecture, and Scofidio at the Cooper Union; their partnership was established in 1979).

Diller and Scofidio describe their formal investigations as "probes," explorations that cut under the surface finish of their objects of study much like Matta-Clark's cuttings and underground diggings. Their early Plywood House (1979-80, Briarcliff Manor, New York) borrowed ideas from Matta-Clark's 1974 Bingo house deconstruction, revealing sections of wall, stair and other bits of domestic habitat through voyeuristic windows cut into the facade at arbitrarily regular intervals. In the 1988 withDrawing Room at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, they used cuttings in the walls and floors of the exhibit space as one of a number of analytic visual tools. The work also took up ideas from Matta-Clark's 1973 Fake Estate (in which he bought unusable slivers of land created by irrational lot divisions), and it included a grouping of chairs and a dining table suspended from the ceiling on cables, as in Matta-Clark's early Breakfast on the Ceiling work. The installation was intended to critically deconstruct a typical domestic environment, a characteristic Matta-Clark theme. (9)

In their stance of critical investigation with more than simply formal aims, Diller and Scofidio stand virtually alone in the United States. For all the fuss made about Deconstructivist Architecture after the Museum of Modern Art's 1988 show of the same name, which featured work by Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Bernard Tschumi, there is no direct connection between, say, the slashed windows of Libeskind's Jewish Museum and Matta-Clark's late works. None of the works in the show went beyond a position of formal composition, none entered into a process-based transformational methodology, with the exception of Eisenman, who always performs his permutations of formal material on a very abstract conceptual plane, at an opposite extreme from Matta-Clark's hard realism. Libeskind too, for all the expressive charge of his works, comes from a background in mathematics, music and the academy, and his poetics remain of a highly aesthetic nature. Only Rem Koolhaas, whose early work was influenced by the French Situationalists, shares something of Matta-Clark's bold realism of action. (10)

The work of Frank Gehry began with a non-aesthetic realism inspired in part in the rough finishes of artists' work spaces, and the rough, process-oriented finishes of much contemporary art (O'Neill Hay Barn, 1968; Cardboard Furniture, 1969- ; Ron Davis Studio, 1974; Frank Gehry House, 1978; Santa Monica Place Shopping Center, 1980). In these works, the dingy decay of New York is replaced by the ephemeral lightweight materials and kitschy finishes of cheap suburban constructions in Los Angeles. Gehry's subsequent development has carried him very far from these beginnings, however. (11)

The closest affinities in the world of architecture to the process-oriented work of Matta-Clark are found in the generation preceding and accompanying him. We can refer briefly to the three most obvious examples, the Dutch structuralists Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger, and the Berkeley-based Viennese iconoclast Christopher Alexander. In works such as the 1960 Amsterdam Orphanage, Van Eyck placed special emphasis on developing the plan as a space of social encounter. Like other members of Team X, he taught at schools in the United States, and his work most likely reached Matta-Clark in his years at Cornell. Liane Lefaivre credits Van Eyck with helping to inspire a critical movement in favor of a socially-oriented architecture in the United States in the late 1960s and 70s, the same movement that Rowe and Drexler attack in Five Architects. Lefaivre cites as examples of Van Eyck's influence the early work of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore, who like him championed at the time a humanist revision of Modernism. (12)

Herman Hertzberger, Van Eyck's principal disciple, took the concept of socialized space a step further, by encouraging the users of his buildings to participate in the definition of the social spaces within his buildings. In the 1971 Diagoon Experimental Housing in Delft, for example, lot lines between the rowhouse gardens were defined by only a single row of concrete block, requiring neighbors to work together to further develop the boundary. With this strategy, Hertzberger created a vacuum of institutional definition similar to that encountered by Matta-Clark in Soho, requiring the direct participation of residents to complete the process of community construction. (13)

The concept of individual participation in community building, as promoted by Matta-Clark, Hertzberger, and the latest housing policies of New York City, identifies the basic cellular building block in the unregulated, apparently spontaneous growth of shantytowns in Third World conditions, a process which also lies at the heart of the origin of most of the world's cities. In the 1970s, Christopher Alexander took up this fact to develop a coherent theory of architecture and urbanism, based on the concept of users and residents taking most of the responsibility for the design and construction of their homes and cities. Alexander and his team at Berkeley studied vernacular and architect-designed environments from many cultures to put together A Pattern Language, a comprehensive dictionary of design elements, from the scale of the window bay and bed nook to complex urban structures. The handbook was conceived to serve as a guide for lay designers. They also developed a light-weight, sprayed, quick-hardening concrete as a universal, inexpensive and highly-plastic building material. While Alexander's concept is entirely utopian in the context of the developed world, he was able to put it to the test in several South American countries, where its potential application was much more realistic. (14)

Curiously, the only form in which American architects today remain actively involved in an architecture based on concepts of community building is in the so-called New Urbanism movement. Beginning with Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk's Seaside, Florida development --the setting for the movie The Truman Show-- and culminating with Disney's new Florida town Celebration, this nostalgic movement revives the traditional elements of the American small town --front porches, sidewalks, neighborhood stores-- in an attempt to inspire a lost sense of community in new developments. Initially, these schemes were built as upper class enclaves, and were often embraced by their residents as harbors for the promotion of conservative values of family, church, and social homogeneity. (14) But the formula is also now being applied in the public housing sector by the Clinton administration. (15) The New Urbanism is of course largely a vocabulary of appearances, with little difference in structural terms from prevailing development patterns. Once again in American architecture, form triumphs over substance.


1. Interviewed in Mary Jane Jacob, Gordon Matta-Clark: A Retrospective, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1985. See this publication for a complete catalog of this and other works by Matta-Clark cited in this article.

2. Eisenman, Peter. et. al., Five Architects, Wittenborn & Company, New York, 1972.

3. This and following, Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, pages 292-306.

4. Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, New York, 1961) was pivotal in the critique of public urban renewal policies, and Jacobs was an active critical voice in New York urban politics until the early 1970s, when she moved to Canada.

5. Drexler followed this line of belligerent formalism to its ultimate consequences when he asserted, during the height of Post Modern Historicism, that the best design to come out of the 1980s in the United States was the B-1 Stealth Bomber.

6. Plunz, Op. Cit., pages 314- 316.  For the controversial urban planning policies of the era, see Robert A. Caro's classic critical study, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1974, a portrait of the leading figure in New York planning and back-office politics from the 1930s through the 1960s.

7. David Cohn, "De Soho al South Bronx: Nuevas formas de vivienda en la ciudad norteamericana", Nuevos modos de habitar, Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de la Comunidad Valenciana, Valencia, 1996, pages 303-313.

8. Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Flesh: Architectural Probes, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1994.

9. Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley, Deconstructivist Architecture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988.

10. David Cohn, "Frank O. Gehry", El Croquis 45, Madrid, October-November 1990, pages 118-124.

11. Liane Lefaivre and Alexandre Tzonis, Aldo Van Eyck, Humanist Rebel, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, and J. Wiley & Sons, London, 1999.

12. "Herman Hertzberger", A+U 75, March, 1977, pages 45-146.

13. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, etc., A Pattern Language: Towns - Buildings - Constructions, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.

14. David Cohn, "Celebration: Un hogar con Disney," Arquitectura Viva 48, May - June 1996, page 9.

15. Blair Kamin, "Public Housing: A Hard Assessment," Architectural Record, November 1999, pages 76-83

Gordon Matta-Clark, Window Blowout 1976
Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, GMCT3025
© ARS, NY and DACS, London, 2007
Copied from: James Attlee
TowardsAnarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark And Le Corbusier
Tate Papers, Spring 2007


Friday, September 1, 2000

The Court House Revisited

Court houses, Porto, Portugal, by Eduardo Souto de Moura
© David Cohn, Bauwelt, 2000. All rights reserved.

The site of Eduardo Souto de Moura's latest work, a luxury housing development in Porto, Portugal, is a typical example of the disconcerting juxtapositions and hidden surprises of the landscape around the city, the product of haphazard and seemingly zoneless growth.  The site was originally a vegetable plot on the grounds of "an aristocratic villa with a beautiful garden," in Souto's words, which overlooked a quiet estuary of the Atlantic Ocean near the beach resort of Matosinhos.  The estuary was later transformed into the busy freight port of Leixôes, replacing the silted river docks of the Douro in the center of the city, and Matosinhos has become a dense and growing bedroom suburb.  The old mansion and its gardens recently found new use as a setting for wedding receptions and the like, while its vegetable garden was sold for development.  The land has been divided into nine rowhouse lots on a trapezoidal parcel, and an odd triangular lot for which Souto has designed a larger and more singular house.  The houses occupy a raised and graded terrace, which is screened from the port by dense unkept undergrowth, and isolated from the villa and gardens behind it by old stone walls and a second rise in level.

One of the principal aims of the project, according to Souto, was to change the character of the site as little as possible, creating a setting in which "vegetation will grow up between the walls to merge with the neighboring gardens and fields."   This conservative impulse, however, has given rise to a radical design, in which the nine houses are completely sealed off from the outside by high windowless concrete walls.  Each house opens exclusively to a series of private courtyards that are concealed behind the walls.  From the exterior, with its discrete entries, the pairs of sliding metal garage doors that rise the full height of the walls, and the continuous metal cornice, the complex appears to be a high-security industrial facility rather than a privileged residential enclave. 

There may be real concerns for security at the site, given its proximity to the port and its isolation.  The industrial exterior camouflages the buildings among the nearby warehouses and factories.  But there also seems to be a deliberate intent to shock in the uncompromising harshness of the exterior, an urge to see just how far the Modernist dictates of reason can be carried against our unconscious aesthetic preconceptions about domesticity.  After all, Souto might ask us, what really distinguishes this development from an industrial facility?  – not the rational division of the site into parcels, not the search for economy and efficiency in the construction, and not the promoter's search for profit.  Only the interior content is different: a series of domestically-scaled spaces and gardens rather than a high open warehouse.  But at the same time, the glimpse that we may catch, behind one of the mute metal entry doors, of a small entry court with its plants and welcoming portico, provokes in us an irresistible curiosity.  Souto has reduced domesticity to its essential condition, to a mysterious interiority in primary relation to nature.

Each unit unfolds around three courtyards: the entry court, a central light court for the three bedrooms and interior spaces, and a large rear garden, opening from the living area and kitchen through sheer glass walls, and featuring in larger lots a swimming pool and bathhouse.  Just as the entry court attracts us, the rear garden also acts as a lure, drawing the visitor through the house and casting its interior spaces into dynamic flow, an effect similar to that found in the compressed indoor-outdoor spaces of a walled Chinese garden.

The bedroom circulation hall and a bathroom are naturally lit by small skylights, contributing to the sensation that the houses are nearly underground, and that the main openings to the exterior are horizontal, to the sky, rather than vertical windows.  Souto underlines this impression when he describes the construction as "three horizontal strips of concrete, which act as roofs, supported by the party walls," a concept clearly legible in the roof plan and in overhead views.  In this respect, the houses are simply the spaces created by overlapping two levels of the garden's terraced terrain.

The houses are designed of course in open homage to Mies van der Rohe's unrealized Court House projects of the 1930s.  This is evident not only in the interpenetration of interior and exterior spaces within common walls -- the interiors also suggest a Miesian free space in the circulation pattern and the articulation of a few key walls and windows as floating vertical planes.  Moreover, Souto takes as his own a Miesian minimalism and respect for the detail, seen in this project in the carefully studied encounters between elements, and the fine finishes, custom cabinetwork and other luxurious appointments, including the carefully-tended full-grown plantings in the exterior courts.  This open invocation of Mies characterizes all of Souto's work, although in many previous projects he has given the Miesian vocabulary a rugged local character through the use of solid walls of native stone, as in his 1990 Casa des Artes cultural center in Oporto, and several of his famous residential designs. 

Certain personal reasons could account for this approach.  In his advocacy of the expensive detail over the grand gesture, and his wish to leave the site undisturbed, Souto seems to be disguising or displacing his creative ambitions, an unusual trait for a talented architect.  It should also be noted that Souto, now 47, is a close friend and colleague of his mentor, Álvaro Siza.  His refuge in Mies and the Miesian detail could well be part of an intent to escape Siza's powerful influence, in a curious variation on literary critic Harold Bloom's theory of "The Anxiety of Influence" between master poets and their disciples.

But at the same time, Souto actually situates himself quite far from Mies' lofty search for perfection.  He once told an interviewer, "Architecture is very limited. Buildings are rarely the product of an architect's ideas; they are the result of legislation.  There are rules for dimensions, for layout, for building systems, and, with exceptions such as cathedrals and museums, the idea of the space ends up corseted.  For this reason I concentrate on the details, to try to move one emotionally without failing to meet the norms."  This severe curtailment of the scope of architecture places Souto in a more contemporary position.  The totalizing revolutionary premises of Mies and the other figures of the early Modern Movement, the idea of the work of architecture as a prototype set in abstract space, yield here to a more realistic, modest, and defensive stand, in which the work of architecture must find a place for itself in the limited context of contemporary development.

In this sense, then, the understated character of Souto's intervention can perhaps be best understood in relation to Porto's special character.  In the disparate juxtapositions of its ex-urban sprawl, its mixture of old villas, small industries, abandoned vegetable plots and new development, all brought together, softened and harmonized by the overgrown local vegetation, Porto could be said to resemble a grand but neglected garden.  In this landscape, Souto's buildings seek to nestle invisibly into an overlooked corner, to bring housekeeping, harmony, and a sense of mystery and light to the modest bit of the grounds in their charge.  This image, of the untidy garden as a humanizing ideal, which is also close to the heart of Siza's Porto work, is one of the most interesting responses architecture has yet to offer to the challenging landscape of unbridled urban growth.

Originally published as:
Hofhäuser in Hafenmähe
Bauwelt 33, September 1, 2000, pages 36 - 39.
Holding Court
World Architecture 86 (London), May 2000, pages 78 - 81.