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Gordon Matta-Clark: Converting the City’s Decay into Critical Works of Art


Gordon Matta-Clark: “Splitting” (1974).

Over the past years, there has been a strong current of photographers preoccupied with urban decay. Detroit is the primary example of this fascination with abandonment, ruination and former glory. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for example, have become superstars by capturing Detroit’s decline in dramatically bombastic and wistful images.

In this light, it is interesting to take a look at the works of Gordon Matta-Clark.


Gordon Matta-Clark: “Conical Intersect” (1975).

Matta-Clark was trained as an architect, but quickly turned his back to mainstream architecture. In his works, he criticized the pretentious abstractions that architecture, according to him, consisted of. He wanted to show how architecture was disconnected from the physical reality of everyday life. His famous works include abandoned houses and derelict warehouses, slashed with a chain saw. This was also a comment on the collapse of American cities and the American Dream. Much of his work was set in New York, demonstrating the city’s failed social policies and architectural plans.


Gordon Matta-Clark: “Day’s End” (1975).

The works of Matta-Clark are not quite cases of ruin gazing, contrary to much of the contemporary decay photography. Nevertheless, there are some corresponding elements. They both emphasize how architecture, industry and political and socioeconomic realities often deviate from their initial designs or heydays.


Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand: “American Hotel” (2010).

Of course, ruin photographers often rearrange the scene to create a perfect composition of decay, but Matta-Clark makes major alterations to the derelict buildings to convey imperfect realities and how these contrast with the once perfect plans of architects and policymakers. These physical articulations of disappointing realities were of course allover New York in the 1970s. Matta-Clark is considered one of the first to contest fancy architecture and urban policy and the relationship between the two.

Not only do Matta-Clark’s works show the uncertainty and transience of our physical and mental realities. The fact that the buildings he incised and transformed were often demolished soon after the alterations and that they only continued to exist in picture and film, added to the notion of temporality. Matta-Clark’s own impermanence (he died in 1978, aged 35), only contributed to his cult status.

Failed Architecture
The different ways of looking at, and making use of our decayed built environment will be topic of discussion during the next edition of Failed Architecture, on Wednesday May 9 in TrouwAmsterdam. The subject will be dealt with from different angles, including that of an urban explorer, a photojournalist, an artist and an architect. The obsession with failure in image will be also be presented in a historical context. A short lecture about the Japanese notion of Wabi Sabi (acceptance of transience as a central idea in aesthetics) will add another perspective to the theme.

The Ruins of Detroit
From May 12 to June 30, the hailed works of Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand will be at display in Galerie Fontana Fortuna in Amsterdam.

Pictures of Matta-Clark’s works are courtesy of Artists Rights Society.
Picture of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre is courtesy of Galerie Fontana Fortuna.

Filed under photography failed architecture decay art Detroit New York urbanism

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