Art for Building’s Sake

In the 1960s and ’70s the Profession of Architecture Was Turned on Its Head Through a Series of Experiments That Sought to Question the Fundamental Nature of Architecture. Cedric Price, Aldo Rossi, James Stirling, and Gordon Matta-Clark Rebelled Against Modernism’s Failed Attempts to Re-Order the Urban Fabric. Out of the Box: Price Rossi Stirling + Matta-Clark, the Current Exhibit in the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (Cca) Main Galleries, Looks at These Four Men Who Thirty Years Ago Re-Evaluated the Role of the Architect and of Architecture in Society. the Exhibit Revisits Unanswered Questions Raised by Their Work. but Why Now? the Cca Has Recently Acquired Archives on All Four; But, More Importantly, Enough Dust Has Settled on the Work to Allow Us to Measure Its Significance and Identify Its Present-Day Relevance.

All of the men featured in the exhibition practised as architects with the exception of the artist Matta-Clark, although even he had formal training at Cornell University’s School of Architecture. His was a good position from which to challenge architectural issues such as community, property, and the alienation of urban space. Matta-Clark did just that through artwork and involvement with the Anarchitecture group. This loosely formed group of artists attended weekly meetings to discuss an alternative attitude toward architecture. Matta-Clark’s project “Fake Estates” of property and ownership, consisted of photos and deeds of curb property or ‘gutter space’ that he purchased for about $35 apiece at the New York City Auction. These slivers of land leftover from lots drawn by planners and architects fell into the city’s hands when owners failed to pay taxes. The parcels Matta-Clark found most intriguing were completely inaccessible strips surrounded by buildings.

“Splitting” was one of Matta-Clark’s many ‘building cuts’. His dealer Horace Solomon, in an act of real estate speculation, bought a house with the sole intention of demolishing it for the value of its lot. Matta-Clark used this house in Englewood, New Jersey for one of his first building cuts in 1974. In “Splitting” the single family home was sliced in half with a surgeon’s precision to simultaneously question both the structure of the building and the family as well as speak about the symbol of the house itself.

By the 1960s many artists had started to look at extra-aesthetic considerations in their work. There was a movement towards site specificity in art and dialogue emerged between artists and their environment–particularly the architectural. To further encourage integration of art and building, ‘percent for art’ schemes were established across North America and Europe, with the sixteenth century Italian piazza as the model. Under these schemes beginning in 1965, the Department of Public Works in Canada first allocated one percent of new construction costs of federal buildings for fine art; the architect was to be responsible for co-ordinating the programme. Artist Richard Serra used the term “piazza art” reproachfully to speak against much of the work conceived at this time. Out-of-scale studio art seemed to drop arbitrarily in front of new buildings without questioning or challenging the space. Serra’s own work was always devised as a counterpoint and a critique of its architectural surroundings.

It is unfortunate that public outcry over some of Serra’s most contentious work has led, in part, to today’s civic art programs. Introduced to most Canadian cities during the late ’80s and early ’90s, the programs use a model of art funding involving both corporate and citizen representation with an emphasis on process (often to head off controversy). Although in principal the idea seems worthy, public art created this way frequently ends up bland and lifeless.

“It is the rigid mentality that architects install the walls and artists decorate them that offends my sense of either profession,” says Gordon Matta-Clark, whose views on the subject reflect a new way of thinking about art for architecture in today’s increasingly multi-disciplinary world–a collaborative approach. Collaboration between an artist and an architect does not result in a reaction to a given space, as in the work of Serra, or a work unrelated to its context (e.g., ‘piazza art’ or ‘plop’ art), but instead there is a commingling of ideas where both art and architecture are the better for it. The funding structures based on a percentage of project costs or a dollar amount per square foot of revenue construction need not change, though the process must.

The UK’s Royal Society for Art (RSA) encourages collaborative ventures between artists and architects through their Art for Architecture granting program which funds an artist’s involvement on a design team at an early stage. Two out of the six projects short-listed for this year’s Stirling Prize have received funding from this program. One of these is the Laban Centre for Contemporary Dance in South London by Herzog and de Meuron collaborating with artist Michael Craig-Martin. Herzog and de Meuron have a long history working with artists on their projects, and in this case, the artist and architects attempted to integrate the solid interior surfaces of the building with the translucent polycarbonate exterior surface through the play of colour.

Levitt Goodman Architects’ Strachan House in Toronto, a recipient of a Governor-General’s Award in 1999, was another collaborative design process. Paul Raff, an artist and an architect, worked as a subcontracted artist on the women’s shelter to create within the building certain site-specific spaces. Back in 1995 Paul Raff created another art installation, this one temporary and heavily indebted to the work of Matta-Clark. Entitled “UNbuilding Ways,” the installation, or more appropriately ‘deconstruction’, transformed the act of demolition into a work of art.

There are many like Raff who traverse the boundaries between art and architecture, yet there is still a marked distinction between what each of the two disciplines brings to a project. Architects are invariably part of a large machine with numerous consultants, demands, and budgetary constraints. An artist does have contingencies to work under as well, but he/she retains autonomy and independence. For this reason, artists are freer to question both specific aspects of a project and essential issues in architecture itself. Collaboration between the two disciplines requires an establishment of the boundaries of each. Once recognized, these boundaries can be moved and adjusted–perhaps by contemporary avatars of Price, Rossi, Stirling and Matta-Clark?

Helena Grdadolnik, MArch, MRAIC instructs Design History at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver. Out of the Box: Price Rossi Stirling Matta-Clark runs to September 6, 2004 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. See