Unpacking Ideas

A Deleuzian mind frame, one open to connections, a “rhizomatic” attitude as it were, will enhance the pleasure of visiting “Out of the box: Price Rossi Stirling + Matta-Clark,” a superb exhibition on display in the Main Galleries of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) until September 6, 2004.1

Cedric Price and Matta-Clark–the two most radical artists/architects in “Out of the box”–respectively mark through their work the points of access and exit of the exhibition. This arrangement sets the tone for the visitor’s tour of the show, which culminates with Stirling and Rossi’s projects tucked in the inner galleries.

Placed strategically, Matta-Clark’s experimental films, among the few extant works by this artist, are always within reach of the visitor. They serve as choreographed interruptions reinforcing the innovative–“unstable” according to the show’s curator Mirko Zardini–makeup of the exhibition, which includes some 450 drawings, photographs, documents, films, and models from four new archives of the CCA collection. Much of this material has never been seen before. The “unstable,” rhizomatic condition of the exhibition is deliberate and permits future rearrangements and changes. The show can even accept new material. Zardini maintains that the exhibition is in itself an experiment made up of material “coming out of the box for the first time.”

A common denominator among the works of “Out of the box” is their shared historical context, which encompasses two of the pivotal decades of the twentieth century, the ’60s and ’70s. During this period, modernity entered in a crisis that permeated all expressive forms from philosophy, painting and sculpture, to literature, music and architecture. Land Art, Minimalism, and the questioning of the traditional role of the art gallery emerged in an artistic and architectural world whose limits were expanding to include new categories and practices. Artistic and architectural production of Price, Stirling, Rossi, and Matta-Clark were significant parts of this volatile but highly alluring period. Their works represented a new way of seeing architecture, and ultimately, the world.

“How can we envisage a building that is not a building? Have we now learned how to listen to the world that surrounds architecture–its multiple histories and its varied contexts? Is architecture as autobiography possible? How can we replace ‘architecture’ with ‘anarchitecture’, and what would that be?” These are current questions that the works of Price, Stirling, Rossi, and Matta-Clark’s still raise, Zardini points out.

Fun Palace, London (1961-1972), a grid of 75 steel towers, is the example of an “anti-building” lacking floors, walls and roof. It is without doubt the most fascinating project by Cedric Price (1934-2003), which was developed in collaboration with theatre director Joan Littlewood (1915-2002). The project unfolds through two of the CCA galleries in a selection of correspondences and documents, newspaper clippings, notes, sketches, finished drawings, films, and models. Fun Palace is, with the architect’s scheme for the Potteries Thinkbelt (1963-66), one of the significant precedents without which many 20th century buildings would be inconceivable–think of Piano & Rogers’s Centre Pompidou in Paris (1971-77) or the work of Rem Koolhaas.

Opposed to the creation of monuments, Price always argued in favour of flexibility, and was an acerb critic of the profession, adopting the role of anti-architect. One of his famous statements: “I’m only radical because the architectural profession has got lost. Architects are such a dull lot–and they’re convinced that they matter.” The material on display illustrates the relevance of this extraordinary architect who built little but was a constant provocateur and influential voice.

A series of drawings and renderings, some of them never before exhibited, illustrate the most representative projects by Aldo Rossi (1931-1997). Architectural icons of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the reconstruction of the Piazza Pilotta, Parma (1964) the Gaillaratese apartments 2, Milan (1969), the San Cataldo Cemetery, Modena (1971), the Teatro del mondo, Venice (1979) have been exhausted and virtually reduced in size through slide presentations, books, and periodicals. However, in “Out of the box” their originals are now all accessible, at true scale, and in a single location. Exploring these projects on the panels, walls, or in two drawing file cabinet installed in one of the galleries constitutes a unique opportunity for the visitor. The material on display unveils effectively Rossi’s autobiographical process of design, which was informed by a series of formal types inspired by the architecture of his native northern Italy–he used to sketch or photograph many of those precedents with a Polaroid camera. Thus, the cone, the chimney, the silo, the gable wall, the colourful changing beach cabins, and the galleria, became types that he continually recombined into urban fragments, buildings, and objects.

James Stirling (1926-1992) produced a series of remarkable projects. His practice, including partnerships with James Gowan from 1955 to 1964 and with Michael Wilford from 1971 to 1992, was characterized by a syncretism drawing from the Modernism of Le Corbusier, Classical and Neo-Classical architecture as well as from vernacular precedents. The Leicester University Engineering Building (1959-1963), the History Building, Cambridge University (1964-67), the Arthur M. Sackler (Fogg) Museum at Harvard University (1979-1984) are some of his best known buildings. His 1970s museum projects, which culminated with the building of the Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (1977-1984) constitute the core of this section of “Out of the box”. The architect’s design process, based on building and site exploration, circulation priorities, and building character are illustrated by the endless number of sketches, which led to exquisitely finished and precise drawings. Renderings and sketches speak of Stirling’s attitude of “listening” to the historical scenario and contextual determinants that would surround each of his projects.

The most elusive of the four figures in the show is artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978). Trained as an architect, Matta-Clark blurred the limits between architecture and art, and between theory and practice. Included in the exhibition are photographs, documents, drawings and films of his dramatic performances. Through strategically placed video monitors, visitors can screen the aerial ballet in Tree Dance (1973), the cutting of a buildings in Splitting (1974); underground explorations–“to bring art out of the gallery into the sewers”–in Substrait (1976) and Paris Underground (1977); and the artist’s sacrifice of his truck in Fresh Kill (1972). Witty, and often humorous, his investigations address the status of art and question the nature of cities, property, and the social order. This is illustrated by the graphic material which documents Conical Intersect (1975), A W-hole House and Anarchitecture. Also featured in the show, the film City Slivers (1976) illustrates Matta-Clark’s novel way of framing views of the urban landscape through vertical slivers and the use of a special lens, which according to the artist, virtually “sandwich in” the layers of the city. The film fittingly greets or bids farewell to “Out of the box” visitors depending on their route.

“Out of the box: Price Rossi Stirling + Matta-Clark” is a collaboration between architects, critics, scholars, and curators, under the direction of Mirko Zardini, curator of the show. Montreal architect Louis-Charles Lasnier was the designer of the exhibition. This open ended, and out-of-the-ordinary exhibition will certainly challenge and stimulate all those interested in exploring and making connections between the history, condition, and purpose of architecture.

Ricardo L. Castro, MRAIC is an associate professor of architecture at McGill University.

1 Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; translated and foreword by Brian Mass
umi (Minneapolis, London: The University of Minneapolis Press, 1987), pp. 3-25.