salvaging 19th century chicago cottages and the work of gordon matta-clark

in the wake of a number of demolitions that razed beautifully intact 19th century buildings, it feels redundant to pine over the loss of irreplaceable architecture and the blatant disregard for a historic landscape. instead, having returned from a vacation where i was able to read "objects to be destroyed," on the work of gordon matta-clark, it seems pertinent to draw connections to those in the past who have attended to architectural death in different ways. looking to artists and historians of an earlier era is often a comfort in the sense that finding others thinking through similar problems is like discovering a lineage leading to what i do now.


i have written previously about richard nickel as an inspiration in this regard. here, visiting gordon matta-clark’s work, i could not help but feel a kinship between the labor i embark on each week, of methodically salvaging houses, and works like “splitting,” in which the artist painstakingly cleaves a soon-to-be demolished building in half. cutting two parallel, vertical lines through the middle of a frame house with a chainsaw, and tipping the house back on its foundations, he was able to remove material from the middle and extract eaves of the building to be later shown as a sculptural work four corners. likewise, his “building cuts” involved transforming abandoned buildings by cutting into and dismantling the architecture. though our purpose and methods are not alike, i can empathize deeply with the experience of walking away from a project with only fragments, to be transformed into something presentable in another context. these remnants take on a further store of meaning after the source building has disappeared.

gordon matta-clark himself referred to his mode of production as “unbuilding,” a term that mirrors my own project “deconstructing chicago.” as in “splitting,” the act of salvage is often (ironically) bound up in destruction, taking advantage of the small windows of opportunity afforded by wrecking, where analysis and documentation can be made. my own projects always seem to sit somewhere between scientific method and a reverence for an architecture that is overlooked and carelessly destroyed.

though more so i yearn to protect and draw awareness to what is imminently endangered, matta-clark’s conceptual art touches me deeply in the ways it reframes the life of a neighborhood or building, throwing into relief sites that are abandoned and undervalued.


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