One way to make sense of, and thus critique the relationship between architecture and power, is through an examination of the socio-political context of real estate speculation and the architect’s role in it. Architects have long served private investors whose investment-backed expectations demand from the architect both a clear-eyed understanding of financial machinations of building and a full-throated commitment to achieving the speculator’s agenda, oftentimes at the expense of others. Architecture’s service to private wealth creation is certainly nothing new, but in today’s socio-political climate it is particularly relevant where we are all hyper-attuned to staggering wealth disparity all across the globe. Real estate tycoons, oligarchs, and a coterie of billionaires already dominate the global economic and financial institutions that made their wealth possible, but now are poised to hijack many of our political institutions. What does this tell us about the political nature of the architect’s labor in this speculative context? And how is the economic power of the speculator ‘recorded’ in the architecture, if it can be?
The work of Gordon Matta-Clark suggests an answer. Since architecture is both the subject matter and medium of his work, I will use his creative practice as my entry point. The Cornell-educated architecture student turned artist-activist challenges the logic of architectural production on many levels. Those familiar with Matta-Clark’s work recall his exuberant building cuts, specifically Splitting (1974) Englewood, N.J. and Conical Intersect (1975) Paris as definitive.
Indeed, for much of the period since his death in 1978, Matta-Clarks’s work has stood for a handful of propositions about negating the cultural prestige of architecture and questioning the status of architects. Namely, in his hands architecture is merely a raw material to be worked over and transformed at the point of a crowbar and reciprocating saw, marking the disintegration of social space as well as architectural form. Intrigued by change and not stasis his creative output is not about object-making, but rather strategic intervention. In 1973, while New York City was simultaneously enduring devastating economic hardship and grand urban renewal schemes favoring rapacious real estate speculation, Matta-Clark purchased fifteen useless micro-parcels of surplus real estate sight unseen from the city’s Real Estate Department at auction intending to use them as the basis for works of art. Given his unmistakable opposition to cash-conscious commercialization and his outright disdain towards what he perceived as architecture’s inevitable connection to big business, what does this purchase really signal?
In this paper I argue that Reality Properties: Fake Estates (1973), one of Matta-Clark’s lesser known abstract works, is a potent and lasting critique no less than his iconic cuts of: 1) the ways in which NYC in the ‘70’s was dissected for financial gain, 2) of the ideological flaws evident in the endless cycle of wasteful real estate speculation, and 3) the ways in which architects wittingly or otherwise participate in fostering architectural obsolescence. In the end this work is a reductio-style argument—where Matta-Clark demonstrates that a suspected faulty premise (or two) eventuates in a contradiction giving us reason to reject the suspect premise(s)—that ought to serve as a reminder to architects that they do have moral and aesthetic obligations to anticipate how the fruits of their labor will be co-opted by the forces of speculation with or without their permission.