In November 2018, architectural theorist and acclaimed author Mark Wigley presented his book Cutting Matta-Clark: The Anarchitecture Investigation to the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, where he once served as dean. He opened the lecture by implying a necessary awareness by the architectural field to the work of the late artist: “There are a lot of ways to be an idiot in architecture. One of the easiest is to not pay attention to Gordon Matta-Clark.” Wigley argued that not only is Matta-Clark less understood as the subversive and complex artist he was, but he may just have been an architect. A year later, Passing Through Architecture: The 10 Years of Gordon Matta-Clark, a show curated by Wigley, opened in Shanghai with a new book, inviting a new community to encounter Matta-Clark’s work.
Recently, I sat down with Wigley to discuss Matta-Clark’s enigmatic character, his politics, and the problematic relationship of his work to his most notable creation: the word anarchitecture. A version of this interview was originally published in the print-only monthly The New York Review of Architecture.
JC: James Coleman
MW: Mark Wigley
In 2002, Jane Crawford, the widow of Gordon Matta-Clark, released his collected papers to the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). Two years later, you became dean of Columbia and immediately started work on a show of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work. Was there an urgency associated with the release of the documents?
When I became dean, I was very interested to create a partnership with the CCA. I thought we should have a series of exhibitions in New York that would bring a university and a museum together. The project was called The Living Archive, and the Matta-Clark show was the first of this series. The idea was that archives are not dead, but alive and full of mystery, murder, blood, etc.
And Matta-Clark was a source of this mystery?
He’s a mythological character. Matta-Clark haunts architectural discourse because he does something to architecture that doesn’t look like architecture. There is this weird feeling that if someone is incredibly interesting, then they must not be an architect, they must be an artist; that architects provide answers as stable forms, and artists are the opposite: they destabilize our thinking. My own scholarship is about the fact that architecture is super unstable, which is why I am attracted to Matta-Clark. He is undoing this idea that architecture is fixed.
How did this project differ from other scholarly projects in the past?
You know when you’re watching movies and there is a parallel between the detectives who have on their wall these big charts and all these strings linking pictures, and the serial killer who, in his bedroom, has the same thing? It’s a kind of murder mystery. Is Matta-Clark killing architecture or not? Where is the scene of the crime? What is the evidence? The idea was to say, let’s just invite the visitors to the exhibition to make up their own minds about what the evidence suggests. The first show was a cold case; the book was an investigative report reopening a cold case.
And yet he is our protagonist, as most of us are captivated by the images of him caught in the act, performing the work. How important were those pictures as documents of his process?
He’s part of the work. If you take a bunch of photographs and then you choose one, is the photograph taken when you click the camera or when you choose the negative? Surely both. Matta-Clark is thinking when he makes his cuts, about how they will look in photographs. Between the cutting and photographing, the selection of the negative, the framing of the negative, and often the cutting of the photograph itself, there is this continuous scene in which it would be kind of crazy to portray Matta-Clark as this detached overlord constructing an image. It is much more interesting to see him right in the middle of it all. Matta-Clark is in all the images, buried inside the architecture. You can open up architecture and find him in there, carving away.
In the first book, as in Matta-Clark’s career, Splitting  takes on significant importance. How did that piece change how you saw his work?
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an earthquake, but in New Zealand, where I’m from, it is quite a common experience. When there’s an earthquake, you suddenly realize how fragile architecture is. You see the waves of the quake go through the building like a ripple. It looks just like water, like you can pass through it. The moment you see that, you can never think of a building as solid again. Splitting is just so absurdly brilliant in the sense that simply by cutting a 1-inch slice through a building and leaning one-half back a little, the whole architecture becomes vertiginous. You don’t feel unsafe; Matta-Clark is not into producing a sense of lack of safety. Quite the opposite. He’s saying: It’s alive. Like a tree, it bends, it moves, it’s perforated, it makes strange noises, strange angles, strange geometries. You can pass through architecture if you’re not intimidated by it.
His work cannot help but be seen as political, yet he was mentored by varying political perspectives. He was taught at Cornell by Colin Rowe and the Texas Rangers, who were very much apolitical—
Which is a kind of politics.
And spent some time in Paris, coincidently, with the Situationists. When he arrives in New York City, his medium is essentially abandoned buildings within the disenfranchised communities that surrounded him. Did his politics drive him toward the medium, or were his politics a result of the medium?
I think his work is relentlessly political. It doesn’t have a nonpolitical moment. And you’re right that the decaying industrial cities are his medium, as is the social and economic decay. He inhabits that with curiosity and empathy—and in that sense, you couldn’t get further away from Colin Rowe. In Rowe’s world, nothing ever decays; it lives on forever in idealized proportions. When asked, as he was his whole career, he always said the same thing, that the horror of contemporary society is the extent to which we acquiesce in the face of architecture. Architecture is not a representation of political authority—it is political authority.
That notion seems embedded in the term “anarchitecture,” yet according to your research, Matta-Clark was hesitant to apply the word to his own work.
My argument is that he uses that word not because he wants to but because he knows it works. It has a hold on him. It’s a sexy word, and he knows if he uses the sexy word, people get into it. He uses it in private, saying, “I’d love to do an anarchitecture work.” Then, if he does make the work, he doesn’t call it anarchitecture. It’s a secret word, a code word, a club word. This word is self-destabilizing. Splitting is not an anarchitecture because he doesn’t think it’s good enough. He said he was looking for something more elusive.
In the past you’ve analogized the problem of the word anarchitecture to Reyner Banham’s New Brutalism and how problematic that term was.
It was a good label. Banham just didn’t yet find the architecture to go with it.
Anarchitecture seems to have inscribed in it a similar paradox. An architecture must exist before anarchitecture can be enacted on it, and yet the architecture isn’t really revealed until the action of anarchitecture is performed.
Is an essay the attempt to understand its title, or is the title just a reflection of the essay? Anarchitecture was exactly this kind of enigma. Does it name something, or is it a provocation to find something that could receive the name? If you could make architecture vibrate with the word that seems to be its opposite, then architecture would start operating like art, in that architecture would start asking questions rather than answering them.
You are continuing this project on Matta-Clark with a show in Shanghai. How will it compare to the Columbia exhibition and the book?
Nothing about anarchitecture. I am concentrating on the building cuts. A lot of the same evidence is there, but the attempt is to return to this concept of passing through. It is a very subversive concept of architecture, that seemingly solid architecture is light and delicate. You can ventilate or perforate it. You can simply pass through it like the wind. I want to exhibit the work of Matta-Clark to show what this might mean: to pass through architecture. I think the word anarchitecture may not even appear, but you can always test me later: “I went to the show, and that word came back!”
It seems like a difficult word to ignore.