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Completion Through Renewal


In this essay I will examine the relationship between art and architecture to understand how the disciplines of art and music can be used as tools for the critique of modernist architecture. To answer this question, I will be studying the work of the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark and the German band Einstürzende Neubauten, the former being active in New York during the 1970s and the latter in West Berlin from 1980 onwards. I am going to introduce the contextual relationships that these artists had to their urban environment before then explaining how their experiences in these surroundings defined their understanding of the relationship between the ideologies of modernist architecture and power structures in society. I will also be explaining through the work of Bernard Tschumi how both artists used deconstruction and unbuilding in their work to evaluate and challenge modernist theory to open up possibilities for a more autonomous way of living and creating work. This essay will compare both artists to Walter Benjamin’s “destructive character” and analyses their work through his theories of “urban archaeology” and will then explain how the artists used similar principles to evaluate the post-industrial city. This essay concludes with the understanding that both artists juxtaposed the contemporary and historical components of their cities in order to collect the waste elements of both periods to allow for the creation of something new.

Strategies Against Architecture

Matta-Clark’s ideas about collaboration and the uses of space were partially developed while he was living as a loft-dweller in one of SoHo’s formerly industrial buildings where the inhabitants cut up and rebuilt disused workshops to transform them into live-in studios. This process required a degree of  self-reliance to ensure that studio spaces were divided up to meet changing demands and were free to be utilised by the building users, rather than dictated by master architects.|1| Similarly, Einstürzende Neubauten’s environment also provided them with a vision of utopia as an existence comprising of artistic communalism. Their home of Kreuzberg in the early 1980s consisted of a self-reliant network of artists who shared their resources in the form of performance spaces, group members and equipment.

Despite their different locales, both artists were experiencing the effects of post-industrial capitalism, where both their cities were being subjected to economic recession, government bankruptcy, crumbling infrastructure and increased social tension. These experiences meant that critiquing structures of power was a key component in the work of Matta-Clark and Neubauten, who both theorised a direct relationship between modernist architecture and the oppression of its inhabitants. Le Corbusier was a key reference point for Matta-Clark’s Anarchitecture project (1974) because of the former’s belief that the architect should act as a collaborator with elites to form a more structured society. Le Corbusier theorised that this would help to maintain civil order because he believed that “a well mapped-out housing scheme… inevitably imposes discipline on the inhabitants”.|2|Anarchitecture opposed these oppressive ideas, but crucially it did so without promoting a singular alternative.

One medium of criticism for Matta-Clark came through his fascination with wordplay, which resulted in a series of art cards that brought a literary element to the Anarchitecture project and retaliated against significant modernist theories. “Do not forget the problem of architecture” emphasised Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture “Anarchitecture attempts to solve no problem” riposted Matta-Clark.|3|He also played upon Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’, distorting it into ‘form fallows function’ to emphasise his belief that adhering to set ideas about interactions with a building’s form restricts a person’s potential use of a space. Matta-Clark exemplified an alternative way of designing buildings in the Anarchitecture exhibition with an image of a crashed train carriage that had been given new life as a bridge (Fig. 1). By using this image, Matta-Clark suggested that architecture should exist in a way that allows for other, more spontaneous uses.

Alternatively, Neubauten derived their understanding of the relationship between architecture and power from the work of Georges Bataille. Bataille also critiqued architecture as an instrument of control by the wealthy elite, and saw the storming of the Bastille as an attack by the working classes upon their ruling systems. Neubauten directly related Bataille’s understanding of the storming on the Bastille to their experiences living in the Haus-Besetzers squatter community, where young artists occupied buildings in areas of Kreuzberg that had been abandoned by business owners and wealthy individuals. This resulted in numerous bloody battles with police who protected the reclaimed property of these powerful figures by violently evicting the squatters. The group reflect upon these experiences on the compilation album titled Strategies Against Architecture III, with a track declaring that “Architekur ist Geiselnahme” (“architecture is hostage taking”).|4| Furthermore, the group’s name translates as “collapsing new buildings”, demonstrating their belief that attacks upon architecture through the understanding of Bataille’s notion of “l’informe” are an attack against a ruling elite.

Bataillean principles were also influential upon deconstructivist architect Bernard Tschumi, who recognised deconstruction (as opposed to destruction) as a tool that can be used in architecture to allow for wider structural change. Like Neubauten, he understood that space is political, because it is created by the social structures that occupy it and that the ownership and usage of spaces dictates the morphology of the city. In the essay Space and Events, Tschumi explained that “there is no space without event, no architecture without programme” and that when an event takes place in a space, architecture “ceases to become a backdrop to actions, becoming the action itself.”|5| As a part of his unbuilding, Tschumi looked beyond the discipline of architectural practice to other mediums, including music.

Deconstruction and Unbuilding

Like Tschumi, Neubauten shared an understanding of the relationship between music, architecture and political power and it became a leitmotif throughout their work. Music and architecture are “parallel arts of harmonic and rhythmic order” that have an equally institutional-reinforcing power that Neubauten’s work intended to subvert.|6| As a visual demonstration of this, the back cover of Neubauten’s debut album Kollaps has a photograph depicting the group as urban guerrillas in front of the Nazi symbolism of the Olympiastadion. In the photograph, the group purposefully present their equipment as if it were weapons, ready for an attack upon this structure of power.|7|

Similarly, Matta-Clark also used visual works to suggest plans to take down structures of power in his city. In 1970s New York, the neighbourhood of SoHo operated with a level of autonomy and was a home to numerous artists and musicians much like in Neubauten’s Kreuzberg. However, in 1973 the neighbourhood witnessed the completion of the World Trade Centre, meaning that global finance had a new dominance over the horizon and was asserting its authority upon the surrounding area. Matta-Clark recognised this symbol of capitalism as a threat to his autonomous neighbourhood and proposed an attack upon the towers in a letter to the Anarchitecture group. The work consisted of a sketch of two crossed-out towers and the caption:




Matta-Clark’s desire for unbuilding structures like the World Trade Centre resulted from his belief that to take down a structure would create the opportunity to reclaim the space that it had once inhabited. He illustrated this theory with an image chosen for the Anarchitecture exhibition of a building with a sign on the façade of the building stating that space was “available”. The building had been partially destroyed by a gas explosion; meaning that the word “available” had an alternate meaning because a void had been opened up in the urban fabric so this space was ready for reclamation.

When discussing the same ideas of void-making in an interview, Neubauten’s vocalist Blixa Bargeld references Walter Benjamin’s essay, Der destructive Charakter.|8| In the essay, Benjamin states that “The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred”.|9|These theories about void creation and reclamation fuelled one of Neubauten’s most notorious concerts, the 1984 Concerto For Voice and Machinery at the ICA in London. In this performance the band were joined by members of Throbbing Gristle and Fad Gadget to attack the venue’s foundations with a wide array of equipment including saws, drills and cement breakers.

Dadaesque Restructuring

Performances like Concerto For Voice and Machinery were just one way the group challenged the idea of listening to music as a pleasurable experience. The group’s debut LP Kollaps insisted that listeners “Hören Mit Schmerzen” (Listen With Pain). Neubauten’s approach to songwriting and recording intentionally altered the conventions of popular music and the group are keen to avoid genre classification with other artists. Despite this, the term “industrial” is frequently applied to their work, which is a genre described by Throbbing Gristle biographer Simon Ford as being “more John Cage than Johnny Rotten.”|10| This label can be applied to Neubauten’s work because, like Cage and unlike the Sex Pistols, typical song structures of verses, choruses and bridges were discarded in favour of experiments. Despite this, it is worth noting that, unlike a lot of music labelled with the industrial tag Neubauten’s work isn’t entrenched in nihilism and obsessions with depravity. Instead, their work presents an open question about the aesthetic prescriptions of music, while also reflecting upon the disharmony of the post-industrial city under capitalism in the attempt to strive for an autonomous way of living.|11|

The group’s aspiration to subvert and disharmonise the conventions of western popular music resonates with Matta-Clark, though Matta-Clark achieved this aim visually, rather than sonically. The disharmony in his work intentionally created a vertigo-inducing experience, resulting in feelings of unease where viewers observe with pain. The unease that comes with the circular cuts in these works is a consequence of Matta-Clark violating the perpendicular axes that commonly define architectural space in domestic dwellings. Works such as Office Baroque and Conical Intersect disrupt the conventional relationship between vertical and horizontal by altering the visual forms of architecture, inserting openings strategically to transform the buildings into dadaesque collages and to generate a new kind of urban void in the process.

The Creation and Utilisation of Urban Voids

Matta-Clark’s theories about urban voids being a space for creation were realised in the work of Neubauten, who utilised these spaces to write, record and perform. Their music inhabits the context of two periods of void generation within Berlin’s urban fabric: the voids that depict suffering created by war and terror during the Nazi regime and the voids that illustrate the rewrite of history by the westernisation of GDR locations after the fall of the wall in 1989.|12|These voids and ruins provided the group with the equipment and spaces for performances, where disused factories, railway stations, bridge cavities and open waste ground became stages. These spaces also provided the band with found objects to utilise; piping, shopping trolleys, sheet metal and rubble were all appropriated into instruments. In the eyes of Benjamin this would make the band “urban archaeologists,” living on the margins of consumer culture and recycling the historical ruins of modernity as a form of contemporary critique.

The relationships established between the historical and contemporary in Matta-Clark’s work originated during his architectural education. It’s likely that Colin Rowe, a university tutor to Matta-Clark who was a staunch critic of modernism’s tabula rasa approach, initially inspired these ideas in him. In his text The Collage City, Rowe proposed the idea of bricoleur, which is an approach to urban design formed through a step-by-step progression over time. Rowe views a successful “bricoleur/fox” city as one that uses elements from the older city to inform new additions and interventions in the urban fabric. This approach is compared favourably to a “engineer/hedgehog” city that disassembles everything and starts again, without evaluating what came before.|13|

Rowe’s principles informed Conical Intersect, where Matta-Clark cut through two buildings slated for demolition that overlooked the Centre Georges Pompidou, which was under construction at the time. In interviews regarding the work, Matta-Clark explained how he also drew inspiration from the work of Benjamin to create work that acts as a study upon “the material dialectics of a real environment”, just as Einstürzende Neubauten would later do.|14|In Passen-Werk (On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress) Benjamin explains that the juxtaposition of the past and the contemporary results in the emergence of the “trash of history” and puts it to use.|15|In reference to this, Matta-Clark stated that “only our garbage heaps are growing as they fill up with history” and that by boring through these adjacent buildings he had allowed the observer to see the modern and historical simultaneously, creating a deliberate “facing off” between the surviving waste of the two, allowing for their re-evaluation.|16|


Both Gordon Matta-Clark and Einstürzende Neubauten were successful in using destruction and deconstruction to evaluate and to then challenge the ideologies of modernist architecture by opening up possibilities for more autonomous uses of space. However, it is evident that their ideas have not had the widespread effects upon the contemporary city that  they desired. Although they are still well known within music subcultures, Einstürzende Neubauten remain an underground act and an isolated case in western ‘rock’ music of a band understanding both the relationship between music and architecture and the application of those ideas to attack structures of power. Matta-Clark on the other hand, died of cancer in 1978 aged just 35. If his career as an artist had not been tragically shortened, perhaps he may have further developed the Anarchitecture project to a stage where his principles of adaptable spaces would have been realised in the form of inhabited built projects. It is probable that this could have had led to his work having a greater influence upon wider architectural design.  

It is worth noting, however, that there are other artists active today who are taking elements from the practices used by both of the artists highlighted in this essay and are applying them to them to a contemporary context. Musician Holly Herndon, along with her collaborator Mat Dryhurst, creates a kind of entirely digital musique concrète by using a software patch that produces sounds from the waste elements of web browsers and servers. They have named the results ‘net concrete’ because they are comprised of layers of materials collected from the frameworks of the internet ‘collapsed’ on top of each other.|17|This deliberate breaking down of the architecture of the internet by Herndon is the reclamation of online spaces from the powerful and, like Einstürzende Neubauten and Matta-Clark, she is evaluating and critiquing her environment by collecting its detritus to create something new. Herndon’s vision of utopia also mirrors that of Einstürzende Neubauten and Matta-Clark. With her work she strives to create spaces where “everyone regardless of their background would have agency over their own lives and would feel empowered to build new infrastructures to fit their contemporary conditions”.|18|

|1| James Attlee, ‘Towards Anarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark and Le Corbusier.’ Tate Papers No. 7, 2007.

|2| Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (Connecticut: Martino Fine Books, 1927).

|3| Ibid

|4| Einstürzende Neubauten, Strategies Against Architecture III, Album, (1991 -  2001)

|5| Bernard Tschumi, Manhattan Transcripts (Italy: John Wiley & Sons, 1994)

|6| Charles Jencks, ‘Architecture Becomes Music’ The Architectural Review. Available:

|7| Decoder, dir. Muscha (West Germany, 1984).

|8| ‘Nürnberg 1986 Concert Report’, Aspekte, dir. by Unkown Director. (ZDF, 1986).

|9| Walter Benjamin, ‘Der Destruktive Charakter.’ Frankfurter Zeitung, 1931.

|10|Simon Ford, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1999).

|11| Mark Fisher, ‘K-Punk: NEUBAUTEN’S MESSTHETICS NOW’ k-punk (2005). Available:

|12|Colin Rowe, Collage City,  (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978).

|13| Jennifer Shryne, ‘Evading Do-Re-Mi Destruction and Utopia: A Study of Einstürzende Neubauten’ (Chester: University of Chester, 2009).

|14| Pamela Lee, Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark (London: MIT Press, 2001).

|15| Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History ed. Gary Smith, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1989).

|16| Corinne Diserens,  ‘The Greene Street Years.’ Gordon Matta-Clark, Exh. Cat. (1977).

|17| Fiona Shipwright, ‘What Might Anti-Architecture Mean in the Post-Industrial, Digitised Landscapes of 2017?’, Architectural Review (2017). Available:

|18| Liz Pelly, ‘Holly Herndon and Her Expanding Platform’ The Media (2015). Available:

Dan Brown graduated with a DipArch from the Mackintosh School of Architecture in 2018.

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