How can Art seek to confront and challenge the quality of residential architecture? An analysis of the selected works of Hans Haacke and Gordon Matta-Clark


Conical Intersect (1975) Gordon Matta-Clark
Conical Intersect (1975) Gordon Matta-Clark

There is a distinct link between the art world and the world of architecture, yet can the two disciplines seek to challenge each other to encourage change? In the 1970’s, Hans Haacke and Gordon Matta-Clark produced art that sought to challenge the quality of residential architecture in their works ‘Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971,’ by Haacke in 1971 and in ‘Window Blowout’ by Matta-Clark in 1976. This essay will analyse these works in relation to this question and will compare and contrast the method in which they seek to create this challenge. This essay concludes that the subsequent reactions triggered by both pieces, came to reinforce and provide validity to the artists’ criticism.

Hans Haacke produced ‘Shapolsky et al’ using public records at the New York County Clerk’s Office (Grasskamp, Nesbit & Bird, 2004) and presented the property portfolio of the ‘Shapolsky Real Estate Group’. This group owned the majority of ‘slum properties’ in the Lower East Side and Harlem and the piece displayed this information along with a photograph of each slum property, its address, the nominal legal owner, the corporate officers, the mortgage and its holders, the assessed value and a large map showing the geographic location (Haacke et al., 1975: 138).

The power of the piece was the fact it drew attention to how the ownership and the subsequent exchange of ownership between these slum properties happened mainly within the Shapolsky Real Estate Group itself. This real estate clique was making significant amounts of money off the advantages of self-dealing, this included tax advantages, because at that time, all interest on mortgages were tax deductible and it also obscured the actual ownership of the properties. In particular, the web like diagrams (see Fig. 1) that map out all of these ownership transactions makes it visually explicit to the viewer how many of these exchanges actually take place and how they all happen within this group (Grasskamp, Nesbit & Bird, 2004: 50). The importance of these diagrams to the success of Haacke’s piece cannot be understated. Haacke has used the diagram to convey complicated, invisible relationships in a simple, visually organised way. Buck-Morss believes that diagrammatic displays are essential in the construction of capitalist theories so by employing this medium, Haacke delivers his complicated message in the most efficient form (Zdebik, 2011: 76).


Fig. 1: Part of the ‘Shapolsky et al, Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971’ work showing the property transactions within the Shapolsky Real Estate Group.

The exhibition was set to take place at the Guggenheim Museum in New York however Thomas Messer, then Director at the Museum, had ‘serious doubts about allowing’ the exhibition to take place; citing a fear of possible legal action from the property owners (Haacke et al., 1975: 138). When a compromise was not found over the controversial proposal, Messer announced that the exhibition would no longer take place. Naturally, this brought huge publicity to the piece with Haacke feeding the fire by taking his case to the ‘newspapers, television and art magazines’. In addition, Messer went on to sack his curator, Edward Fry, for publicly supporting Haacke and speaking of the dangers of censorship (Haacke et al., 1975: 136).

Gordon Matta-Clark produced his work ‘Window Blowout’ after being invited by the ‘Institute of Architecture and Urban Resources in Lower Manhattan’ to produce work for their exhibition ‘Idea as Model’ in 1976 (Matta-Clark et al., 2003: 103). After proposing an installation involving the dissection of the seminar room, Matta-Clark appeared to change his mind and moved towards a radically different idea and subsequent piece of work. This involved placing in each of the institute’s windows a photograph of a building in the South Bronx, both of old and new construction, in which the windows had been broken and subsequently not repaired; these could also be described as slum-like residential buildings. In addition, he secured the permission of the building’s owner to break a few of the institute’s windows to avoid the issue of ‘merely aestheticised representation’. This was further reinforced when Matta-Clark returned late at night after a party at one of his dealers, and armed with an air rifle, shot out every window in the institute, see Fig. 2 (Matta-Clark et al., 2003: 103).


Fig. 2: ‘Window Blowout’ at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, New York, 1976.

Of course, the members of the institute were outraged; the next day the world famous architect and director of the institute, Peter Eisenman likening the act to that of the ‘Nazi storm troopers on Kristallnacht’. At Eisenman’s orders, the windows were subsequently all completely replaced that very day. It was of course this act that delivered the power within the piece, highlighting the ‘instantaneous summoning of the urban resource required to repair the damage’ in direct contrast to the derelict, vandalised Bronx buildings depicted in the photographs placed in the windows (Matta-Clark et al., 2003: 103).

The act of implementing the photographs of the Bronx buildings in the institute’s windows provided an ironic contrast by working on the idea of the South-Bronx being ‘cut out of its physical location and inserted into Manhattan’. In a sense, the work inverts the urban structure to reverse ‘the pattern of renewal in New York that had been overseen by urban planner Robert Moses.’ This was something Matta-Clark was very passionate about, as he believed the Bronx was ‘the epitome of urban neglect’. Of course, there is further contrast within this idea as it sat in complete opposition to the viewpoint of the institute itself and its idea of celebrating ‘the evolving megalopolis’ in its exhibition (Attlee et al., 2003:94). Among the members of the architectural think tank were the infamous ‘New York Five’ including Richard Meier, Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman. It is of no coincidence that one of the buildings depicted in Matta-Clark’s Bronx photographs was Richard Meier’s Twin Parks’ public-housing project (Matta-Clark et al., 2003: 103). The piece was deliberately provocative to confront, challenge and bring to public attention the hidden elements that condition the quality of residential architecture. The similarity in both pieces’ effective criticism was that the real substance in the work came from the reaction to the idea and not in the piece itself. Possibly this was not intentional; however I feel the explicitly proactive nature of both pieces counters this argument. Furthermore, the provoked reactions reinforce and strengthen their criticism of society’s attitude to sub-standard, inner-city housing conditions.

The fact the Guggenheim Museum refused to show the ‘Shapolsky et al’ work and the resulting controversy actually did more to focus upon Haacke and his work. There is a real sense of contradiction in that the Guggenheim had once prided itself on avant-garde art and yet now, was unwilling to allow Hans Haacke to display his work. This implicitly points towards the financial foundations of the Guggenheim Museum and reinforces the idea of a rich network of people looking out for a rich network of people that Haacke brought to public attention in his piece (Haacke et al., 1975: 138). Within ‘Window Blowout’, the response of Peter Eisenman to replace all of the windows that very day actively demonstrates the economic divide between the Institute of Architecture, that can replace all for its windows within one day, and the dwellings within the Bronx that sit with broken windows for many years. This sense of social divide is physically demonstrated within Eisenman’s ‘instantaneous summoning’ of the glazier to replace every window (Matta-Clark et al., 2003: 103).

While it is impossible for one to know how the artists envisioned the response from their provocative work, it is this calculated risk that has really come to define both pieces and allowed them to challenge the standards of residential architecture. I would argue that the directness of the attack is something that both pieces share and that cuts this calculated risk significantly. By Haacke actually naming the nominal owners, corporate officers and their holders (Haacke et al., 1975: 138) and Matta-Clark presenting an image of the vandalised Richard Meier’s ‘Twin Parks’ public-housing project, despite Meier’s being a high-profile architect also at the exhibition (Matta-Clark et al., 2003: 103), it forces a reaction. Both pieces have a goading element in their attacks on residential architecture that I think was almost impossible to ignore.

In spite of this, it is thought that Haacke was actually very surprised by the reaction and ‘the potential for conflict’ that this work brought; this was actually fundamental in steering his career towards this reoccurring theme of ‘freedom of art’ that came to define his later work. This is of particular interest because Matta-Clark’s work was delivered five years later within the same city, so one could assume that Matta-Clark was strongly influenced by Haacke’s work and that his calculated risk was significantly smaller due to Haacke’s work acting as a prerequisite (Grasskamp, Nesbit & Bird, 2004: 52). It is perhaps of further interest that when Matta-Clark was still fresh from graduating from Cornell University in 1969, he helped Haacke produce his work for the ‘Earth Art’ exhibition (see Fig 3); this strengthens this idea that Matta-Clark was strongly influenced by Haacke’s work (Sussman, 2007: 168).


Fig. 3: Gordon Matta-Clark helping Hans Haacke for his work for the Earth Art Exhibition by stretching a rope across the Fall Creek Gorge, Ithaca, New York, 1969

This idea about the power of both pieces residing within their provoked reactions is supported by the number of people who saw the work first hand: with Haacke’s ‘Shapolsky et al’ nobody actually saw the work until 1972 when it was displayed in Milan. Here, the ideas and messages within the piece were lost due to the audience being removed from the New York context and its ‘slum landlords’ (Hand, 2000: 25). For Matta-Clark’s ‘Window Blowout’ it is thought possibly only two or three people saw the work before the panes were replaced for the opening night of the show (Attlee et al., 2003:94). The fact so few people saw these works, yet they are still widely discussed and important, pays testament to how much both pieces relied on the reaction they provoked. Haacke’s ‘Shapolsky et al …’ was eventually shown at Catherine David’s Documenta X in 1997 as one of the key artworks of the post-war generation (Grasskamp, Nesbit & Bird, 2004: 52).

On a very obvious level, both pieces of work share a commonality in that they both clearly depict the conditions of the residential housing through the media of photography. It is this aestheticised representation of the conditions that is integral to both pieces, as it allows the idea of the buildings being ‘cut out of their physical location’ and placed into the Guggenheim Museum or Institute of Architecture in inner city New York (Attlee et al., 2003: 94). By forcing the viewer to be exposed to crumbling tenement facades, broken windows and ‘street people’ within the confines of the lavish museum or Institute of Architecture, one was forced to further question why such huge divides exist in parts of New York that are so geographically close together (Hand, 2000: 25). This idea of contrast reinforces the pieces’ message and by bringing together these two very different situations, it actually provides a cognitive friction and a new meaning that wouldn’t be present if the situations were not combined (Hileman, 2010: 80).

A contrast between the two pieces, that differentiates their method in attacking residential architecture, is who it is the works seek to criticise or blame for these sub-standard living conditions. Haacke for instance attacks the ‘Shapolsky Group’ and the nominal legal owner, corporate officers and their holders (Haacke et al., 1975: 138). In contrast, Matta-Clark attacks the architectural profession by producing the work at Institute of Architecture and Urban Resources in Lower Manhattan. What is interesting about this is that it is evident that both artists are protesting about the quality and upkeep of slum properties in Harlem and the Bronx respectively. However, it appears that both artists are blaming different people; with Haacke aiming the criticism at the property owners whilst Matta-Clark is attacking the architects themselves. In spite of this, both pieces do share a sense of commonality in that there is a central concept of institutional critique; Haacke’s directed towards the Guggenheim Museum and Matta-Clark’s the Institute of Architecture. Combining this criticism with the workings of the property industry, which also functions using the methods of exploitation and domination, provides a certain resonance within the works’ message (Barliant, 2010 111).

To conclude, the main way that both pieces challenged the quality of residential architecture was by directly revealing and critiquing the people they felt were responsible for these sub-standards. Haacke for example attacks the property owners, in this case the Shapolsky Group, and Matta-Clark attacks the architects. This direct criticism of a selected group of people, in both pieces, makes up the majority of the physical work. However I feel that without the reaction that both artists provoked, the pieces would lack an integrity that really comes to define and demonstrate the message within their work. The subsequent reactions triggered by both pieces, reinforces and provides a certain validity to the artists’ criticism. These works tried to show the severe problems within residential housing in New York and it is the reactions from both the Guggenheim Museum and the American Institute of Architecture that provides the evidence that verifies that what the artists were saying was in fact true. I think this idea of the reaction being an integral part of the work was in fact more intentional within Matta-Clark’s ‘Window Blowout’ due to the obvious fact Haacke’s work preceded it by five years. However, I feel this idea of the stimulated reaction as an integral part of the piece was very original in Haacke’s work. In spite of how unintentional it was, it is obvious that Haacke has had a strong influence and this idea of stimulated reaction has been developed by many subsequent, contemporary artists starting with Matta-Clark.




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Barliant, C. (2010). Adaptive Reuse: New Strategies in Response to the Housing Crisis. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 23, pp.108-119.

Grasskamp, W., Nesbit, M. and Bird, J. (2004). Hans Haacke. London: Phaidon Press.

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Hileman, K. (2010). Romantic Realist. American Art, 24(2), pp.74-93.

Matta-Clark, G., Diserens, C., Crow, T., Kirshner, J. and Kravagna, C. (2003). Gordon Matta-Clark. London: Phaidon,

Sussman, E. (ed.) (2007) Gordon Matta-Clark: ‘You are the measure’. United States: The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Zdebik, Jakub. (2011) “Networks of Corruption: The Aesthetics of Mark Lombardi’s Relational Diagrams”.Ottawa: The University of Ottawa

Picture Credits

Fig 1: haackerealestate4 At: (Accessed on 10.04.16)

Fig 2: ‘Window Blowout’ at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies. At: (Accessed on 10.04.16)

Fig 3: ‘Gordon Matta helping Hans Haacke stretch a rope across the Fall Creek Gorge, Ithaca, New York, for the exhibition Earth art 1969’In: Sussman, E. (ed.) (2007) Gordon Matta-Clark: ‘You are the measure’. United States: The Whitney Museum of American Art.