How much architectural and urban destruction will it take to make you feel uncomfortable? $40 million in CGI effects? $80 million? 120 million? How about $240 million?
That's how much the new Godzilla cost to make and market. Moreover, its trailer isn't just full of the mindless spectacular destruction we're used to seeing. Instead, it explicitly threatens to wipe clean the physical stuff that makes civilization possible: bridges, city blocks, and nuclear power plants are repeatedly torn bolt from girder, rebar from concrete. The monster isn't out to destroy national landmarks and there is no money-shot of the White House going up in smoke. Rather, after the montage of infrastructural annihilation, Bryan Cranston's character yells the threat straight at the moviegoer: that all of this destruction will "send us back to the Stone Age!" Buildings turn from a source of stability into a source of fragility. The security and permanence that architecture provides is dissolved.
A nuclear power plant and an urban landscape meet swift destruction. Image: via youtube.com
This message comes at an especially sensitive moment for architects. In New York alone the MoMA forcefully wiped a small museum clean off the grid, a disastrous addition to a 100-plus-year-old library was narrowly averted, and the 9/11 museum opened to tell the story of that unforgettable day's violent cataclysm. But can we read something more into disaster movies like Godzilla, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow that advertise the secret infirmity of what we've built?
A suspension bridge snaps and collapses under force of impact. Image: via youtube.com
At its most fundamental level, architecture is the symbol and physical proof of stability in our daily lives. It's solid, immovable, unchanging. It's also where we conduct all of the activities that make modern life possible. It doesn't matter if there's a heat wave, whether a team loses a game, or our car breaks down: buildings, roads, and homes will still be there. Perhaps that's precisely why we're fascinated by seeing that certainty undermined. We all love (architects included, especially) watching buildings slowly torn down on the street corner. Strange and unfamiliar parts of the architecture are exposed and we get a glimpse of the simple stuff that gave that structure it's strength and height. Bridging the gap between our obsession with cinematic and real-life destruction is the spectacular, yet precise, work of Gordon Matta-Clark.
"Conical Intersect." A documentary photograph, Paris Biennale. Image: via slcvisualresources.
Matta-Clark's work couldn't seem more timely. His works of architectural deconstruction resound with the strange mix of emotion we feel when we see buildings falling in film and rising seas threatening to consume cities in the news. However, while we feel a milieu of uncertainty, Matta-Clark's efforts are focused and surgical in their uncomfortable exposure of architecture. "Conical Intersect" (1975), located near the Centre Pompidou in Paris, seems to effortlessly perforate two already decaying 17th-century buildings. Their innards suddenly become exposed to the elements, accelerating their now unmistakable return to nature.
"Bingo." The house under "deconstruction" and some elements on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Image: Eric Wenzel via co2-art-sustainability.blogspot.com.
Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell and what he called “anarchitecture" aims to reveal the invisible aspects of architecture. His 1974 project "Bingo" took this to the extreme and involved actively sectioning a home into various slivers as a doctor might prepare a microscope slide sample. Some material was kept for exhibition while others were left to decay into the earth. Seeing the building pieces, familiar yet denuded on the stark concrete floor, turns the museum into some mad architect's laboratory.
"Circus or The Caribbean Orange." A series of curvilinear deletions into a Chicago brownstone. Image: via ilblog.weebly.com
His last major project, just before his early death in 1978, took his architectural cuts to new extremes. "Circus or The Caribbean Orange" sliced through a brownstone in downtown Chicago that had been provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art. Looking back, Matta-Clark seems unhesitating in his exploration of "anarchitecture" and what diverse reactions it could evoke. However, at its most fundamental level Matta-Clark uses the destruction as an opportunity to ask fresh questions and suggest new possibilities about how we regard architecture. Should it be permanent, unyielding, stable? Or if we were to acknowledge its transiency could we make new kinds of spaces, ones not previously burdened with timelessness? That is the difference between spectacular cinematic destruction or a momentary fascination with streetside demolition. Matta-Clark's work may be unnerving but also forces us to ask: "What if?"