Wipe That Self Off Your Face
The face of the city: a façade is the exterior element of a building, often ornamental, that defines its aesthetic character. The importance of the façade increases with density. In an urban setting, often the façade of the building is all that is exposed to the public.
Just as this element is essential to the identity of the city, our face is our public self, essential to our own identity. Not only our shining eyes and blushing cheeks, but our entire façade: the brand and type of our heels, the cut and length of our skirt, up to the color and thickness of our eyeliner, all form how the public eye views us and thus how we view ourselves.
There are times when even our most carefully cultivated exterior breaks down, like a stripped Harlem brownstone, revealing something a bit worn: those pajama afternoons, rushed no-make-up mornings, and moments of first light and last blink. We are not always pretty. However, peeking through pretty isn’t exposure. The momentary breakdown our own facades don’t show the world our heart and soul – only our complexion flaws – just as crumbling stone sills don’t reveal the life inside a building.
For whom do you dress up? How would you see yourself is there was no one around to see you?
Not so long ago, I had an argument over oysters in a Paris raw bar about the link between others’ view and our own identity, my argument was that the me is more than the mirror. Just as a building has history, context, structure, and function, we have our own interior world.
Sometimes we choose when to expose ourselves, very literally in naked intimacy, but sometimes vulnerability is accidental in a moment of open tears or a drunken street scene. This exposure often only happens with great effort, emotion, and embarrassment – the shame of a breakdown, a crumbling monument. But sometimes, it produces a cathartic effect, a kind of creative destruction.
Gordon Matta-Clark, a favorite artist of mine since a 2007 lecture as part of the Whitney’s retrospective, used large-scale interventions to existing architecture to force the viewer to reflect on the meaning and significance of spaces through exposure of their innards – exorcising the interior.
In the 1970s, Matta-Clark produced his most famous works of “anarchitecture,” part performance, part installation, temporary pieces created by sawing and carving sections out of buildings. Spitting (1974) carved through a New Jersey woodframe house, Day’s End (1975) removed part of the floor and roof of a derelict Manhattan pier, Conical Intersect (1975) cut a cone-shaped hole through two 17th century townhouses in Paris that were slated to be demolished to construct the Centre Pompidou, and Office Baroque (1977) sliced semi-circles through the floor of a five-story Antwerp office building. Besides the blood and guts of forgotten buildings, Matta-Clark was showing us the heart and soul of the city.
Protesting against urban development and deliberate decay, he was helping us to remember what’s on the inside. The façade can be formative, but that curtain wall also covers the window. In slicing through walls, he was letting the light in, reminding us of the experience of exposure.