Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle New Orleans removed. Image by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr

In 1976, when Gordon Matta-Clark shot out the windows of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, he wasn’t making a performative aesthetic gesture — he was engaging in an act of protest. And in signaling towards another protest where residents had also smashed windows in a newly constructed utopian housing project in the South Bronx by placing photos of the protest in the shot out window frames, he connected the classism of the architectural elite to white supremacy. He also amplified an act of civil disobedience by Black anarchitects working outside of the exclusivity and pretension of the art world’s institutional confines.

Anarchitecture, an elusive term, was first used in the 1970s by Gordon Matta-Clark and other artists working in New York, including Dickie Landry and Tina Girouard of Central and Southwest Louisiana. Artists belonging to the Anarchitecture group convened for regular discussions and participated in a group show in March 1974, though documentation of their work is sparse. Beyond Matta-Clark’s own architectural interventions — splitting, cuts, and vandalism — the residual traces of original anarchitects show that the group largely used the term as a means to destabilize norms in urban life and politics, a practice of ideological revolt.

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Conical Intersect” (1975) (© The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; courtesy the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner)

If we understand architecture as the functional art we occupy, inhabit, and interact with in our daily engagement with the constructed world, then what does it mean to look towards anarchitecture since the start of Black Lives Matter?

As Jack Halberstam states in his essay “Unbuilding Gender: Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark,” the language of the word architecture itself is made and remade as a project of identity — born “from the Greek word arkhitekton, combining arkhi (chief) with tekton (builder).” The term anarchitecture goes on to marry the words architecture and anarchy, further clarifying the politics of the artist at work. If architecture is fundamentally a project of construction, demonstratively reflective of the architects themselves, and anarchitecture is the ambition towards a deconstruction of that ownership and identity, then Black anarchitecture is tasked with the rejection and deconstruction of white supremacy. It must dismantle systemic racism and replace it through means of its own.

This undertaking plays out today in New Orleans, once the largest hub for slavery in the United States, at last bringing Landry and Girouard’s original experiments home to Louisiana. Amid national calls to hold government and cultural institutions accountable for racist practices and policies in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd emerged Dismantle NOMA, an auxiliary movement calling for change locally at the New Orleans Museum of Art. But preceding their demands are Take Em Down NOLA’s sculptural interventions, which have been urging New Orleans public officials to remove the city’s 17 confederate monuments since 2015. Not only does the group’s politics force a public reckoning of white supremacist art and architecture; they also draw awareness to the bureaucracy of existing municipal processes, their opacity, and the city government’s lack of accountability and institutional oversight. This lack is clearly illustrated by the presence of 10 statues that remain undisturbed five years after initial requests were made that they be taken down. On the pedestals of the seven that have been, we commemorate nothing. Absence becomes the liminal space of what once was and what is still yet to be, not unlike Matta-Clark’s own architectural interventions made nearly 50 years ago.

The “Stack o’ Lee” pillar formerly supporting the Robert E. Lee statue, in Tivoli Circle, New Orleans (image courtesy Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr)

The organizers of Take Em Down NOLA and Dismantle NOMA, though distinct in the scope of their efforts, work in tandem with one another to prompt a new reconstruction in the American South founded on Black sovereignty and self-determination. In the respective names of these groups, we are asked to behold disruption and deconstruction of systemic racism in the face of a justice system that makes Black bodies disappear. It is not by accident that this ongoing absence of Black bodies is mirrored in the leadership of the New Orleans Museum of Art and in the citizens who are honored with public squares in New Orleans. Like Gordon Matta-Clark and the other anarachitects that precede them, when these organizers condemn Black invisibility in our cultural institutions and in the historical figures we publicly display, they do so in direct revolt against white supremacy. And when they remove them, they leave space behind — a symbol of perpetual dissent.

Lauren Stroh is a writer based in New Orleans.