Michael McDonough | Architect

The Greene Street Mafia: Remembering SITE and SoHo in the Mid-1970s

By Michael McDonough
Copyright © 2003 Michael McDonough

From Site: Identity in Density by James Wines

I first arrived at the cast iron columns of 81 Greene Street in SoHo, the abandoned factory building that housed the radical architecture collective SITE, on May 31, 1976 at 2:30 P.M. I remember the moment precisely because it changed my life. More than that, it reflected changes in the way people all over the world would live, work, and look at the world around them. To understand this, however, to understand that it was part of something much more than an old building and a group of artists toiling away at making a new type of architecture, you have to understand the setting for my story.

Downtown New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an area of grassroots transition and artistic populist activism. What is now known internationally as SoHo, was then an historical building technology testing-ground and economic boom story gone bust. Born, essentially, in the 1870s post-Civil War boom period, the area served as an artisianal quarter supporting the great late-nineteenth-century department stores and amusements of Lower Broadway. Hat makers, box makers, small purveyors and tradesmen, manufacturers of every stripe toiled away, moving their goods eastward to Broadway where the monied classes consumed them. The buildings were far larger and grander than anything the city had ever seen, the direct result of newly-made fortunes and newly minted constructional and structural systems, especially those employing cast iron and steel. Eventually the money moved Uptown and Downtown declined. By the mid-20th century bright lights-big city had become “Hell’s Hundred Acres, and urban planner Robert Moses devised a sort or urban euthanasia: most of the district would be replaced by a cloverleaf of on- and off-ramps, this part of a still more megalomaniacal scheme to run Fifth Avenue down to Canal Street, linking it to the Holland Tunnel and Manhattan Bridge via vast expressways blown right through the heart of what many saw as urban blight incarnate.

The whole shebang might have gone the way of Bruckner Boulevard and its attendant South Bronx spaghetti of roadways but for a glitch: artists. Artists, you see, had moved into the area, taking refuge in the high-ceilinged, day-lighted, and abandoned or dirt cheap buildings, and using them as studios. Sculptors, painters, poets, writers, dissident architects and engineers, free-thinkers of every stripe made it Bohemia on the Hudson. They soon saw what the urban planning and road-building powerbrokers had missed: this was the largest repository of historic cast iron façade structures in the world (these, a marriage of American technological innovation and the Florentine palazzo). It was surrounded by stable ethnic neighborhoods where life was lived at the pace of a European village, had a well-diversified wholesale and retail infrastructure, and was a transportation hub virtually unrivaled in the City. The artists were well-educated and had powerful patrons as allies. They organized and fought in court and in the halls of government. The SoHo (its new name, from South of Houston Street)) Cast Iron District grew into landmark status while coalescing as a community during the first glimmers of its economic rebirth. Art galleries sprung up, as did purveyors of fine foods, globally-sourced furniture and other artifacts, world-class restaurants featuring an international range of cuisines, computer businesses, industrial and graphic designers, and fashion boutiques (these rivaling anything Uptown, or in Paris or London for that matter). Loft living, then a necessity of artistic production and limited income, would become a new style of urban living, a minor economic engine, a work-live model, and a balm for urban decay now associated with the rebirth of cities all over the world.

In 1976, however, when I walked past the rag-picking business on the ground floor and up a set of rickety stairs to the fourth floor of that abandoned factory building, I stepped across a well-worn threshold into the incubator of something also a-birthing in SoHo: the world’s most important artistic testing ground.

By the mid-1970s, Downtown New York City had become a sort of Mecca for artists. Art itself had not yet become the corporatized commodity it is today. While art sold, it sold without the market pressures for living artists that now are taken for granted. It was the “art world” and the “art scene,” not the “art market.” American abstract expressionism had become the dominant art movement internationally in the 1950s. Pop Art had established itself and was beginning to wane. Then along came the environmental art and conceptual art movements. The emphasis here was on scale, new materials, and especially on the idea behind the object, not the object itself. Many artists resisted the production of traditional objects altogether, preferring to make guerilla art in the form of events, graffiti, manifestos, music, performances, plants, and Xerox-ed broadsides.

Architecture was in the midst of an extended private-sector building slump, and was suffering from the intellectual exhaustion of post-World War II Modernism. American cities were in crisis. “White flight” to the suburbs, inner-city poverty, decay, and violence were pervasive. Government support for attempts to mitigate these circumstances in the form of urban renewal (cynically and vulgarly called “Negro-removal”), highway construction, and other publicly financed building projects had been in place since after World-War II, but with mixed results at best.

Crisis and creativity often made good handmaidens, and the architecture and planning professions had been encouraged to think beyond curatives in the 1950s and -60s, to dream about what the nature of the modern city might be. Their idealistic solution to urban ills was generally the housing project and the office tower. Simply put, large-scale urban renewal projects of the post-War period—projects that effected millions of people and violently reshaped the American landscape—looked good as dreams, but failed terribly in practice. Fed by anti-urban, anti-neighborhood European Modernism ideals of the 1920s, this generation loathed cities as they had evolved, and revered clusters of sleek concrete towers in idyllic parks. What they built was under-class poverty barracks in desperate parking lots.

The most famous example of failure was the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe Housing project in East Saint Louis, Missouri. It won accolades and a medal from the American Institute of Architects when it was built in the 1950s. Completely unlivable, dangerous, impossible to maintain, and otherwise inappropriate as housing, it had to be demolished in 1972. How could things have gone so wrong? Reaction and resistance to bulldozer aesthetics and its implicit paternalistic social engineering began to solidify. Younger professionals, often allied with artists, were more sophisticated, less cynical, and more egalitarian in their outlook than the previous generation. Having grown-up in newly-minted, soulless suburbs, they liked and longed for cities. Less class-conscious, more open-minded and tolerant, suspicious of authority and its unrestrained excesses (the big lesson of Vietnam), non-xenophobic, they wrote, observed, and absorbed the potentialities of urban life with glee.

SITE was born of this era. A crew of dissident intellectuals and artists in 1969, they advocated the presence of sculpture in the environment (hence the S.I.T.E acronym). By 1975 the paradigmatic Indeterminate Façade building in Houston, Texas (Best Products Company) was completed and SITE burst on to the international architecture scene. Hailed as architecture married to social criticism, as ironic humor, as a marriage of art and architecture, and as a serious challenge to Modernist aesthetics, its deftly composed crumbing facade rocked the international architecture world.

SITE got their energy and intellectual direction from the environmental art movement. The work was consistent with the post-Vietnam War-era art theories that held art should exist outside the museum walls, be readily available to the public, and challenge existing aesthetics. Allies and co-travelers during this period included Gordon-Matta Clark, whose “House-Cutting” piece featured a perfectly iconic little American house sliced up the middle with a chain saw until one half of it fell of its foundations a bit. Voila. Anti-architecture was born. Robert Smithson, whose “Spiral Jetty” in Great Salt Lake had expanded the boundaries of environmental sculpture to include industrial waste and lakes, had known the members of SITE. Smithson’s idea was that the large-scale jetty would disappear over time and that its progressive decay and absence was the work. Entropy became a sort of fashion.

Dozens of artists worked in this milieu during the 1970s, and the SITE loft on Greene Street was a gathering point for many of them during that period. I was a member of SITE for two wonderful years — 1976 to 1978 — and I met Gordon Matta-Clark, Andy Warhol, Duane Hanson, Claus Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, Hanna Wilke, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, and many other artists and architects at the loft. I also worked with Alice Aycock, Alan Sonfist, Linda Benglis during that period. All of them were our neighbors on Greene Street. Poets and guerilla artists were in the streets of SoHo everyday, and everyone worked on art by day and argued about it by night. Gallery openings were social events and arenas of debate. Leo Castelli’s second floor 420 West Broadway (the sign simply read “420”) was the epicenter of everyone’s Saturday afternoon. The entire art world showed-up for the monthly exhibition openings. You could meet them all on those stairs: collectors who had flown-in from around the world, museum curators, internationally known artists, aspiring artists, students, groupies (“art tarts”) of both sexes, and all sorts of hangers-on.

We were all very young, mostly broke, serious-minded, and determined to change the world. The world, curiously, mostly noticed. I remember when Dino DeLaurentis filmed his campy remake of King Kong in 1976. Most of Downtown turned out as unpaid extras in the plaza of the World Trade Center, all of us celluloid witnesses to the great ape’s denouement. SITE celebrated the event with a King Kong Christmas Tree party that year, the centerpiece a cardboard confection of the Empire State building topped by the angel Kong himself. The then still oh-so-dowdy New York Times reported on the event, complete with a group portrait. It was like Paris in the 1920s, our Greene Street Mafia, but the style was grunge before there was grunge. Tee shirts and jeans were the anti-style style of the day. Disco sucked and art rocked. I remember seeing Mick Jagger and John Lennon walking through the streets together one afternoon. At that point in time, they were as living gods to most young, culturally aware people on the planet. No one in SoHo bothered them or spoke to them. We had our work; we were Mick Jagger and John Lennon and they were visiting us.

The Italian cultural connection — especially through the worlds of painting, sculpture, and industrial design, and the arte povera [poor art] art movement — was also important in New York at that time. The arte povera idea was that you could make art from concrete blocks, from earth, from any “degraded” material, and SITE’s low cost strip mall retail structures fit this mold perfectly. Sydney and Francis Lewis (The Lewises”), who owned Best Products, basically allotted an amount equal to the National Endowment for the Arts’s “one percent for art” criterion to their buildings. That is, they told us at SITE, you have one percent of the construction budget to transform the Best Products buildings into art. Do as you will. And those buildings were constructed at a cost of around seventeen dollars a square foot. So SITE had seventeen cents per square foot to change the world, and it did.

The relaxed urbanism and hybridized art and architecture, art and landscape, typical of Italy from the Renaissance forward were also important models during the mid-1970s. This artistic integration at the scale of a nation held tremendous sway over a generation of designers, and in many ways still continues to shape the contemporary notion of what a building, a suburb, a city should be. City as festival, as open-air museum, as walk-able cultural and culinary celebration were all nascent ideas during this period. They eventually matured into the historic preservation movement and other positive notions of city and urban landscape, lending the energy and insight that saved the historic cores of many American cities.

Conceptual and unbuilt projects were though of very serious architecture in this context. (SITE published its Unbuilt America book in 1976 — a sort of virtual snapshot of the period.) Drawing and making models was a way to communicate ideas about architecture without the need for the power politics and big money required to make buildings. And big private money for building was rare during this period of economic stagnation and high inflation. People had the room and predilection to experiment. The intellectual playing field became larger and more inclusive. The range of design had expanded. (I examined this confluence of art, architecture, and urbanism as an independent artist in my 1978 project Grid House and in 1983 essay, “Architecture’s Unnoticed Avant-Garde: Taking a Second Look at Art in the Environment” among others).

SITE’s Indeterminate Façade was followed by a building with an entry corner that sheared-off and moved into the parking lot (Notch Building); a building with a vertically displaced but otherwise intact façade (Tilt Building); and a building where the roof was a lifted rolling extension of the asphalt parking lot itself (Ghost Building). The Europeans, the Japanese, intellectuals and avant-garde-ists around the world seemed to revel in these deceptively simple, violated concrete box projects. The great hue and cry of the conservative, mainstream architecture world in New York, however, was: “That’s not Architecture.” Where we saw Dada-ist aesthetics and the legacy of Duchamp, they saw one-liners. While we reveled in the anonymous but pervasive American warehouse building, a symbol as powerful as the Coca-Cola bottle and the Campbell’s Soup Can, a found-object and suitable for intellectual speculation, they saw triviality.

If you leap forward to where we are today, the ideas embodied in those buildings have become part of architecture’s institutionalized avant-garde. The idea that architecture should be dematerialized, or ephemeral, that it should be psychological or phenomenological — as if its creator had conceptually inserted or subtracted an object into or through the building as part of its composition — has become part of the canon of architecture. Academic architects and theoreticians in the very institutions that decried SITE as trivial and invalid now routinely draw on these very ideas in creating, justifying, and codifying their own work. SITE was interested in the idea of frozen phenomena some thirty years ago, way ahead of their time. SITE considered the academic and mainstream American rejection of their work as “not-architecture” as badge of honor. Bear in mind that SITE was truly a collective. We made very little money and what we made we shared. Like many SoHo artists of the period, we had little interest in selling anything related to traditional art and little chance of selling it anyway. And yet we all persisted, determined to change the way the modern world sees and builds, lives and works.

“Whither, Greene Street, best beloved of friends,
O whither hast thou gone, and left me here
Alone amid the many toils of earth
wither hast thou gone now?”

Everywhere.

(Apologies to St. Gregory of Nazianzus,
Elegy for his tutor Carterius,
circa 4th century A.D.)