The first section of the eight-story, 103-year-old hotel collapsed at 5:10 pm on a Friday afternoon in August, and 20 minutes later another part of the building crumbled, sending a 30-foot high mountain of debris onto Lower Broadway and a giant cloud of dust into the air. Warning signs had begun the day before when residents—many of whom were welfare recipients housed at the city’s expense in this once grand edifice—noted “bongs,” “tings” and “groans” coming from within the building and saw small cracks appearing in the walls. At 5:06, the hotel manager called the police to report an ominous rumbling. By that time most of the residents and employees had fled the building, but four residents didn’t escape in time, with fatal consequences.
Living a few blocks to the south of the fallen structure was a 30-year-old artist who was related to one of the victims. After hearing the news, he wrote in his diary, “Tonight August 3rd 1973 my only known cousin died in an incredible way. His talk on the phone with his mother was interrupted by ‘the ceiling’s falling’ . . . . He and his wife were living in the Broadway Central that was demolished by an unknown force, making it collapse instantly without warning. All around the accident the city assembled its emergency gear. Crowding and hysteria dissolved into a reaffirmation of immediate disintegration.”
Son of a brief marriage between two artists—his father was a famed Surrealist, his mother a struggling painter—the artist, along with his twin brother, had a nomadic childhood. Since arriving in New York in 1970 after architecture studies, he had taken the city itself as his canvas: for one project he converted a large dumpster into a temporary exhibition space; he attended municipal auctions where he purchased tiny, unusable tracts of land throughout Queens, which he extensively documented; he also opened a restaurant that he ran with artist friends, treating the entire endeavor more as an artwork than as a business venture.
But after the collapse of the hotel and the death of his cousin, his work took a different turn. In a piece titled Splitting, he used a chainsaw and other tools to dramatically bisect a two-story house in suburban New Jersey; in Day’s End, he and an assistant surreptitiously cut enormous hole into the metal wall of an abandoned Hudson River pier; in Paris later that year he secured the use of a 17th century building in Paris slated for demolition to make way for a new modern art museum. Working with a small team and using only hand tools, the artist carved a conical aperture through the walls and floors of the ancient building, opening up a kind of aerial tunnel through which passersby by could glimpse the work-in-progress of the new museum.
Following his return to New York the artist suffered a tragic loss when his twin brother leapt to his death from a window in the artist’s SoHo loft. Two years later, at the age of 38, the artist himself died from pancreatic cancer. Although they are now recognized as among the most important artworks of their time, none of his split and cut-up buildings survive, except as tantalizing images in photographs and on grainy films and videos. Their fate, like that of the doomed Broadway Central Hotel, like that of the artist himself, like that of all creatures, of all readers, of all artists, famous or forgotten, whether at the end of a long life or in the midst of a telephone call, is nothing less, and nothing more, than “immediate disintegration.”