The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
7
Re-collage



Andrea Simitch

is an educator and architect. She is an associate professor at Cornell University Department of Architecture, where she has been teaching full time since 1985. She teaches courses in architectural design, architectural representation, and furniture design. She is a principal of Simitch and Warke Architects, a collaborative practice whose work includes residential, commercial, and speculative projects.
Dear Andrea,

Jeffrey Kipnis, in his article “Toward a New Architecture,” which appeared in
Architectural Design in 1993, identifies the limitations of collage in generating a new architecture, seeing it as an exhausted tool: one that is incapable of generating a projective architecture given its reliance on recombinatorial tactics applied to existing contexts. Standing perhaps in contrast to this is R.E. Somol’s very recent [as recent as page 76] description of a new architecture in which, by reusing and recombining (architectural) material, one creates a “surprising affect that no-one expected.”

Given your own work in this medium, and all that has occurred within architecture in the almost two decades since Kipnis’s obituary of collage, is it possible to rebut Kipnis and declare collage resurrected?

—Eds.


Jeffrey Kipnis “Toward a New Architecture,” AD: Folding and Pliancy, Academy Editions, London, 1993 <br />
(collaged in reference to Pablo Picasso’s Bottle on a Table, Autumn­–Winter, 1912). <br />
<br />
The original article is available as a PDF here.<br />
Jeffrey Kipnis “Toward a New Architecture,” AD: Folding and Pliancy, Academy Editions, London, 1993
(collaged in reference to Pablo Picasso’s Bottle on a Table, Autumn­–Winter, 1912).

The original article is available as a PDF here.



The collage has generally been understood as an object, a fait accompli that exists as a record of previous operations, as a testimony to someone once having “been there” and later having “done that.” Prized for its compositional values, for its associations with the heroic days of modern art, and, let’s face it, as a tool for nostalgic reverie, collage has never been fully elucidated in its role as a design technique.

However, there is a clear distinction between collage as a process and collage as a thing. As an operation, collage brings into physical contact previously unrelated material, usually initiating unexpected associations and relationships. Each material brought to the collage has two responsibilities: first, to retain its own distinct color, scale, and texture, as well as the history and meanings embedded within; second, to be able to extend its characteristics to—while becoming a part of—another material. In other words, a component of collage is obliged to succumb to the whole, while retaining its own identity. This capability, whereby two previously unrelated but now adjacent materials become materially and spatially intertwined, produces a third condition, one that is constantly shifting between the original artifacts and the collective artifact that is produced. It is this constant fluctuation of the collage’s spatial and material readings that can simulate the more ephemeral and fleeting characteristics of a site: characteristics that are often impossible to access.

And it is these discoveries, embedded within the processes of collage, that offer a parallel and distinct form of architectural contextualization as an alternative to the more overt forms of reiterative contextualism that have devalued the concept. Collage argues instead that the found object, the existing fragment, can participate actively in the projection of future architectures via a range of actions—material, occupational, historical, cultural, and spatial in nature—as they rub up against proposed, imported, and alternative constructions and infrastructures.

This expanded definition suggests an appropriation of multiple artifacts as active participants in any new construction; that nothing can be complete—or should ever be complete—and that a richness lies in the inevitable messiness of a collection of architectures, of textures, of programs, and of histories. And it is in this messy irresolute world that the ephemeral aspects of the building and the city are perhaps given a primary generative value for the first time, and where processes of collage can offer productive insights.

Within a collage, the impermanent and the fragmentary have the ability—the necessity even—to be appropriated by additional layers where each insists on a transformation of the fragments’ latent meanings. These new layers are able to mine the various languages, references, and scales of the fragment—to give new meaning and significations to something that might have had other significant legibilities prior to its coming into contact with the other, the “new.” This shiftiness of the collage’s fragments is important, as they can be simultaneously interpreted, so that concepts of contamination and borrowed meanings can exist at and inform multiple scales. Just as Michael Graves described in his seminal article “The Necessity for Drawing: Tangible Speculation,”[1] as the doodle moved around the table, it was continuously reimagined and appropriated, “each mark setting up implications for the next.” But as soon as someone sketched a stair, the ability for the drawing to remain speculative died; for it was just a plan, and at a determinate scale.

It is these constantly shifting landscapes of multiple interpretations that have the ability to be appropriated by multiple audiences through various lenses, a necessity for an increasingly global audience with broad cultural references. Take, for example, Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo, constructed for the Venice Biennale in 1979. The embedding of a floating theater within the city of Venice, by temporarily modifying the Venetian skyscape, permanently alters the way we see Venice, as the theater’s presence (both in its representations and in its realities) collects and transforms adjacent towers into its world of extraordinary machines and carnival structures. Rossi’s tower permanently alters our perception of the existing context—its scale, its programs, its imagined landscapes.[2]

Collage by Andrea Simitch.
Collage by Andrea Simitch.


Aldo Rossi: Teatro del Mondo © La Biennale di Venezia—Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti.
Aldo Rossi: Teatro del Mondo © La Biennale di Venezia—Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti.


And while Le Corbusier’s interior photographs of Villa Savoye[3] are not collages per se (though one would be dishonest not to acknowledge their explicit compositional reference to the cubist sensibilities of collage in the traditional sense), they certainly iterate the processes of collage in that they conceptually challenge and give new meaning to our perception of architectural space and sequence. Each image is carefully framed as if it is an abstracted nature morte, demanding that we understand and eventually construct movement through space not as a continuous experience but as an assemblage of lines, volumes, surfaces, and objects that together produce a collection of discreet still-lifes. These images fluctuate between deep space and shallow space, simultaneously flattening and projecting the architectural experience. Spatial events are thus represented as a series of filmic stills, superimposed and imprinted on our consciousness, initially experienced over time yet freed to be disassembled and reassembled independent of their initial spatial location.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye ©FLC/ARS.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye ©FLC/ARS.


Collage by Andrea Simitch.
Collage by Andrea Simitch.


Collage is not merely the grafting of previously unrostered material, as Kipnis would have us believe in Toward a New Architecture.[4] This indeed would demonstrate a failed attempt at heterogeneity, as it inevitably brings little blurring of boundaries, be they political, spatial, material, cultural, and so on. Here, the premise is instead that collage is not a final act but a generative and projective one, a continuously incomplete act that proposes new relationships from previously unrelated fragments. The base material no longer remains static. Not only are its edges literally destabilized by coming into close proximity with adjacent material where its colors, forms, and textures might be modified, or perhaps amplified and even recontextualized, but the contextual dna embedded within it is instantly appropriated into new adjacent structures. Thus the material chosen, the protagonist in the act of collage, must be embedded with a critical incompleteness and willingness to be modified, a lack of absolute resistance. The material itself is a shameless accomplice in the eternal re-projection of context. Collage is neither a closed nor a final act. It is a continuously incomplete act, quite the opposite of the fixed frame and single message proposed by its consideration as a mere sum of its parts. Collage suggests that there are numerous strategies to extract the ephemeral characteristics of site: its color, its texture, its scale, its density. Every given condition is a fragment. And a “fragment” in this instance does not mean something broken or partially missing, but instead an incomplete object suggesting another body/thing or the presence of another voice/program. This concept of fragment is susceptible to multiple interpretations as it comes into proximity with alternative others. Just as Albers revealed in his color studies that a yellow color can borrow the yellow from an adjacent green, transforming it into an apparent blue, so can something like a structure’s material texture be amplified or erased depending on the engagement of an adjacent structure’s textural condition. It is this Bakhtinian concept of unfinalizability as a desirable perpetual state that holds the key to the creative and interactive potential of the fragment, that embedded in any fragment (utterance) is the possibility for an audience to become an accomplice. This indeterminism argues for a loss of control, for the amplification of the sensual, for an awakening to the unexpected, the found, the hidden, the neglected, and the discarded, all saturated by the potential of re-imagination. It rejects the already known, the complete, the fixed, the controlled.

For example, in Le Corbusier’s 1964 Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the sidewalk is drawn into the complex, the normative condition of sidewalk to building, of urban public to institutional private becomes complicated. Suddenly, the pedestrian is thrust into the core of the building, not only blurring the boundaries of what was once more neatly defined as city versus object but transforming the pedestrian into a simultaneous actor and voyeur as he saunters between the building’s volumes, both gazing into the art space and on display. Neither role is fixed, but the fluctuation between the two introduces a complex dialogue that is engaged at multiple scales.

This blurring of urban and object boundaries is perhaps more literally demonstrated in Barkow Leibinger’s 2007 TRUTEC Building in Seoul. By disturbing the traditional flat plane of the glass curtain wall, it most closely constructs a literal collage by collecting its immediate context through reflections. It becomes “an urban prism where fragmented urbanscapes crystallize on the building’s topographical surfaces.”[5] The surface becomes an active interface between city and building, collapsing them onto one site, simultaneously projecting and anticipating.

Barkow Leibinger, TRUTEC. © Corinne Rose.
Barkow Leibinger, TRUTEC. © Corinne Rose.

Collage by Andrea Simitch.
Collage by Andrea Simitch.


The argument here is not for a city or a building to be constructed as a collage per se—as in a superimposition of disparate elements sampled from or literally referencing a particular context. Not at all. It is simply arguing for a parallel sensibility in the making of cities and buildings; that all new structures have the responsibility to borrow, mine, amplify, and distort their meanings from their context, and that likewise, future contexts are latently embedded within these new existing structures, waiting to be mined and subsequently appropriated. This appropriation of one context into another can be observed in the horizontal cut at sitting-eye level in the southeast surface of Alvaro Siza’s Church of St. Mary in Marco de Canaveses, Portugal.

Miguel Nebel, Marco de Canaveses. Photo courtesy Miguel Nebel (http://miguelnebel2.carbonmade.com).
Miguel Nebel, Marco de Canaveses. Photo courtesy Miguel Nebel (http://miguelnebel2.carbonmade.com).


Through this simple act, Siza collects the distant landscape and fuses it onto the blank luminous space of the church interior, choreographing the real with the imagined, the earthly with the sacred.

Thus the (literal) collages found in these pages, for example, reveal aspects of a context that resist more conventional and singular forms of representation. These collages are all constructed out of found materials, material that is scavenged, collected, and appropriated. Here collage is understood to be a two-dimensional representational tool that indexes the more ephemeral dimensions of a subject, the more fleeting sensibilities of a context. Some operate as primary sources that reference a specific spatial or material condition, thus influencing not only the palette of collage material but also the ability of the collage to embody the textural qualities of a site. For others, color is thematically linked to context, as it is directly associated with the local inks, graphic production agencies, available paper resources, and climatic pollutions and erosions, but also as it conveys a context’s unique luminous qualities as observed through the relationship between the constructed, the materials of construction, and the conditions of light. The use of text within the collage material references the various densities and grains (urban, spatial, structural, and so on) of context, just as a text’s or image’s scale registers a previous distance of observation. And for many collages, the actual procedures, the production methodologies that are deployed in the process of making the collage (ripping vs. cutting, layering vs. splicing, etc.) determine their spatial readings.

In Collage City, Rowe describes the collage as “a method of paying attention to the leftovers of the world …”[6] It is these leftovers that have inspired my own work over the years: the collection of disparate objects suddenly becoming inextricably connected; the arbitrariness and inevitability of it all; the construction of new worlds that are simultaneously embedded yet distinct from where they were extracted. They resist permanence, demanding transformation into multiple worlds and interpretations. These collages are rough and slightly messy collections of worlds, worlds that are never fixed, that fluctuate spatially and materially, that carry traces of their histories while eternally projecting future narratives.


Endnotes


1. Michael Graves, “The Necessity for Drawing: Tangible Speculation,” Architectural Design, June 1977.
2. Ibid.
3. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre Complete de 1929–1934 (Zurich: Les Editions d’Architecture Zurich, 1964), 26–27.
4. Jeffrey Kipnis, “Toward a New Architecture,” AD: Folding and Pliancy (London: Academy Editions, 1993).
5. Ilhyun Kim, “The trutec Building at Sangam Digital Media City in Extreme (ST) Seoul: A Psychogeographical Guide to Its Territorial Context,” in Barkow Leibinger, REFLECT Reflect Building in the Digital Media City Seoul, Korea (Hatje Cantz), 40.
6. C. Rowe and F. Koetter, Collage City (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 1984), 142.



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