The ways we make architecture were forever changed by two commands: Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V. But as a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York argues, the practice of cutting and pasting took hold long before computers and CAD had replaced draughtsmen and their T-squares.
Collage, the MoMA show "Cut 'n’ Paste" poses, has been the key—a creative, connective act of architects, pre- and post-keyboard. In the view of its organizers, the technique helped to shape digital culture and practices like sampling, making it a potent arena for exploration, with a current relevance and a history that reaches astonishingly far back.
The pieces on display are arranged in clusters, that is, three-dimensional collages. They trace how the medium migrated from artistic experiments—from avant-garde photomontages and later pop art canvases—to radical and postmodern strains of architectural activity. Metaphysical paintings by de Chirico and Mies van der Rohe’s perspective renderings find their way into the mix, as do Archigram’s comic book gospel and Rem Koolhaas’s earliest polemical studies.
For Pedro Gadanho, the exhibition’s curator, Cut ‘n’ Paste amounts to an archeology of sorts, one through the depths of MoMA’s collection—including the Mies van der Rohe archive the museum is currently hosting. It’s also a partial excavation of contemporary architecture’s DNA, as he explains to Co.Design: "In today’s architecture digital renderings…collage has become omnipresent via Photoshop and similar software, although often in a seamless form that tends to hide the fact that the images are collage-based."
As a practicing architect, Gadanho wondered why collage had been all but forgotten by his colleagues. "It came to my mind," he says, "that collage, as a technique, has been largely overlooked in the field of architecture, although it is certainly representative of an important, vaster cultural sensibility." His musings led him to Collage City (1978), a seminal treatise by architectural theorists Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter that sought to dismantle modernism’s ideologically driven, wholesale approach to building and planning. The book brokered a new postmodern alternative, where "we accept the 'collision’ of many languages and styles in everyday life, in visual culture, and in architecture alike."
Building—cutting and pasting—on this idea, Gadanho sees collage as a tool that connects architecture, and architects, back to a broader cultural context. It has the power to do so in dynamic and inventive ways, he writes in the exhibition brief. One look around the show, and you’d be hard pressed to argue with him.
Cut 'n’ Paste: From Architectural Assemblage to Collage City is currently on view at the MoMa through December 1.