Colin Rowe, Fred Koetter. From Collage City, c.1973.
This eight installment in Architecture Theory is not a particularly difficult essay. (It is, actually, not even an essay but a group of excerpts from Rowe and Koetter’s book Collage City, chosen and introduced by Hays.) But it is full of bullshit and intellectual dick measuring—an accusation I support with Rowe’s implicit insistence on assigning Genius to specific occasional (historical) individuals and his obvious belief that he is one such genius individual—that nearly eclipses its relatively simple proposals. So this is the breakdown as I see it. As we’ve come to expect, this text is in large part a critique of modernism—namely its scientism and utopianism, per usual—structured to justify Rowe’s “liberal formalism.” Collage, as such, is simply a mediating metaphor to resolve the NUMEROUS dialectics that Rowe sets up, especially that between utopia and the real city, history and the future, form and content.
The text seems to be constructed around the theories of two or more theorists that are only partially stitched together to instigate Rowe’s meandering discussion. That discussion hops from one tidbit to the next, one theory to another, term to term, while eventually trying to revisit all of them together like some weird mogul ski course that is also a loop and that we are afraid will never end. This process becomes so inclusive and—in my opinion—unwarranted that it seems like an extremely taxing effort to create the impression of a powerfully inclusive theory or transcoding of multi-disciplinary historical theories.
Consequently, Hay’s introduction to this specific text is a break of fresh air, free of the smog of philosophy, politics, and social and legal theory that makes up the whelming majority of this po-mo non-speak. He includes Rowe’s critique of Modernism (delivered on the occasion of the publication of Collage City and formed as “Modernism’s Obituary”), which is infinitely more fun to read that Tafuri’s and much more easily understood. Rowe credits Modernism’s ingenuousness, excess sensibility, and its idolatry of content (“morale”) over form (“physique”) for its eventual decline.
Three excerpts comprise this entry so let me deal with them briefly. The first is from the section titled “Crisis of the Object: Predicament of Texture” and serves to formulate two distinct models of urban planning and, presumably, architecture: figure and ground. Rather, Rowe calls them together “figure-ground”—a graphic analysis technique all too familiar to us now—and the presumed dichotomy lies in solid or negative space.
Second we have “Collision City and the Politics of Bricolage,” which could alternatively be simplified to “WTF is Bricolage?!” Bricolage is, as far as I can tell, every method of making and no method of making at the same time. Useful, I know. It is a kind of pastiche, an amalgam of all kinds of methods and skills, analogous to the architect’s work but separate from the work of the ‘scientist.’ This section could also be called “Everything is Diametric and Also Confusing and Useless,” as it is completely given over to setting up multiple dichotomies, just like “bricolage”-‘science’, and then calls these multi-valent dialectics “collisions.” In short, the text is creating a violent universe of simultaneous theories, we are caught in the “interstitial spaces,” and by this point I also want to become violent and throw this one-ton text out my apartment window.
Important from this section, though, is the introduction of heterogeneous and transhistorical architecture. We begin to see the image of collage in the juxtaposition of ancient Rome with seventeenth century Rome. We are introduced to the implication of historical architectural forms without their historical meaning, and that the adjacency of historical forms without meaning within a mostly comprehensible system—“heterogeneity of form”—is a good thing.
Thirdly appears “Collage City and the Reconquest of Time”—vomit—and finally we are told that the importance of all of those collisions is simply that they occur and that their resolution lies in the balance of each side of each argument. (I know: excruciatingly obvious and frustrating.) Finally, after working through a good bit of socio-political theory, as well as some fascinating discussion of icons that leads to a more clearly distilled and concise critique of Modernism, we get to the point: collage.
Collage is “simultaneously innocent and devious”; “a commentary upon exclusiveness”; “a method of paying attention to the left-overs of the world, of preserving their integrity and equipping them with dignity, of compounding matter of fastness and cerebrality, as a convention and a breach of convention.” Collage is a way of “dealing with the ultimate problems of, either or both, utopia and tradition; and the provenance of the architectural objects introduces into the social collage need not be of great consequence.” Read: collage helps us pick and choose around the more serious failures of utopia (formal and social and Modernist) and the more valuable points of tradition (a dichotomy set up by Karl Popper, both formal and social) and simultaneously allows us to use whatever forms we want because the nature of collage allows us to recycle formal elements in a cerebral and/or critical way.
Collage is a methodology, a mediator, whose essential pasting together of parts to resolve and produce meaning is the fundamental analogy for an architectural theory and practice. And Rowe uses it to resolve all of the parts he has set up: “Because collage is a method deriving its virtue from its irony, because it seems to be a technique for using things and simultaneously disbelieving in them, it is also a strategy which can allow utopia to be dealt with as image, to be dealt with in fragments without our having to accept it in toto, which is further to suggest that collage could even be a strategy which, by supporting the utopian illusion of changelessness and finality, might even fuel a reality of change, motion, action and history.”
That is the whole damn point. And we get it on the last damn page of the twenty-page exercise in frustration.
Let me just note one thing here: the absolute power wielded by Irony in this last justification of collage as a method. Collage’s irony is what allows it to do all these things. We will remember from Baird that Irony comes from ambiguity, and the capacity for “sustained irony” is the mark of a healthy language or system. Rowe clarifies one step further, perhaps: Irony allows for both the use of something and the disbelief in that thing, which is perhaps only the explicit application of literary irony to formal irony. But this literal one-to-one translation makes Irony the weapon for architectural autonomy—still the ultimate war being waged—and “liberal formalism"—"born of a certain architecture coming to grief against the desire for social relevance" (Hays).