From a standpoint of cohesion, the architecture of the 20th century was a mess. Brutalist monoliths were constructed alongside shimmering aluminum waves, while some architects clung to scraps of classicism like life preservers in a swelling sea of modernism. However, it was this mishmash of styles and ideas that resulted in some of the most visionary designs, and not surprisingly the use of collage became a central medium for experimentation.
Yet collage as an architectural tool isn’t something that’s widely looked at, which is why the Cut ’n’ Paste: From Architectural Assemblage to Collage City exhibition that opened earlier this month at MoMA is interesting. It’s a relatively small exhibition, just taking over two rooms, especially compared to the gargantuan Le Corbusier career survey happening up above. While that massive modernist experience has plenty to say on the evolution of architectural change in the 20th century, here in Cut ‘n’ Paste there is more of a concentration on how collage could correlate to this realigning of ideas, while cutting and pasting (sometimes right out of the textbooks) selections of history.
The exhibition, which was organized by MoMA curator Pedro Gadanho, who also oversaw the Young Architects Program (YAP) 2013 exhibition that recently opened in the lobby, is loosely developed from Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s 1978 Collage City, which examined how the new “utopia” is a fragmentation of design instead of one cohesive urban plan. There are Mies van der Rohe’s spatial photomontages and other work from the 1960s and 70s in the first room that precede the second room’s focus on the 1990s. In that room, digital collage uses the medium less as a territory of surreal space than a conceptual element of planning, although still with all the joy of cut-and-paste juxtaposition, like Rem Koolhaas’ competition 1997 entry for MoMA’s own expansion with well-dressed museumgoers suspended in the sleekest museum ever conceived.
All of this is set aside from the vibrant wall of structural collage that falls into art, with work by artists like Man Ray and the mind-bending film Chelovek S. Kino-apparatom (The man with the movie camera) from 1929 where the city actually folds over itself in transformation with some early camera tricks.
Having this is all set apart in a salon-style jumble isn’t totally necessary to the exhibition, which is much more interesting when looking at how Ron Herron used collage for his idea of turning a submarine into a floating city on anthropod-like legs or how Diller + Scofidio charted the building of their (unbuilt) “Slow House” with a superimposed compass and rearview mirror.
As a note, don’t even think about trying to exit through the curtain projection screen at the end of the exhibition, which despite looking like a clever collage of video with an entryway is just going to get you scolded by the museum guards. Nevertheless, the exhibition is overall a compact glimpse into the impressive architectural collage holdings at MoMA, and makes its case for collage as an element of the evolution of 20th century architecture into the frenetic mess of ideas we know today.
Cut ’n’ Paste: From Architectural Assemblage to Collage City is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown West, New York) through December 1.