The MA Architecture + Urbanism course is the Manchester School of Architecture's taught postgraduate course which conducts research into how global cultural and economic forces influence contemporary cities. The design, functioning and future of urban situations is explored in written, drawn and modelled work which builds on the legacy of twentieth century urban theory and is directed towards the development of sustainable cities.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter: Collage City (1978)

Reviewed by David Chandler

Like a thriller this book opens with a crime; the world of architecture and urban planning is in crisis. The two authors will need to uncover motives, retrace the routes taken by the protagonists, apportion blame and finally seek redress. The “crime” is the “rape of the cities of the world” and the further humiliation and disgrace piled on to the contemporary city, “rendered tragically ridiculous”. Those responsible will be forced stand trial over the course of five chapters and will be subjected to the full authority of urbanist theory, arcane philosophy and economic and social law reaching back to Plato’s ‘Republic’. The judges will sum up and the built environment will emerge a better place eventually. Balance and “common sense” will triumph. Solid pragmatic guidance will also be dispensed in a thirty page illustrated final “excursus” section of interesting and at times overlooked architectural examples for those who would prefer the power of images to sway and guide their practice.
Before the force of their architectural proposal can be fully grasped, the American cultural context in which this book was constructed must be considered. The “disintegration of modern architecture” they assert in their introduction may not be immediately recognisable to us in our current context of eco-ambitious projects of post millennium planning. However these architects were publishing in the year ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Blue Collar’ were released with their themes of social fragmentation in working class and multi racial America. A seismic shift in Western values was very much in evidence and Collage City is the professional planners’ contribution to these radical and urgent public debates. This often unorthodox book is a plea for reason, creativity and artistic intelligence in an urban planned world that had for too long imposed conservative “modernist” values, ethics and assumptions upon architects and city planners. Many large scale municipal urban projects were now signally beginning to fail. Someone had to diagnose the ills and suggest a remedy.
Rowe & Koetter also had an implicit contempt for recent American and European high rise project-housing schemes such as that at Illinois Pruitt-Igoe which was part of an evolving crisis of social segregation in the 70s. Their book may also continue to have relevance for our own age in the light of the recent sub-prime scandals; “impoverished banalities of public housing which stand around like the undernourished symbols of a new world which refused to be born”.
The graphic apparatus of Collage City also needs a note before the arguments are considered in detail. There is a complex subtext of images that runs through the book until the final torrent of the last 30 picture pages. The semiological possibilities of the photographs can occasionally generate complex readings. The publishers, unusually, do not use figure references within the text so the correlation between argument and visual evidence is sometimes vague. For example, the title page has a wonderful image of the oculus of the Roman Pantheon casting its light in an elliptical sunbeam onto the textured coffers of its interior concrete vault. Is this to be read as the contrast between surface and void or a plea for historical architectural precedent? The authors just let it challenge and stimulate us. We soon learn that Rowe & Koetter rejoice in binary opposites, metaphor, dialectic and visual juxtapositions. By identifying ideological binaries they will endeavour to find a middle way to rescue 20th century architecture from the blight of dogmatists and extremists.
The first double page presents the argument of the book as a pictogram of polarities; Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s late quattrocento autocratic ideal city plan designed for the Duke of Milan contrasted with the allusive improvised beauty of Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning 1911 -12. We suspect that pictorial collage is related to the core argument of the book but it is not for another 140 pages does that particular work of art get put into the context of urban theory.
Rowe & Koetter propose a “dis-illusioning” process from early in the introduction. This is useful as it reveals the power of the grip that the current architectural orthodoxy had on the profession. Planners would need to break the spell of the accepted high church of utopian scripture. The authors will require the space of the first two chapters to tackle the chimera of an architectural utopia and its pernicious grip on the 20th century city. These early exegeses are important contributions to the history of utopias. From their observations of recent urbanist developments the authors summarise the polarised positions of the two dominant architectural camps in 1978. They identify those, on the one hand, who demanded the professional technologists’ imperious approach to building; “let science build the town” and those, on the other, who saw architecture from the activist standpoint of popular social movements; “let the people build the town”. Neither faction will be left untarnished by the end of the book.

The authors start their process of the radical overhaul of the profession by tackling the “myth” of the “authenticity of the new”. Modernism and its inexhaustible sense of regeneration and novelty had evidently become a dogma to be feared. They add an astute insight into the public perception of the architect as “human Ouija board”. The authors’ use of metaphor in Collage City demands translation and interpretation; architects can’t communicate with the dead neither can they prophecy the future like the clairvoyants. They have abrogated powers to themselves that they just do not possess. Do not expect supernatural powers from these professional designers.
In chapter one, the title ‘decline and fall’ of Utopia parodies the great Gibbon verdict on the Roman Empire. The cultural reach of these authors is brought into focus by a debunking of the slightly religious tones of those who believed that a Utopia might be possible. Bruno Taut’s alpine fairy tale neverneverlands are put into the context of Finsterlin’s “hysterical” dreams of a spiritual place for mankind. This strand of utopian thought also reminds us of the Leni Riefenstahl’s Mountain movies that in turn inspired German National Socialist ideologies. We soon learn that this book is a liberal nose that will be used to sniff out the faintest hint of fascist poison amongst misguided contemporary utopianists. Rowe and Koetter turn the spotlight onto the sacred cows of 20th century modernist orthodoxy. Frank Lloyd Wright, who saw the architect as the saviour of the culture of modern American society and of course Le Corbusier who had announced the dehumanization of man with his city as “the great machine” to be put in motion...the exact prescription for its ills. These architects are alleged to be in the grip of “messianic passion.....they want to end the world and begin it anew”. So we have the first suspects in our investigation into the urbanist offenders. The authors latch onto their next binary by referring to Serlio’s ideals of Comic and Tragic cities which are stage set products informed by classical Greek stage theory. The eighteenth century is given close examination as the root cause of modern enthusiasms for utopia. Henri de Saint-Simon dreamt of a meritocracy of the learned as a world government who might make politics a branch of physics where all knowledge would act in concert. The poet Leon Halevy compounded this “utopian inflammation”; a virus had entered the body of urbanist thinking. Man could rebuild the universe; Ledoux was planning communities for the salt workers of Chaux in 1776 and Boullee constructed gargantuan theme park monuments on the spherical principle of the Pantheon in his famous Isaac Newton project. Even Sant’Elia’s short lived proposals for Italian power companies before the first world war are also lumped together with these hyper-utopian designers. An interesting socially predictive project is referenced in Fourier’s 1829 ‘Phalanstery’ that inserts workers’ houses into the footprint of the Palace of Versailles, thus coding an early socialist utopia and predating the Marxist paradigm. ‘Phalanstery’ represents a persuasive planning ethos and can be seen as the template for many subsequent mass housing projects. Politically, it centres on the elevation of working people by housing them in the palatial simulacra of the recently overthrown French aristocracy. If the physical planning of utopia had its limitations then the 19th century also started considering anthropological avenues into the society and citizens who might inhabit these new buildings. Even Le Corbusier has his own construct of Darley’s 1844 “noble Savage”; his modernist citizen born out of mother Modular. Maybe mankind would itself evolve to be worthy of the new city?
Chapter two places us within post war 20th century in which Rowe and Koetter discern a “certain aimlessness (which) has afflicted the modern architect”. They once again draw out a binary conflict in the “divergent pursuits” of “urbanism”versus ”science fiction”. The space age designs coming from post world war two drawing desks are contrasted with the homely folksy townscapes of Gordon Cullen. The assertion that “we live in townscape and we shop in futurism” is one of those lapidary phrases that give this book its authority and lasting value. The authors continue to draw out the ideologies in their rhetorical question concerning the Paris Opera and its sewers. Which one has priority? The servant or the served? This is a succinct way of discussing the functionalist approach to the city against the beauty of its objects which continued to divide architects. Modern architecture and a Marxist vision has for too long accepted a distinction between “structure and superstructure” and has assigned importance and primacy to structure.
Then follows a very surprising evaluation of the methodologies and contributions of almost all of the progressive studios of the post war period, including Superstudio and Archigram. Rowe and Koetter cast them as architectural binge drinkers suggesting they have all had; “a bout with destiny (followed by) morning after nausea”. They end with the needling verdict; “(was) all this activity worth-while?” Their logic then takes them to the emerging post modern attempts at popular architecture in the Venturi case study of Disneyworld. Here the two authors are at their most playful using a phrase such as “kitsch of death” as they tackle the perversity of public taste that has found nothing at all to please them in the output of most Modernist schemes. The public would prefer to feast on sugared fantasy; “Disneyworld is nearer to what people want than architects have ever given them”. In response, Rowe and Koetter produce a photograph of State Street, Ithaca, New York in 1869. A measured, human contrast to the “euphoric”, inflated confection of Cinderella’s Castle. An authentic place, struggling, eclectic and proud, founded on “moral impulse”.
Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory provides us with an important evolution of a dichotomy that urges investigation for Rowe and Koetter. Gothic architecture for her produced both “theatres of memory” (a conservative point of view) or “theatres of prophecy”(radical and forward looking political vision). The authors are preparing the ground to argue for a much more genuine dialogue with tradition without losing the best of the gains made by modernism. They assert that planners have failed to recognise the “complementary relationship of processes of anticipation and retrospection”.

‘The Crisis of the Object: Predicament of Texture’ is slightly risky title for a chapter, but it emerges that the ethics governing the city plan and the morphology of space, void and function are the key targets for reform. This chapter will also shift the argument from the identification of problems and take us to the urban solutions of the Rowe & Koetter “brand”. The authors pose 3 questions which provide the foundations of their programme. 1; why are we compelled to prefer a nostalgia for the future to that of the past? 2; could the imagined ideal city reflect /allow for our psychological constitution? 3; could this ideal city function visually as theatre of memory and theatre of prophecy? The book here adopts a clearer format as manifesto. It cannot escape the irony that Athens, CIAM and other conferences had also adopted this bullet point methodology in an attempt to cleanse the world of unhygienic buildings. Rowe & Koetter employ a metaphor of the garden as a key to this new vision for city planning. They lament the loss of the traditional street and consider the significant De Stijl contribution to the textures of the city block. They then turn their attention to the disappointing outcome of the very recent new town planning such as Harlow, here described as “a foreign body interjected into a garden suburb without the benefit of quotation marks”. Across a double page spread Le Corbusier’s Saint-Die in France is juxtaposed with the plan of Parma in Emilia Romagna as another of their impressive binary demonstrations. Which would we prefer as an index of the future city? This is answered by an attack on architectural “objects”, new buildings hermetically sealed off from public use, scattered around meaningless futurist grid-scapes. These are the vanity projects of urban failure and by implication the thinking behind the recently trashed Pruitt-Igoe projects. Another persuasive contrast accompanies the authors’ shift of gear to their “prognosis”; Vittoria, Spain, Plaza Mayor contrasted with Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin 1925. The Paris project is illustrated several times in Collage City to hint at the real identity of the mastermind urban antagonist. A seductive section of the chapter addresses the solid / void problem and this is beautifully illustrated by contrasting the turgid arrogance of Le Corbusier’s Unite in Marseilles with the sublime colonnades of Vasari’s Uffizi buildings. The Florentine project also conforms to the emergent ‘collage’ thesis because the structures fit so well with its fellow heritage landmarks in every direction. This will be a key exemplum for those seeking to imbibe the Rowe & Koetter antidote to the bad habits of modernism. The remedies start to appear in quick succession. Disgraced tenet of modern architecture; why must all outdoor space be in public ownership? The authors identify another unwritten “rule” and chart its impact on the morphology of the city. They adduce the public buildings of Gunnar Asplund who “attempts to make of his buildings as much as possible a part of the urban continuum”. The term “poche” (or pocket-like building schemes) is used to support the idea that urban “infill” can enrich the texture of the city and should be exploited by planners. The chapter concludes with some inspired examples of object /void and infill projects from Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona, Rome to the iconic Weisbaden figure – ground plan that is illustrated in its negative representation on the front cover of the book. Their supporting comment on Weisbaden is central to the new planner’s solution; “allow for the joint existence of the overtly planned and the genuinely unplanned”.
We will be required to learn a new anthropologically derived term, bricolage, in chapter four to be equipped to grasp the next step in the Rowe and Keoetter prognosis. They argue; “the garden as criticism of the city…has its clearest expression at Versailles”; in the planning of LeNotre’s; “aristocratic Disney World” with its two dimensional comic-book, yet autocratic connotations. They compare this with that of the apparently haphazardly disorganised Villa Adriana at Tivoli constructed by the Emperor Hadrian, based on the emperor’s interpretation of the organic evolving planning of Imperial Rome. The authors advocate this city case study deploying a persuasive thirteen illustrations of Roman city plans to underscore their points. Before bricolage is explained, Rowe and Koetter position another methodological metaphor in front of us using the fox and the hedgehog to try and define 20th century architects’ most basic ethical standpoints. “The fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one big thing“. Architects had been compelled to be “hedgehogs” in their supremely self confident, even utopian CIAM style post war plans, but the new urban ethos would surely favour the “fox”, who is an improviser, resourceful, a pluralist and, of course, highly aware of her territory.
They provide the intellectual and ideological toolbox for the revision of modernism through the example of the “bricoleur” as the archetype for the new architect. Levi-Strauss had described bricoleurs as jacks of all trades in tribal societies; make doers, skilled in many crafts, not just one profession “they are ‘operators’ ”. Under the title“Collision City” the theory of “politics and perception” is adumbrated. The authors were profoundly disturbed by the urban impact of the politics of racial segregation in parts of the USA. Maybe planners shouldered some responsibility for recent riots and social discord; “we have an urgent need for the fox and the bricoleur” the writers plead. The last part of the chapter positions and advocates illustrated examples of organic city growth in planning and the visual allure of bricolage in the completed work of architects past and present.
The last chapter refers to the object of the argument and provides complex definitions of the term “collage”. The act of assembling the various components is a time based activity and requires an understanding of change as part of the process. Summarised on the final page, “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, history.” Rowe and Koetter replicate the image of the dome of the Pantheon next to the mystical mandala board. They set out the proposition that we all “learn” from cities on a variety of levels. They go so far as to see “the city as a didactic instrument”. The authors question why fellow architects have failed to read the past like a textbook for fear of producing excessively referenced or derivative architectural styles. The writers assume that a tacit element of the modern architect’s training is informed by the 20th century architect’s “distaste” for the mannered historicism which had dominated the Ruskinesque Gothic of the 19th century, for example. They infer that taking on tradition somehow “betrays” the profession. They also play with the etymology of “traduttore = tradition” to bring out into the open the unspoken fears of planners who might avoid betraying their professional ethos. The authors are then free to suggest that the “city as museum” has an intellectual life that can only be positive. There is nothing to fear from these textbook examples of the past. They are particularly fond of the Munich case study with its “supremely conscientious profusion of references; Florentine, medieval, Byzantine, Roman, Greek”. They call it a “city of objects and episodes” that has not attracted sufficient research and is surprisingly overlooked despite its considerable reputation and success. Thus, continuing their habitual metaphorical demonstrations, they reduce the metaphor-concept of “museum” into two parts: museum equals scaffold or exhibits/objects are equated with demonstrations. Modernism is accused of ignoring the objects in favour of the ideologies of the “scaffold”. As a result modern architecture always professes “a distaste for art”. The profession is then brought to its lowest point with the assertion that the authors have witnessed an “increasing poverty of meaning and decline of invention”. Modern architecture lacks “art”.
They then produce a hero of the modernist movement; Pablo Picasso. The Bull’s Head 1944 cast in bronze from a bicycle seat and saddle is a particularly potent piece of sculpture recommended for architects’ consideration. It has the integrity of image and object but also has meaning. It is artless yet somehow descriptive, it is styleless but yet it is a talisman. It is well positioned for all urban designers to reflect upon and emulate. Then the authors extend their arguments to expound on the eponymous Picasso collage illustrated on the title page.

The Still Life with Chair Caning from 1911-12 is summarized as “disparate objects held together by various means”. This in effect is the panacea for all city planners. The authors rejoice in the pluralist, eclectic, hybrid and informal nature of the oval canvas with its rope frame; couldn’t the objects (exhibits) in the future city also be similarly “aristocratic or….folkish”? From this point the authors seek out examples of good practice in the adoption of a collage inspired (later called Contextualist) approach to planning. To prove an even handed and unbiased sense of proportion they refer to Le Corbusier’s 1928 Nestle Pavilion and the roof of the Unite d’Habitation as good examples of collage city. At this point the metaphors return again with the mandala board being illustrated to remind planners of the closeness of the illusion of utopia to this mystical object of magical but essentially unrealistic functions. The utopian thread finally disappears into the Platonic body of theory from which it emerged. The laws imposed upon those who live in the city will ultimately be the only “image” of the city that matter to its occupants and the only city that they will recognise. Rowe and Koetter then moderate their arguments in the last pages to suggest that;
“a collage approach …. is at present the only way of dealing with the ultimate problems of either or both utopia and tradition”.
The apparatus of this book culminates in an excursus upon what must have been produced as some by products of the editing process; a chapter devoted to photographs of many half page plates illustrating specifically what animates the writers as outstanding achievements. They celebrate parts of the urbanist pantheon that inspired their campaigning aims as follows; “Memorable streets-Stabilizers-Potentially interminable set pieces- Splendid public terraces-Ambiguous and composite buildings-Nostalgia producing instruments-The garden-Commentary”
These sub-chapter titles are definitely enigmatic if not a little eccentric, but then we have by now become accustomed to unravelling their extended metaphors from the book title onwards. For instance “stabilizers” have not really been introduced in any comprehensive way into the body of the written argument. The writers reveal themselves as possibly a little less structured than their text would have indicated had they concluded the book at the end of chapter five. Their illustrations of plan and building examples are intended to be read as a canon of iconic examples or are they more subjective? It was odd to see a repeat illustration of the Plaza Mayor in Vittoria, Spain when it had so brilliantly triumphed over the dreadful Plan Voisin in a comparison earlier in the text. This book, at times, seems to have confounded the editorial process altogether. The authors use section headings in the excursus when these would have also been effective apparatus inside the main body of the text for reference purposes. We are also left with an uncomfortable sensation that the two authors have opened a car boot sale of loved objects many of which have connotations that required a separate volume with amplified captions as all the examples are significant and challenging, especially the oil rig platform which predicts the vogue for exo-skeletal projects.
After the wide ranging erudition of the preceding five chapter arguments of Collage City they submit, in a spirit of humility the following last word on the last page:
“The disintegration of modern architecture seems to call for …a strategy… an enlightened pluralism… and possibly even common sense.”
In conclusion, Rowe and Koetter were sharp in their seizure of the historical moment. Their initiative seems to have synergised with a sea change in architecture into the 1980s. Contextualist theory certainly did find its adherents chief amongst them James Stirling for example whose eclectic approach to architectural sources in his Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart 1982 is of note. The book is emancipatory; many architects had felt restrained by the pre-scripted methodologies that later modernism had seemed to demand. Postmodern wit and counter-cultural movements had evolved by the late 70s to re-envision the urban site as more than a space for just the architect’s ego. Within the next 10 years the advent of new digital technologies and changed cultural and political contexts would mandate a far less bombastic version of later 20th century modernism and invite architecture and planning professions to seek to regain the trust of their audience and to rediscover the social gratifications to be derived from a well planned beautiful city.

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