Towards Collage Architecture——Aaron Betsky

This Biennale makes a simple argument: we have enough stuff. We have enough buildings, enough objects, and enough images. We certainly have enough cities and built-up areas. We do not need to make or build any more. What we need to do is to reuse, rethink, and reimagine what we already have. Specifically, we need architecture that is not the imposition of an abstract idea on a plot that was either inhabited or natural, which is to say an act of appropriation that uses up non-renewable natural resources in the process. Rather we should think of architecture as the thoughtful gathering together of what we already have to create structures that open us up to new relationships with each other and with our environment. We need to discover the new within what we have and know.

The methods we need to employ in this endeavor are simple and well-known: the reuse of existing buildings and materials; tactical insertions in the grids and closed structures of our cities that open them up to new forms of occupation, new uses, and new vistas; reinterpretations of existing images and forms so that we can both recognize ourselves and our heritage and understand that we can reinvent our world and our roles within the reality we have inherited; and a forceful cutting, slicing, and making our own of the structures that otherwise keep us imprisoned –those whose physical confinement represents and makes real the social, political, and economic control to which we are subject.

There is a history to such tactics as well, although it is one that this Biennale does not examine in detail, as its nature is to be a celebration of current experimentation. It is the history of collage, assemblage, and appropriation; of installations and performance art that breaks the boundaries of what usually defines art and architecture; of the reuse of imagery that used to be part and parcel of the artist’s and the architect’s practice, and that was briefly resurrected during the period of Postmodernism; and the notion of art as the magical repurposing of existing forms, images, and patterns to imbue them with new significance beyond the conventions out of which the base material arose.

Collage and assemblage, as they emerged as techniques in artmaking starting in the early twentieth century, served as counterpoints to pictorial techniques that assumed reality was an illusion, art that claimed to see beyond physical and time-based materiality to understand deeper principles. This abstract and spiritually oriented approach, steeped in a centuries-long tradition, sought to create a window into a world of pure and ultimately a-human and a-physical truths, moving the viewer into the realm of ideas and ideals. In architecture, this meant the idea of forms that came out of orders and organizational principles that were not bound by time or place, and that reflected the power to impose an institution’s, state’s or individual’s power over people, resources, and spaces.

Against such an approach, collage and assemblage proposed to gather what was real, emphasizing the material’s sensual qualities by eschewing anything that was finished, complete, or still functional. The stuff with which they worked was incomplete, damaged, and useless: it was the detritus of human civilization. It also bore the marks of use, containing within itself the humanity that had made and worn it down. Artists put this material together into compositions that were themselves unstable, often without the central focal point and certainly without the crutches of perspectives or other abstract forms of organization that transformed material such as paint into the building blocks of an imaginary world. Instead, they create rhythms and patterns, weaving together the fragments into something that cohered, though often barely. These compositions could be read as abstractions—but more importantly as experimental reconfigurations that gave dead material a second life with many potential vectors.

Architects did not pick up on these techniques until the 1980s, and even then in a manner that still showed the central place abstraction and order held and hold in their discipline: they assembled fragments of historical forms and quotations into collages. Though some of them might have looked to “architecture without architects” or Roman “spolia,” what they produced was not the reassembly of found materials, but an assemblage of references. Combined with the rising fashion of historic preservation, itself guided by the necessity of preserving existing resources, this produced something like collage architecture, though it was a fake one. What was constructed was new in terms of either the image it presented or the material it used, or it was a specious recreation of what existed.

Only with the advent of computer technologies, paired with the replacement of abstraction with scenarios and conceptual projects during the 1990s, did collage architecture come closer to being realized. While industrial and graphic designers finally embraced radical and tactical reuse, architects created stage sets and piled functions on top of each other, mixed existing and new materials, and opened up their buildings to multiple ways of either moving through or interpreting them.


In the last decade architects have embraced the idea of collage, but often only in the limited sense of producing two-dimensional representations (by using software such as Photoshop to virtually assemble buildings from existing images) or by rehabilitating existing buildings for more symbolic and ceremonial purposes such as museums. On a larger field, architects and urbanists have looked at urban situations, proposing the re-appropriation of disused spaces for urban agriculture, guerilla gardening, or pop-up “parklets,” while using their knowledge and skills to help homeless and powerless people to take over and make use of abandoned structures.

In theoretical projects, some architects and designers have pointed to further possibilities. Since the experimental architecture of the 1980s, these collage architects have proposed ways of making structures and cities out of existing forms and materials, and, more recently, have even developed computer programs that would facilitate such tactics. These are the architects we have assembled for this Biennale. We have attempted to show the diversity of their tactics, which range from the literal gathering together of junk or used materials, through the appropriation of existing spaces or structures, to the playing out various scenarios through the use of computers and social modeling techniques so that we can imagine other uses of and vistas through existing urban environments.

Such is the scene in which this Biennale operates, and such are its building blocks. The question is what it does with such forms and methods today. This is where we have sought to collect the best work at various scales, in different situations, and in a variety of locations in order to show the viability of architecture that is a gathering and a revealing rather than an invention.

The criteria we use are that the work must, first, be sustainable. This does not mean the addition of technologies that ameliorate the waste of resources inherent in construction. Sustainable architecture  does not just harness wind, ground, and solar energy in order to make its environments less wasteful. It does not waste any resources in its very construction and use.

This means, furthermore, that all architects have to ask themselves the question, when they are asked to design a new building, whether that is truly necessary. Those who would develop or redevelop properties, potentially commissioning architects, also need to consider alternatives to new construction. To answer the needs of space, identity, and being at home in your living, your work, or your play, you may not need a new building. It might be that you need to redefine who or what you are as an individual or an organization. If you do need more space, you can usually find it in existing buildings and neighborhoods. That does not mean that we are calling for historic preservation in the sense of embalming the past, nor do we want what is new about the reused structures or urban environments to be indistinguishable from the structures designers need to open up. We are calling for architecture and urbanism that are radically new in their opening up, reimagination, and repurposing of existing structures.

The shock of the new must come out of a reuse of what is, which will gain it an echo effect: a sense that it is strangely familiar.

Rethinking the underlying values of design will in turn cause designers and architects to rethink aesthetics, and perhaps even to generate a new style. Therefore this Biennale calls for a new style, in the sense of articulating a point of view and making visible the possibilities of collage architecture and urbanism.

What is made, even if it is remade, is particular to the maker, the materials, and the situation (in time and space) in which it appears. What we are saying is that this particular architecture, this mode of appearance, this style, is one that consists of editing, curating, composing, and collaging together.

Collage architecture and urbanism will take their place as part of a wider movement in our culture towards making as remaking: sampling in music and visual arts, repacking, riffing on existing styles and forms; and the Photoshop Aesthetic, in which the work of art is the deformation and reformation of existing images, understood in their malleability and artificiality. Art in this sense is ultimately the revelation of the artifice we have made for ourselves, and an attempt to position ourselves in that position of instability. It places us, but in a manner that recognizes our placelessness and timelessness. It is the construction of not understanding some meaning and extension, but seeing and knowing what is right now and here.


In short, we call for:

Architecture that reuses, reimagines, restages, and repurposes

Architecture that is an act of opening

Architecture that gathers together what is into the new

Architecture that breaks open the boxes in which we live, work, and play

Architecture that does not use up natural resources, but makes them available to all

Architecture that forms a collage or assemblage

Architecture that works tactically to liberate the city

Architecture that is strangely familiar

Architecture that reveals the artifice of our world

Architecture that is a manner of seeing and knowing our world