Why Architectural Collage Is Important to These Three Chicago Architecture Biennial Participants

The recent popularity of architectural collage has led to a lot of cloning and some groaning. But collage is more than an aesthetic—it helps reconceive space in new, often scenographic ways.

House in Rua do Paraíso by Fala Atelier. Architectural collage.
House in Rua do Paraíso by Fala Atelier Courtesy Fala Atelier

To coincide with the opening of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial, themed “Make New History,” we showcase three recent trends in architecture, as seen in the work of emerging architects who are participating in the event. This is the second article in that series. You can read the first here and third here.

Going to the Biennial? Check out our Top 10 Things to Do and See at the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

You’ve seen him before. The full head of hair and ’70s garb, immaculate slip-ons and all. He is stooped over, seized by circumspection; his wavy khaki mane seems to weigh on him. Is he merely lost in thought, or is he plotting? This haunting youth is the photographer Peter Schlesinger, as immortalized in David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). He eyes a body submerged in pool water, disregarding the vast Edenic landscape behind him. The place is Saint-Tropez, France, the year 1972.

The very same figure crops up repeatedly in the handmade montages of Athens architecture firm Point Supreme, founded in 2008. He and other Hockney homunculi also appear with some frequency in the collages of Fala Atelier, a Porto, Portugal–based architectural office established in 2013. Whether posed on a sunbaked building terrace or in a sparsely furnished living room, the peripatetic man is forever aloof, shoegazing. But what is he doing here, in all these varied, fictive architectural places?

“Our beloved Hockney,” sighs Point Supreme cofounder Konstantinos Pantazis. “We were the first to use Hockney’s characters. They carry a mystery and a story with them.” Pantazis claims to be the originator of a prevalent style of architectural collage that shirks representational conventions. It is generally understood to be a reaction against the vapid verisimilitude of computer rendering, but Pantazis actually developed the method years before the popularization of V-Ray and other third-party plug-ins.

Like many architects before him, he contemplated life as a painter before turning to architecture. While studying in Athens, he had begun incorporating elements from de Chirico paintings, and later at the since-closed Berlage Institute in Rotterdam, he further incorporated the imagery of Magritte and other Belgian Surrealists into his design work. He continued to fine-tune the technique as an OMA employee; a collage for the unrealized Ghent Forum project (2004) certainly marks a turning point. It depicts a cavernous central atrium that could be closed off or modulated by movable floors. This functionality is demonstrated profusely in the plasticky, very OMA diagrams included in the proposal packet. Yet this particular image baffles: There is a spatiotemporal kink distorting the rational world. The horizon line is too high, the scale indeterminate. The scene is theatrical and dreamlike, as spotlights track the movements of several performance artists, including flying acrobats.

Flatness and depth coinciding in a single frame—that’s the overall impression. This layered effect is produced over and over again in Hockney’s paintings, drawing observers in and inviting them to crack the tension of the picture plane. The pupils widen and dart back and forth, scanning the image for clues to the source of irregularity. (“We definitely try to guide the eye,” Pantazis says.) And then a creeping suspicion: Where is the light coming from? These are rooms without shadows.

Petralona House by Point Supreme Architecture. Architectural collage.
A collage prepared by Point Supreme Architecture for their Petralona House in Athens. Courtesy Point Supreme Architecture

Or perhaps the realization never hits. In Fala Atelier’s collages, it’s a bit more challenging to sniff out “glitches” like these. The punctilious line work and textured realism dissemble the distortion. A finicky painterliness prevails. In this way, the collages are more like still lifes than architectural drawings. To “read” one of the spaces, you need a cipher, which is why Fala always pairs the images with plans, says cofounder Filipe Magalhães. “The two are like a binary system. Without one, you have no idea of what you’re looking at.”

The collage, then, is not just a seductive visual tool but serves a more practical purpose. Making sense of a space through two-dimensional representations can be a trying experience. Even Fala’s relatively simple designs for interior renovations—shockingly young, Magalhães and his two partners, Ana Luisa Soares and Ahmed Belkhodja, are quickly scaling up their projects—pose some difficulty, particularly for clients. The collages appear early on and lubricate the whole painful ordeal of architecture. “You actually need to talk the same language as clients,” Magalhães explains, but he isn’t describing pantomime. “If you can do that, they learn to detach themselves from reality. They know that the form of the kitchen is not that form, that the cat in the garage is not part of the project. You can then discuss architectural ideas with them.”

And so the drawings are a lie both parties agree to. Their utility is in cementing a working relationship; they are a kind of trust-fall exercise. Recognizable textures, itinerant Hockney nudes, and household pets—cats are a favorite prop indeed—are used to project a lived-in atmosphere that pushes the design forward. The architectural details are liable to change, but the collage can accommodate vagaries and even impulsive about-faces because of its efficiency of production. It’s undoubtedly one of the reasons the technique has caught on as much as it has. Not only are collages easy to make, but the internet offers an infinite repository of raw material to mine. “Every time we begin a design we create a pantheon of images,” says Nicola Campri of Fosbury Architecture, a Milan-based collective that also uses collage. “In this process of selecting images, we are conducting a kind of research.”

On one level, Fosbury’s images bear some similarity to Fala’s in the way they limn intimate, private worlds. Great attention is paid to the space of everyday domestic life, where inanimate knickknacks and accessories—teakettles, bowls of fruit, bedside slippers—ache with feeling. The dramatic potential of these interior scenes is underscored by the ubiquitous presence of curtains, not mere drapery but oversize fabrics that act as partitioning screens. “A theater of the routine,” Magalhães offers. There is a stillness, however, that borders on the funereal—stopped clocks and all that.

Fosbury finds possibility in this “peculiar condition of suspended time.” Unlike Fala, the collective’s purview often breaks out of the domestic cocoon. Windows frame vistas of actual cities, whose blocky topographies are faithfully, almost compulsively redrawn by each of Fosbury’s five members. (“Part of the reason to have such a big team is to do really big drawings,” Campri says.) There is a selective exactitude that recalls Aldo Rossi’s drawings, or rather, his mnemonic method of drawing. The city—invariably an Italian city—is a large theater and, in turn, an agglomeration of smaller theaters, each forming a different backdrop: a church piazza here, an outdoor arcade there. A 2016 proposal for the southern Italian city of Siderno imagined a public waterfront as a continuous landscape of follies, restroom huts, statuary, sand dunes, and umbrellas. It’s easy to imagine these elements anchoring film scenes, whether frilly Fellini escapades or brooding Antonioni scenes. Per Campri, the “visual mechanism of scenography confers a narrative tension,” and when applied to architecture, inertness and passivity become admirable character traits. Buildings become armatures for plays, for nature, and even for architecture. This notion is taken up literally in Point Supreme’s Roman Villa project, which fuses a country estate with a movie set.

In fact, this “villa” is Pantazis and partner Marianna Rentzou’s own Athens house, only expanded to a gargantuan size. The actual house is an incidentally Postmodern patchwork of Bauhaus and vernacular—incidental because the design isn’t purposefully rhetorical, but simply a collage in three dimensions. Scarcity, and not itchy polemic, was the impetus behind the piebald composition, Pantazis says. Citing financial strain, he and Rentzou searched through building works and scrap heaps for material, and when they couldn’t find any, they would solicit it from manufacturers. “We just kept adjusting the design of the house to whatever was given to us for free.”

Form-making is exercised tentatively, an often-belabored point. Pieces of a building—or, in the case of Point Supreme’s Athens Representation project, an entire city—are arranged and rearranged like theatrical scenery. No matter the arrangement, each of the individual pieces retains, as the architect Juhani Pallasmaa has said, an “archaeological density” of great communicative resonance. Hockney’s moony man connotes mystery and introspection regardless of his context; in this way he is a mule, a vessel for smuggling in the human qualities that make architecture come alive. If nothing else, it works as intrigue.

You may also enjoy “Architecture Enters the Age of Post-Digital Drawing.”

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