There is as yet no one architectural material that can do everything and be all things to all people. The advantage for the sculptor or the painter is generally the ability to concentrate through one material medium all the ideas about content. For a few artists that limitation proved too restrictive and in pursuing the idea of overlapping materials the idea of collage was born.
The interpretation of collage has broadened through time to embrace not only materiality but also the juxtaposition of ideas, contexts, histories. Which is important for architects as given the complexities of external contexts, material choices, technical constraints we need an artistic attitude to cohere these disparate qualities into a whole.
Architectural collage seemed to come to the fore as a reaction to the pure volumes of the early moderns. Maison Jaoul By Le Corbusier, the Alison and Peter Smithson Sugden House and Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower are representative of an attempt to collage into the forms of domestic living a grittier and earthier grain. Space which had become defined by smooth, abstract volumes emphasising its purity were skin grafted with a tactile sandpaper veneer of expressed materiality, more in tune with a desire for natural feeling whilst at the same time breaking out of the formal strait jacket which had become its accepted manner. Other brilliant exponents of this genre were Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa and Sverre Fehn.
Like pure modernism itself the shelf life of this new rougher provocative sensibility was short, replaced with a new collage mentality of working with, rather than against the vageries of city form. Rather than new architecture operating autonomously its reasoning emerged out of its city context adopting and evolving forms which responded and learned from its layers of history. Fred Koetter and Colin Rowe coined the descriptive term in their book Collage City.
Reflecting on these lessons we can then draw two broad principles in our armoury of action to guide us. The first strand is architectonic, material juxtaposition with the caveat we contrast as few as possible concentrating the effect and articulation, allowing compositional play to break down a bigger mass.
A second strand deals with the potential influences associated with context immediate and adjacent to a project. Immediate can be the adjacency of new and old of each site which creates its own internal tension whilst external influence can be adjusting to that wider sense of place with its potentially complex histories.
Underlying our search for the appropriate tools to act in any setting is the understanding that ultimately what we build needs to reflect and inspire the communities and people we serve. It is in that collage of familiarity and ambition that we find a fertile source for our contribution.