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The Ideologies behind Architectural Flatness:

Digital Collage as a Contestational Device in the Early 2000’s

The Ideologies behind Architectural Flatness.jpg

Author's own illustration, 2021.

Digital collage has been a popular representational technique for many years. Despite this, it was not directly addressed as a matter of interest until 2017, when Sam Jacob, co-founder of the British practice, FAT Architecture, wrote an article for the digital magazine Metropolis. In the text he explained the reasons behind the digital collage’s rise. He argued that digital collage was a reaction against ‘digital’ realistic rendering tools as, in his opinion, they informed too much of architects’ designs. Because of their excessive realism, these tools ‘position [architects] within a predetermined idea of space.’ ‘In these types of space the act of drawing is a Cartesian given.’ According to his ideas, the advance of technology was exponentially leading towards design-precision, that would reduce the speculative value of drawings. If we compare them, realistic renderings have limited artistic potential because they just replicate soon to be built architectures. However, collages do not just reproduce reality but also enormously help people to conceive space; their compositional process enable a richer interaction between architect’s hand and mind. What Jacob described was therefore a confrontation between two worlds that once seemed to be distant: realistic renderings as the image of the Digital, and digital collages as the image of the post-Digital. Realism and replication vs abstraction and creation.

The intention of rehabilitating drawing as an act independent from reality helped to breathe life into creative processes of the pre-digital-world. And this rehabilitation precedes the use of digital collage. Basically, post-digital collages are a digital reinterpretation of a method that has been alive since 1911 or 1912,[1] moments in which Braque and Picasso first started cutting material fragments to combine them over a plain surface. As part of their Analytical Cubism, these artists used collage to translate three-dimensional features into two-dimensionality while claiming that - like painting – it had the ability to explore an ‘art of representation and illusion.’[2] Through their work, the veracity of flatness which exceeded the representation of real three-dimensionality was established as an independent field of action. In Greenberg’s words: ‘Painting had to spell out, rather than pretend to deny, the physical fact that it was flat.’[3] Emerging digital collage pursued the same objective, despite its different underlying technologies.

The fundamental difference between the analogue and the digital lies in the nature of the elements that compose the ‘depicted flatness’ of digital collage. Analogue collages employ material chunks sourced from physical objects that possess required visual properties, whereas digital collages are made possible by accumulations of electronic fragments that were once part of other digitalised (art)works. The process by which these samples are put together is fundamentally the same in both cases, a simple operation of cutting, pasting and recombining. The difference is that hands and scissors were substituted in Photoshop by the early 2000’s. However, Digital collage’s real innovation is the almost infinite availability of electronic samples for use by the artist. The digitalisation of the operation altogether with the increase of usable materials drive us to another enabling reason for the advent of PoDi collage— technological momentum. The early noughties saw the consolidation of tools for vectorial design and photo-editing, but also the rise of digital platforms for massive image dissemination. The development of the former, whose most obvious example is Adobe’s “Photoshop,” began in the mid-1980s and became prolific in design and creative environments during the 1990s. Photoshop was first employed in architectural production in the early 2000s. It is no accident that its architectural use coincided with the arrival of massive online image repositories. The launch of Google Images in 2001 and the growing capacity of online data storage helped to root images into the furtive soil of the internet, something which is now an everyday part of our lives. Architects at that point were presented with an unprecedented opportunity: a near infinite supply of visual resources at their fingertips. Data storage and digital copy-pasting, which lie behind the dynamics of digital collage, present memory as a key factor for the emergence of digital flatness. They do so in two ways: the recovery of past materials to compose the future and the accumulation of information which enables the reactivation of those materials.

The editing factor makes it possible to compare the logics behind digital collage with other digital artistic processes. To sample music is to cut a fragment of a song and reuse it in another musical piece. To use samples, they first must be extracted from their source in the form of speech, melody, or rhythm, and can be later edited in different forms by speeding up or slowing down parts, or through layering. Those samples are finally assembled with the help of hardware (samplers) or digital software. Digital collage is a process of visual sampling. For collagers, the samples are the incoming visual fragments obtained from existing images. Once they are extracted from their origin, they are put together to compose the new image when, and if, needed. They can be enlarged, reduced, coloured, or brightened through image editing software. This cut-paste-edit-assembly process has one direct consequence: samples are extracted and decontextualised from their original location and inserted into a new composition, where their meaning is dissolved and reconstructed to fit new desires. They may keep their visual attributes, but their intrinsic message changes, a fact that positions the whole operation of collage as a process of constant resignification through assembly.





[1] Clement Greenberg, Art and culture: critical essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 77.

[2] Ibid, p. 71.

[3] Ibid.

Copyright of image: © Alejandro Carrasco

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