The Plan Game: The Origins of “Collage City”

In the early 1970’s Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter developed their ideas of a Collage City as an essay, which was expanded and published as a book in 1978. The concept of Collage City is about the principles of modern architecture, their philosophical beginnings, their expressions, and the ways in which they are flawed. It is a book about architects who had, and have, conceptions about the ideal city, and it tries to reorient those conceptions from the utopia of a single vision to a more broader view of the design of city form.

Collage City
The cover of Collage City

Collage is partially defined in the Oxford dictionary as, “A collection or combination of various things.” In the case of Collage City, one could also say the thesis is about a collection of ‘things’ in the form of ideas, but this blog entry is focused on the physical act of combining plans of buildings to make a grouping, or urban setting.

At the beginning of the first chapter of Collage City is an image titled City of Composite by David Griffin and Hans Kollhoff.  Griffin and Kollhoff were both grad students at Cornell University studying with Colin Rowe when they produced the City of Composite in 1977.

City Composite
City of Composite by David Griffin and Hans Kollhoff

The image is made up from a series of historic plans and arranged to create a fictitious city plan.

City Composite02
The highlighted plan in green is the upper acropolis of Pergamon, while the highlighted plan in red is the Uffizi in Florence.

Rowe’s idea of collaging building plans together didn’t originate at Cornell with Griffin and Kollhoff.  It actually started in the early 1950’s with a group called The Texas Rangers.  From 1952 until 1955 Californian educator and architect Harwell Hamilton Harris served as the Dean for the School of Architecture of the University of Texas. The group of modernist architects he attracted as faculty came to be known as The Texas Rangers. In the first group of educators Harris hired were Bernhard Hoesli, Colin Rowe, John Hejduk, and Robert Slutzky.

During the tenure of Hoesli, Rowe, Hejduk, and Slutzky, around 1954-1956, the “plan game,” was created.

“This exercise was a spontaneous, collaborative drawing invented by Rowe, Hoesli, Hejduk, and Slutzky at the School of Architecture in Austin. Hejduk remembers, “During the intense heat [of Texas] Colin, Bernhard, Bob and I played a game. I think Colin and Bernhard invented it. We would take a large blank sheet of drawing paper and begin to draw plans of buildings, historic and otherwise. Colin would say I am going to draw the plan of the Villa Madama, then Bernhard would draw the plan of Wright’s Gage House, etc.  . . . All night long, in the early hours of the morning the paper would be filled with plans from all times, many hybrids too. At the end Colin would be devilishly amused and delighted. In retrospect who would have thought those plans of Classicism, Neo-Classicism, Modern Constructivism, [and] Contemporary would have
been the genetic coding of the architectural monsters which followed?” 1

The Plan Game_Plan Combo
Example of the Plan Game shown on the left with the same plan with the building masses highlighted on the right.

It’s possible though that Rowe’s idea of collaging portions of plans didn’t start with the plan game.  As a student of Colin Rowe at Cornell I recall being shown a drawing by Giovanni Battista Piranesi titled, Pianta di Roma (Plan of Rome.)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi titled, Pianta di Roma

In this illustration, Pianta of Rome. L’Antichitá Romana 1756, Piranesi shows fragments from the Severan Marble Plan of Rome (Forma Urbis Romae). A year later Piranesi creates his vision of what Imperial Rome would have looked in his illustration titled, Ichnographiam Campi Martii antiquae urbis (from Il Campo Marzio dell’Antica Roma), 1757.

Piranesi’s Campo Marzio

When Piranesi created the fictitious plan of Campo Marzio there were no completed documented drawings of how Imperial Rome was laid out, and as we see in Piranesi’s Pianta di Roma above, there were only fragments of how the city plan of Rome was constructed. It’s believed that Piranesi created his design for Campo Marzio by documenting Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli.

Piranesi’s Hadrian’s Villa

In these two portions of Piranesi’s drawings, Hadrian’s Villa on the left and Campo Marzio on the right, the building masses are highlighted in dark gray. Piranesi was able to discover how the urban fabric of Imperial Rome was collection of intersections made up of formal shapes.

Combo Hadrian Campo Matrzio.jpg
Hadrian’s Villa shown on the left and Campo Marzio on the right.

To further understand how all of this influenced Collage City it’s important to look at other examples of work that were executed during writing of the book.  In 1977 Colin Rowe issued a project to his Cornell graduate studio.  The site was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the Charles River.  The solution below illustrates adding and subtracting to create a dense urban fabric.

Project by Charles P. Graves, 1977.  The buildings shown in gray are the existing structures, while the buildings in black are the new proposed scheme.

Similar, although more complex, is the solution by Colin Rowe and team for Roma Interrotta, a project exhibited in 1978. Below is one of the twelve plates from the Nolli Plan. The next image shows team Rowe’s solution superimposed onto the original Nolli plan, and the final image is team Rowe’s solution as a stand alone.

Roma Interrota Original & Rowe01.jpg
Plate eight the Nolli Plan.
Roma Interrota Original & Rowe03.jpg
Rowe’s solution superimposed onto the Nolli Plan.
Roma Interrota Original & Rowe02.jpg
Colin Rowe’s solution for Roma Interrotta.

To further understand the design methodology behind Rowe’s solution to Roma Interrotta read the article titled Urban Design Tactics, by Steven K. Peterson, originally published in Architectural Design Magazine 1978.

While teaching at Kent State University, College of Architecture and Environmental Design I was charged to introduce urban design to third year architecture students.  The semester consisted of a number of interrelated studio exercises.  Exercise number two asked the students to collage a number of city fabric pieces, drawn in figure-ground, obtained from the book titled The Genealogy of Cities.  Similar to Griffin and Kollhoff’s City Composite the outcome of the student exercise produces a fictitious city in plan.  To see the complete semester long series of exercises, refer to this web site, Intro to Urban Design.

Student solution to Collage City.

Although the concept of Collage City is primarily a critique about the principles of modern architecture and urban design, a basis to these principles could be the idea that urban design at its core can be developed by stitching together various existing designs, or precedents, of urban fabric.  As a final example, this approach was used in the design of the Vienna Ringstrasse.  On the left the plan of Vienna 1833, and on the right plan of Vienna 1914.

Left – Vienna 1833 / Right – Vienna 1914.

1 – Caragonne, Alexander, The Texas Rangers: Notes from the Architectural Underground, Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 1993, page 324

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