Montage City

by Pablo Castro

Luca Galofaro’s photomontages propose an alternative architecture, one that, at the risk of superficially appearing unconcerned with structure or internal organization of space—or indeed even with purpose and intended use—focuses instead on a consideration of the value and design potential of the image as one of the crucial cultural issues of our time. The image is not a neglected issue: image seems to be perhaps the most powerful incentive animating design practice today. We live in an image-driven society, images are powerful, easy to produce and cheap. Sometimes it seems, image is all that matters. Driven by image, everything is exaggerated and even grotesque, an obsession with instant and unambiguous communication with an absent-minded public has done away with all subtlety and complexity. Everything in design needs to be reduced to epigrammatic visual ‘sound bites’ that might hopefully fit within the narrowly limited opportunities afforded by an audience with a stunted attention span.

Living in a society wired to spend and discard as fast as possible, image is the main driver and enticement to all action, there is no time for anything other than the skin-deep. The economic system under which we live and work produces and propagates its own form of ignorance; it is, after all, what keeps it alive, and because of that, what passes for quality, luxury or necessity is often superficial and almost completely image-dependent. Decisions concerning the most difficult problems are postponed or abandoned altogether while a thin veneer of optimistic technological overreach is applied to cover over the gaps. A case in point is the complete absence of any debate regarding the slow destruction of the world brought about by continued massive production of articles of consumption that nobody really needs. Instead of engaging in debate regarding this issue in any significant way, the professional response of the architectural ‘mainstream’ has been little more than attempting to deploy a thin ‘green’ layer of technological ‘innovation’ so as to ensure that the production and commercialization of superfluous commodities continue unabated while cowardly avoiding any substantive political debate about the situation. The disenfranchisement of the architectural discipline is only the logical consequence of all this; by agreeing to let others make the important decisions, architects are giving up architecture as the key competence on issues of the design of the public realm. The disappearance of the design of the city from the list of disciplinary competences of architecture is only the most dramatic example of its growing cultural irrelevance.

Professional servility has won over disciplinary integrity and architecture has become the obedient amanuensis of interests that—to give it sense within the narrow range of concerns that define their own universe of action—demand its cultural inconsequence and slow-burn self-destruction. Today, architecture as a professional practice is trapped within the narrow confines it has been forced to set for itself in order to survive as an increasingly modest profession. It has been separated from its capacity to imagine and build the city.

It is perhaps in this context that the importance of these photomontages can be best assessed. They are obviously not meant to describe complete architectural propositions—that would distract us from their real purpose—they have instead a more precise objective: they outline hypothetical design propositions at a large scale, releasing the imagination to envision again architecture as a complete practice.

A building has a within—the space defined inside itself to provide for the infinite ways in which life will unfold for its users—but it also has a without. Even if neglected or misunderstood in its potential, this without is the building’s contribution to society and the unitary building block in the construction of the shared space of the city.

Through these photomontages, Luca Galofaro proposes visions of the architecture of without as pure public appearance; their sharp focus and deceivingly ludic character address exclusively the liminal zone separating interior and exterior spaces. This zone, the boundary setting apart the private from the public, is the precise locus of any debate about the ownership of the city, the critical issue in an urgently necessary political discussion about the future of urban space. These montages attempt to re-artificialize the city, proposing an understanding of it as something other than a natural phenomenon, one that we would be forced to logically accept as a given fact. For them, the city can be re-conceptualized and reinvented through the power of the imagination, and free from the implicit chains of causality directing the trajectories of all things taken to be natural, made to re-enter the debate of history and regain the right to fight for its own future. Since the 18th century the city has been considered to be as indifferent to human destiny as the forest or the sea might be. As a matter of fact, it is the park—the artificial urban form of the forest—which first provided the model and justification for an understanding of the city as a natural phenomenon. By proposing architecture in self-conscious metamorphosis, these photomontages vehemently deny this customary naturalization of the city, proposing instead the idea of a city considered in-motion as a dialectical hybrid between nature and culture: one that, being a product of human ingenuity and work, can and must always be guided by the compass of human intentionality.

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The skin of buildings is the agent of architecture’s representational value in the city, the surface of contact between their social use and their cultural significance. Buildings’ façades are the articulating plane between built physical infrastructure and the unfolding evolution of the collective consciousness of a community. It is here, on the surface, that the continued design and construction of buildings can seek to remain a relevant cultural project by developing the prospects of an alternative architectural rhetoric. This is why one important characteristic of these photomontages is their determination to cement a vision of the future of architecture and the city grounded not in fantasy but in empowered imagination. These artworks propose a space of diachronic evolution, flashbacks and simultaneously running plots preserve the montages from the resigned temptation to blame the facts on natural causality and from the simplifications of a chronological linearity leading not to more accurate predictions of possible futures, but to sheer fantasies.

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Beyond the myriad of antiquarian recombinations suggested by Luca Galofaro’s graphic works, we see them as embodying a clear poetical disposition. They are visual poems, poems made not with words but with images, in the sense that they are made out of parts with limited individual value. For both poems and photomontages, individual parts are relatively inert; true value for these art forms is really only acquired dynamically when words and images are put in motion and enter trajectories promising near-misses and head-on collisions with other words and images. Just like worn-out words that get metaphorically recharged in poetry, the images in photomontage can get recharged too; in this case, they acquire a capacity to make promises about the possibility of a reconsidered relationship between architecture and the city.

We are in the presence here of a long-term project, interesting also in the manner in which these works have evolved deploying different strategies towards achieving consistent objectives in different and imaginative ways. Architecture and Nature (2009), for example, and Sketchbook (2002-2014), appear as extremely compact site-less compositions of epigrammatic eloquence and muscular form, while, by very different means, Archetipi – moon bases 01 (2013) and The Ring (2013) present us with ironic demonstrations of the resilience of the power of basic architectural forms, which continue to radiate the aura of the urban even when located on the moon, under the extreme conditions of radical de-contextualization of the interstellar void.

Most surprising perhaps are Crescita e Forma 01 (2010), Postcards Berlin – Innesti (2013) or Accumulazioni 01 (2014), works in which accumulation and relentless repetition lead to a sort of demolition of the monumental component of well-known architectural icons which are, this way, reduced to a more pedestrian and also more relevant condition of simple fragments of urban fabric. Although radically changed, the assembled fragments remain, by virtue of their original iconic value, recognizable as rhetorically charged. These are the fragments of a new possible city, one not without monuments, but one for which a new form of monumentality has been spread out in potentially equalitarian profusion. This is a new form of city proposing fragments of urban fabric as monuments and monuments as fragments of urban fabric.

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Nothing prevents this productive critique of monumentality from working at multiple levels, and we can also sense in them an implicit critique of the cult of personality in architecture. These montages are the work of an architect with an erudite knowledge of the discipline, and they manage to be critical while, at the same time, paying loving respect to names of the recent past apparently dear to the author. Amongst them are well-known ones such as Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn and Lina Bo Bardi, but the work of more obscure masters is featured as well. That is the case with Clorindo Testa’s Banco de Londres in Buenos Aires and Enrico Tedeschi’s Facultad de Arquitectura in Mendoza, Argentina. There is a clear equalizing intent at play in these works: one that makes ‘high’ architecture accessible through simple repetition while it elevates ‘low’ architecture through compositional care.

Notwithstanding the ambition to catalogue an organized codex implicit in the effort, the work overflows with a desire for exuberant typological invention. The reorganization of matter produced by montage speeds up the intrinsic time of the imagined architecture in a way that suggests forms in state of premature evolutionary fruition. In these images we are sometimes able to look ahead into moments of advanced typological development that, we imagine, would otherwise take many years to achieve.

In closing, it should be noted that these works are not indifferent to pragmatic concerns, and in the end, they present us with images of an architecture vindicated by the implicit justification of a complete purpose. Without a presumptive socially necessary use, architecture would be an object like any other; there is a social component that, added to the brute object of architecture, realizes it as such. Ultimately, architecture only ‘happens’ when created to align with our most intimate desires and fears. We build a house because we hope to be able to mate and reproduce, we build a school because we want children to grow to be wiser than us and avoid repeating our mistakes, we build a hospital because we don’t want to die, and we build cemeteries because we don’t want to be forgotten. Each one of these different building types presents a form of articulation between society and our personal hopes and fears. They expose the strict differentiation between public and private increasingly articulated in the organization of our cities as a gross simplification and a naïve illusion. Architecture has no choice but to attempt a return to the city or finally perish.

New York, July 2018