Photomontage is a technique that has long been used by artists to create new visions of reality. Its use can be traced back to the origins of photography; double exposures and cut and pasted layers were common enough even in the beginning. In the modern era, web it became especially prominent in the Dadaist work of John Heartfield, ambulance Hannah Höch and others, remained popular with many Surrealists. It had a resurgence in Pop Art of the 1960s and its architectural offshoots like Archigram and Superstudio. And as digital technologies evolved into the 1980s and 1990s, it was used by photographers like Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, and Thomas Ruff, who is his series, Häuser (1987-1991) erased windows and composited digital images to create unknowable and hyperreal spaces. Photomontage has also long been central to the rendering of architectural projects. Photographers Filip Dujardin and Lauren Marsolier inherit this legacy of photomontage and are currently exhibiting in California.

Filip Dujardin, D'ville 005 (2012)

Filip Dujardin, D’ville 005 (2012)

Highlight Gallery San Francisco features new work from the Belgian photographer, Filip Dujardin. Dujardin’s (Dis)location pairs selections from two recent bodies of work; Guimaraes: The Photographic Mission: The Transgenic Landscape and Deauville: Architectures Imaginaries. These projects resulted from residencies in Deauville, France and Guimaraes, Portugal respectively.

Dujardin’s works create an archive of buildings and architectural fragments and he experiments with their formal possibilities in fantastical ways. His work pushes the margins of architectural photography by playfully exploring the possibilities of stacking and slicing by creating images of impossibly multiplied building forms. He is a remix artist for buildings by repeating and transforming architecture. The images are not bound by the psychical nature of actual buildings or by the constraints of force, gravity, and shear faced by architects and engineers. There is one reading of this work as utopian, as the willing into existence of previously unthought-of forms. However this is probably being generous as the photographs seem more formal and sculptural, satisfied by their ability to trick the eyes and please the mind.

Filip Dujardin, Guimarães 001 (2012)

Filip Dujardin, Guimarães 001 (2012)

While the French city of Deauville offered more familiar modernist buildings for Dujardin, Guimaraes presented him with more historical forms. In previous bodies of work Dujardin has mostly used modernist forms and fragments, however here the centuries-old castles became a rich vein of new forms to explore. (Dis)location’s combination of works showcase two clashing environments and multiple building styles, however the title owns this contradiction by locating viewers both in the no-place of architectural fantasy and the interstices of distinct geographical places and cultures. The act of dislocation is also the act of removing reality from the photograph. These spaces are not inhabitable but appear hazy in front of viewers, held just at arm’s length, out of reach. The constructed spaces are a nowhere place of dreams and fantasy. Maybe it is the buildings dreaming of becoming something else. The dreamlike quality of these images is an essential component of photomontage and is one of the main reasons that the technique has remained popular throughout the history of photography.

Filip Dujardin, Guimarães 003 (2012)

Filip Dujardin, Guimarães 003 (2012)

In his most fantastical images, he loses the magic moment of truth, the largely unconscious process of “is that thing real?” Some of the works are too clean, and when the images are immediately read as unreal instead of held in transition by the viewers’ suspension of disbelief, the effect is lost. There is a fine balance needed to trick the brain and to elicit a positive response of the viewer. His popularity points partially to the successful execution of this world-building procedure for his viewers. For comparison it would be helpful to contrast Filip Dujardin to photographer Lauren Marsolier.

Lauren Marsolier is a contemporary photographer who also works in photomontage. Marsolier’s ongoing series Transitions, which just opened at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica explores the phenomena of transition. Marsolier probes the effects that a change of view can have on emotional, perceptual, and spatial awareness. She explores this question of transition both as a psychological force and as a spatial condition. Her concept of transition is framed by the loss of the solid grounding of the ideologies of the past, the implosion of clear boundaries, and a sense of placelessness caused by collapse of stable signifiers. Her works contain subtle juxtapositions of location, mismatching the foreground buildings and background landscape. The scenes are calm, even serene but discomfiting, too quiet to let viewers guard down. The works’ content, mostly of buildings and deserted landscapes are quite eerie.

Lauren Marsolier, Landscape with Lawn, 2012

Lauren Marsolier, Landscape with Lawn, 2012

Lauren Marsolier, Landscape with Covered Car 2012

Lauren Marsolier, Landscape with Covered Car (triptych), 2012

There are commonalities between Marsolier’s and Dujardin’s approaches. Their images share a similar flatness where buildings are isolated from their background environment. Cloudless bright skies feature in almost all of Dujardin’s work as it frequently does in Marsolier’s Transitions. In previous works, however Marsolier has shown more versatility, experimenting with night shoots and varied lighting conditions. Another key difference is that her photography comes from a landscape tradition whereas Dujardin is primarily an architectural photographer. There remains the question of what is the function of a contemporary photomontage.

The bigger question of understanding the aesthetic of photomontage is the question of affect. Is it enough to ask “Am I seduced by this image?” Is optic seduction enough or is there a need to strike other sensorial places or imply deeper questions? Marsolier says she is aiming for this transitory place in her images. They are transcribing feelings and reaching into an uncanny space by making the void of post-modern life visible. For Dujardin is the experimental catalog of forms and the sheer visual pleasure of seeing them enough or is the very act of making fantastic forms actually creating a vision for the future?

Lauren Marsolier, Buildings And Pines

Lauren Marsolier, Buildings And Pines, 2012

(Dis)location is at Highlight Gallery through March 29th. 1 Kearny Street, San Francisco
Transition is at the Robert Berman Gallery through March 30th. 2525 Michigan Ave C2 Santa Monica

Lebbeus Woods: Berlin Free-Zone 3-2, <a href=

order 1990″ width=”600″ height=”297″ class=”size-full wp-image-691″ /> Lebbeus Woods, diagnosis Berlin Free-Zone 3-2, no rx 1990

Lebbeus Woods was a singular figure in architecture. He was an outsider, yet quietly influential to architectural thinking over the past three decades. He was a humanist, a deconstructionist, a utopian, a critical thinker, and often misunderstood. Lebbeus asked radical questions of architecture, questions that Architecture as a discipline was hardly capable of answering. His death in November, 2012 struck a chord with many, and yet he was not terribly well-known outside of certain academic circles. His massive output was primarily as a paper architect, leaving behind a mass of drawings, sketches, models and installations. One of the only buildings realized was his Light Pavilion (2008) that was integrated into Stephen Holls’ Raffles City Complex1 in Chengdu, China. Despite this his project was much, much larger than building things. It was about theorizing space and understanding humanity, pushing the possible over the horizon of staid limitations. He remained committed to an understanding of architecture as a design process that can transform space and human relationships.

SFMOMA’s Architecture and Design department has assembled the largest collection of Lebbeus Woods’ paintings, drawings, prints, and models. Lebbeus Woods, Architect brings together many of these works for the first time. Curators, Jennifer Dunlop-Fletcher and Joseph Becker were already working with Mr. Woods to create an installation at the time of his death. In light of his sudden death, they assembled the current exhibition instead—a fitting survey of his many works. The exhibition features more than one-hundred fifty drawings and models including Centricity(1987-1988), A City Sector(1984-88), Aerial Paris (1989), War and Architecture (1996), Inhabiting the Quake(1995), Zagreb Free Zone (2001), and Conflict Space(2006). Each project tells a similar story by re-imagining the local conditions of places like Havana, Vienna, San Francisco, Zagreb, Sarajevo, or Berlin. Almost all of his drawings have inscriptions—poetic and philosophical fragments, personal notes or half-thoughts that indicate a very personal yet systemic notation system. Also on display are models of Einstein’s Tomb (1980), Meta-Institute (1996), Nine Reconstructed Boxes(1999), and Light Pavilion(2007). These architectural models invite viewers to get lost in their tiny cutouts and weightless, impossible geometries.

His aesthetic was fueled by science fiction and past utopian forms. Most works are composed of visceral lines, shattered planes, fields of networked and interdependent vectors. Some are pure speed and mechanical chaos, others emerge as an organic hybrid. Lebbeus Woods, Architect is a joy to explore in all its little details and the ability to see the evolution of his craft. These drawings and models became his way of grappling with the complexity of post-modernity. As he saw it, the conditions of humanity deserved his thoughtful attention and his output reflects this orientation. Lebbeus was obsessed about war, environmental catastrophe, crisis, and its effects. He was not alone in these obsessions:

Paul Virilio and I, in our different ways, share an intense interest in the changes brought about by technological innovation, by cultural and social upheavals, by natural catastrophes like earthquake and the social and architectural responses to them. I see these extreme cases as the avant-garde of a coming normality, one that we must engage creatively now, inventing new languages, rules and methods, if we are to preserve what is essential to our humanity, that is, compassion, reason, independence of thought and action.2

Lebbeus Woods Zagreb Free Zone, 1991

Lebbeus Woods, Zagreb Free Zone, 1991

Reconstruction was a question he frequently thought about, especially after the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. He was deeply moved by the destruction of Sarajevo, and the fall of the World Trade Center ten years later on September 11, 2001. His projects over this period focus on the continual questions faced by people reconstructing their lives after catastrophe; meeting needs, understanding loss, and recognizing trauma. Lebbeus’ writing on catastrophe pointed toward architecture built for remembering what was there and what had happened, to enable a looking back while moving forward, not as a dead monument to history, but of life moving on after disruptive events.

Likewise, the seed of his political project was to understand the construction of space in response to or in spite of disaster and destruction. Singular buildings or architectural forms are way less important than the relationships between people and space; or in his own spatial term, the field. He states that,

Architecture creates a field of potentials, defined by spatial limits, and also by its own imbedded methodology, within which people may choose to act, or not. Traditional architecture tries to choreograph people’s movements, even their thoughts and feelings. The architecture I envision is more anarchic. For some years I called it freespace, free of predetermined purposes and meanings. The difficulty of occupying such spaces confronts the crisis of contemporary existence, namely the necessity to invent one’s self and meaning in the face of world-destroying changes.3

Lebbeus Woods' System Wien, 2006

Lebbeus Woods’ System Wien, 2006

Freespace was a clear signifier of his relationship to the historical avant-garde and its later utopian variants of every social tendency. His War and Architecture Pamphlet and Radical Reconstruction monograph were manifestos of reclaiming space and presented cursory models of inhabitation after catastrophe. His thinking aligned with de-constructivist and post-modern discourses, both popular at the time they were written. His philosophical trappings were simultaneously very contemporary, yet remained both sincere and ethical in an avant-garde or classically modernist tradition. His writings should be read with those of Paul Virilio and Manuel De Landa, authors whom he worked with directly. Philosophy plays a large role in his thinking and threads of Nietzsche4 , Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze help to illuminate his explorations. Lebbeus’ broad influences helped him to understand the destructive role of technology, the violence of war, the struggle of humans against powerful forces within and outside of themselves, and the transformative possibility of creating models of something radically new.

Lebbeus Woods' High Houses, 1995-1996

Lebbeus Woods, High Houses, 1995-1996

Wood’s detractors only seem to see his aesthetic sensibility, reducing him to a science-fiction concept artist and willfully ignoring the decades of writing and theorizing. He did create concept art for Alien 3 and illustrated the occasional science fiction book, but these were only a fraction of his output. His importance was as a complicated voice within the architectural discourse, someone with a unique vision of what architectural practice could look like. In a moving presentation by his former colleague, Anthony Vidler, viewers were encouraged to see the struggle behind the drawings, to understand where Woods was coming from and what problems he faced. He was described by Vidler as a solitary thinker, and solitary artist but one with a fierce commitment to collective action and a faith in social transformation.5

Over the past five years Lebbeus turned to blogging as a way to vet his ideas and be part of an intellectual community. His archives are a testament to his engagement with the larger questions that preoccupy architectural thinking and to the breadth of his knowledge and interests. He shared some of his own work on the blog, along with projects he found interesting, essays, interviews, and fragments of ideas he was working on. He seems to have drifted away from an understanding of buildings themselves as being transformative into a richer understanding that what is needed are new models for thinking and doing.

His unique position as artist, architect, educator, and philosopher meant that his ideas managed to resonate across disciplines. Lebbeus reminds us that “Living experimentally means living continually at the limit of received knowledge” 6 and his vision for a better world will no doubt be continually rediscovered for decades to come.

Lebbeus Woods, Architect is at the SFMOMA until June.

Lebbeus Woods' Einstein's Tomb 1980

Lebbeus Wood, Einstein’s Tomb, 1980


Notes
(1) Video of Steven Holl on the Raffles City Complex Leb’s Light Pavilion is at 5 min. mark
(2) “As it is: Interview with Lebbeus Woods”
(3) ibid.
(4) Sanford Kwinter on Woods
(5) Anthony Vidler spoke at California College of the Arts on 2/18/2013 (link)
(6) Lebbeus Woods, onefivefour, Princeton Architectural Press. 1989/2011. pg. 3.