Both instrumental technique and potentially radical political critique, montage occupies a crucial place within architectural culture. From August Schmarsow to Manfredo Tafuri, Le Corbusier to Colin Rowe, a wide array of architects, theorists, and historians have used montage while seeking to comprehend and reshape modern urban space. El Lissitzky's 1924–25 Wolkenbügel (Cloud Hanger) is a paradigmatic example (Figure 1). The term montage refers generally to a technique involving the synthetic spatial and temporal arrangement of image fragments, whether from still photography or moving pictures. It is difficult to pin down, however: while constructed primarily from photographic fragments, montage imbricates multiple media, as evidenced by its centrality to cinematic discourse. Its importance to the formation of modernism is indisputable, and alongside collage and assemblage, montage remains a paradigmatic type of modern image making charged with the symbolic representation of twentieth-century experience.

Figure 1

El Lissitzky, Wolkenbügel, 1924–25, photomontage.

Figure 1

El Lissitzky, Wolkenbügel, 1924–25, photomontage.

In Montage and the Metropolis, Martino Stierli demonstrates that montage served as twentieth-century modernity's “symbolic form.” Echoing Erwin Panofsky, Stierli argues for montage as the visual schema par excellence through which the mobile and fragmented heterogeneity of modernist production supersedes the monocular spatial continuity of Renaissance art. As such, it is a cultural technique capable of representing the traumas inflicted on the metropolitan subject by modernity and of reconciling that subject to the modern world.

In his introductory chapter, Stierli defines montage according to five characteristics. The first three concern montage's formal properties and their relationship to a viewing subject. First, montage produces representations through the spatial or temporal juxtaposition of fragmentary images; meaning is produced through the active participation of the viewer who apprehends them. Second, montage operates spatially, ordering the disordered world upon the image surface. Third, it presupposes a mobile observer whose embodied perception generates a polyfocal and antiperspectival view of the world. While this (virtual) mobility is strongly associated with cinema, it also links the production of images on a two-dimensional surface to the three-dimensional perception of architectural space. Stierli's final two criteria trace montage's emergence to industrial modernity and its economic, political, and social consequences. First, montage is a product of the resulting age of technological reproducibility and mass media. The term montage itself references (via its French etymological origins) the assembly of prefabricated parts. Finally, montage is the result of the changed human perceptual apparatus brought about by the alienating metropolitan condition described by Georg Simmel and others. Montage makes manifest what was latent in modern urban life. Like collage, montage was developed by the early twentieth-century avant-garde. Stierli notes, however, the historical, ontological, and formal differences between these two practices. Collage, which appeared in the work of cubist painters prior to World War I, continued a handicraft tradition by importing real objects from outside art in order to produce artworks notable for their tactile qualities, while montage, which emerged with the Dadaists after the war, explicitly invoked the assembly line through its use of a homogeneous series of photographic representations to produce images notable for their dialectical oppositions.

Having defined montage as a cultural practice, Stierli uses his second chapter to historicize the phenomenon of montage in art and architecture, respectively, demonstrating how twentieth-century avant-gardes adapted late nineteenth-century vernacular practices of image manipulation. Such peripheral or unconscious techniques were appropriated by the Dadaists as part of their project to destroy contemporary bourgeois society and its art forms after the cataclysm of World War I. The book's third chapter then moves into architecture proper by locating the origins of architectural photomontage in the incorporation of perspectival drawings and model photographs into site photographs. Such representational superimpositions of imagined projects on real sites offered a conservative beginning to a practice that would later teach architects to appreciate the new space of urban modernity.

For Stierli, photography is the defining technique of this new practice of montage. In fact, the reader would be excused for taking montage and photomontage almost interchangeably, despite the author's judicious use of the terms. But while Stierli argues that photography is essential to montage, he also claims that photomontage should be understood as a radical undermining of architectural photography. While the latter mostly reinforces the dominance of linear perspective and continuous space, the former emphasizes spatial discontinuities. Photomontage's photographic antecedents lie not in the pictorial properties of the image but rather in the manipulation of the photograph itself, a practice that dates to the medium's earliest days. Stierli is correct in saying that these experiments often resulted from attempts to assert artistic agency over photography, a technique tinged with cold, mechanical associations. In so arguing, however, he ignores a parallel history of image manipulation (such as overdrawing and the translation of photographs into engravings) in which the early photograph's numerous imperfections were corrected to increase the image's historical, scientific, or architectural value.1  While not technically montages according to Stierli's thorough definition, these early multimedia images played a crucial role in constructing the myth of photographic objectivity, which others would later challenge through photomontage.

The book's central chapter is devoted to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his lifelong engagement with montage. Mies moved in Dadaist circles in 1920s Berlin and was closely involved with many proponents of montage through the magazine G. Stierli contends that these engagements altered the trajectory of Mies's architectural language. Mies's images certainly offer paradigmatic illustrations of Stierli's interpretation of montage's formal, political, and cultural implications, yet few entirely fit the author's strict definition. The suite of images for the Friedrichstraße Skyscraper and Glass Skyscraper projects of 1921–22 may be eloquent examples of montage's dialectical properties—with their staging of Pugin-like contrasts between a utopian technological future and the bourgeois conservatism of Wilhelmine representational architecture—but the famous charcoal drawing of the Friedrichstraße Skyscraper inserted into a site photograph relies for its effect on a juxtaposition of media more common to collage, while its synthesis of a coherent perspectival unity suggests a pictorial regime lacking the discontinuous qualities central to montage.

If Stierli celebrates the aesthetic of urban rupture suggested by Mies's skyscraper montages, he criticizes Mies's later, American efforts as evidence of decline from avant-garde critique to an aesthetic convention of advanced capitalism. Mies's inclusion, for example, of a Paul Klee painting in one of his Resor House collages (1937–41) reduces painting's historical role as an Albertian window to that of a space-dividing object, while the collaged landscape photographs (one taken from a movie poster) transform the broad Wyoming landscape into a flattened, alienating image for passive consumption. This compression of nature is confirmed by Dietrich Neumann's uncovering of Mies, Lilly Reich, and Walter Peterhans's earlier patent for a scheme for producing photographic wallpaper, suggesting an inversion of montage's political capacity: instead of imparting the mobile experience of metropolitan space onto imagery, here montage has led to a flattening of real space.

The book's penultimate chapter returns to the more familiar territory of montage in film. Here Stierli positions Sergei Eisenstein's notion of filmic montage as a sequence of juxtaposed frames unfolding in time, which an active viewer must reconcile intellectually within such avant-garde architectural theories. Drawing from the same source as Le Corbusier's promenade architecturale, Eisenstein used Auguste Choisy's analysis of the Athenian Acropolis to support his claim that montage requires a mobile and embodied spectator. In this way, while Stierli's Montage and the Metropolis deals almost exclusively with images and their discursive contexts (examples of buildings claimed to be montage-like are relatively few in the book), it joins recent works such as Zeynep Çelik Alexander's Kinaesthetic Knowing in historicizing the rise of a mobile subject in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architectural theory.2 

The final chapter explores newer ground in its discussion of montage as a tool of urban historiography, focusing on Walter Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project (posthumously published in 1999) and Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York (1978). In both cases, the grand narrative of modernist history, with its focus on biography, is undercut by montage's literary appropriation. Both Benjamin and Koolhaas—operating with very different political aims—present fragments of historical fact to allow an anonymous history, the city's material unconscious, to rise to the surface. Koolhaas's idealized Manhattan, gathered mainly from his and his collaborator Madelon Vriesendorp's postcard collection, is a montage of fever dreams contained within the structuring force of the grid, just as the floors of the skyscraper can accommodate radically different functions within the framework of a single structure. Like the Arcades Project and Delirious New York, Stierli's text shares some of the formal attributes of the topic it describes: it is avowedly polyfocal and multiscalar in its choice of subject matter. Yet, unlike these antecedents, it neither claims to be nor is a montage in its own right.

Throughout Montage and the Metropolis, Stierli distinguishes between montage and other, less radical forms of illusionistic imagery in terms of the visibility of ruptures within images. Citing Viktor Žmegač's opposition of demonstrative and integrated (or disguised) montage, Stierli criticizes the latter for its antidialectical preservation of Euclidian space. For montage to operate as a generator of meaning for the twentieth-century metropolitan subject, the disjunction between elements must be visible, so that a synthesis may take place within the viewer's mind. It is also on these grounds that Stierli insists on the fundamental discontinuity between avant-garde photomontage and contemporary digital rendering, despite their many formal similarities. While many twenty-first-century image-making practices counter the banality of the digital rendering (like montage, a radical form that later became commodified), most of these erase the rupture between their composite parts.3 

However, other contemporary practices beyond the scope of Stierli's study do retain their demonstrative quality. This is especially the case with model photography and its frequent staging of a juxtaposition between a three-dimensional model and a two-dimensional site photograph. The power of model photographs such as those made by Valerio Olgiati in the 1990s and early 2000s lies in the “seam,” the evident shift in register between the model as object and the photograph as image. As with Mies's Friedrichstraße montage, while perspectival unity between model and background is achieved, the juxtaposition of media is certainly dialectical, expressing the architectural design's ambiguous status as both real object and virtual projection.

In this light, Montage and the Metropolis is an impressive and excellent work of scholarship that historicizes a paradigmatic cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century while at the same time offering a framework for understanding contemporary production. Stierli in fact questions montage's capacity to represent contemporary conditions of technology and urbanism adequately. The author's own doubts aside, this book's historical and theoretical appreciation of montage offers an epistemological construct for questioning the many assumptions already underlying the production of architecture in the twenty-first century.


On the translation of architectural photographs into engravings, see Neil Levine, “The Template of Photography in Nineteenth-Century Architectural Representation,” JSAH 71, no. 3 (2012), 306–31; Peter Sealy, “After a Photograph, Before Photography (Takes Command),” Journal of Architecture 21, no. 6 (2016), 911–37.
Zeynep Çelik Alexander, Kinaesthetic Knowing: Aesthetics, Epistemology, Modern Design (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Çelik Alexander's book is reviewed by Spyros Papapetros in this issue of JSAH.
This is confirmed by the title of Jesús Vassallo's recent study of these practices: Seamless: Digital Collage and Dirty Realism in Contemporary Architecture (Zurich: Park Books, 2016). Intriguingly, Vassallo defines digital images by Filip Dujardin, Bas Princen, and Philipp Schaerer as “digital collages.”