Speak Mixed Metaphors: Assemblage Urbanism


Preamble / Abstract

The objective is to re-assess collage and assemblage within a theory of urbanization. The first move is to problematize and examine the use of metaphoric language in urban discourse. There is seemingly an endless barrage of (Insert) Urbanism that is not too far from a game of mad lib with the city. The potentialities of a “Banana Urbanism” or “Chapeaux Cities” are indeed playfully seductive. “The City as Machine or “The City as Body” have yielded fruitfully ludic drawings that I admit I find beyond interesting. Yet, I would contend that these one-liners pose disciplinary problems. I would even challenge whether they progress into a meaningful conversation beyond merely creating caricatures out of wicked problems. It may be possible to distinguish between a descriptive metaphor – which functions at the level of a model – and that of an operative metaphor – which functions at the level of process that implies a model.


Six. We average roughly six metaphors per minute (Tosey et al 2013). Around 2 of these metaphors may be “novel” – that is recognizable as ‘using’ a metaphor. The other 4 are “frozen” – so heavily used they no longer resemble a metaphor. Metaphors are these elegant artifacts of communication that have historically been a significant force in our mental models of the City. The use of metaphor in urbanism is pervasive in nearly all circles. It offers reprieve from the seriousness of analytical continuity and allows for radical re-positioning of pre-conceptions. But perhaps most importantly – it’s enjoyable.

‘What if the city were really a sort of onion?’ or maybe a presentation on ‘Sailboat Urbanism’. Often, the more ‘absurd’ the model, the more rewarding it is to derive a conceptual model from it. The metaphor not only allows us to decouple, play and tamper with the ideological underpinnings of an urban ‘ism’ – but also to briskly cycle through multiple cognitive frames. As such a typical discussion on ‘cities’ tends to veer in two directions: the practicalities of technologies and bureaucracies – data and dollars – or to assign the city a linguistic diorama . Worse yet, is that occasionally these models produce the perennial question of “what then?”. After all, not all these metaphorical models are productive in designing for the city. It may even take a considerable creative leap from some of the most obscure comparisons to actionable thought.

And yet, we cannot abandon the metaphor. No – as a heuristic device in design – it is virtually indispensable. In City Metaphors, Ungers described them as “an instrument of thought that serves the function of clarity and vividness antedating or bypassing logical processes” (1982).

Yet, many metaphors can be rather problematic. Of the first that come to mind would be the ‘urban blight’ metaphors so quickly levelled by architects and planners in clearing slums of the last century. Or perhaps city and machine comparisons that would lead one too many to conclude that mono-functional zoning is clearly the most efficient of land-use policies. Roland Barthes wrote that it is “very easy to speak of the language of the city as we speak of the language of the cinema or of the language of flowers,” in describing the close link between urbanism and metaphor (413, 1967). He continues, “The real scientific leap will be achieved when we can speak of the language of the city without metaphor” (ibid.). After all, it would be immensely valuable for a discipline to produce knowledge through its own methods rather than to borrow concepts outside of it. Yet, we know with the complexities of cities and the disciplines involved in its making that this would prove to be an nearly impossible task. Might we then posit a particular type of metaphor instead?


Ungers, in Morphologie: City Metaphor, juxtaposes images of animals and objects against drawings of urban form (1982). Each image is paired on a spread with the only text being a single word underneath each image. German on the right and the English translation on the left. What is particularly striking is the type of word used in the description. Rather than describing the form that is presented – O.M. Ungers has chosen to use verbs. Or at least pseudo-verbs. When comparing the plan of Brasiliia to a Plane, he uses “Stretching”. And with a figure-ground of Venice against two hands touching: “Encounter.” This is starkly different from the language that was also deployed by other architects at the time – even more so than geographers with ‘concentric-models’ and ‘galactic-models’ of the city. In the introduction on collected essays in Metaphors in Architecture and Urbanism Gerber and Patterson note that it is important to “distinguish between metaphors as processes and metaphors as images” (2013, 20). In choosing to describe the analogy through operative or process-driven words, a model is only implied – the operation itself comes to the foreground.

Might we then draw a distinction between what we can call a ‘Descriptive Metaphor’ versus that of ‘Operative Metaphor’. The first describing a model which is then mapped onto the city. The second being a particular process or action derived from a model that the city then undergoes. The former requires a-priori knowledge of the model used. In the latter – technique and process is privileged instead.

The Operative Metaphor shares some similarities with spatial verbs. These are those verbs that typically accompany a design diagram such as to cut, append, rotate, mirror, and so-forth. Where they depart is in the ability for an Operative Metaphor to bring with them the implications of the model or discipline that they are borrowed from. Words such “knit”, “heal”, and “assemble” and descriptors such as “surgical” or “swim” function at a much more complex level than spatial verbs. They offer a richness and density through their intertextuality.

The theoretical utility of the Operative Metaphor would be in its ability to reconcile seemingly contradictory models. So that one might both “grow” and “assemble” a city simultaneously. To do so – irrespective of whether it be an organism or a machine. A city may be both “grafted” yet also “spun”. There is no limit to the ability to resolve competing models as the models do not interact at the level of abstraction but only in the resolution of action. In other words, the permissible operations are not defined by the model at play – but instead the model is constructed through process. The urbanism is being defined in real-time by the combination of operations acted upon it.

In shifting towards a process-driven and operative language – no unified or totalized model has to be created. The trap of modernism and functionalism is escaped. Instead, the implications of various metaphors are absorbed into an assemblage and collage of processes that describe the city.

The ‘Gordian Knot’ represents a way in which an operative metaphor may be deployed. Skimming over the larger narrative, the story is as follows: Alexander the Great is presented with an impossible knot. With many attempts to untie the knot, Alexander realized the futility of his strategy. In a single stroke, he then proceeds to slice the knot – effectively “untying” it. There are of numerous ways in which academics critically read the legend of the Gordian Knot. It is a story whose implications on what exactly the Knot itself represents can yield a variety of criticism ranging from reductionism to brute-force methodology. What is of interest here however – is the reframing of operation itself. I contend that Alexander in the legend shifted to the level of Operation and away from Description. Within the logic and model presented – the knot – the only option would have been to untie it. However, outside the logic and model of the knot – it may be sliced. Operative Metaphors allow for the application of new operations onto seemingly incompatible models. I would contend that this is in fact an application of bricolage at the level of model or abstraction.


Colin Rowe’s Collage City tears through the totalizing dogma of modernist planning. Modernist planning being characterized by its incessant need for total-design. Whilst Modernism required a tabula-rasa, Collage offers gradations. Whilst Modernism required total absorption, Collage permits chance and anomaly. Collage is presented not only an alternative mode of production to modernism – but also a technique that can produce the complexity of the cities we reside in and reproduce the favourable characteristics of the cities that have stood the test of time.

Rowe describes an architect that reconciles the methodologies the Bricoleur and a Scientist. So that one might “… recognize that they are – both of them – modes of address to problems …”(Rowe and Koetter 1983, 105). What Rowe is describing is the assimilation of the technique and not necessarily the episteme. This – arguably – begins to describe what we have established as Operative Metaphors in Combination.

This combination of operative metaphors would potentially be what we call coherent mixed metaphor. A term that seems relevant to what Rowe described as the “traffic jam of intentions” (106). Mixed metaphors in typical conversation is often indication of jumbled thoughts or misunderstanding the rhetoric. These can include phrases such ‘to swim down the road’ or to ‘to listen to the root of the problem’. However, within the context of operation – what really may be occurring is combinatory behaviour at the level of the model. For sake of brevity – perhaps we may call it even a Combinatory Metaphor or a Combinatory Model vis-à-vis Combinatory Urbanism. A Combinatory Model preserves the most significant function of the metaphor which is to produce “new concepts and to discover new relationships” (Ungers 1982) while allowing for coherent collisions of concepts. An urban project rooted in combinatory modelling or combinatory metaphors requires the collision of multiple modes of thinking. The problem with monolithic urban metaphorical models are not they are in-accurate but that they are incomplete.

This framework of a coherent mixed-metaphor or combinatory model could potentially renew ways of looking at works of assemblage and collage in art. Particularly the works of Louise Nevelson which have conceptual similarities to the Combinatory Sculptures by Thom Mayne. Revisiting the technique of collage and assemblage would be particularly fruitful in a time when assemblage has permeated discussions in various circles including but not limited to geography and computer science. Particularly as we proceed into a world of increasing modularity, kitbashing, remixing, discreteness, and assemblage behaviour.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Semiology and urbanism.” The semiotic challenge (1988): 413-418.

Gerber, Andri. “Introduction,” in Metaphors in Architecture and Urbanism: An Introduction ed. Andri Gerber and Brent Patterson. (Germany: transcript Verlag) 2014. 13-30

Rowe, Colin, and Fred Koetter. Collage City. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 1983).

Tosey, P., Sullivan, W. and Meyer, M. `Clean Sources: Six Metaphors a Minute?’ (2013). University of Surrey.

Ungers, Oswald Mathias. Morphologie: City Metaphors. 1982. (Excerpt from Atlas of Places, Posted October 2017).

Mayne, Thom and Stan Allen. 2011. Combinatory urbanism: the complex behavior of collective form. Culver City, CA: Stray Dog Café.