'Rossi part 2' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch
If Aldo Rossi’s early work is an attempt to describe the value of each of the parts of a city in objective terms, his ironically titled ‘Scientific Autobiography’ tempers his youthful rationalism with a series of extremely evocative photographs of spaces that he loved. A Roman aqueduct held up by a prosthetic brace; a Connecticut lighthouse shaped like a mast; a Wintergarten at the University of Zurich; a Cortille at Seville; and my favourite, an Italian farmhouse kitchen. Dark ceiling beams recede from view above a stone floor, a staircase rises and disappears in the distance, light from one corner of the room illuminates the wall surface and picks out a table set for family life that, I imagine, has also seen a birth and a corpse. An image of preservation and of endurance and hard work and allayed decay is presented to us, of architecture that is made to last and to accept life. This room is not just fit for its purpose, the image suggests, it also modestly represents the dignity of the lives of the inhabitants. You can imagine the conversations held there and the emotion and suffering that it has seen. Rossi saw human life as inevitably theatrical, and our habitats testify to our enduring love of display and ritual, which he described as ‘an analogy for architecture, what I have called “the fixed scene of human events”. The theatricality of human affairs, our processional movement and daily habits, led Rossi to conclude that ‘it is clear that the theatre must be stationary, stable and irreversible – but this seems true of all architecture.’
What mattered for Rossi was the idea of the city as something continuous that represents the symbolic life of its inhabitants. In his “Scientific Autobiography”, Rossi muses that ‘Forgetting Architecture comes to mind as a more appropriate title… since while I may talk about a school, a cemetery, a theatre, it is more correct to say that I talk about life, death, imagination.’ For the mature Rossi, Types are symbolic of ideals – the law court as a site of justice; a university cloister alluding to the sanctity of education; the hushed atmosphere of a library reminding us of the sacred qualities of literature and knowledge; the sheltering quality of uniform housing and the individualistic qualities of other structures allude to the psychological differences that we recognise between the various public and private aspects of our lives and the masks that we wear. These ideals have emotional characteristics also, and buildings possess personae Rossi suggested. Architects too should adapt themselves to differing circumstances and to different occasions he believed, claiming ‘I have always known that architecture was determined by the hour and the event’, reminding us that our task as architects is to remain open ‘always the idea of place, and hence light and time and imagination’. Suggesting that lightness in architecture might come less from our attempts to make heavy machines appear to float, than in the contingency of our buildings to situations and to time; the adjustment of our language to place; and in the light heartedness and appropriateness of wit. Perhaps we all need to speak a foreign language, in order to hear ourselves think and to recover a sense of the strangeness of things and of the endurance of human situations beyond ourselves, and our obsessions?