Lynch Architects

'Rossi part 1' in: The Architects' Journal by Lynch

21 Feb 2008

Aldo Rossi developed a theory of typology in ‘The Architecture of the City’ that enabled him to go beyond what he called ‘the naïve functionalism’ of the modern period to see how ‘the dialectical structure’ of places reveals the underlying structure of political relations in the public sphere. Distinguishing between ‘projective typologies’, whose use can change over time, and ‘pathological typologies’ that become redundant and die. The health of cities depend upon both, and yet modern architecture placed too much emphasis upon the ‘function’ of individual buildings – hence the fetishism of temporary machines d’habiteur – and not enough attention was paid to the spaces between them. His ‘dialectical materialism’ led to a reading of the city that considered the skeleton of the political processes that underlies civic life – the structure of power analogous to a body, with the various organs of power represented in the individual buildings that house governance, education and the domestic realm. For Rossi, city structures are organized in a dialectical manner: the courthouse and the town hall are often sat opposite each other, across a square from a church, for example. Thus diverse cities share common structures whist the individual characters of cities reveal the responses over time of architects to climate and to topography, and to the wealth of its citizens. Which is why we can orient ourselves in strange cities quite quickly, and even anticipate where the courthouse or the university will be if we stand in the cathedral square.

Rossi taught us to value the contribution architects make to the urban setting over the autistic characteristics of an individual built object, teaching us to see that technical prowess means nothing if a building vandalizes its context. His edicts are harsh, demanding that we accept that ‘for every authentic artist this means to remake, not in order to effect some change (which is the mark of superficial people) but out of a strange profundity of feeling for things...’ Observing that ‘in Venice’, where he was a professor, ‘although one may be interested in whether a building is by Palladio or Longhena, it is first and always the stones of Venice.’

Rossi’s attitudes might seem anachronistic and conservative to British eyes, used as we are here to whole scale rebuilding of our cities every generation. Two Italian students of ours returned to Rome last year with drawings of Whitechapel High Street, showing the massive revisions undertaken twice last century, and their professor there at first didn’t believe them, and then couldn’t understand how this urban vandalism was possible. At present we are engaged in the whole scale revision of large parts of British cities, undoing the Traffic Engineering that passed for urbanism after the war, and our task can be seen as an attempt to recover the legibility of places and the continuity between pedestrians and objects, between the people and the city. The young Rossi may have been overly rational. His own work suffers from a certain academic rigidity, despite his attempts to create background buildings their repetitive character tends towards emphatics; yet his analysis makes difficult reading for many architects that have been co-opted by corporations eager to associate their ‘brand’ with a building design that can be reduced to a logo.