PRINT May 1987


ARCHITECTURE IS OFTEN SEEN as inflexible, a branch of creativity that performs the functions and services we need it to yet also petrifies spaces and materials, fixing the order of things as they are. To view architecture this way is to deny its dynamic nature. A discipline simultaneously scientific and imaginative, architecture, no less than art, is capable of a constant reconstruction and reopening of history. Though it is innately more imbricated with function and finance than art, architects no less than artists can admit into their work their dreams and their fears, their rational ambitions and their irrational drives. When they do so, they rupture the “invisibility” of architecture, its way of slipping into the everyday surround, almost unseen because so familiar. Making their private thoughts and feelings into public objects, which may then be the cause as well as the recipient of thoughts and feelings in others, they show how architecture crosses the boundaries between the social and the subjective self. And they transform the often cold task of designing buildings into the creation of an arena of forms evoking sensations, memories, and narratives, into the expression and interpretation of visions and dreams, the usually unacknowledged figments of the social or public mind.

Modernism’s invitation to consider architecture as a “universal communication” may have been nobly motivated, but in its emphasis on ascetic, rationalist designs, on a vocabulary of simple, linear, abstract geometries, Modernism ended up with an empty, gray way of building which suffocated architecture’s impassionedness, its ability to express the libido, and its mythopoetic significance as an emanation of both the individual and the collective spirit. Late Modern rationalism offers a combination of forms and volumes emptied of any truly human experience. In all his work since the early ’60s, Aldo Rossi has sought to avoid these pitfalls—to journey into a kind of architecture that is not fixed on the subject of the techniques or technology of building but is motivated by images that spring from a humanistic balance between the conscious and the unconscious, between desire and memory. He has sidestepped Modernism’s emphasis on the “new” in favor of an interweaving of the vocabularies of the past, both antique and more recent, and the present. In fact, he reconciles a sense of responsibility toward history with a feeling of real contemporaneity. His works may be wedged into the tissue of the city, like the Gallaratese residential units in Milan (1970), and the school near the city in Fagnano Olona (1972), or they may float on paper, like the competition projects designed for Berlin (1976) and Rome (1977), and like the project for Artforum that follows. Rossi sees buildings as vocal, declarative, rather than as the mute and silent things that we often feel surround us.

Rossi’s montages of history tell their story not through a frugal or spare modulation of spaces and colors, volumes and vectors, but through a richness of them, a richness rooted in memory and in an intuition of immemorial thought. His buildings are enigmatic and metaphysical as well as physical, and touch upon major themes of culture—death, in the Modena cemetery (1976); music, in the Carlo Felici opera house shortly to begin construction in Genoa (1982). These are places where devotion is emphasized, where an obsession with as well as an exaltation of ritual comes into play. Oscillating between the propositions of Etienne-Louis Boullée and Giorgio de Chirico, they create a new language of hybrids that interweaves Romanesque and 18th-century architecture. From these elements they distill a luminous clarity. Rossi’s Architecture is as expressive as it is functional—reasserting the value of color, design, and illusion, it resembles a form of three-dimensional painting. It opposes the repressive quality of the rational, logical model of architecture, which, however well intentioned, is ultimately sanctimonious over its own moral certainty about what architecture is “good” for society, and over its suppression of fantasy. Rossi’s sort of architecture frees us from servitude to this kind of moralizing. It argues the belief that any work that is truly imaginative must start by making its way through the “darkness” of the impossible and the unreal, evoking and finding consonances within not only conscious and theoretical plan but also autobiography, dream, the aleatory. Here, the architect’s necessary concern with practical matters is balanced by an enunciative, symbolic, and artistic vision, and each building is proposed as a nucleus of creative thought.

“Fragments,” Rossi’s project for Artforum, addresses or rather revels in these issues of architecture. It was created this year in New York, and combines familiar icons of the city—the Empire State Building, the Con Edison building, a ubiquitous type of apartment house—with architectures both real and imagined from elsewhere. The building that appears at an oblique angle to the picture plane on both the second page (panel B) and the last page (panel D) of the project, with a double, barrel-vaulted roof, is the city hall Rossi recently completed in Borgoricco, near Venice. As the diagram that leads off the project suggests, fragments of “Fragments” recur in successive reworkings: the right-hand section of panel D is an urban variation of the equivalent section of panel B, in which the Borgoricco building is set in an Italian landscape, while A, opposite, foreshadows a section of panel C. The sequence is to be read not as a continuous scene, then, but as a series of views appearing within the imagination, and punctuated by intrusions of the real—the close flat walls of apartment buildings. This is particularly clear in panel A, where the architect’s horizontal chart of the pages to come is juxtaposed with a vertical landscape image bounded by a yellowish building wall, setting up a model for the ensuing dialogue between idea and reality.

While working on “Fragments” Rossi had certain other works in mind, in particular David Lynch’s recent film Blue Velvet, with its recurring line of dialogue, “It’s a strange world,” and the paintings of Edward Hopper. Behind the windows of Rossi’s Hopperish urban facades, with their aging exteriors, is a lonely space—only three of the windows frame the dark outlines of an isolated man or woman, while others are grayed or blackened or blocked up, or almost blank. These structures and the ritualistic buildings in the landscapes, suggesting cloisters and hospital corridors, evoke echoes and memories. In some ways they are close to architecture’s classical iconography, but Rossi’s interwoven elements of fantasy are quite unclassical. They reveal how the simultaneous use of archetypal and subjective images in architecture can create a “strange world,” a rich world, introducing myth, fantasy, and poetry into the rule-ridden architectural scene without forgetting the documents and experiences of history.

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.

“Fragments,” a project for Artforum by Aldo Rossi, with an introduction by Germano Celant.