New York

Aldo Rossi

Max Protetch Gallery And Institute For Architecture And Urban Studies

“Only two things belong to architecture, the tomb and the monument,” wrote Adolf Loos, “All the rest is building.” The architectural discourse of Aldo Rossi, leader of the Italian neorealist Tendenza group, could be an elaborate meditation on Loos’ statement. Detractors emphasize Rossi’s indifference to function and argue that his housing projects resemble barracks, his elementary school in Fagnano Olona looks like a prison and that his celebrated Modena Cemetery design, with its dominating cone shaped like a chimney stack, is a reminder of concentration camps. Rossi has parried these attacks ably, denying charges of Fascist influence but admitting a respect for the “enormous collective feat” of Stalinist architecture. Yet Rossi’s adversaries could hardly be more damaging than his supporters. Manfredo Tafuri, who has called Rossi’s career “a fascinating, though superfluous, silence,” has assumed that his elements are drained of significance, mere counters in an elegant game played around an absence which is architecture’s inability to achieve public meaning at this moment.

At the heart of any discussion of Rossi is his concept of “autonomous architecture,” the reworking of typological schemes divorced from circumstance, in which the act of relating elemental forms is itself crucial and the aim is a civic architecture with no moral or esthetic ideals. The advantages of an apparent relinquishment of originality lie precisely in ease of perception of relationships between units, relationships which, according to his theory of analogy, are themselves based on the organization of a city. So by a process of Platonic prestidigitation a parity is achieved between monument and city; Rossi might say that the city is thinking itself. His approach is more subtle than that, however, showing a willingness to entertain many simultaneous conjunctions of public and private. “Sometimes I have asked myself where the individuality of an urban fact begins, whether it is in form, in memory or in something else,” he writes. “We might say it is in the event itself or the sign that fixes it.”

Drawings reveal that the units he arranges and rearranges possess a deeply personal quality. A palmtree, a figure in a window, a saint’s hand from a statue, a lighthouse, a coffeepot, an airship, rows of rectangular windows, a cabaña, chunks of falling masonry, all evoke reminiscences of childhood, travels or moments of heightened awareness. Memory is vital to Rossi’s whole enterprise; expression can be made evident in elemental forms only when the act of disposing them is equivalent to a recovery of sensations. If Rossi venerates Roussel, not Proust, one reason could be Roussel’s obsession not with tracing the history of the madeleine experience but with assembling a literary machine for generating experiences of the same kind, intent on making this useful information public knowledge. Rossi’s organizations may work only for Rossi himself, but he has always proclaimed his desire to “explain” them in writing, and may now use movies to do so.

Why, then, has Rossi said that his American drawings are “free of memory”? Perhaps the answer lies in his employment of the term “analogous city.” As Peter Eisenman explains it, if analogy means reasoning from parallel cases “without the intervention of the formative steps through which they arose,” then the city as analogue must be functionless, divested of meaning, regarded solely in terms of architectural—even “sculptural”—values. In Jung analogy is the “shadow of logic” and Rossi uses this sense of the word too, asserting that it cannot be penetrated by the conscious mind. By exorcising the various correspondences between his symbols Rossi can rob them of private significance. “Public” blankness, the uncaring emotion which follows, may be an indication that what he calls his “analogic mechanism” is operating. “Today I know that it is sufficient to look at things,” he has said recently. Estheticism? Banality? Reverie? Since Rossi’s poetry, his concern with mood, his wish to reconsider the “order of things” all seem countered or even denied within his work itself, we should not expect any quick solutions.

Stuart Morgan