Sunday 17 June 2012
Aldo Rossi: The Architecture of the City (1966)
Reviewed by Kihong Kim
‘The Architecture of the City’ was firstly published in 1966 by Aldo Rossi, based on his notes and lectures, when functionalism predominated. As Rossi stated, this book did not cover new issues, but it was sensational for architects in that era because it gave them a chance to rethink architecture with respect to the city as a meaning of collective life, history, and reality instead of from a functional aspect.
Chapter One: The structure of urban artifacts
In the first chapter, Rossi states that the form of the city is summarized by the architecture of the city, since it is concrete data of real experiences. Hence, it is the form that allows him to approach the city’s problems. He describes the architecture of the city with two different meanings; first, the city is seen as a gigantic man-made object, growing over time; second, as urban artifacts characterized by their own history and form. These two aspects relate to the quality and uniqueness of the urban artifact. In the case of the Pallazo della Ragione in Padua, it is the form that shapes the city, regardless of functional multiplicity and is modified over time. In this sense, urban artifacts are superior to newly constructed buildings in terms of historic richness. However, the quality and uniqueness of urban artifacts are derived not only from their form which was developed in both time and space, but also from their characteristics as works of art. According to Rossi, the urban artifact as a work of art intimately relates to a specific place, event and form in the city. In this sense, Rossi criticizes the study of Camillo Sitte since Sitte, although, adding “beauty” as a criterion in his study, reduced the meaning of the city to a narrow and handy cipher which is insufficient to grasp the city as a concrete form and overall experience.
Rossi emphasizes the typological questions with criticism of naïve functionalism since he regards the type as a logical principle constituting form and a permanent object. In addition, the type developed the need and desire for beauty which tied into form and a way of life. On the other hand, functionalists overlook various aspects, except for function. For Rossi, the city is a totality, in other words, all urban artifacts and the city are a collective. Hence, concerning the urban artifact in its totality, this gives us a complete picture of the city. He also mentions permanence and classifies it into two sections; one is a historical or propelling permanence; the other is a pathological permanence. According to him, persistence changes urban artifacts into monuments, which take part in the process of a city’s development as a catalyst. As a result of the first chapter, Rossi underlines that the value of the city and the urban artifact is estimable not by their functions but by their permanent forms, since the form of the city is closely bound up with time of the city, while the functions are changeable and can be lost over time.
Chapter Two: Primary Elements and the Concept of Area
In the second chapter, the author says that there are specific and disparate qualities within parts of a city due to its sociological, formal, and spatial characteristics that are formed by time and space. In this sense, he opposes Robert Park and Ernest Burgess’s study about the zoning of the city of Chicago, since they considered the city’s diverse parts merely as embodiments of functions without any other considerations. For Rossi, proper understanding of a part of the city could be derived from overall aspects such as psychology, linguistics, geography, history and their relationships. In order to support his opinion, Rossi describes the dwelling area due to its close relationship with urban structure. For example, the form of Vienna was derived from the Hofquarierspflicht, and the change of Berlin’s urban structure was as a result of police regulations and the segmentation of dwelling types.
In addition to the concept of area, the concept of primary elements, as nuclei of aggregation, should be added to characterize the formation and evolution of the city. Since primary elements not only participate in the process of a city’s development in a permanent way, but also constitute physical structures of the city along with area. Due to the collective and public nature of urban elements, Rossi uses the term “primary element” as fixed activities. This collective characteristic links with urban dynamics and eventually constitutes the beginning and end point of the city. Rossi supports his opinion by a practical example: the amphitheatre in Nimes changed into a fortress then became a little city. To sum up, a city develops according to the dynamics within urban elements and it can be analysed by its form. On the other hand, the phenomenon of decay of certain zones is closely connected to a group of buildings that has outlived the dynamics of land use in the surrounding area and configuring reserve areas.
The author announces that there is an unbreakable connection between the urban history and its geography since entire parts of the city specifically indicate their own form, their own way of life and the trace of their memories, and in turn it raises the concept of the locus. In this respect, all the cities have their own individuality, derived from a specific destiny and a life of each urban artifact, and furthermore urban artifacts and primary elements participate in the process of evolution of the city.
Chapter Three: The Individuality of Urban Artifacts; Architecture
According to Rossi, the locus is a relationship between a certain location and the buildings within it. From this view, the entire urban artifact acquires its singularity from its locus. For example, he refers to the transcendent space of the Catholic religion, and even in this ultimately homogeneous space there are singular points due to a particular event or infinite variety of other reasons that occurred there.
Saying that it is useful to analyse the architecture and the urban artifact in order to define the urban elements, the author describes the difference between the architecture and urban artifact in this way. The former constitutes new urban artifacts and its form presents the urban form when the architecture coincides with the actual situation of the city. To sum up, the difference between them depends on its meaning, reason, style and history with regard to the connection between the event and sign at a particular moment. He also underlines the importance of both form and the rationality since they embrace many different values, meanings, and uses. Rossi takes the case of the Roman Forum for instance, though its functions have changed many times according to social demands, its primary characteristics as a meeting place and the centre of Rome have never been changed within its original form which was shaped by its topographic conditions. Through its permanent characteristics, the Roman Forum became a great artifact. In this way, the form of the architecture in the city is revealed in its various monuments, and each of the monuments shows us the sequence of the city and finally, it shows us the history of the city.
In addition to this, he mentions history as the actual formation and the structure of urban artifacts that relates to the collective imagination and the continuity of urban structure. From this point of view, the city itself becomes the soul of the city, the collective memory of its citizenry and like memory, it associates with objects and places and in turn it becomes the locus of its people. Likewise, each urban artifact has its own singularity by the actions of individuals and the urban structure is formed by the collective and individual nature of urban artifacts. The singularity of the city which derived from the collective aspect of the city connects to the initial principle, an event and form. In this sense, Rossi describes the ancient cities with regard to their myth, the foundation of the city. In addition to this, he takes the case of Athens which is distinguishable from other cases, since Athenian citizenry and their city were bound up not only by myth but also for political and administrative reasons.
Chapter Four: The Evolution of Urban Artifacts
In the final chapter, Rossi focuses on the process of evolution of the city and how various forces are applied within it and how their application causes different changes. According to him, the forces could be an economic, political, or of some other nature. In the first part of this chapter he describes the economic forces: expropriations and land ownership, and in the last part, he refers to political force.
Rossi refers to the thesis of Halbwachs to describe expropriation. According to Halbwachs, the way of expropriation varies, depending on its location and its period. He classifies these variations into two parts; first, the expropriation relates to the role of the individual; second, it is bound up with the order of succession of a given series of artifacts. For instance for the former, the structure of Paris is defined as an overlapped image of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Napoleon I and Baron Haussmann. For the latter, he refers to the nationalization of clerical property in Paris, since the nationalization affected the road system and finally it changed the form of Paris. On the other hand, Rossi mentions the study of Bernoulli with regard to land ownership. Bernoulli insisted that the communal estates should have been maintained as collective property after the French Revolution to prevent the side effect of land subdivision. However, Rossi points out that the division of the great properties was necessary in economic phases in the evolution of Western cities and that the Industrial Revolution has nothing to do with the qualitative differences of urban problems. Rossi states that the problem of the large city has always existed and it is related to the city itself. As a result of these two aspects, he insists that expropriation and land subdivision are typical phenomena of urban evolution since they can lead to immediate and radical transformation.
Meanwhile, he also refers to reducing metropolitan problems, which are not the problem of scale and the changes in scale have nothing to do with the quality of urban artifacts. In addition to this, he indicates that great primary elements could be built by a change of housing as seen in the examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s plan and the project of the Adam brothers for the Adelphi residential district.
Since the city chooses its own image by its political institution, the sign of citizenry’s will, Rossi considers politics as problems of choice. In addition, he says that politics reveals its own semblance in the urban artifacts when we consider everything in the city as a sign of the city’s progress, as seen from the cases of Athens, Rome, and Paris.
The attitude to grasp the city with naïve theories is inappropriate since the establishment of the city and its evolution relates to various factors. Thus, the efforts of Aldo Rossi to analysis and understand the city with regard to the architecture of the city is persuasive, since not only the form of the architecture constitutes the concrete form of the urban structure but also the city which was established and evolved depends on multiple forces within the urban artifacts in the city. As the author said, this book is a corner stone of urban studies rather than the perfect theory and it will be gradually completed by supplements of new considerations related to the city. However, Rossi’s “The Architecture of the City” is extraordinary in the fact that this allows us a magnificent foundation for the study of the city.