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Rossi: Architecture of the city

Percy Acuña Vigil

Pensamiento sobre la ontología de la ciudad

En esta bitácora comparto mis reflexiones y otras informaciones que reflexionan sobre la ciudad como la concreción del juego del poder.

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The Architecture of the City

Farida Nilufar


Protibesh: © BUET

Different hypotheses are taken here to mean the architecture of the city. Firstly Rossi finds city as a manmade object, a work of engineering and architecture. Second, certain more limited but still crucial aspects of the city, such as urban artefacts, which like the city itself are characterized by their own history and thus by their own form. Rossi’s direct rejection of function shows his preferences to explain the city form as an object of art. He emphasizes here that functions are dominated by form and this forms determine the individuality of every urban artefacts.

The urban artefacts such as a building, a street, a district are considered as a work of art, which are the manifestations of social and religious life. He stated that there is something in the nature of urban artefacts that renders them very similar and not only metaphorically – to a work of art. Urban artefacts are material constructions, but they are something different form the material; ‘although they are conditioned, they also condition’.

To him urban artefacts and the city itself can be considered as an art for their link to their quality, their uniqueness, their analysis etc. It also appeared difficult to him to explain the underlying principles of their variety. Rossi supports Claude Levi-Strauss (1972) and consider that the city achieves a balance between natural and artificial elements as it is an object of nature and a subject of culture. He never had the misconception of thinking a city as an art object of an artistic episode. Besides he recognizes the artistic quality of each and every urban artefact –as a single street, an individual plaza etc.

In Rossi’s view city is a human achievement per excellence. Finally Rossi believes that the whole is more important than the single parts so he wants to examine the total architecture of the city in terms of its parts.

Typological Question and Naive Functionalism
Type is attained according to needs as well as the aspirations to beauty. Thus it deals with the basis of architecture. Typological questions always entered into the history of architecture. But Rossi defined‘concept of types’ as something that is permanent and complex, a logical principal that is prior to form and that constitute it. Although many studies addressed the problem of typology in relation to ‘function’ but according to Rossi, existing classification have failed to go beyond the problem of function. In his view‘ any explanation of urban artefacts in terms of function must be rejected if the issue is to elucidate their structure and formation’. Because he thinks the function of an urban artefact is changeable with time.

He sees function as physiological in nature which justifies the formation, development and alterations of form and vice versa. From this point functionalism and organicism, two principal currents in Modern Architecture, reveal their common origin and the reason for their weakness and ambiguity. By these theories ‘type’ is reduced to a simple scheme of organization. Although some theoreticians like Kevin Lynch (1958) assigned priority on ‘form’ and ‘function’ over urban landscape in classifying cities; they identify these as the most viable criterion of classification. To Rossi ‘type’, on the basis of functions, seems to be inadequate in classifying cities.

Rossi argues that ‘since every function can be articulated through a form, and forms in turn contain the potential to exist as urban artefacts, so forms tend to allow themselves to be articulated as urban elements. It is precisely a form that persists through a set of transformations which constitute an urban artefact per excellence. He thinks function cannot be indicated as a principal issue in relation to cities like individuality, locus, memory, design itself. His study is a denial of the explanation of the urban artefact in terms of function.

He rejects the concept of functionalism, which is dictated by an ingenious empiricism that holds ‘functions bring form together’. So he thinks urban artefacts even the city itself is free from rigid rules of functions, on the other hand, all their forms are capable to incorporate function with some alternations and transformations if required.

Theory of Permanence:
Rossi’s ideas support the theory of permanence as proposed by Lavendan (1926). This theory is related to Rossi’s hypothesis of the city as a giant man-made object produced in the process of time. Thus evolves Rossi’s ‘Concept of Permanence’, which affects collective and individual artefacts in the city indifferent ways. Rossi thinks ‘urban history’ is the most useful way to study urban structure. The persistence of the city is revealed through‘ monuments’ as well as through the city’s basic layout and the plans.

Cities tried to retain their axis of development by maintaining the position of their original layout and growing according to the direction and meaning of their older artefacts. However permanence may be ‘propelling’ or ‘Pathological’. Artefacts help to perceive the city in totality or may appear as an isolated element as a part of urban system. A monument becomes propelling when it survives precisely because of their form which accommodates different functions over time. When an artefact stands virtually isolated in the city and adds nothing, it is pathological. However, in both cases, the urban artefacts are a part of the city.

The Architecture of the City: Farida Nilufar: Protibesh: © BUET

City as a spatial system
City is conceived as a spatial system composed of many parts. Residential area is one of such elements in the total form of the city. It is closely attached to nature and evolution of a city, and constitutes the city’s image. According to Rossi this part and whole character of a city challenge an aspect of functionalist theory i.e. zoning. He considers the specialized zones are characteristics of a city and may have their autonomous parts. Their distribution in the city is determined by the entire historical process but not on function.

Primary Element and their dynamics
One of the important concepts derived by Rossi is the identification of the ‘Primary Elements’ of a city. The urban elements those function as nuclei of aggregation and are dominant in nature are primary elements. These are capable of accelerating the process of urbanization in a city and they also characterize the process of spatial transformation in an area larger than the city. These elements play a permanent role in the evolution of the city over time and constitute the physical structure of the city. Many eminent cities started to grow centered on an urban artefact, like monument. Over time these generating artefacts become transformed and their functions altered. Such elements have meta-economic character and also become works of art.

History and the Collective Memory
The history is the ‘collective memory’ of people of the city and it has an important influence on the city itself. The history expresses itself through the monuments. Sometimes myth precedes the history of a city and thus become important. Athens is the first clear example of the science of urban architecture and its development through history which is initiated bya myth. Rossi thinks that thus the memory of the city makes it very back to Greece, where lies the fundamentals of the constitution of the city. The Romans and the other civilizations conspicuously emulated the example of Greece. According to Rossi Rome reveals total contrasts and contradictions of the modern city; but Athens remains the purest experience of humanity, the embodiment of condition that can never recur. Rossi believes in the dominant role of politics played in the evolution of cities. Political decisions settle on the image of the city if not the city itself. Thus city becomes the reflection of the collective will. Rossi thinks that ‘urban history’ is most useful to study urban structure.

The continuity and therefore the history are important aspects underlying his theories. To Rossi historical methods are weak as they isolate the present from the past. Urban aesthetics constitute a science founded in meaning inherent in the pre-existing building stock of the city. Through collective memory the intellect is engaged to discover their meaning and beauty. He does not distinguish between continuity and history. Rossi’s ‘past’ was not overwhelmed by the ancients. Rather he emphases on the cultural stability and inspires its further development in all the ages. He sees building of cities as part of culture. To him people had civilized nature and brought it under control by discovering the secrets of her materials and with them made constructions for the collective purpose. This demands organized systems of division of labor and commands, and the technical advancement to refine tools for the task.

The Monuments
There remains strong relationship between the monuments and the rituals, Rossi places importance on monuments in the foundation of the city and of the transmission of ideas in an urban context. The persistence of a city is revealed through monuments -physical signs of past. Rossi advocates that the dynamic process of the city tends more to evolution than preservation. In this evolution process monuments are preserved and also continuously presented as propelling elements of development. One can experience the form of the past in monuments and monuments as urban artefacts become an important element of the city which helps to constitute the total picture of an urban context. To Rossi sometimes monuments become pathological as they stand in isolation from the present.

The Locus
The meaning of the term ‘Locus’ was extensive to Rossi. The locus is conceived of a singular place and event, which works as the relationship of architecture to the constitution of the city and the relationship between the context and monument. Rossi distinguishes some differences between locus and context. Usually locus is the conditions and the qualities of a space necessary to understand an urban artefact. On the other hand, architecture shapes a context, which again constitutes changes in space. To Rossi context is associated with some illusion and has nothing to do with the architecture of the city as it depends on the necessary permanence of function.

The Architecture of the City: Farida Nilufar: © BUET

The text of Aldo Rossi has been a study of ‘city’ considering the urban form as a whole. This book is concerned with an abstract theoretical idea where the city is conceived as a physical phenomenon, which isan instrument for man’s delight through the realm of aesthetic potential of its form. The context of the problem was the twentieth century town planning approaches which had been generated some cities as machines. Here the author refers to the historical methods to get rid of the present day’s modernist concepts. However, Rossi’s method is much more academic. His new construct begins as a critique of nineteenth century functionalism.

From this he proposes the city as the ultimate and verifiable data and as an autonomous structure. He also identified some of the key elements of the evolution and transformation of cities. Rossi assigns particular importance to institutions as truly constant elements of historical life and to the intricate relationship between myth and institution. Moreover, Rossi conceived the city as an archaeological artefact. To him history was analogous to a ‘skeleton’ whose condition serves as a measure of time and in turn, is measured by time.

His object of analysis, the city, is measured by the instrument of ‘typology’. Rossi analyzed the city, as a whole constructed by its parts. His inspiration was perceive a lack of any rational approach to structuring knowledge of the city. In response the study undertaken is analytical and inductive, and firmly set within the domain of architecture. It was however not intended ‘as a confirmation of results’ for Rossi wished to encourage more necessary theoretical development and research on the city. This book presents a protest against functionalism and the Modern Movement. At the same time it attempts to restore the craft of architecture to its position as the only valid object of architectural study. Besides it analyses the rules and forms of the city’s construction. Therefore, it has become immensely popular among architects and urban designers


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