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Architecture & design

Emotion and architecture

— July 2015

Article read level: Academic

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Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I (1514). Engraving.From Melancholy and Architecture: On Aldo Rossi by Diogo Seixas Lopes

Aldo Rossi’s architecture expressed his deepest philosophical beliefs

Melancholy and Architecture: On Aldo Rossi by Diogo Seixas Lopes,

The 15th-century philosopher-cum-scientist Marsilio Ficino considered melancholy, one of the four humours designated by Aristotle, as not irrational but an adjunct to the highest form of reasoning. He claimed that the deep contemplation necessary to profound and original thought only came about in great men when under the sway of Saturn, the astronomical sign of melancholy. Hence the introversion of the melancholic mind is virtually a prerequisite for meaningful philosophical inquiry. This links melancholy with advanced thought and by extension the production of work in any medium.

In this reflection on the theory and practice of Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931–97), Diogo Seixas Lopes proposes that Rossi’s architectural thought is dominated by the concept of melancholy. The proposal has much weight in that it draws on Rossi’s statements, as well as Rossi’s obvious affinity with the melancholic Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

Lopes links melancholy, the concept of the sublime (the wild, threatening elements of nature) and artists such as Piranesi,   whose fantastic interpretations of Roman ruins proved hugely influential.   

Rossi’s architecture can be characterized as strongly pictorial, with relatively simple forms, plainness of material and a modernist absence of detail and ornamentation. After making his name as a theorist and critic, Rossi issued manifesto calls with firm, nearly scientific ideas, on planning and building. Yet as he aged and grew more meditative (ironically, just as his reputation made him more busy and sought-after than ever), he dwelt on the intimate and personal aspects of architecture. His Scientific Autobiography and Blue Notebooks took the form of broken texts and disparate ideas in verbal and pictorial form. It is precisely at the moment when Rossi retreats from all-encompassing theory that he designed a cemetery in Modena, the subject of most of the book and – according to Lopes – Rossi’s masterpiece.   

Lopes focuses on Rossi’s New Cemetery at San Cataldo, Modena (1971–8) in which the architect envisaged the cemetery as a recumbent skeletal structure with narrow walls and pillars giving the impression of a stripped skeleton. Cemeteries are by their nature rather melancholic and this building presents the apex of Rossi’s melancholy philosophy by using an example that is somewhat weighted.

Designed in 1971 by Rossi and Gianni Braghieri, the plan for the new cemetery buildings proved controversial. The starkness and monumentality of the forms were thought to work against the privacy of the bereaved and their desire for isolated communion with the dead. The design was subject to alteration and was left incomplete, with only three sides of a projected quadrilateral being built. The three-sided building with burial niches encloses a hollow, open-topped lattice cuboid and a squat tapering cone tower with a processional of parallel rising walls. A path bisecting the walls acted as an equivalent of a spine, with the parallel walls as ribs. The stark cuboid was intended to parallel Italian houses wrecked during the war, which remained only ravaged shells open to the sky. 

Originally the main buildings were to be windowless but, as visitors complained during winter, the authorities had the windows glazed. The simple cross-mullioned windows in the square apertures gave the buildings an unreal childish quality, which seems not to have worked against Rossi’s intentions. The ‘ruin’ feeling was replaced by a more picturesque appearance.

Rossi deliberately echoed modernist housing developments in the appearance of the main building, noting that in Roman tradition no distinction was made architecturally between the houses of the living and the dead. The original design lacking windows evoked a sense of the dwellings of the living reduced to the condition of modernist ruins. Additionally, Rossi was also thinking of de Chirico’s quasi-civic buildings, which are windowless shells, neither practical nor homely.  Rossi worked with modular units in much the same way de Chirico did with his porticos, statues of Ariadne and gigantic towers, reusing the discrete forms in new compositions.

Lopes quotes from Rossi’s written statements on the power of ruins over the emotions. ‘The question of the fragment in architecture is very important since it may be that only ruins express a fact completely. Photographs of cities during war, sections of apartments, broken toys.’ Rossi admitted that he was haunted by the sights of destroyed domestic buildings during the war. His meditations on fragments drew comment from Manfredo Tafuri, to the effect that conceiving of architecture as a series of isolated elements interiorized by viewers – rather than emphasizing architecture’s wider, social aspects – would lead only to an architecture of alienation.  

‘The Cemetery of San Cataldo can be considered a magnum opus of Aldo Rossi. His entire work is somehow encapsulated in this project, at once prospective and retrospective’, writes Lopes. However strong and well-argued Lopes’s case is (and it is), it would have benefited readers to been provided with one or two further examples of Rossi’s architectural melancholy. Although San Cataldo is perhaps a distillation of Rossi’s later ideas (marking the transition from his programmatic and firmly pro-modernist early stance to his later ambivalent and introspective position), it would have helped us to see Rossi’s melancholy manifest in other works and made evident through some close reading of those designs.

Overall, this book is an absorbing and persuasive discussion of the relationship between emotion and architecture that applies more widely than to Rossi alone. Readers unfamiliar with Rossi’s designs would do well to have a pictorial survey to hand, though visuals are not necessary for the arguments set out in this book. The photographs of San Cataldo included here are informative and evocative. Warmly recommended.

Melancholy and Architecture: On Aldo Rossi by Diogo Seixas Lopes is published by  Park Books, 2015. 232pp, 32 illus., €38.00/CHF39.00 (hbk).


Alexander Adams
Writer and artist

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