Is there an unironic way to read the late Aldo Rossi’s Postmodern vision?
When I attended the Politecnico di Milano, in the first decade of this century, Aldo Rossi had already been dead ten years. But his legacy there was still very much alive, not so much stylistically — the PoMo pastiche he became known for internationally was defacto banned — but as an intellectual tradition. For me, an arrogant 20-year-old who had grown up on contemporary-art magazines, Rossi was to be uncritically avoided like the plague. I was more seduced — albeit ironically — by the work of Renzo Piano, another Politecnico alumnus just seven years younger than Rossi, whose “humanistic” corporate elegance at least felt contemporary. It wasn’t until 2008, with the publication of Pier Vittorio Aureli’s The Project of Autonomy, that I began to see Rossi’s legacy in a different light to the dusty normative aura it had had at the Politecnico. Aureli, who I would later study with in London, situated Rossi’s work in the exuberant political-theory laboratory that was Italy of the 1960s and 70s, underscoring the importance of architecture as a form of knowledge, and seducing us youngsters with the mirage that the discipline could have significant cultural and political agency, something we couldn’t really see around us at the time.
Filtering Rossi’s oeuvre through a precise hermeneutic lens, Aureli focused on his early work, the small projects Rossi built for communist municipalities in northern Italy, his participation in the Neo-Rationalist Tendenza group, and his contribution to a political revision of urban studies. This Rossi was attractive to me, propositional and uncompromising, with a simplicity and clarity of form that eschewed the neorealist tendencies of his contemporaries. The bold Purist Classicism of Rossi’s early work, which explicitly dialogued with Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, reinstated a thread running from Western Classicism to post-war Modernism that maintained a humanist and historicist approach, something for which I felt a cultural sympathy.
And yet the question of Rossi’s Classicism remained bitter. As a “post-Internet” millennial, I had a natural aversion to nostalgia and cultivated a hunger for novelty, technology, and a progressive attitude toward culture against established canons. For our generation, the possibilities offered by new software and fabrication technologies impelled us to imagine novel forms entirely different to the recursive syntax of Classicism. Not to mention that we grew up in a global world where the primacy of Western Classicism seemed at best surpassed and at worst colonial and problematic. A conflictual relationship with canonical Classicism was therefore our default: on the one hand we recognized its obvious appeal, but on the other we were compelled to reject it.
Reconciling this cultural conflict requires a deeper understanding of Classical architecture beyond its established geographical borders and beyond its historical definition, a “brand” largely developed during the period of European colonialism. For me, classicism in architecture is any methodology rooted in a recognizable grammar and syntax that were developed in progressive iterations parallel to advances in calculus that allowed structures to grow in height and span. This is an architecture based on the more or less creative application of rules derived from written, oral, ritual or artisanal traditions. The demise of historical Classicism began, at least in the West, with the development of sophisticated building techniques that climaxed in the industrial manufacture of building parts and the division of labor between engineer and architect: a system based on synthetic rules was no longer strictly necessary, and architecture was “liberated” from its established codes. The discipline’s nomoi became expressivity, cultural discourse, and formal experimentation. This was in many ways a necessary evolution, but it also represented an epistemological rupture. What these traditions ultimately aimed at, as is clear in Vitruvius’s firmitas-utilitas-venustas triad, was an elegant synthesis of harmony and buildability; what replaced his rigid triangle is still rather confused, and design theory continues to grapple with its loss.
In my view, the capacity to perceive harmony in an architectural and spatial composition is not culture-specific — in fact the beauty of a new definition of classicism is that it highlights how diverse cultural traditions have interpreted this quest for harmony. Rossi himself implicitly recognized this when putting together the references that constitute his main theoretical work, The Architecture of The City (1966), an attempt to recognize typological and formal patterns to which he ascribed the capacity to construct a global architectural vocabulary built by the intelligence of collectivities over time (even, if in his limited scope, these are still to be found in the cultural context he belonged to).
If we generalize Rossi’s method, a theory of design is a question of memory beyond sentimentality, and of intelligence beyond canons. If contemporary architecture has abandoned historicism and pastiche, it cannot do without the fundamental idea that architecture must confront the past, a past understood cybernetically (in the sense of circular causal and feedback mechanisms) as the process of gradual development of shared languages and accepted solutions. This passage is key to the formulation of a theory of design even in the absence of culture-specific proportional and compositional rules. Unlike music, where harmony is measurable, architecture must achieve it by aligning proportion with invention. Here, for me, lies the beauty of Rossi’s early work: instead of importing elements of Classical architecture wholesale, as purveyors of a harmonic composition (a method he adopted in his later career), he attempts to construct it using a few abstract elements combined in ways that aren’t immediately legible as Classical but which possess its essential qualities. Take his competition proposal for the Turin business district (with Luca Meda and Gian Ugo Polesello, 1962), his bridge for the 13th Triennale di Milano (with Luca Meda, 1964), and his Gallaratese housing project (Milan, 1972), all of which feature a limited palette of elements composed with precise elegance: variations of squares and triangles, round and flat columns, thin steel and thick concrete.
In the context of the U.S., however, where the canons of European Classicism have long been used to legitimize power, Rossi’s work takes on a different hue. By 1987, when he established his New York office and started work on projects like the Scholastic Building in New York and the Disney Development Company Offices in Orlando, his increasingly austere “Classicism” found an uncomfortable alliance with the cultural conservatism of the Reagan and Bush eras. Artist Aria Dean’s Ironic Ionic Replica, a 2020 replica of Robert Venturi’s 1977 column at Oberlin College, seems to me like the ultimate dissolution of the alliance between classicism and conservative political ideology that dominated the late PoMo movement that Rossi also found himself a part of. Dean’s cartoonish interpretation of an Ionic column, and the way she installed it among the structural columns of a New York gallery, point to the extinction of Western Classicism as a visual tradition.
The new classicism that follows it is, on the contrary, not a taxonomy of parts, and as such should not be normative — it should span from African “fractalism” to Greek “orthogonalism,” and beyond. But it should recognize — and serve — the human cognitive ability to perceive harmony in a composition, beyond culture-specific canons and aesthetics: the contemporary tendency towards the purity of sculptural forms, which I see both in the extremes of hyper-rationalism as well as more experimental computational architecture, is to be interpreted in this light. This is not to say that architecture should forgo cultural specificity altogether, but is rather a recognition of the necessity to situate cultural specificity critically in an increasingly global and interdependent world.