Handout (PDF): The "locus" of housing: Ground floor plans of the University Cooperative, Berkeley and the Mei Lun Yuen housing, San Francisco.
Another reaction to the CIAM orthodoxy of modern city form has focused on the city's past rather than on its contingent path forward. In this view the city is the accumulation of its many pasts which are fossilized in different ways and at different rates in the city's form and which should serve as the foundation for change. This is the analysis of the city articulated by the Italian architect and theorist, Aldo Rossi. For him the city's "permanences" can be divided between primary elements and dwellings. Primary elements, like monuments, are expressions of the city's "collective will...the result of its capacity to constitute the city, its history and art, its being and memory." Dwellings, on the other hand, are expressions of ever-changing individual will, the vernacular that lacks the cultural autonomy of monuments. He claims that certain sites and their buildings create a "locus" which is unique in the city and should be recognized as such. The location of public housing on a major city street, such as the housing on the Karl Marx Allee in Berlin, is an example of "locus", a significant and socially provocative location.
The concept of "locus" occurs in two cases in California, the University Cooperative in Berkeley and the Mei Lun Yuen project in San Francisco, where, against normal market conditions, these extremely valuable central sites were retained for public housing through community pressure, political influence and professional advocacy. Rossi also attacks the common argument about buildings achieving their form through obedience to context; to reverse the proposition, he would have architecture as autonomous and context as subservient. Like many of his colleagues, Rossi advocates the artifacts of the city as "types", not determined by function, but according to a more complex formula. And finally, he contends that the physical elements of the city have a more permanent status in the city than its institutions: the functions of buildings change but the buildings often remain to accept new functions. Rossi seems to allocate instrumentality to objects rather than to people: as a critic suggests: "Memory does not reside in architectural form, but in people's memories shaped by experience of architectural form." As a counterpoint to Rossi's propositions, reference is made to the work of geographers, such as Conzen, whose studies focus on secular processes of morphological change in cities over long periods of time.
Rossi's general advocacy of the past in the form of the city is more sophisticated, if more obscure, than the proponents of a return to a particular past time in urban history. Among these, the theorist Leon Krier, has attracted attention by arguing for replacing the current, poorly formed city by "classical" forms, by "the absolute value of the pre-industrial cities, of the cities of stone." He makes absurd claims for the virtues of these cities: "it has solved all technical and artistic problems in solidity, in beauty, in permanence and commodity." At different times, Krier makes pleas for the reform of zoning, the city's division into quarters the size of which is to be determined by walking distances, the separation of country and city, and the breaking up of the city's blocks to produce more corners. His evocative diagrams of possible public places remind us of how few such we have achieved in contemporary cities. But his polemics should be a warning about the folly of using the past as a polemic against the present city, about regarding time as frozen, and of invoking a return to a vague and Arcadian "classicism."
Bonfanti, et al. "Archittetura Razionale."
Conzen. "Town-plan Analysis in an American Setting: Cadastral Processes in Boston and Omaha, 1630-1930."
Crow. Philosophical Streets. pp. 113-132.
Krier. Houses, Palaces, Cities. pp. 30-49.
Lawrence. "Architecture of the City Reinterpreted: A Critical Review."
McLeod. "The Architecture of the City: Aldo Rossi."
Rossi. The Architecture of the City. pp. 21-61 and 126-131.