4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 21: Form Models III and IV: Rationality and Memory

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Lecture Summary

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” that 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.” The rebuilding of cities, especially after World War II, has raised many questions about what role the past should play in reconstruction. Recently, debates about two knowledge systems of the past, history and memory, have questioned the nature of each. The French historian, Pierre Nora, has accused history of suppressing the living memories of cultures especially in the developing world, but most other critics have assumed the necessity of both: “memory is color, history is line,” (Wieseltier). This class investigates the idea of memory and some its pertinence to city form.

Architecture and place have old associations with remembering. Classical buildings were actively used in the mnemonic learning system and in the training of debate: today the continuity and stability of form in our cities enables us to be nourished even in times of upheaval. The French sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs who was the first to write about “collective memory,” claims that every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework and that mental stability is due to the fact that objects of our daily life change so little or so regularly. “We may live without (architecture), we may pray without her, but we cannot remember without her,” Ruskin argued. In the Bible, the city of Enoch, built by Cain after his banishment, is nourishment against the “terror of space,” and the philosopher Karsten Harries says that because of man’s knowledge of his own mortality, fixed place and shelter are protection also against the “terror of time.” Ruins have been the remnants of destruction but also places of a curious fascination with the past, as in the English country ruins built in the sixteenth century, or in the case of Louis Kahn’s designs for the new Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem where he wished to retain the ruins of the previously destroyed synagogue as positive aids to memory. Monuments, memorials and museums are our artifacts in the battle against forgetting, and yet we struggle: “There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,” Robert Musil says, as we accept the loss of content over time. Recently memorials have sought to include elements that can ensure the updating of the remembering experience: as in the Navy and proposed Air Force memorials and the Holocaust memorial museum in Washington.

There are now a number of accepted building practices that take the past into account. For one, the present can be made as if it were the past, as in the post-war rebuilding of Warsaw to appear as it was prior to the war. Or the facades of buildings can be made to appear similar to those of the past, while the interiors are completely changed, as in the rebuilding of housing in Bologna. Or, perhaps as the Team X group might have desired, open networks can be made evocative enough for memories to be achieved in them over time. Or, fragments of old buildings might be retained as tokens of memory while the overall building function and form is new, as in the cases in Boston where churches have been converted to apartments or restaurants. Or buildings can be restored according to a set date in the past while retaining the overall use theme of the past, as in Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston. Or, a new tectonics of brick and steel can be used in a new building to register the memory of Nazi war camps, as in the Washington Holocaust memorial museum. Or the city can be built in “classical” form, as Krier would prefer, or the city can be made up of the “permanences” that Rossi advocates. Or the city can be built with allegiance to a multiplicity of past and present, such as creating a rapid turnover of buildings and places through temporary events or selective short-term zoning to contrast with longer-term presence: in all, a city where time is attended to as much as space is.

Referenced Texts

Dal Co, F. “Notes on the Dialectic Nostalgia/Hope.” Annual Report. Milan: I. L. A. U. D., 1979.

“Drawing of La Villette.” Architectural Design 77, no. 2: 202–3.

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Palazzo della Ragiona in Padua, and Gallarate Housing Project (Italy); project for a church (Carlo Fontana); Saunier (France); Roman Lucca; Berkeley co-op, San Francisco’s Chinatown (California, United States); Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and Church Court in Boston (Massachusetts, United States); South Street Seaport, and Seacoast fish Market (New York, United States); Pike Place Market in Seattle (Washington, United States); Ford Rouge Factory (Michigan, United States); entry for “Progetto-Bicocca” Pirelli Competition (Giancarlo de Carlo); entry for “Progetto-Bicocca” Pirelli Competition (Gabetti e Isola); Wexner Center (Ohio, United States); Chicago (Illinois, United States); London (Prince Charles); Richmond Terrace (Quinlan Terry); US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and US Air Force Memorial (James Ingo Freed); Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial (Lawrence Halprin); Washington Monument (Robert Mills); addition to Vietnam War Memorial (Ross Perot); US Navy Memorial (Conklin Rossant)

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