Gallaratese Housing Project

(Milan, Italy) 1969-73


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The Gallaratese housing project was as paradigmatic of Aldo Rossi's ideas as its contemporary. the San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena (pp. 56-59). It was as if he had been engaged in a comparative study to demonstrate that his principles of architecture were sufficiently universal to be applied both to the houses of the living and of the dead. Indeed, the projects share the same elementary units (triangles, cubes, cylinders, cones). Similar composition rules (absence of termination, lack of hierar-chization of parts - i.e. a reduced but also rigidified classical canon - bilateral axial symmetry, serial repetition, orthogonality) govern both.

Seen from the point of view of modern architecture, which demanded functionalist 'authenticity', the similarities between the housing project and the cemetery amounted to a scandal. They did not correspond to shared programmatic, operational features nor did they arise from a shared technology of construction, as was the case when Mies aroused controversy by dressing housing and offices in the same curtain wall clothes and placing one next to the other. When populist criteria were applied, such as those which dictated Kroll's (pp. 44-47. 92-95) or Hertzberger's (pp. 48-51) architecture, the common features of cemetery and housing invited characterization of authoritarianism, cultural imperialism -even necrophilia.

However, in the context of Rossi's own beliefs about culture and society - his 'typological' theory of architecture - the use of the same attributes in apartments for the living and in a cemetery that represents collective silence and memory was entirely justifiable.

Kroll's so-called ethnological approach maintained an open, complete confidence in the non-professional users of architecture and in their spontaneous demands. By contrast. Rossi was suspicious of such populism. He believed instead that architectural norms had to be derived from patient professional research. While Kroll's methodology focused strictly on the present demands of a specific group of users of a building, Rossi's typological methodology dug into the past (with vague references to antiquity), into a 'universal'. Western European past, in an attempt to identify the pre-existing invariant architectural elements. 'The cemetery, as a building,' Rossi argued, 'is the house of the dead. The typology of the house and of the tomb are in origin indistinguishable.'

The Gallaratese housing, therefore, employs what Rossi identified as the 'elements of m

Gallaratese Rossi Plan


(Top) Plans and elevations (Centre) Facade (Below) Conceptual drawing (This page, above) Exterior view architecture, and not only of residential architecture.' For him. similarities with funereal architecture arose not from confusion of function or content, but from the priority given to form, a practice common in classical architecture. Gallaratese's facade, which to the functionalists was 'false', was likened by Rossi to the built stage of the Roman theatre and to the facade of the Palladian basilica, which were employed irrespective of functional specifics. Contrary to the views of modernists, functionalists, rigorists and populists alike, preservation of order for Rossi was more important than functional fit, accommodation of individual aspirations, flexibility, openness to an unknown and unknowable future, or promoting a pluralistic, agnostic society.

Following these almost Poundian presumptions about the inherent superiority of certain cultural forms (minus Ezra Pound's admiration for oriental culture), it is not surprising that the formal aspects of the Gallaratese housing not only resemble those of a cemetery but are also diametrically opposed to those of the Medical Faculty of Louvain, designed by Kroll for its rowdy, light-hearted, forgetful students.

Yet there was also a realistic dimension to Rossi's general, transcendental and quasi-metaphysical theory of typology. When the moment for its specific application arrived, he did take account of existing conditions. This was the case in the cemetery of Modena. In the Gallaratese housing also, a priori abstract, spatial components - the cube, the cylinder, the equilateral triangle - were joined with preexisting physical features. For Rossi, typological investigations did not only search for universal forms; they also sought the 'union of geometry with use' and the 'history of use', as he states in his L'architettura delta cittd (1966). Investigating the terrain where a building is going to be constructed, identifying the location's inherited built structures, the reality of their predominant and unique features and the reality of their past workings-all these factors were seen as necessary components of the design.

Gallaratese derives its long rectilinear form from the traditional Milanese tenement house which Rossi identified as a type. The building itself is 182 metres in length and 12 metres deep. The ground floor is an implacably rhyth mical portico made up of pilaster elements, while the mostly 2-room housing units are located above, along a corridor.

Besides the neo-Platonic volumetric presuppositions or the historical typologies of the region, precedents for Rossi's approach in the Gallaratese housing project can be found in the work of Giovanni Muzio, one of the leading Milanese architects of the pre-Second World War era. and in that of Le Corbusier. Of particular significance is the latter's La Tour-ette; Rossi had written with admiration about its abstract compositional values before he chose his own formal path.

Despite the highly abstract language of Rossi's texts, the Gallaratese housing had many practical implications, hence its paradigmatic character. Rossi's was an architecture of Gestalt, not of detail. Construction aspects were not important, a justifiable approach since the formal paradigms adopted demanded minimal construction technique. Its starkness and simplicity demonstrated how over-complicated the forms used in housing projects had been during the late 1960s, which had been feebly justified by pseudo-sociological and pseudo-organizational jargon. It also showed that the study of previously accumulated knowledge, implicit in the pervasive and persistent spatial arrangements of buildings of the past (the 'types'), could render effective help in the first steps of design.

What is beyond doubt is the uniqueness of the Gallaratese project. It stood as a symbol representing a reaction to the 1968 spirit of disintegration that threatened institutional destruction and social decomposition - a threat in many ways over-exaggerated at the time. In the cemetery of Modena, the formal integrity of the luogo architettonico of the city of the dead was intended as an alternative to the 'ugly growth' of the contemporary city. So, in the same way. the Gallaratese houses seemed to defy the false deductions of vulgar materialism which proclaimed that 'form follows function", or those of early modernist architecture, as well as the Utopian naivety of post-war architecture, that 'function will follow form'. Similarly, Gallaratese asserted that, contrary to the fashionable slogans, the result of the populist sentiments of 1968 resulted only in building 'internal barricades' of neo-

tribalism. Despite Gallaratese's overwhelming formalism, Rossi conceived it as social arch» tecture; but a social architecture distinct from that of functionalists and populists, and not only in terms of architectural means, but also social ends. It was meant as a 'collective representation'. Nevertheless, one has to as-whether the socio-cultural values proclaimed by the strict geometrical formulas of the Gallaratese housing as symbolic collective representations were important enough to justify their constraining impact on the every day life of its individual occupants. Was the regimenting effect on the ordinary activities of individuals a legitimate cost in representing their alleged collectivity'?

Whatever the effect of Rossi's architecture on the comfort of the users of Gallaratese. lie became a hero to grateful architects who embraced him for having almost singlehand edly restored their confidence in the profession. The simplicity of his toy-like forms and his domino-like rule system was seductively, even exhilaratingly easy to follow. His slogan-recipes were memorable, hypnotic, charismatic, like Le Corbusier's. And. as in the case of Le Corbusier, their adoption was the result of an act of faith rather than a rational decision.

In the misty Milan dusk, the Gallaratese housing with its neo-Platonist, arcane composition rises as if to exorcise the evil spirit of contemporary Babylon rather than as a cry of protest, or a constructive vision.

(Above) Typological study

(Right) Drawing of the facade

Mario Botta Archltetto HOUSE AT RIVA SAN VITALE

(Ticino, Switzerland) 1971-73

Riva San Vitale Model

Poised on the flanks of the Swiss Alps, in Monte San Giorgio which encircles Lake Lugano, this modest building by the young Mario Botta - like that of his friend and colleague Luigi Snozzi in Locarno (pp. 80-81) - had an exhilarating impact when it appeared. Like Rossi's San Cataldo cemetery (pp. 56-59), it seemed to mark a return to order and traditional values after the crisis of 1968: nature, the family, geometry, craftsmanship in construction. However, the Riva San Vitale House differed from Rossi's architecture, which was not concerned with projecting positive models. It appeared to be offering to restore a moral way of life, spatially represented not only in the composition but also in the small, embedded details, using precedents derived from the tradition of the villa - a 'utopian topos', a world within a world, a refuge in natural wilderness from urban 'totalism'.

James Ackerman {The Villa, 1990) has enumerated the elements of the 'mythology' the villa expresses. The Riva San Vitale House can be considered as a successful example of the type: its tall, prismatic volume is firmly engaged' in the land, while at the same time, in its exaggerated erectedness, it maintains a distance from it. The idea of distance is underlined by the very means through which the building is linked to its surroundings by the long, light bridge made of steel which, in its suspension, length and lightness, keeps on distinguishing the artifice and its ground. The house really does appear, as the architect himself wrote, to 'emerge from the terrain in a dialectical game with the environment, emphasized by the minimal occupation of the terrain and by the subtle bridge of steel that, standing on the limits of the road, stabilizes the physical relation to the mountain.'

The entrance bridge

Platonic geometry, with its rigorously square shape, and the artificial materials of the project, both products of culture, set the building apart from the natural landscape, while their artificiality exalts the landscape's physical character by contrast. Although contained in the landscape, the building conceptually 'frames' the landscape. As in all villas, the dialectic of view is also expressed in Riva San Vitale House. Much as the building is designed as a distinguished, well-formed object to look at. at the same time it is a place tolookout from, a belvedere. In fact, in its tower form, the San Vitale villa resembles an expressly made artifice for enjoying a prospect.

According to Ackerman, the villa mythology expresses 'the prerogatives of privilege' and regional pride'. Indeed, the Botta villa, in its aloof and pristine physiognomy, has a super ior, an aristocratic air which the heaviness and roughness of the material - echoing the tradition of Renaissance rustication - in fact exaggerate. One could be critical of this manifestation of 'power and class aspiration'. One could be equally critical of the exaltation of the regional Ticinese architectural qualities which the building evokes in the rigour of its geometry, the robustness of its material and the elegance of construction details. However, the Riva San Vitale House can in fact be seen as an expression of a critical manifesto. As Kenneth Frampton has pointed out in his perceptive writings on Botta and the school of Ticino in Modem Architecture (1985), the building derives from the roccolo, a bird catching tower, a rustic building type to be found in this Italian part of Switzerland. In choosing this unusual prototype, and promoting it to the status of a symbol embodying the true values of the region. Botta appears to be using it as a means of criticizing the debased, kitsch version of Ticino commercial regionalism, and of the commercialism of culture in general.

The villa has been linked through history with two traditions, in its formal spatial expression: on the one hand, the master-servant dialectic confirming the legitimacy of the master; and on the other, the perennial otium-negotium antithesis supporting the 'sweet and honorable otium' of the contemplative life', as opposed to active', commercial engagement. The villa, without loosing its strong formal identity in history, has oscillated between a conservative and a liberating approach. In the context of the post-1968 world, it has surely taken in Botta's work the latter position.

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