Giorgio Grassi Student Housing Chieti

Giorgio Grassi, Student House, Chieti, Italy (under construction from 1979)

Without much effort one recognizes the compositional elements that make up this style: the square, the cube, the equilateral triangle, the circle, the right angle, the orthogonal grid, the tripartite composition, the long, linear, pilastered colonnade, the well-circumscribed space. This manifest affirmation of style as the unifier of all these projects and its widespread, wholehearted acceptance in the mid-1970s were in dramatic contrast to the flamboyant declarations of populism that visual order had come to an end. Occasionally the notion of 'type' was used, in the framework of the rappel a I'ordre, for a ilAJAIAlAlAl semantic and narrative purpose rather than as a stylistic, compositional device. It was employed to give meaning to a building through visual metaphor. In this case, a building type was taken as a contextual framework out of which a fragment was borrowed to be assembled with other such fragments into a new amalgam. The new composite object obviously had at once a strange and even absurd appearance. At second glance, however, as in the case of all metaphors, a new meaning emerged. A remarkable example of this metaphorical use of typology is found in Aldo Rossi's San Cataldo Cemetery (1971-73) where analogies and constructs finally achieve the creation of a new framework for the various original meanings.

From the point of view of cognition, that is perceiving and understanding what a building is and what it does, the idea of typology made perfect sense. As we have already mentioned, the populist belief in the unlimited freedom of expression of the user, however noble, was naive psychologically and sociologically. The idea of the building type on the other hand, a kind of template, a spatial pattern stored in memory, or perhaps even deeper, a schema encoded in the mind, 'competent' to categorize natural objects or artifacts, could have led to a contribution in architectural theory. It could have brought it closer to theories of thinking and knowledge of our time as in the cases of the theory of music and poetry. A well-founded typology of buildings through such cognitive schemata could have brought some discipline into design, while allowing for variation. Building types would have served as frames, as cognitive scientists call them, to be instantiated when needed and as the specifics of a given situation required. A building type conceived as a frame could have helped link memory with invention.

This did not, however, occur. And neither did typology become a method, as happened with literary analysis. It did not become a means of abstraction and generalization for revealing a hidden structure underlying empirical reality in order to make people conscious of it, as, for instance, the literary critic Gyorgy Lukacs did in his analysis of the heroes of the 19th-century realist novel in terms of 'social types'.10 Aldo Rossi did, in fact, allude to this use, but without turning it into a genuine method.

In the end, as applied in the 1970s, typology was only a token which stood for a formal vocabulary implicitly expressing not so much a new visual sensitivity as new aspirations for security at that tumultuous moment. All the same, it succeeded in giving substance and direction to the rappel a I'ordre for over a decade.

But to call the rappel¿ I'ordre an6 the products of a period only a reaction to the failures of populism and the threat of chaos is an insufficient explanation for it. Other reasons account for it and for the peculiar choice of style that accompanied it. The rappel a I'ordre shifted attention towards financially less ambitious problems, away from the typical welfare-state projects of the post-war period. At a moment of mounting fiscal crises in Europe and around the world, it helped to focus attention on the revitalization of small-scale pockets of the historical centres of cities through private investment. But because of its strong preoccupation with autonomy of form, its relative indifference to the pragmatic context and practical content of buildings, its nostalgic rather than instrumental attitude to the past, it often proved ill equipped to cope in reality with the true problems of the historical centre of European cities, such as congestion, being unsuited to new programmatic demands and lifestyles, and physical obsolescence.

At a moment of economic difficulty, building in general was cut down and the contribution of the architect was seen as a superfluous luxury. This negative perception of architecture which the radical attacks of populism against the profession made even worse, the rappel a I'ordre tried to change, arguing for the indispensability of architectural knowledge, and thus of architects. The return to the values of professional specialization and elite craftsmanship certainly fitted in with the new Zeitgeist, occasionally referred to as neo-conservatism, which celebrated the individual. Thus 'excellence' became the slogan that replaced populist 'liberation'. Excellence, in turn, reinforced the neo-conservative goals of consumption and acquisition that populism had tried so hard to discredit.

Beyond such relatively short-term cycles of ideology, the rappel a I'ordre had a more long-term impact. It helped some aspects of architectural knowledge to be preserved at a highly destructive and confusing moment of cultural crisis at the end of the 1960s. But on the other hand, it very often turned its back not only on social and political questions, but also on those of technology and function.11

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