San Cataldo Cemetery

(Modena. Italy) 1971-73

The Utopian radical idea of a world whose political, economic, cultural and aesthetic order was to be overthrown, 'the pyramid turned upside down', as the architect Gian-carlo De Carlo called the anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian vision of May '68, affected not only the appearance of architectural artifacts, but also the very processes of their conception and production. This challenge to established values was deeply felt in most professions throughout the Western world.

But in Italy, where experiences of pluralistic collective bargaining were scarce and subject to exhaustive socio-historical analysis (Gram-scian in their sophistication), the populist, reformist', anarcho-architecture' proposed by Lucien Kroll (see pp. 44-47) or Herman Hertzberger(see pp. 48-51) was looked on as naive. With very few exceptions such as the work of Giancarlo De Carlo (see pp. 198-201). the May '68 campaign for cultural renewal was very quickly succeeded by either extremist activist movements which demanded the total and fundamental dismantling of the established power structure, or by a profound pessimism about the possibility of any change at all. In the midst of this crisis - allegorically portrayed by Federico Fellini at the end of the '70s in his film. Prova d'Orchestrai 1979) -a third position emerged.

This called for a return to traditional, professional values, the norms of the craft' and the 'workshop', as the architect Giorgio Grassi called them. They were 'small things certainly', Aldo Rossi wrote in his Scientific Autobiography ( 1981), yet, 'having seen that the possibility of the great ones was historically precluded', architects realized that these were the only objects they could have aspired to'. Under most circumstances, this retour a I'ordre advice would have been perceived as conservatism, despite the fact that it came from the least conservative of architects. Given the excessive, self-destructive situation of the architectural profession at the end of the 1960s, it was simply a sensible suggestion.

Central to the craft of architecture was 'typology*. Rossi's idea of typology (see pp. 60-63) was more complex than the standard one - the identification and choice of building types according to agreed architectural characteristics, a division of architectural

(Above) The ossuary (Right) General plan
Aldo Rossi The San Cataldo Cemetery

theory with a long and strong Italian tradition, notably in the theories of Saverio Muratori. Rossi's idea of typology was grounded, on the one hand, on abstract and metaphysical concepts, Platonic principles claiming the universality and eternity of certain architectural forms; and, on the other, on concrete ideas related to the programme and context of specific buildings with a deeper cultural and political past. Occasionally, in the somewhat obscure writings of Rossi, there is a third meaning attached to typology, which echoes Gyorgy Lukacs's.

A new project was related to typological precedents 'by analogy'. Rossi's meaning of analogy was close to the way in which associations between objects were perceived by depth psychology. Memory, to Rossi, was a mechanism used to produce a design, as much as design was a means through which to pay homage to a memory, or to the idea of memory, abstractly, as a value on which culture and society are founded. The Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena, the most characteristic, if not the most significant product of Rossi's career, emerged out of such a theory of typology.

The programme required the enlargement of the old Neo-classical cemetery of del Costa. Rossi's was the winning project in the 1971 national competition. The basic elements of the design were the porticoed, rectilinear pathway, the columbarium, the sanctuary, the common grave and the ossuary. The flat surfaces of the ossuary and columbarium were meant to enhance the abstraction of the architecture. The red cube of the ossuary dominates the site, its punched openings artfully framing vistas of other cemetery buildings. The roofless interior contains a grid-work of niches where ashes are placed. Metal-grate stairs and galleries, supported on slender steel columns, surround the paved inner court. In line with the columbarium, a tiered bridge structure links two linear ossuaries that form the long cemetery wall bordering the town.

Following Rossi's principles of 'typology', the form of the sanctuary, a large cubic structure, was derived from that of a house - an abstract, prismatic, 'universal' idea of a house which surprisingly bore a striking resemblance to traditional houses of northern Italy. Lacking floors, windows or roof, it was an 'incomplete', abandoned house 'analogical' to death. The common grave was a conic structure 'analogical' to a large chimney. The columbarium was arranged in a succession of parallelepipeds, a series of corridors inscribed in an isosceles triangle made up of osteological' figures "analogical' to the arrangement of bones within the torso. Grave and sanctuary were arranged at the two ends of an axis, the columbarium lying between them in a classical tripartite manner, a composition with a beginning, middle and conclusion. The overall composition was of an anthropomorphic concrete object evoking the body devoid of life and flesh - the skeleton.

The striking schematic pattern of the project was derived by an application of regular shapes and volumes from the top down, as well as a reduction of concrete objects to pure masses from the bottom up, forcing them into canonical 'Platonic' volumes. Hence, the turn-of-the-century, toy-like appearance of scale-less, game-like building type.

The theme of the cemetery gave Rossi an excellent opportunity to demonstrate his ideas about architecture without major difficulties. His credo, using elementary volumes undisturbed by functional requirements, could easily be put into practice in the world of the dead whose everyday needs were non-existent. Furthermore, the oppositional theme of death as the negation of life provided a helpful cognitive mechanism for putting forward a critique of the present human state of affairs, a mode of what Adorno called 'negative critical thinking'.

Thus memory, history, orderliness, the values cherished by Rossi, expressions of collective will which had been expelled from the contemporary city, could find a home again in the luogo architettonico, the 'architectonic place' of the cemetery. Following the bankruptcy of any other means, according to Rossi, this negative city built by negative architecture could act as the base for a different kind of assault against the anti-values of the functionalist and populist 'Babylon'.

(Right) Perspective view of the cemetery (Below right) The cemetery wall

Aldo Rossi Drawing Cemetery Project

Aldo Rossi

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