Aldo Rossi, Cemetery of San Cataldo ("City of the Dead"), Modena, Italy, 1971.
The fifth reading in the Hays anthology is Aldo Rossi’s cryptic paragraph describing his Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena, Italy, in 1971. After several readings of this ridiculous nonsense, I can tell you its basic crux is this: this project was designed to communicate the idea “cemetery” that Rossi believes we all inherently have. This follows after the belief that any idea has a form or image, perhaps coming from social conditioning or just inherent in that idea. The importance of this is that architects can (and should?) search out these ideal images and use them in their architecture so that each piece of architecture communicates what it is. The insistence on communication links Rossi with Baird’s semiotic architecture theory in a developing trend thus far in the 11 Weeks project. The rest is mostly useless, honestly, but describes how Rossi achieved the design. The original paragraph is in bold below, divided up with a breakdown.
Together, all of the buildings read as a city in which the private relationship with death happens to be the civil relationship with the institution. Thus the cemetery is also a public building with an inherent clarity in its circulation and its land use. Externally, it is closed by a fenestrated wall. The elegiac theme does not separate it much from other public buildings. Its order and its location also contain the bureaucratic aspect of death.
—This is somewhat extraneous, but it’s an introduction to one basic idea: that cemeteries, and death, are institutions involved with the bureaucracy of taxes and governments. So he is defending two design choices—both fairly conventional—by the need to treat a cemetery like a public building and to keep order there for keeping tabs on who lies where. The “elegiac theme” of the “public building” is in the wide lawns. The “order” is in the numbered cubbies for urns, organized in a very unsentimental grid.
The project attempts to solve the most important technical issues in the same manner as they are solved when designing a house, a school, or a hotel. As opposed to a house, a school, or a hotel, where life itself modifies the work and its growth in time, the cemetery foresees all modifications; in the cemetery, time possesses a different dimension.
—Again here Rossi is “demystifying” the project for designing a cemetery by equating it with any other project. Cemeteries have basic technical needs like houses, schools, &c. The difference lies in the program. Houses and schools are used spaces with active program that will change their appearance and modify their design over time—renovations, damage, replacements, paint, furniture, even usage will change over time. Cemeteries do not have these kinds of change because there is no active use that can adapt the design to its needs. (Rossi’s argument, not mine.) Consequently, the cemetery is essentially a planning project where the designer must foresee all the needs to come.
Faced with this relationship, architecture can only use its given elements, refusing any suggestion not born out of its own making; therefore, the references to the cemetery are also found in the architecture of the cemetery, the house, and the city.
—This is a curious bit that seems mostly redundant of the section above. But the second bit is crucial so don’t miss it. Here we understand that Rossi believes that architecture should refer to what it is. Cemeteries communicate that they are cemeteries. And “references to the cemetery” are not suggested, they are material fact in this design. This is one thing, but Rossi goes on: because cemeteries can only depend on architecture (and not use) to meet design needs, then architecture itself must naturally possesses those references. Where can we find these references or symbols of cemeteries? They are in the architectural of cities and houses and in all cemeteries…
Here, the monument is analogous to the relationship between life and buildings in the modern city. The cube is an abandoned or unfinished house; the cone is the chimney of a deserted factory. The analogy with death is possible only when dealing with the finished object, with the end of all things: any relationship, other than that of the deserted house and the abandoned work, is consequently untransmittable.
—…and now we get it…kind of. Everything he has said about cities and houses and references is Rossi trying to justify his own choices. His entire City of the Dead is one large metaphor for life and death. The specific form of that metaphor is how buildings exist in the city. Rossi’s cemetery has a large cube that is meant to read as “house”; the massive cone is meant to read as “factory”; the complex is a city. But the metaphor for “death” (or “cemetery”) is achieved in the hollow, unused, abandoned state of these things. The “house” is an empty shell with no roof where numbered urns are stored. The cone-“factory” is abandoned and hollow and I have no idea what its intended use was. Both of these things represent death in the abandonment of their initial active programs. So we can imagine that the image of death lies in the difference between a used, successful house and one that is unfinished and left to rot in the weather. A normal factory means life when compared to an abandoned one. And all of these transitions take place in the city.
…this project for a cemetery complies with the image of cemetery that each one of us possesses.
—Supposedly because we all live in cities we understand this dichotomy and Rossi is invoking that image in us. Please understand I think this idea is a good measure of shit. But I allow that, in his own metaphor, Rossi’s cemetery is consistent in its production of references and imagery.