THE SAN CATALDO CEMETERY, a suspended work

(initially published on 13 August 2019, under the title ‘IL CIMITERO DI S. CATALDO, un’opera sospesa’)

It is now seven years since, one morning in early December 2017, I finally visited the well-known San Cataldo cemetery in Modena, one of the first public works designed by Aldo Rossi, even though I had not planned to do so. I say ‘finally’ because, although I had heard about it for a long time, I had never intended to go to Modena to visit it. I have to admit that for an Italian architect trained in Venice, the Modena cemetery is almost a conditio sine qua non of one’s theoretical training; however, my rebellious and dissident nature, especially with respect to the main stream of national academic architectural culture, had finally led me to the city for the Museo Enzo Ferrari – there was an interesting question to be understood, namely how to tune two different areas of design, given the strength of Ferrari’s automotive industry.

In the end, while I was in town, I had nevertheless succumbed to a kind of conscientious curiosity, and so, the next morning, I had asked my hotelier for information: is the San Cataldo far away? Is it possible to visit it? In an instant, that middle-aged Modenese man had looked at me and immediately categorised me as one of the many architects visiting the first major work of the well-known Aldo Rossi. And indeed he was not wrong: I am an architect, that is true. However, my visit to the cemetery was certainly not that of a devotee of the Milanese architect’s work.

For those of you who are not architects – and if you are reading these lines of mine, it is almost impossible that you are not – you should know that the figure of Aldo Rossi, like that of many other charismatic personalities, essentially continues to polarise the public: on one side we find those who still today cannot stand the bare elementarism that derives from his theoretical positions; on the other, there are all the others (a large group of followers, admirers, enthusiasts, but also disinterested educated people, who instead appreciate Rossi from afar). Like it or not, Aldo Rossi had the merit of seeking a formal and conceptual synthesis that did not depend on him being the author. It took me some time to understand this because, when this position was conceptualised, the cultural debate was very different from the one in which I was formed. To sum up: if we evaluated Rossi’s works for their forms and typologies, or for their innovative character, we would invariably be disappointed, because they were designed precisely to guarantee the possibility of shared authorship.

I certainly do not have a passion for the architectural theorist Aldo Rossi, let alone the architect Rossi, however, I tend to have a deep respect for all the works of my colleagues, because I know how much effort and passion it takes to be an architect and to bring a work to fruition. If this were not enough, and if you have the chance to take a quick look at the curriculum vitae of the Milanese architect, born in 1931, you will realise that architect Aldo Rossi has been truly prolific. He accumulated experience and prestigious commissions from the very beginning of his career and was therefore a truly great professional. It is therefore worthwhile to consider his theoretical and design insights before storing them among the dusty boxes of architectural history.

There is therefore no doubt that for us Italian architects, Aldo Rossi, Pritzker Prize winner in 1990, will always remain a cultural reference, with many pros but also some inevitable cons. So, I must admit, on that December morning in 2017, I was a little curious to see the San Cataldo and it seemed like a good opportunity, but I felt no particular transport, other than that determined, as I said, by pure curiosity.

In the large group of Aldo Rossi enthusiasts, about the author and his work, one name emerges strongly, in terms of ability and inspiration: it is the architect Rafael Moneo, born in 1937, himself a Pritzker Prize winner in 1996. His essay entitled “The Idea of Architecture in Rossi and the Cemetery of Modena” (written in Barcelona in the early 1970s) is truly enchanting, chiselled, profound as few can be, at times moving, certainly dictated by that elective affinity that Aldo Rossi was able to arouse in the most sensitive souls – as also happened to Manfredo Tafuri. Looking back, I am certain that it was Rafael Moneo’s writing (which wins me over with every reading) that made me consider visiting the San Cataldo cemetery once in Modena.

Museo Enzo Ferrari, view of the entrance (ph. E. Lain 2017)

So let’s start with my first destination in Modena. As I said, in fact, the main objective of my trip to the Emilian city was actually the extension of the Enzo Ferrari Museum, designed by Future Systems and completed in 2012. The work is a posthumous realisation, as the architect Jan Kaplický, founder of the London-based firm in 1979, died suddenly in January 2009, at the age of 71, after fighting hard to have his visionary design for the Czech National Library in Prague, for which he had won the competition in 2007, realised – it is a project that reminds me very much of Sou Fujimoto’s ‘house of music’ in 2021. The Enzo Ferrari Museum was completed by Shiro Studio of London, under the direction of a former Future Systems associate, architect Andrea Morgante, a Milanese architect who moved to London in 1997, which coincidentally coincides with the year of Aldo Rossi’s death.

The Enzo Ferrari Museum intrigued me a lot because of the strategy with which Kaplický had paradoxically achieved an anonymous work through typological anomaly, transforming the architecture into a container substantially devoid of elevations, the main purpose of which is the exaltation of the Ferrari brand and its historic location. The fact, then, that Kaplický designed the building in 2004, at the age of 67, still gives me a subtle shiver. Reflecting back, in choosing the destinations of my visits, I think I almost always preferred architecture that expressed the mastery of the contemporary rather than the memory of those of our distant past (the exceptions being, above all, Borromini and Alberti). Unfortunately, however, these subjective readings show their own weaknesses: the first, which prefers the contemporary, should beware of the arrogance of innovation at all costs; the second, which appreciates the memory of past constructions, instead runs the risk of chasing universality through the simple persistence of form. This is why I think it is interesting to interweave these subjective points of view, taking into consideration both opposites of making architecture. Here, unintentionally, the “double visit” of the Ferrari Museum and the San Cataldo proved to be much more productive, operating beyond the boundaries of the “veto” imposed by my elective affinities. Some will be horrified to see me placing two such distant works side by side, not least because of the different weight they have for the history of contemporary architecture (the Ferrari Museum does not have the same importance as the San Cataldo, to put it in explicit terms), but it is an interesting experiment to challenge architecture on the hold of its fundamentals (composition, construction, visibility) even through different ages and aesthetics.

Enzo Ferrari Museum, detail of the exhibition hall (ph. E. Lain 2017)

As I have written, the Future Systems project made me reflect briefly on industrial design, which I will call here simply design, in the Italian style. Design fuses together form and composition, creating a continuous tension between elements that tend to become autonomous forms, but are retained in a single object: the product. It is almost impossible for design to approach the unfinished, or the aesthetics of the fragment. For design, memory is the enemy, and citation is therefore a kind of armed peace. In design, every kind of work must be hidden: from the aesthetic work of the designer, to the technical work of engineering, to the mechanical work of production. The more the production process remains mysterious, the more the close continuity between conception and realisation can be simulated. The only deviation from this rule fixed in the collective imagination is the display of technology: in Ferraris, the engine and its mechanics become the object of impossible contemplation, the true sanctum sanctorum of the automobile. You may recognise a Ferrari by its colour, its speed or its outstanding design, but its engine is much more elusive: provided you can contemplate it from a stationary position, it is not so obvious that you also have the skills to admire its perfect balance of size, power, consumption and aesthetics. This, which we might call an elitist aesthetic, is the bitter truth: that design is not for everyone.

Enzo Ferrari Museum, detail of the indoor hall (ph. E. Lain 2017)

Although much contemporary architecture tends to pursue precisely this exclusivity of design (I am thinking of many of Zaha Hadid’s works and statements, for example), it is generally almost impossible for our discipline to conceal the creative and production process that design does. Of course, in the collective imagination the principle of conception remains similar: do you remember Massimiliano Fuksas drawing his cloud on car windows, inspired by a sheep-like sky? Have you ever seen the tangled squiggles sketched by Frank Gehry that later became the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles? Or the patterns of computer codes that parametrically generate the architectural designs of Zaha Hadid Architects? Although attempts to conceal the conception/production process have helped build the figure of the starchitect, even for architecture, the production process must be there, and it is anything but concealable: no matter how refined and clean the design of the object, the construction site will be dusty, noisy and, above all, visible. It follows, in antithesis to the elitism of a certain design, that architecture has an innate public vocation, even when the owner is a private person.

San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena, view (ph. E. Lain 2017)

Here, visibility becomes, for architecture, the apex of its unveiling, its showing itself to the world after the necessary period of incubation on paper (or in parametric codes). At a certain point, the work must reveal itself and take shape, and in this passage all the violence of the image also develops, which can explode at the moment when it becomes imaginary, when the design of a single subject becomes a public object, occupying a three-dimensional space that was previously perceived in another way by others. The unveiling thus becomes almost a founding act: from that moment on, things will be different.

Many details of the San Cataldo Cemetery lead us to clearly perceive this unveiling, which differentiates architecture from design. As aesthetically as the work presents itself as a brutal composition of elements that yearn for the timeless universality of archetypes, the deliberate absence of detail has, through the action of time, turned into a plethora of clues to the work’s struggle against the normal decay brought on by duration. The plasters are peeling, saltpetre has invaded the concrete elements, in some places the reinforcing iron is visible and dangerously rusted. I have always admired works of architecture that manage to age well, as happens to paintings, and to do this requires that the materials and construction technique enter into symbiosis with the architectural design (in this Carlo Scarpa and Alvaro Siza are undisputed masters). But at the San Cataldo Cemetery, construction and realisation are programmatically quite distinct: for Aldo Rossi, design is already reality; therefore, the realisation of a project means giving substance to a thought translated into design. Unfortunately, construction thus becomes a subordinate act to this process of realisation, and materials are left at the mercy of time and decay, without having the chance to age. In this regard, Moneo, in another passage written during the construction, points out that: “the work (the San Cataldo) has not lost the provocative intensity that the drawings had. The images of Modena, those that the drawings showed us, were transformed into reality, but they did so without losing their appearance of images (…) Rossi was able to pass the test of fire that the construction of the work presupposes, and this test ultimately demonstrated that the images presented, drawn, were strong, so strong, so decisive, as to leave no way out for reality (…)”. (R.M., Appearance as reality, considerations on the work of Aldo Rossi).

San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena, view of the cubic ossuary (ph. E. Lain 2017)

I certainly don’t want to contradict Rafael Moneo, but in the years that followed, reality came down on the work, and in more than forty years of existence, even those strong images had to stand the test of time. But this challenge between image and reality is not yet over, and in my opinion, it represents what is most tragically heroic in architecture, and this applies to Aldo Rossi’s work as well as to many other contemporary works. Image and reality hybridise in the imaginary, as if it were a synthesis in continuous becoming.

If we take into consideration the original design that won the 1971 competition, it will be clear to us that the San Cataldo we can visit is in fact an unfinished work, as the charnel houses at increasing heights and the truncated cone-shaped mass grave are missing. However, the metaphysical views (à la De Chirico, just to say it) are still enjoyable, and show a great quality of open spaces. The sense of estrangement is accentuated by a composition of elevations in which human scale (the height of windows from ground level, or the height of doors) is often distorted in the name of general design. The result is a general sense of suspension in which our gaze simultaneously grasps recognisable elements around it, but also perceives their subtle extraneousness. A second glance, then, catches those signs of corruption in the construction that irretrievably bring the original metaphysical design to the ground. The Cemetery of San Cataldo may thus appear to us as a fragile bulwark in the flow of time, a work that seeks timelessness through the composition of archetypes, but which in the end is forced to yield, fragment after fragment, to the unstoppable flow of time. This motionless struggle is poignant and tragic in its solitude.

To understand the profound tragic sense of this immobile struggle, we must briefly dwell on the theoretical research of the Milanese architect. Aldo Rossi’s theoretical work had as its objective the disciplinary autonomy of architecture, as if to say that there are things that only architecture can and succeeds in doing: “(…) transforming thought into reality, explaining how it can come to be reality, is precisely the task of architecture. (R. Moneo, L’idea di architettura in Rossi e il cimitero di Modena, ed. Allemandi, TO, 2004, vol. **, p. 14). After so much “concealment”, architecture is finally laid bare, to become civil and civic practice once again. Archigram (subordinating architecture to technology) and Robert Venturi (relegating architecture to the handmaiden of the post-modern imagination) had already tried this. The operation proposed by Rossi will not be a painless one, neither for architects nor for architecture, since its disciplinary autonomy has at least two sacrificial victims: innovation (sacrificed for permanence) and the architect (sacrificed in the name of objectivity and the collective). If for design, innovation and conception proceed side by side and drag time forward, an architecture of reality must always adhere to its time. The memory of urban events, translated into monuments, and the permanence of building types, decoded in typology, become the surrogate for the imaginary and the imaginative. Here, the past and history, as permanence, become the identifying dimensions of the city, to the point that, as Moneo writes: “the city is faithful to its own memory”.

San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena, interior of the cubic ossuary (ph. E. Lain 2017)

The logical construction of architecture as a discipline has had, especially in Italy, the great merit of educating entire generations of architects with specific preparation for working in historic cities. Morphological and typological studies of built cities have made it possible to add other levels of analysis, those of permanence, to urban planning. Probably without the cultural movement known as ‘la Tendenza’, animated and led by Aldo Rossi, today we would not be able to enjoy much of that urban heritage that the whole world envies us. At the same time, however, the radical nature of Aldo Rossi’s thinking led architecture to move away from and distinguish itself from other arts and disciplines, in the name of its own autonomy. Over time, then, as the cultural matrix derived from the Tendency evolved, it happened that in that strand of architectural research, dialogue and dialectics, natural instruments of disciplinary refinement, gradually dried up, producing in some cases totally self-referential statements. And so, while Aldo Rossi had worked to sacrifice innovation and subjectivity (especially that of architects) in the name of architecture’s autonomy (from design, sociology, politics), the long wave of the Rossi tendency has also produced, paradoxically, a class of architects convinced that they are the sole interpreters of urban facts. Moneo himself seems to realise this, when he writes: “of course, one can absolutely disagree with this autonomistic vision and this affirmation of the independence of formal laws and urban architecture; in fact, from a certain point of view, if there is something that architecture and cities cannot really flaunt, it is their autonomy. But it is no less exciting and instructive, in the face of the flood of urban studies in which only the socio-economic components count, to emphasise the importance of formal laws and architecture. Insisting on the importance of form and architecture in the consideration of urban facts constitutes a desirable and possible antidote” (R. Moneo, ibid., p. 23)

It almost seems as if we, we architects, are destined for a continuous revolution, a ring-route that continues to take us from architecture as an expression of civil society to an autonomous architecture that gives completed form to a universal culture. With each revolution we take a turn and experience things that are decades old again. The pivot of these revolutions is the permanence of institutions, which allow us to be free to make our own trajectory, from the contingent to the universal first, and from the universal to the contingent later. Without this underlying structure, architecture is powerless.

In one of his last interviews, Aldo Rossi said: “In short, I want to say that there is currently no minimum awareness of institutions that naturally translates into monuments. […] Architecture was standing as a monument-institution, and the moment the sense of institution, let’s not say of democratic life, but of civil life, collapsed, we had nothing left’. (Aldo Rossi, Luoghi urbani, Interview by Cecilia Bolognesi, pp. 20-21, Edizioni Unicopoli, Milan 1999)

Aldo Rossi died on 4 September 1997.


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