© 2013 Diana

Rossi : The Architecture of the City

The Urban Artifact as a Work of Art

As soon as we address questions about the individuality and structure of a specific urban artifact, a series of issues is raised which, in its totality, seems to constitute a system that enables us to analyze a work of art. As the present investigation is intended to establish and identify the nature of urban artifacts, we should initially state that there is something in the nature of urban artifacts that renders them very similar-and not only metaphorically-to a work of art. They are material constructions, but notwithstanding the material, something different: although they are conditioned, they also condition.

This aspect of “art” in urban artifacts is elosely linked to their quality, their · uniqueness, and thus also to their analysis and definition. This is an extremely complex subject, for even beyond their psychological aspects, urban artifacts are complex in themselves, and while it may be possible to analyze them, it is difficult to define them. The nature of this problem has always been of particular interest to me, and I am convinced that it directly concerns the architecture of the city.

If one takes any urban artifact-a building, a street, a district-and attempts to describe it, the same difficulties arise which we encountered earlier with respect to the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua. Some of these difficulties derive from the ambiguity oflanguage, and in part these difficulties can be overcome, but there will always be a type of experience recognizable only to those who have walked through the particular building, street, or district.

Thus, the concept that one person has of an urban artifact will always differ from that of someone who “lives” that same artifact. These considerations, however, can delimit our task; it is possible that our task consists principally in defining an urban artifact from the standpoint of its manufacture: in other words, to define and classify a street, a city, a street in a city; then the location ofthis street, its
function, its architecture; then the street systems possible in the city and many other things.

We must therefore concern ourselves with urban geography, urban topography, architecture, and several other disciplines. The problem is far from easy, but not impossible, and in the following paragraphs we will attempt an analysis along these lines. This means that, in a very general way, we can establish a logical geography of any city; this logical geography will be applied essentially to the problems of language, description, and classification. Thus, we can address such fundamental questions as those of typology, which have not yet been the object of serious systematic work in the domain of the urban sciences. At the base of the existing classifications there are too many unverified hypotheses, which necessarily lead to meaningless generalizations.

By using those disciplines to which I have just referred, we are working to~rd a broader, more concrete, and more complete analysis of urban artifacts. The city is seen as the human achievement par excellence; perhaps, too, it has to do with those things that can only be grasped by actually experiencing a given urban artifact. This conception of the city, or better, urban artifacts, as a work of art has, in fact, always appeared in studies of the city; we can also discover it in the form of greatly varying intuitions and descriptions in artists of all eras and in many manifestations of social and religious life. In the latter case it has always been tied to a specific place, event, and form in the city.

The question of the city as a work of art, however, presents itself explicitly and scientifically above all in relation to the conception of the nature of collective artifacts, and I maintain that no urban research can ignore this aspect of the problem. How are collective urban artifacts related to works of art? All great manifestations of social life have in common with the work of art the fact that they are
born in unconscious life. This life is collective in the former, individual in the latter; but this is only a secondary difference because one is a product of the public and the other is for the public: the public provides the common denominator.

Setting forth the problem in this manner, Claude Levi-Strauss brought the study of the city into a realm rich with unexpected developments. He noted how, more than other works of art, the city achieves a balance between natural and artificial elements; it is an object of nature and a subject of culture. Maurice Halbwachs3 advanced this analysis further when he postulated that imagination and collective memory are the typical characteristics of urban artifacts.These studies of the city which embrace its structural complexity have an unexpected and little-known precedent in the work of Carlo Cattaneo. Cattaneo never explicitly considered the question of the artistic nature of urban artifacts, but the close connection in his thinking between art and science as two concrete aspects of the development of the human mind anticipates this approach. Later I will discuss how his concept of the city as the ideal principle of history, the connection between country and city, and other issues that he raised relate to urban artifacts. While at this point I am mostly interested in how he approaches the city, in fact Cattaneo never makes any distinction between city and country since he considers that all inhabited places are the work of man:” .. . every region is distinguished from the wilderness in this respect: that it is an immense repository of labor …. This land is thus not a work of nature; it is the work of our hands, our artificial homeland.”

City and region, agricultural land and forest become human works because they are an immense repository of the labor of our hands. But to the extent that they are our “artificial homeland” and objects that have been constructed, they also testify to values; they constitute memory and permanence. The city is in its history. Hence, the relationship between place and man and the work of art-which is the ultimate, decisive fact shaping and directing urban evolution according to an aesthetic finality- affords us a complex mode of studying the city.

Naturally we must also take into account how people orient themselves within the city, the evolution and formation of their sense of space. This aspect constitutes, in my opinion, the most important feature of some recent American work, notably that of Kevin Lynch. 5 It relates to the conceptualization of space, and can be based in large measure on anthropological studies and urban characteristics. Observations of this type were also made by Maximilien Sorre using such material, particularly the work of Marcel Mauss on the correspondence between group names and place names among Eskimos. 6 For now, this argument will
merely serve as an introduction to our study; it will be more useful to return to it after we have considered several other aspects of the urban artifact-of the city, that is, as a great, comprehensive representation of the human condition.

I will interpret this representation against the background of its most fixed and significant stage: architecture. Sometimes I ask myself why architecture is not analyzed in these terms, that is, in terms of its profound value as a human thing that shapes reality and adapts material according to an aesthetic conception. It is in this sense not only the place of the human condition, but itself a part of that condition, and is represented in the city and its monuments, in districts, dwellings, and all urban artifacts that emerge from inhabited space. It is from this point of view that a few theorists have tried tb analyze the urban structure, to sense the fixed points, the true structural junctions of the city, those points from which the activity of reason proceeds.

I will now take up the hypothesis of the city as a man-made object, as a work of architecture or engineering that grows over time; this is one of the most substantial hypotheses from which to work. It seems that useful answers to many ambiguities are still provided by the work of Camillo Sitte, who in his search for laws of the construction of the city that were not limited to purely technical considerations took full account of the “beauty” of the urban scheme, of its form: “We have at our disposal three major methods of city planning, and several subsidiary types. The major ones are the gridiron system, the radial system, and the triangular system. The sub-types are mostly hybrids of these three. Artistically speaking, not one of them is of any interest, for in their veins pulses not a single drop of artistic blood. All three are
concerned exclusively with the arrangement of street patterns, and hence their intention is from the start a purely technical one. A network of streets always serves only the purposes of communication, never of art, since it can never be comprehended sensorily, can never be grasped as a whole except in a plan of it. In our discussions so far street networks have not been mentioned for just that 1~iason; neither those of ancient Athens, of Rome, of Nuremberg, or of Venice. They are of no concern artistically, because they are inapprehensible in their entirety. Only that which a spectator can hold in view, what can be seen, is of artistic importance: for instance, the single street or the individual plaza.”

Sitte’s admonition is important for its empiricism, and it seems to me that this takes us back to certain American experiences which we mentioned above, where artistic quality can be seen as a function of the ability to give concrete form to a symbol. Sitte’s lesson beyond question helps to prevent many confusions. It refers us to the technique of urban construction, where there is still the actual moment of designing a square and then a principle which provides for its logical transmission, for the teaching of its design. But the models are always, somehow, the single street, the specific square.

On the other hand, Sitte’s lesson also contains a gross misconception in that it reduces the city as a work of art to one artistic episode having more or less legibility rather than to a concrete, overall experience. We believe the reverse to be true, that the whole is more important than the single parts, and that only the urban artifact in its totality, from street system and urban topography down to
the things that can be perceTved in strolling-up and do-wn a street, constitutesthis totality. Naturally we mu~t_ examin~ this total architecture in terms- or-its parts.

We must begin with a question that opens the way to the problem of classification- that of the typology of buildings and their relationship to the city. This relationship constitutes a basic hypothesis of this work, and one that I will analyze from various viewpoints, always considering buildings as moments and parts of the whole that is the city. This position was clear to the architectural theorists of the Enlightenment. In his lessons at the Ecole Polytechnique, Durand wrote, “Just as the walls, the columns, &c., are the elements which compose buildings, so buildings are the elements which compose cities. “

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