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Francesca Belloni

Serlio's fireplaces and Koolhaas's windows

Composition and non-composition

Sebastiano Serlio, Regole generali di architettura…, Venezia 1537; Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite fireplaces.

Sebastiano Serlio, Regole generali di architettura…, Venezia 1537; Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite fireplaces.

Starting with a consideration on the Vitruvian dispositio, characterized in architectural treatises by a unified vision of Architecture as a discipline, and aimed to the transmission of knowledge in relation to its practice, the essay analyses the changes which have occurred in Architecture since the 18th century, in order to reflect upon the design and disciplinary role of some of the architectural tools (both compositional and non-compositional) typical of postmodernity. The framework is a sort of reasoning through the language and about architecture in general, starting from the two poles of Enlightenment and post-modern – the latter meant as the post-modern condition of thought.

From Vitruvio to the great nineteenth-century conceptual systems, the multiple attempts to organize the architectural knowledge are bound to a unitary vision of the discipline. Actually, the Vitruvian dispositio and its subsequent transcriptions correspond to a coherent thought, which anchors the disciplinary subject to the paradigm of unity. The systematization of architectural knowledge and the definition of its application fields aim to the foundation of poietic grounds to materialize this vision within an implicit connection between theory and practice. Dispositio as the “the proper placement of things” and the definition of specific relations among elements is therefore articulated in the ordinatio, from the Greek taxis, that is “order (on the battlefield)”, but even more “organization”, “created order”. In this way the syntax of the relation among the elements determines the principles which rule both their logical and spatial placement.
Since Piranesi and Baudelaire, the disintegration and dizziness of thought have undermined the idea of unity itself; despite all of this, a unitary concept seems to have survived until the mid-nineteenth century in the bare and scanty essay by which Edgar Allan Poe explains his theory of composition (1). It is with post-modernism that “thought at crisis time” (2) becomes finally poiesis and then flows into poetics.

Since the eighteenth century we have been witnessing the gradual scission between architecture and design, which has taken place through an increasing inclination towards the narration of architectural facts. To be more precise, during the previous centuries the complexity of architectural knowledge was connected to unity through an incessant reference to the executive tradition, whereas from this moment on the scission between analysis and design is evident and it is definitely ratified, even pushed by the Encyclopédie. The prevalence of catalogues and indexes demonstrates that the cognizance of how knowledge has changed is the main motivation for the taxonomic urgency that characterizes the Age of Enlightenment. However, the many efforts to tag individual elements of composition and their subsequent decomposition do but power the atomization of knowledge in place, thus producing the overcoming of the typical unitary vision of previous centuries.
In parallel with this anxiety about re-composition, a plethora of meta-architectural reflections of various kinds are emerging, introducing topics until then unrelated to the discipline. In this respect the experiments made on the memory of ruins in the picturesque gardens are exemplary, including the Désert de Retz which is perhaps the most significant, so as to make its influence felt on Breton’s surrealism and his followers.
Unlike the “crazy and desperate” study typical of the Renaissance treatises, from Alberti to Palladio, which take possession of ancient constructions and subject them to a critical examination aimed to define typological and compositional schemes adapted to the architectural needs of their time, in the eighteenth century the “science of antiquity” (3) and its implementation open up the field to the sometimes dogmatic duplication of abstract models with “high semantic value”, so as to decree the separation of the design’s object and historical architectures.
With the dissolution of the myth of modernism among the crumbles of the war, the second half of the twentieth century is characterized by a reflection upon the relationship between project, tradition and composition. And if Rowe and Koetter’s City Collage, based on some devices experienced by the Corbusier bricoleur of the open-air room for Beistegui apartment, suggests a strategy of coexistence and reconciliation between alternative compositional models, Aldo Rossi raises the question of “architecture as a composition”, asserting it from the re-reading of Canaletto’s Capriccio with Palladian buildings. Essentially, Canaletto’s perspective allows Rossi to forward a specific theory of design performed by the same “formal-logical” operation that will form the basis of The Analogous City. The idea of “finding things we were not looking for” which often Rossi insists upon, is made possible by the compositional mechanism highlighted by The Analogous City: it is a ‘typological Surrealism’ process which follows the imaginative route. On panel, like in an entomology showcase or herbarium, the direct comparison between elements is displayed, elements which open to unexpected relationships as a result of the position acquired for being assembled with their own original characters. It’s no coincidence that Rossi echoes Raymond Russel’s surrealism in presenting his projects in the essay How I made some of my architecture, in which he clearly attempts to account for ‘how I did it’, showing special attention to the reasons of both compositional practice and its matching automatism, linked to the memory of the tradition and of imaginative habits.

Focusing on the etymology of the word ‘composition’, it is necessary to reflect on the fact that the verb componĕre’s most common meaning is ‘put together’, ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’. Such sphere of meanings, closely linked to the concrete facts that have made up architecture over time, well suits to the reasoning adopted by Rossi.
But how not to notice that today, most part of architectural intelligentsia tends not only towards complex decomposition or deconstruction practice, but even towards deliberate non-composition or rather ‘automatic’ composition?
As a matter of fact, Rossi’s composition practice was filtered by Roussel’s “logical surrealism”, however it is impossible not to realize how some of the most important persons of the international architectural scene do pass through processes of accumulation and addition strictly related to the Cadavre exquis surrealist game, rather than to Roussel’s attempts to describe the mechanism of his literary composition.
Actually, the postmodern narrative seems to rely on combinatorial logic rather than compositional principles, looking for mirroring itself in the project of the plural and ubiquitous condition of the contemporary era, as lucidly described by Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “What tends to emerge from the great novels of the twentieth century is the idea of an open encyclopedia, an adjective that certainly contradicts the noun encyclopedia, which etymologically implies an attempt to exhaust knowledge of the world by enclosing it in a circle. But today we can no longer think in terms of a totality that is not potential, conjectural and manifold” (4).
Koolhaas’s inclusion devices used in Dall'Ava villa, represent a kind of parody of modernity icons, playing on the opposition and the heterogeneity of elements and materials to shape a deliberately hybrid and discordant product, though with sharply divergent formal results. Inclusion devices as such are relatives of programmatic addition practices implemented in Amsterdan at the Silodam by MVRDV studio or other similar contemporary examples.
However, unlike the assembly of The Analogous City, where Rossi was concerned not so much with the formal outcome but rather with highlighting the modalities of composition practice to account for a form of architecture which reveals its reasons in the wake of the tradition, the collage of fragments put on stage by Koolhaas just denies any order that allows a pacifying mirroring.
The definitive and permanent loss of classical codes is set forth in 1980, when the Portoghesi’s Biennale, with its famous Strada Novissima, establishes the international willful refusal of composition in favor of other architectural devices, along with the usual modes of design practice. On that occasion Koolhaas tried to prove the historicist doctrine and its typological deviation were unacceptable impediments if compared with the cultural transformation process that was taking place; however, after thirty years he suggested, with the Biennale of 2014, a refunding of the discipline starting from its ‘fundamentals’. Apparently, the tools are similar to those extensively investigated by the architectural culture of the sixties and seventies.
Although Koolhaas’s proposal has been generously praised for the proved strategic skills in claiming it would bring architecture to its constructive essence, you certainly can not but wonder how the repertoire showcased in Venice can do without any compositional attempt to shed light on the mutual relations among elements. Koolhaas accounts for his inclination to inventory and enumeration in relation to the end of the great narratives and the inability to engage in anything other than “micro-narratives revealed by focusing systematically on the scale of the detail or the fragment” (5). In this way, on the basis of famous examples, he can only promote quotes and collecting, taking refuge in a contemporary Wunderkammer where to keep outstanding and extravagant items: architecture and mirabilia.

1. E.A. Poe, The philosophy of Composition, 1846.
2. Cfr. F. Rella, Il silenzio e le parole. Il pensiero nel tempo della crisi, Feltrinelli, Milan 1981.
3. Cfr. G.C. Argan, Sul concetto di tipologia architettonica (1962), in Progetto e destino, Il Saggiatore, Milan 1965, pp. 75-81.
4. I. Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985-86), Multiplicity, 116.
5. Cfr. la Biennale di Venezia, 14th International Architecture Exhibition, Fundamentals, official catalog, Venice, June 7- November 23, 2014, Marsilio, Venice 2014.

- A. Rossi, Emil Kaufmann e l’architettura dell’Illuminismo, in «Casabella-Continuità», n. 222, ottobre 1958.
- R. Roussel, Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Parigi 1963 (trad. it. Locus solus seguito da Come ho scritto alcuni miei libri, Einaudi, Torino 1975).
- M. Tafuri, Simbolo e ideologia nell’architettura dell’Illuminismo, in «Comunità», n. 124-125, 1964.
- A. Rossi, L’architettura della ragione come architettura di tendenza, in Illuminismo e architettura del ’700 veneto, catalogo della mostra, Castelfranco Veneto, 31 agosto-9 novembre 1969.
- W. Oechslin, Premesse all’architettura rivoluzionaria, in «Controspazio», nn. 1-2, 1970.
- W. Oechslin, Pyramide et Sphère. Notes sur l’architecture révolutionnaire du XVIIIe siècle et ses sources italiennes, in «Gazette des Beaux-Arts», n. 113, aprile 1971.
- A. Rossi, Introduzione all’edizione portoghese de L’architettura della città, 1971. In: - A. Rossi, Scritti scelti sull’architettura e la città, a cura di R. Bonicalzi, Clup, Milano 1975.
- M. Tafuri, Progetto e utopia, Laterza, Bari 1973.
- A. Rossi, La città analoga: tavola, in «Lotus International», n. 13, dicembre 1976.
- W. Oechslin, Astrazione e architettura, in «Rassegna», n. 9, 1982.
- A. Rossi, I quaderni azzurri 1968-1992, a cura di F. Dal Co, Electa/The Getty Research Institute, Milano
1999. In particolare: n. 14, Architettura – arch. analitica – città analoga, 5 novembre 1972-31 dicembre 1972 e n. 29, Architettura – Grecia, 25 agosto 1980-marzo 1981.
- A. Colquhoun, Structuralism and Postmodernism: A Retrospective Glance, in «Assemblage», n. 5, febbraio 1988 (trad. it. Postmodernismo e strutturalismo: uno sguardo retrospettivo, in Architettura moderna e storia, Laterza, Bari 1989).
- J. Lucan, Composition, non-composition. Architecture et théories, XIXe-XXe siècles, PPUR, Lausanne 2009.
- The Surreal House, catalogo della mostra, Barbican Art Gallery, Londra, 10 giugno-12 settembre 2010, Art Gallery/Yale University Press, Londra 2010.
- La presenza del passato. Prima mostra internazionale di architettura, catalogo della mostra, Corderie dell’Arsenale, Venezia, 27 luglio-20 ottobre 1980, Edizioni La Biennale di Venezia, Venezia 1980.
- Luigi Ghirri – Aldo Rossi: Things Which Are Only Themselves, catalogo della mostra, CCA, Octagonal Gallery, Montreal, 21 agosto-24 novembre 1996, CCA Montreal/Electa, Milano 1996.
- La Biennale di Venezia 14. Mostra Internazionale di Architettura, Fundamentals, catalogo della mostra, Venezia, 7 giugno-23 novembre 2014, Marsilio, Venezia 2014.
- Jacques Lucan, Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture, PPUR, Lausanne 2015.
- Luca Molinari, Architettura. Movimenti e tendenze dal XIX secolo a oggi, Skira, Milano 2015.
- Léa-Catherine Szacka, Translucent oppositions. OMA’s proposal for the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale, in «Oase», n. 94, aprile 2015.

Francesca Belloni (1977) received her Ph.D. in Architectural Composition in 2007 from the Politecnico di Milano; she has taught for several architectural composition courses and has conducted research at the Politecnico di Milano and at the Accademia di architettura of the Università della Svizzera italiana since 2007 to the present day.
She has published several articles and essays in books and proceedings; she is also the author of the book Territori e architetture del fiume. Il Ticino dal Lago Maggiore al Po (Milan, 2009) and the most recent one Ora questo è perduto. Tipo architettura città (Turin, 2014). She is a lecturer in different schools of architecture and often takes part in national and international congresses and symposia as an invited or a selected speaker.
Beside her research activities, she is a designer of several architectural proposals and has taken part in numerous national and international design competitions.
Aldo Rossi, Polaroids, 1980-1990, in Luigi Ghirri – Aldo Rossi. Things which are only themselves, CCA/Electa, Milan 1996

Aldo Rossi, Polaroids, 1980-1990, in Luigi Ghirri – Aldo Rossi. Things which are only themselves, CCA/Electa, Milan 1996