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The orderly city. Dispositio and forma urbis

DOI: 10.12838/issn.20390491/n32.2015/edit

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The orderly city. Dispositio and forma urbis

by Lamberto Amistadi

“Architecture consists of ordering, which in Greek is called taxis, and of design which the Greeks call diathesis, in shapeliness and symmetry, in correctness and distribution which in Greek is oikonomia.” (Vitruvius, Book I, I.II)

Generally speaking, research is carried out at different levels, which, as a whole, define the nature of whatever is being studied. Despite a long epistemological tradition certifying how this nature may be described, represented and transmitted in line with different “styles” (1) and at different depths (2), not by chance these differences are assumed as more or less informed pretexts for contrasts of an ideological order. This happened, for example, in the world of art where Yve-Alain Bois (3) warns us of the danger of asymbolia, which he defines as a sort of pathology that limits humans' capacity to perceive and accept coexistent meanings; which would mean an atrophying of the function of symbolization. Like every symbolic system, but being complex, architecture not only allows but demands different levels of description and representation. This was well understood by John Hejduk, who, by not setting limits on imagination, explained how creative intuition can arise at any moment and at any level during the process of producing a work: architecture cannot be conceived starting from one single image, but is composed of a series of partial images that grow around an “internal” figurative nucleus (the mind's eye). Except that this nucleus can range vertically from the image of a face to its bone structure, from nature to composition   ̶ as Van Doesburg would have it, between the scheme and its final expression, or for Chomsky, from the superficial space of the meaning and expressiveness to that profound, severe and abstract one that supports it and allows articulacy.

The essays in this issue, number 32 of FAmagazine (section Theory of the intenational call for paper 2015), concerning the Vitruvian concept of dispositio in relation to the form of the city and a settlement strategy, cannot avoid straddling the long wave that oscillates between abstraction and figuration and the even longer one between the formal and the informal. Le Corbusier himself recognized a “profound” and abstract structural value for the plan, defining it as “austere abstraction” and “an arid algebrization” (4). Assuming as opposing and extreme terms of this tension “striated” space (Palma) and “smooth” space (Mical), we cannot avoid wondering, taking the various terminologies with a pinch of salt, that a “weak” discipline like ours envisages, at the cultural distance of our interlocutors, whether the “field of possibilities” that the instrumental nature of the dispositio concept deploys possesses some latent value. In other words, whether it is conceivable to define these possibilities of a relationship between the elements of an urban context, independently of their manifestation and hence independently of the nature of space, be it smooth or striated, whose contrast does not so much concern the nature of the relationships as their stability over time: anthropologically “inscribed” rather than “soft” and reversible. But perhaps the basic difference between these models concerns the capacity of a site's morphology (which Canella once defined as “invariant”) or, more generally, of a pre-existing formal structure, to set a limit on the number of possibilities available to a combinatoric formula. This finite number of possibilities is truly a settling point within this topological perspective. Cartographic representations of the land offer a departure point that the new organization of space must comply with (Palma).  Mandalas (Schirra) are predefined geometric configurations that allow the preparation of “numerous”, but finite new spatial sequences and architectural evolutions. From the scale of the city to that of the individual dwelling, the Tatami (Malfona) acts as a background to the precise calculated movements marking off the steps of the Tea Ceremony. The concepts of field, ground, carpet, tatami, mandala, and clod (Costanzo) correspond to various configurational strategies at different levels of the process that run between the single element and the rhetorical implosion (Lacan's lapsus) and above all represent policy tools of the possibilities, which, although numerous, are to be considered finite. The Piranesi figures of the "Field of Mars" well represent this tension between order and disorder, but above all the latency of the various configurational possibilities at different levels, in line with different degrees, until imploding into the “white noise” where these possibilities coexist and cancel one another out.
The second topic to come out of these concepts is the continuity and discontinuity of urban space. In this case too we realize that this does not represent a fundamental opposition, since it is posed in quantitative terms (even if it might correspond to another Vitruvian concept, that of ordinatio, which is expressed through quantitas represented by the module). In fact, starting from the condition of nearness, at what distance between volumes/bodies can we say that discontinuity begins? On the contrary, that between Greek and perspective space (Froio) is not a distinction between continuity and discontinuity, but between the identity of bodies in which Greek space is articulated and the abstract indifference of the perspective scheme. Erwin Panofsky understood this very well, including among the primary alternatives of artistic intention that of “open space” and “closed space”, proposing them as an alternative between “volumetric unities (bodies) and unlimited extension (space)” (5), i.e. between “differentiation” and “continuity”. However, this “difference” is not only a topological quality, it is first and foremost a semantic quality; which is what allows the intelligibility of an element within a configuration. If we give the name “the void” to the space that brings rhythm and regulates the distance between the elements and rituals of the architectural phenomenon, then the term can only be understood in semantic terms, in the beautiful explanation of Martí Arís in Silenzi Eloquenti or as in Mallarmé's use of blank spaces in his poetry. In other words, as much as concepts such as field, ground, carpet, tatami, mandala, and clod stand for topological and configurational possibilities, their structural value, their being a “background”, can only be well understood in rhetorical and semantic terms, i.e. as the background and structure that permit a definition of meaningful configurations.

1. Cf. I. Alain-Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge/London 1993. Introduction.
2. Cf. N. Chomsky, L'analisi formale del linguaggio, Turin 1969.
3. Cf. A. G. Gargani, Stili di analisi. L’unità perduta del metodo filosofico, Milan 1993.
4. Le Corbusier, Verso una Architettura, (1921), Milan 1999, pp. 35-37.
5. E. Panofsky, Il significato nelle arti visive (1955), Torino 1999, p. 24. Sul rapporto in architettura tra spazio come ente cartesiano indifferenziato e corpi vedi anche: L. Semerani, “Il parco metropolitano del nord est”, in Aa.Vv, SS9 via Emilia, Milano 2000.

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