House Hunting

Kurt Forster on the Aldo Rossi fonds
Find and Tell, February 2019

Investigating archival holdings can turn into the proverbial search for the needle in a haystack with all its attendant frustration. On the other hand, such a search resembles a Schnitzeljagd (a paper chase or scavenger hunt) that keeps you on your toes and on alert for any signs of previous inspection. Likely it will be a bit of both, particularly if the archive is not a patchwork of leftovers but a reasonably preserved record of systematic work. To be sure, the holdings of the CCA originated chiefly with architects themselves and were acquired precisely for their disciplinary interest and consistency. Moreover, several of these architects were closely related to one another by professional and personal ties, and their papers and projects spring as many surprises as they harbour questions.

That the lives and archives of Aldo Rossi, Peter Eisenman, and John Hejduk have much in common adds greatly to their allure. Hejduk, as Dean of Cooper Union, took an interest in Rossi while Eisenman drew Rossi into the fold of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) and solicited the manuscript of The Scientific Autobiography for publication with Oppositions Books. Numerous invitations for Rossi to lecture at both institutions and other universities followed. However, my interest in these three holdings centers less on these personal relations than on a question into which I hoped to probe.

While in the archives, I felt on promising ground with an issue that had also resurfaced in the years during which these materials were produced (the mid-1970s to 1980s):

What makes a house?

How can one understand the origins of personal dwellings, and what meanings did these dwellings hold at a time when not only the concept of a “house,” but also its social and economic prerequisites, were interrogated with nearly threatening intensity? I’m not thinking of the highly debatable ideas of Martin Heidegger—whose philosophical pronouncements were often approached as if they were holy writ—but of the actual circumstances that prevailed in this domain of architectural practice. What constitutes the foundational nature of a dwelling, and how does it find its place in a collectivity either by physical incorporation or by dint of its conceptual dimension? The former issue was lucidly addressed by Gottfried Semper in his 1851 essay on The Four Elements of Architecture—in which the dwelling is short-circuited with the very idea of building—and the second question received many proposals from Rossi’s generation.

Aldo Rossi, Casa Bay, Borgo Ticino, Italy, 1971-1980. Plans and elevations, reprographic copy. AP142.S1.D25.P3.3, Aldo Rossi fonds, CCA Collection. © Eredi Aldo Rossi, courtesy of Fondazione Aldo Rossi

Aldo Rossi, Casa Bay, Borgo Ticino, Italy, 1971-1980. Plan, reprographic copy with pastel. AP142.S1.D25.P3.1, Aldo Rossi fonds, CCA Collection. © Eredi Aldo Rossi, courtesy of Fondazione Aldo Rossi

Rossi was among a significant number of historians and architects who analyzed historic towns and villages with an eye to ever-present building patterns. During his tenure (1972-78) at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, he devoted a great deal of time and attention to the study of towns in the Veneto region and villages in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking region of Ticino, in collaboration with architects Bruno Reichlin, Fabio Reinhart, and Eraldo Consolascio. Projects in the Rossi holdings illustrate his concerns in great detail, ranging as they do from individual buildings (Casa Bay, a house in a ravine near the Ticino River, Borgo Ticino, Italy) to attempts, in collaboration with his American partner Morris Adjmi, of adopting vernacular house typologies to a subdivision project (Casa unifamigliari, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania). The house by the Ticino was originally developed as a prototype, with Rossi harking back to a staple of Le Corbusier’s historical interests, the Bronze-age dwellings on stilts (palafittes). The two houses in Pennsylvania reference the saltbox type of New England dwelling whose component parts Rossi sought to reshuffle by awakening their hypothetical European origins. Ultimately, like the house in Italy, they were built by a developer who then failed to follow through.

Aldo Rossi, site plan, elevation, and plans Casa unifamigliari, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 1988. Reprographic copy with ink on paper, 116 × 83 cm. AP142.S1.D118.P2.1, Aldo Rossi fonds, CCA Collection. Courtesy of Fondazione Aldo Rossi. © Eredi Aldo Rossi

Many questions remain to be answered in the Rossi fonds: there are atypical projects—some with the monogram of Rossi’s long-term associate architect Gianni Braghieri [G.B.]—and several projects that remain to be properly identified. Among the latter is a small cube in the familiar shape of a teatrino, but this one comes with an English designation, “Cube of Fear” (AP142.S1.D128), that may suggest it was actually made by or on request from Morris Adjmi. This and other questions can be fairly easily pursued, while others that bear on the concept of typology call for more persistent analysis.

Two halves of a house

Italy is not only a site of much typological investigation, it is also a country where new construction in the demanio—on the shorelines and other state-owned stretches of land—is prohibited. A house such as Rossi’s for the Alessi Family on Lago Maggiore could not have been built in any way other than as a ristrutturazione, a remodelling of an existing building (AP142.S1.D151). What emerges from this project’s documentation is its earlier existence as a bland post-war building that, in turn, had risen over even older foundations. An old wall the length of a country road and a darsena, a small boat harbour, secure access to the property by land and water and extend their textures to the entire house. While the immediately preceding construction holds little interest, the massive foundations of the yet earlier building suggest that the site has been occupied for centuries. These historic traces, including an existing roadway and the inlet on the lakefront, needed to be preserved by law. Rossi turned the restrictions to his advantage, restoring the house to its narrow and tall elevation and adding a three-story balconata, or pergola-like, front. The balusters of the balconies are held together and anchored by metal rods in the concrete; they were shaped, fired and assembled according to a full-scale drawing that unfolds to the size of a tablecloth. Encasing the elements of concrete in terracotta, sheathing standard cylindrical columns to render them octagonal, and piling walls of tightly packed pieces of stone, Rossi created a curiously undefined connection with the old.

Aldo Rossi, elevations, plans, and site plan for Ristrutturazione Casa Alessi, Verbania, Italy, 1989-1995. Reprographic copy, 44 × 60 cm. AP142.S1.D151.P2.1, Aldo Rossi fonds, CCA Collection. Courtesy of Fondazione Aldo Rossi © Eredi Aldo Rossi

Aldo Rossi, detail for Ristrutturazione Casa Alessi, Verbania, Italy, 1992. Drawing in felt-tip pen with graphite on paper, 303 × 125 cm. AP142.S1.D151.P1.3, Aldo Rossi fonds, CCA Collection. Courtesy of Fondazione Aldo Rossi © Eredi Aldo Rossi

Throughout the Alessi house, a new “historical garb” contains the now-invisible old core. To complete the tour de force, a freestanding fireplace rises in the living space, topped by a stepped mantle. A lighthouse at the harbour completes Rossi’s repertoire of signs designating human “outposts.” Just as the fireplace in the shape of a tabernacle fulfills Rossi’s expectation of a Semperian hearth in the core of the house, the lighthouse on the shore holds the promise of a safe landing.

Aldo Rossi, Ristrutturazione Casa Alessi, Verbania, Italy, 1989-1995. Model in metal, ink on paper and cardboard, and paint on wood. AP142.S1.D151.P11.1, Aldo Rossi fonds, CCA Collection. © Eredi Aldo Rossi, courtesy of Fondazione Aldo Rossi

Exploring the archive opens one’s eyes. As if to demonstrate the modest truth of this experience, soon after my visit to the CCA my attention was arrested in Los Angeles where I encountered a small model of a house (a quasi-twin of the saltbox model Rossi had built of the Pennsylvania house) by the artist Vija Celmins. Similar in size to Rossi’s small model of the Alessi house—akin to a loaf of bread easily held in one’s hands—and disarming in its harmlessness, Celmins’s house is painted so as to appear wrapped in flames and smoke while a ghost of a bomber plane glides over its roof. Whereas Rossi’s models often seem haunted by memories that remain invisible, Celmins’s house wears on its siding the painter’s childhood memories of bombings in Latvia in the last years of WWII. In either case, these models subvert their toy-like character with manifest anxiety. The German sculptor Thomas Schütte has also proposed numerous iterations of a house, preferably for solitary individuals—various volumes in different positions as if one might find the right one among them. Right, in this regard, implies coigns of vantage that render something about the house that cannot, from a conventional perspective, be experienced without reversing, rotating, or otherwise modifying its condition.

Rarely have houses been more ingeniously modelled in order to subvert their purpose, with the exception of Eisenman’s House VI with its simultaneous reversal of a flight of stairs.

A house is a house is a house

Across a variety of archival holdings from the studios of Rossi, Hejduk, and Eisenman, as well as of James Stirling and Jacques Rousseau, questions that come immediately to mind are those of type, proto- and stereotype. I found my questions to be particularly rewarding when posed within houses of one’s own. In the case of Eisenman’s work, House IV was originally intended for the architect himself, and House 11a had been designed for me. Both remain unbuilt but lack nothing in thought and detail.

House IV is generated by the reflection and reversal of planes and openings and House 11a, by a rotational mirroring between below and above. Obviously, such reductive designations cannot do justice to these projects, yet they do capture a crucial aspect of any self-consciously conceived and self-reflexively constituted dwelling. To the extent that a house for an individual ought to reflect the defining condition of the self in its self-consciousness, such geometric abstractions do make a fundamental point without confining one’s experience to the condition of departure.

Peter Eisenman, sketch axonometrics for House IV, Falls Village, Connecticut, 1970-1971. Graphite and coloured pencil on translucent paper, 26 × 21 cm. DR1994:0132:058, Peter Eisenman fonds, CCA Collection. © CCA

At the CCA, I was unable to sift through the Rousseau archive but should think that the nature of the architect’s house in Montreal, which I visited with the architect in 2001, deserves examination. Not unlike Rossi’s houses, Rousseau’s matches a hallowed scheme with clever internal distribution, thus narrowing the gap between typology and modern utility. I also think of Stirling’s housing projects, of which more than one has been demolished less than a half-century after construction, casting, perhaps, a critical light upon the mediation between “house” and “housing.”

Furthermore, as the Shim—Sutcliffe archive moves to the CCA, a series of thoughtfully developed houses in highly distinctive locations will augment the current range with significant reflections on contemporary dwelling.

Despite the challenges that are justifiably levelled at individual dwellings in the face of billions of humans seeking permanent shelter around the globe, the idea of the house is neither dead nor settled. It retains a mental urgency beyond its real-life calamity, for a house, however rickety or awkward it may be, is always a place of last refuge and of deeply private meaning. That private meaning may no longer be available by exemption from a collectivity thus puts a finer point on the question rather than cancelling it.

John Hejduk’s numerous projects for individual dwellings extend from his Texas days to the drawings for ritual enactments in Prague, Riga, and Vladivostok. From the start, Hejduk thought of houses as congeries of separate volumes, sharing with Frank Gehry a preference for still-life-like assemblies. Set free to reveal their sometimes spiky sometimes wiggly nature, individual volumes acquire wheels, sprout crowns, and solicit interaction. The Hejduk fonds documents the architect’s desire to place the finite components of his Texas houses onto an urban stage where they reveal their haunted nature and mysterious purposes. By contrast, Eisenman’s Houses IV and 11a place their meaning under lock and key while keeping, as it were, a straight (modern) face. Hejduk allows his imagination, starkly reflected in the darkest ink, to plumb the depth on which Rossi touched when he drew his solitary figures in New York and his isolated houses on the Ticino and in the Pennsylvania countryside. A comparative examination of the Eisenman, Rossi, and Hejduk archives will certainly yield much insight into the labyrinth of experience.

The founder of the CCA, Mme Phyllis Lambert, is both a stalwart housing advocate and a designer of a unique house within a salvaged building in Old Montreal; she has gone a long way to show the umbilical connection that underlies houses and collective dwellings. The CCA itself incorporates twin houses that now serve as many purposes as they were conceived for. The whole compound assumes the full dimensions of an urban site, extending as it does from underground secure storage to spaces for the display of some of its riches and, most of all, the presentation of ideas and critique. In the best sense, the CCA recalls Leon Battista Alberti’s dictum that “philosophically speaking”—a significant and often disregarded qualification of his pronouncement—“a house is a small city, and a city is a large house.”

Kurt Forster was in residence at CCA in February 2019 as part of Find and Tell, a program that promotes new readings that highlight the intellectual relevance of particular aspects of our collection today.

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