Utopia interrupted

Instead of creating a new world, postmodernism proposed the stitching together of fragments of the old

Is there such a thing as a postmodern utopia? Isn’t postmodernism fundamentally an anti-utopian movement? After all, in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi rejected the heroic mode of architecture and suggested instead that architects accept the ordinary and the everyday. “Main Street’, he argued, was ‘almost alright’.

If modernism had been about erasing the ‘almost alright’, postmodernism saw its role as stitching the city back together again, healing the wounds of too many experiments and utopian visions. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s 1978 book Collage City forms a kind of lament for the European city – a collection of fragments, remains and ruins – as well as a manual for how it might be rebuilt.

At the front of Collage City, Rowe and Koetter included a cubist collage by Picasso entitled Still Life with Chair Caning, from 1912. Collage is a modernist invention. It re-combines existing things, fragments of familiar objects. If it makes the world anew, it is only in the sense of unlikely combinations and unusual juxtapositions. In this sense, collage is the opposite of a tabula rasa approach. It is anti-utopian. It accepts the compromises of history and context and turns this accommodation into a compositional technique.

Collage City is postmodernism’s riposte to modernism’s utopian vision. Instead of a new world, it proposes the stitching back together of existing fragments and the careful repair of broken visions. It accepts the city as a given and says that removing it, sweeping away its inefficiencies or inequalities, is a giant mistake.

The mistake is not necessarily architecture’s, either. Other critics have pointed out that Rowe was of the generation who saw at first hand the destruction of the European city as a result of the second world war. Not only that but he was a paratrooper dropped into occupied France, sustaining in the process physical injuries that supposedly precluded him from working at a drawing board. Collage City can be read as an attempt to atone for that destruction. For Rowe there could be no masterplans after the blitz.

Collage City’s theoretical ruminations were also explored by the Roma Interrotta design competition of the same year. Twelve leading architects and theorists – including Rowe as well as James Stirling, Leon Krier and others – were asked to reimagine Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 plan of Rome.

This exercise was predicated largely on the principle that nothing good happened to Rome urbanistically since Nolli’s plan. It was fundamentally reflective and nostalgic but also mixed in the creative egos and obsessions of its various contributors. Stirling, for example, added plans of his various unbuilt schemes to Nolli’s original, thus conflating architecture’s malaise with his own personal career frustrations.

For a movement obsessed with the past and with ruins and fragments, it is appropriate that Aldo Rossi – one of the contributors to Roma Interrotta – would realise one of its most notable buildings. Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery in Modena (1971) is a city of the dead, a place predicated entirely on the past.

Rossi’s cemetery turns architecture inside out, emptying it of life, movement, purpose. His buildings always have a haunted look, their deep-set windows, empty colonnades and detail-less facades seeming to suck the life out of their settings.

At San Cataldo his architecture found its ‘ideal’ programme. The buildings are like the memory of a city. The plan is skeletal, as if it has been laid out for a postmortem examination. And at the centre of the plan is Rossi’s house of the dead, the orange Ossary: a roofless, windowless cube inhabited only by dead souls.

Rossi designed the cemetery while recuperating from a serious road accident: a near-death experience that intensified his already tragic view of architecture. For him, the enshrined inequalities of the capitalist system meant that architecture could do little but assert its own independence and autonomy.

Interrotta literally means interrupted: its use suggests that architecture is part of a historical project that exists beyond social or everyday need. For Rossi and others, re-engaging with architecture meant also rejecting any sense that it could solve contemporary problems.

In relation to contemporary architects’ tendency to imagine tepid solutions to endemic societal problems – think shipping container houses or prefabricated micro-dwellings – Rossi’s bottomless pool of pessimism seems pretty bracing. It certainly set him apart from the cheerier and more commercial end of postmodernism.

If there is a postmodern utopia it is not a project or a proposal. It is a critique, a position that rejects utopian planning as flawed and futile. Postmodernism’s obsession with ruins and fragments is an exercise in critical reflection on the impossibility of perfection. It recognises the inescapable passage of time and the inevitability of failure. Everything ages and nothing lasts forever. None of which stops it from constructing its own ivory tower, one that, like one of Rossi’s drawings, stands aloofly in a lonely landscape of its own.