Aldo Rossi’s first-ever project, The San Cataldo Cemetery, gave a fresh new life to the postmodernist narrative of architecture. Thus a place for the dead became the birthplace of a new movement. Rossi fused principles from the past and present in creating something for the future. With minimal geometry, he was able to encapsulate concepts of life and death. San Cataldo acts as the perfect segue into this vivid imagery.
The ground on which the Cemetery is built was originally an ancient cemetery by Architect Cesare Costa, at the time (1858-1876) it had a lot of carved and engraved statues and tombstones. Thus, Rossi followed a similar analogical route through and through via “house of the dead”.
Thus, Aldo represented various typologies via space and context, translated learning from the past while fusing them with ideas from Costa and Jewish Cemeteries of the 19th century. This offered a proper homage to Costa’s work and won Rossi the competition in 1972. These principles were already elaborate in his book “ Architecture of the City “ in 1966.
The plan was set and construction had to commence by 1978, yet it was left incomplete because Rossi met with an unfortunate automobile accident. This hospitalized him for quite a long period. The theories and poetic expression that this structure reflects are a result of introspection done during times of this hospitalization.
“Perhaps as a result of this incident, the project for the cemetery at Modena was born in the little hospital of Slawonski Brod, and simultaneously, my youth reached its end. […]
I lay in a small ground-floor room near a window through which I looked at the sky and a little garden. Lying nearly immobile, I thought of the past, but sometimes I did not think: I merely gazed at the trees and the sky.
– Aldo Rossi
Rossi fused various factions and explained the system of fragmentation, in his writing. He further ideated the process of unity within the fragments of formal composition found within the old and transformed or reduced specific elements to represent them in his plan.
The entry has concrete pathways leading to a huge lawn, some sharped lines, an intense blue, and a large orange cube. There’s an eerie feeling of sleek lines and motionless perspectives, setting the tone for ‘the city of the dead’.
The vicinity is enclosed with a windowed wall for citizens to have a peek within while creating an idea of space. The drab and mellow colors on the walls translate well into the theme of death; however, it fits well into the context of San Cataldo’s urban grain. The building is partially complete, yet it’s planned with well-defined pedestrian pathways and green spaces. The perspective is never-ending, the continuous and monotonous system lines aptly translate Rossi’s inspiration to create a time blocking structure to respect the demised. The cemetery follows the dimensional aspects in every way: the Costa building measures 180×272 meters, while the new expansion is 180×280 meters. With this design gesture, the architect tries to “solve” an inconclusive symmetry, by reconnecting the new to the pre-existence of the old.
The center is the cube-shaped ossuary for housing remains and the conical tower that marks a communal grave. It’s terracotta-colored expressing its exclusivity. Within the building, a set metal frame goes around, boasting the utilitarian and functionalism of the building. The windows and opening are also set rhythmically with sleek and clean lines. Presently, there’s a stark difference between the ossuary and the complexes. Yet once the project is complete, a visual balance will be achieved that’ll be instrumental for clear perception and identification within the sphere of the surrounding townscape.
The learnings from the skeletal frames that Rossi analyzed during his time at the hospital are portrayed in the complexes around the ossuary. They run parallel to each other towards a central vertebral axis, which objectively, physically link the orientation of the project. These lines compose volumetrically degrading in the north-south direction to form a triangle. This characteristic trait sets apart the building on paper as well as in real-time.
This place changes time for a visitor. It’s an eerie yet eye-opening feeling to be docked with such metaphysical features and never-ending perspectives. Time becomes objective, non-human, cyclical, and inexorable. A certain sensation of disturbance is created within a living visitor and deafening silence around.
This the structure blankets one with a feeling of missing someone, exclaiming Rossi’s mastery in his poetic expression and metaphysical composition, in totality, his overall style. The structure is a living embodiment and the system having their conversations. The box, corridors, lawns all speak a certain language of their own. It can be felt from every angle in the never-ending system of perspectives and composition. This pushes the bounds of postmodernism conceptually and physically as the expressions and emotions. In a new evolved way, where function follows form only to perform the function.
Just like the circle of life and death.