It was a misty morning sometime in April 2012, just outside the city of Modena. I arrived at a site I had seen so many times in books. From the outside, the walls hide all and only by entering a single gate I was presented with the majestic panorama of the unfinished masterpiece of Aldo Rossi; San Cataldo Cemetery. The dance between architecture and death has been like design tango, presenting us with bold and monumental pieces such as the Pyramids at Giza or more subtle pieces like the World Trade Center Memorial in New York. Each piece that tries to bridge these two ideas together can provoke some really beautiful pieces and can transform what many see as a macabre relationship, into something memorable and timeless. This, without a doubt, is what I felt when I first walked into the grounds of Aldo Rossi’s cemetery in Modena.
My first ten minutes in the grounds brought to main aspects for which the project grasped my imagination. The first was the incomplete look the site has. One can clearly see where the modernist grave blocks end abruptly, leaving us with a ghostly absence. This incomplete, or be it mysterious void where nothing was ever built can reflect both death as something that can be for many, a void in our lives. The idea of not knowing, how will it end can cause blanks and gaps in our mind, so in retrospect the unintentional incompletion of cemetery may communicate over to us. The second aspect that I observed was the built structures, which for me illustrated three distinctive characteristics: Simplicity, Scale and Neutrality.
The simplicity of the design for me is key, as a cemetery, like most architectural pieces are designed for the people, in this case the dead and their living relatives. Death is not complicated. It does not require gold statues or fancy ornamentations; death should be seen as painful but at the same time natural. Though the Rossi’s design does not present any natural forms, its devotion to a simple plan and look, allows the rest of it to be filled by memories or the weekly flower brought over by the family who visit once a while.
The second characteristic was scale. From the moment you enter, you move into the heart of the site, you are faced with architecture and death through a variety of communicative scales. Starting with a thick and tall surrounding wall, you are greeted by a flat green plain. You then encountere a tall but almost light burial cube, that could resemble a hundred pigeon holes, awaiting their new parcel. and finally when you reach the outer layer buildings you are brought forward to a tall and overpowering, almost like apartment blocks, for the dead. From the endless corridors to the small niches every four meters, death is captured once again as something intimidating and scary but also something that small and elemental to so many other natural forms that grace this earth.
Finally the last characteristic was the neutrality. Death always comes with its own clichés, such as the bones and skulls, Christian crosses or just dark black colours. With Rossi’s design all these are omitted. There are no symbols to signify this place is even a cemetery, only the bodies and ashes buried on the site are the clue, otherwise the site could easily be an old block of flats, which coincidentally ties in well with what Rossi had envisioned the cemetery as, a city for the dead. The use of this neutral design is also a reflection with death itself once again. Death is not only for those who are old, it is not only for those who are religious and it is most certainly not for those who are misfortunate. Death is one of the only certainties in this life, so why bother complicating it? In Rossi cemetery death is given a small city to 'live in', a neutral void, where all are united by the one thing we shall all face in the end.
All these characteristics come together so beautifully and elegantly in Rossi’s Modena Cemetery and I strongly believe that death can thrive better in such an environment. No, its only natural to find flaws in a design such as this one, such as a lack of identity, or the lack of imagination, the simplicity perhaps not being enough to house the dead or just plain cold. These are all fair points and it’s of course it depends who you are and where your own philosophy may lie, but at the end of the day, a cemetery houses that dead, and what better way to house the dead in quite literally a collection of pitched roofed houses, each holding their own share, where families can gather and more importantly decorate the graves of their loves ones. On this note I return to an earlier statement of mine, in which I stated that architecture is for the people.
On the one hand, one may think that this place is empty in reality, its the people and involvement in filling in the stage, (so to speak) laid out by Rossi, that transforms this place from a cemetery to a city for the dead. All this, for me gives Rossi a place in the history books in the terms of architecture and death as a design partnership, as these two powerful forces together can be made into powerful images, but also convey a strong sense of humanity in both of them.
Architectural Assocaition School of Architecture