One of the most original aspects of Aldo Rossi’s book The Architecture of the City (Oppositions Books) is the return to the idea of the locus after it was largely forgotten around four centuries before. Shortly after a Modernist revolutionary time in which urban designers like Le Corbusier proposed the idea of the tabula rasa when intervening in the city, here was an architect that looked back to obscure and lost notions of a relationship between place and building which was not a materially based one: there is a physical site, and there is a physical building, yet to something else which, as it had been forgotten, required to be, to a degree, re-invented. And this is what Rossi did, he reinvented the concept of the locus during the writing of his treatise. He initially posits the concept of locus in its most simple terms in this way:
The locus is a relationship between a certain specific location and the buildings that are in it. It is at once singular and universal.
He then takes a few words to describe its origins in Roman mythology, and how that was translated into the renaissance work of Palladio:
The “situation”-the site-was governed by the genius loci, the local divinity, an intermediary who presided over all that was to unfold in it. The concept of locus was also present at all times for the theoretician of the Renaissance, even if by the time of Palladio and later Milizia its treatment took on an increasingly topographical and functional aspect. In the writings of Palladio, one can still sense the living presence of the classical world, the vital secret of a relationship between old and new. More than just a function of a specific architectural culture, this relationship is manifest in works like Villa Malcontenta and Villa Rotonda, in which it is precisely their “situation” which conditions our understanding.
Aldo Rossi then refers the concept of the locus to the work of geographer Max Sorre, specifically to his notion of “singular points” and equating them to singular architectures in an urban continuum. Rossi writes:
The locus, so conceived, emphasizes the conditions and qualities within undifferentiated space which are necessary for understanding an urban artifact.
Rossi insists that it is not an irrational concept that he is trying to revive, that through a work of translation the concept of locus can become an almost scientific term that is useful to the twentieth century architect and urban designer. It is an intellectual struggle to translate this concept between two very different times and cultures, yet Rossi is determined:
For such an idea of place and time is seemingly capable of being expressed rationally, even if it embraces a series of values that are outside and beyond what we experience.
Having defined the parameters, Rossi ventures to answer the question anyone living in a post enlightenment world would ask: what and where is the locus, and how does its singularity and difference to anything else manifest itself?
Referring to Palladio’s buildings, Rossi finally pin points the locus, and tells us where we can find it:
It resides in the single artifact, in its material, the succession of events that unfolds around it, and the minds of its makers; but also in the place that determines it-both in a physical sense and above all in the sense of the choice of this place and the indivisible unity that is established between it and the work.
The locus inhabits the material dimensions of its architecture, the events that take place there, the minds of its architect, and the unique relation between place, building and activities that occupy it. In terms of the minds of its makers, Rossi often refers to Halbwachs’ notion of a collective memory, which also has singular places it attaches itself to. The locus is many things at once, it is not a spirit (genius) anymore, but a set of relationships. Rossi reminds us that all those relationships are equally important to create a successful architecture, in and outside of the city.