Aldo Rossi, Citta’ Analoga, 1976

The word context is often used in the fields of architecture and urban design. Aldo Rossi, one of the main thinkers about the architecture of the city, was very critical of this word. To the concept of context, he preferred the concept of locus. He dedicated Chapter 3 of his treatise called The Architecture of the City (Oppositions Books) to the idea of the locus. He summarized some conclusions on the locus this way:

So far in this chapter we have principally considered the idea of locus in the sense of a singular place and event, the relationship of architecture to the constituting of the city, and the relationship between context and monument.. The relationship between locus and design must also be analyzed in order to clarify the apparently unresolvable conflict between design as a rational element and an imposition, and the local and specific nature of place. This relationship takes in the concept of uniqueness.

If the concept of locus, rooted in the Roman idea of genius loci remains as evasive to a full theoretical exposition as it is linked to very unique localities, the concept of context opens itself up to a clearer and unambiguous critique in Rossi’s book. Aldo rossi writes:

As for the term context, we find that it is mostly an impediment to research.

To be more explicit, Rossi brings in an example which is very relevant to urban interventions in our cities today: the retaining of historical facades while constructing new buildings behind them, keeping facades as street masks:

Locus in this sense is not unrelated to context; but context seems strangely bound up with illusion, with illusionism. As such it has nothing to do with the architecture of the city, but rather with the making of a scene, and as a scene it demands to be sustained directly in relation to its functions. That is, it depends on the necessary permanence of functions whose very presence serves to preserve forms as they are and to immobilize life, saddening us like would-be tourists of a vanished world.

Rossi continues, accusing those who are guilty of using the term context for the purpose of stripping the city of true living and functioning architectures:

It is hardly surprising that this concept of context is espoused and applied by those who pretend to preserve the historical cities by retaining their ancient facades or reconstructing them in such a way as to maintain their silhouettes and colors and other such things; but what do we find after these operations when they are actually realized? An empty, often repugnant stage. One of the ugliest things I have seen is the reconstruction of a small part of Frankfurt on the principle of maintaining Gothic volumes alongside pseudo-modern or pseudo antique architecture. What became of the suggestiveness and illusion that seemed so much to inform the initial proposal I do not know.

Read more:The Architecture of the City (Oppositions Books)

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