On a visit to Aldo Rossi’s morbid pomo masterpiece in Modena, Diogo Seixas Lopes, one of the chief curators of the 4th Lisbon Architecture Triennale in 2016, and the fine art photographer Nuno Cera found beauty in the eye of the abyss.
The Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena, Italy is a consummate masterpiece by the Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931-1997). Designed in tandem with his former pupil Gianni Braghieri, it resulted from a public competition organised in 1971 by the municipality of Modena. The brief called for an expansion of the Costa Cemetery, a monumental funerary complex constructed by Cesare Costa in 1876. Under the motto of “L’azzurro del cielo” – the title of a rather gruesome novel by Georges Bataille set at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War – Rossi and Braghieri proposed to duplicate the basic outline of the original cemetery and trace out an “evil twin”. While the Costa Cemetery relies on the civic qualities of neoclassical architecture to face the collective experience of death, San Cataldo offers no comfort or solace in its stark appearance: a kind of postwar social housing unit for the deceased. In this sense, the project gazes at the abyss of annihilation and the abyss gazes back at us.
Construction of San Cataldo began in 1976, proceeding in a series of tenders. It is not yet complete, lacking substantial parts of the overall scheme. It is primarily defined by a rectangular enclosure open to the north. This bordering structure houses the tombs, stacked over three floors. At the centre of the grounds there is an axial parade of buildings. First the ossuary, a roofless red cube with a grid of square openings on all sides, then more tombs, which form what seems to be the figure of a man, with arms and the triangular figure of the ribs of a skeleton. This is the section of the complex that is, for the most part, unrealised. Still to come is the communal grave element, a massive conical pyramid set to be the climax of this procession. Upon a rare visit to the building works in the cemetery, Rossi noted that “the first piece of the building site of Modena will remain incomplete for years. The union of so many pieces means one can disregard the general plan and even those who know it, can’t remember it.”
During the spring of 2009, the photographer Nuno Cera and I went to visit the Cemetery of San Cataldo where he made a series of photographs of Rossi’s unfinished landmark. The cemetery was, as usual, empty and quiet. Nuno took his time, in order to choose the right frames. He waited, and then went in for the kill. His composure taught me a few more things about that place. San Cataldo is full of the critical memories of those departed who are interred here. It is at once rough and beautiful, like life itself. In the words of the architect: “besides the municipal exigencies, bureaucratic practices, the face of the orphan, the remorse of the private relationship, tenderness and indifference, this project for a cemetery complies with the image of a cemetery that each one of us possesses.” The banality of the entire setting wavers between the horror of anonymity and the magic of the prosaic. As we look out through the windows that alternate relentlessly between the tombs, life goes on.
According to Rossi, the central element of the roofless red cube stands for an “abandoned house”, a symbol embodied throughout the cemetery and played out in its buildings like a cipher. The cube evokes derelict structures and gutted constructions, while the interior staircases and galleries provide access to the various levels of the ossuary. As if in a belvedere, it is possible to gaze at the surroundings from the square openings that frame the elevations. They are reticulated on the inside with containers for bones. Caskets will gradually occupy the vacant cells until – one day – the grid will be complete, full with the remains of people. As morbid as this description might sound, the cube also has a childlike playfulness that beckons us to explore it. On a sunny afternoon, Nuno and I went up and down its metal gratings observing the shadows. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and such is the case of this unsettling architectural folly.
– Diogo Seixas Lopes (*1972) is an architect based in Lisbon. Working with his partner Patrícia Barbas, their company Barbas Lopes Architects has completed among other projects, the Thalia Theatre. This year Diogo Seixas Lopes also published Melancholy and Architecture on Aldo Rossi (Park Books, Zurich). barbaslopes.com
– Nuno Cera (*1972) is a photographer and video artist who lives and works in Lisbon, Portugal. He addresses spatial conditions, architecture and urban situations through fictional and poetic documentary forms. nunocera.com