Blog posts   << Previous post | Next post >>


Posted 15 Dec 1987

Joost Meuwissen, ‘Hierarchy’, Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943). First Monograph. Wiederhall 6/8. Edited by Joost Meuwissen and Ornella Selvafolta, translated by Christine de Baan, Hanna Pennock, Tamira Tummers, Paul Draaijer and Arthur Wortmann (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1987), 60-61.

Hierarchy. Cesare Cattaneo Late Works

Joost Meuwissen

In the 1940s, when the Russian war broke out, the cultural climate rather suddenly changed into defending ‘Europe’ as a heritance of its own accord, and while it lasted it happened to be the final period of Cesare Cattaneo's oeuvre. As an architect who kept his eyes open towards the surrounding world, believing that his works should clarify all of it, he had to reckon with the new events affecting his theoretical views fundamentally as these views had always been a search for the principles: “As an architect I always take a phenomenon for an example to start thinking about, and in general I do not organise my argument out of a dialectical taste nor to prove a system of ideas prepossessed by me. I argue on the score of a need for coherence, and for the satisfaction of being able to demonstrate to myself the theoretical legitimacy of certain instinctive perceptions.”[1] Therefore his reaction to the new political situation, in an article called ‘The Anti-Bolshevism of Italian Architecture,’ published in the “untraceable”[2] Roman magazine Origini, is far more than a casual defence of modern architecture against the accusations of “Masonry, Jewism, Americanism, and Bolshevism”[3] usually brought forward. Cattaneo's responsiveness to these themes (except for anti-Semitism which is not part of his argument), and his willingness to discuss them at some length within the framework of his theory, slightly differs from the more resigned attitude of most Rationalistic architects who did not want to really involve these themes within the programs they proposed, and therefore mostly affirmed them rhetorically, like Alberto Sartoris and Giuseppe Terragni had done with anti-Semitism in 1938.[4] In fact Cattaneo's openness to the whole of the world, and his strife for an all-including unity, prevented him from substantially segregating some parts of this world on the functional level, and from excluding some of them, also because “the whole civilisation is an architecture itself,”[5] that is, its fundamental pluralism should be undone only from its indifferences, from the lacks of intensity between the parts but not from any parts themselves, it should be vivified and brought (back) into “composition, simplicity, and unity.”[6]
In his article in Origini, Cattaneo clearly expresses the transitions of the early 1940s, and how the weakening common concepts of that time might gain strength again if they were seen from another hierarchical level, which would be more of a unity than of distinction. That is why a shift from Nationalism to Europeanism, from Fascism to Roman Catholicism, from Italianism to Christianity, and most importantly, from the economical and political concept of Autarchy to the juristic-formal concept of Hierarchy is put forward, mostly in an argumentative way and not so much as arguments themselves.[7] It is the latter concept in which the former one might blossom also in its architectural content. It is hierarchy, as provided by the Catholic order of Christian Europe, in which autarchy might develop as an architectural means too, because the program of a building or complex of buildings, their brief, would in this way relate to other programs and other briefs, and it would do so in a formal, distributive and rather dogmatic way, not by a political and rhetorical public space as a rather free and loose way of relating activities but, on the contrary, by defining and establishing private space or rather, a sort of moral responsibility each individual program should show towards a social and cultural unity. Cattaneo's last projects, especially the Christian Family House but also the Ivrea hostels, as well as his Modern Churches, could be considered as varying enquiries into a private space that is not circumscribed by some sort of public space but by institutions that need no physical expression. The real institution would not be the city services, not the city as a physical presence, but citizenry itself. There is no town, no centre anymore, as if Polis and politics, and Tragedy as their literary uttering, were defeated and replaced by Stoic humour. That is why these projects seem to propose island-like models, and an absence of city, and avoid any adherence to architecturally expressed community models. They are defined by Faith, and Religion, as their Myth.
Catholicism now might serve as a means to order a certain Stoic, individualizing militarization of social life as was required in the early 1940s, letting the actual distributions of city services free, yet in fact quite other relations would be installed, as the artist would go into the aeroplane factory at the end of the day, to organise the production processes of aeroplanes according to the same artistic idea which he had worked at during the whole day to shape it into a work of art, whereas expressing this idea into the production processes of aeroplanes would not take more than five minutes.[8] So the artistic idea, all the Platonism of Art, becomes event and could seek after those creative processes that would simply take the least time. The program of a singular building should be clearly expressed following a slow and difficult, long-term process of materialization, but only in order to be able to go out from there and say a few words that would change the world – or at least change an aeroplane factory.
Yet this same dialectic would not work within the material framework of the building itself, because it supposes the (hierarchical) shift of material and immaterial onto two different levels. So within the work of architecture itself it could only work the other way round, that is by passing from the abstract concept of this building, its rules, its order, and its systems to the idea itself of the material as an event which just takes place as a sudden activity which in a way was not expected at all.
The dialectic is not between ‘a rule that orders’ and a playful invention of details[9] but between the architect's will to make a work of architecture and the material as its result. In the course of the architectural process the materials, as a means, turn out to be the end as well. The holistic character of Catholicism as an analogous theory, of ‘composition, simplicity, and unity,’ as well as all the spiritual, organismal, vitalistic, even theosophical tones of Cattaneo's arguments would not hinder the holism of his thought from being an intentional one, and architectural composition would be its mere procedure, not its prefixed image.
Any aim would only be reached by overthrowing it as an aim, it would be conquered by the means alone: “We not only have to worry about the end but also about the means: because, in the development of events the means, extending in their resonance, become the end.”[10] That is also why his arguments seek after pluralism with such an empirical look.

Poly-dimensionality had been the main key shunning a one-sided – aesthetic – development of architectural form, overcoming the segmentations of specialization (for instance the one between architect and structural engineering), avoiding the two-dimensionality of frontal facade drawing with which the architect of the nineteenth century had been doomed to produce his works as only articulating upon the cultural field and not upon the social and ideological fields as well,[11] and methodically defined as a tendency to look for a common denominator, “for relations and associations of ideas, determined in our minds by dimensions: relations that, composed in a specific way, through passages and successive determinations, pyramidally ascend towards unity.”[12] This easy definition has been actually such a lucky one because it avoided the predominance of single values in the whole of the process, as well as a solution of the problem of architectural identity within a conceptual framework that would be closed and systematic. If there are systems, like for instance the Golden Section system of relating measures, Cattaneo argued that a building could never respond to it completely (because the unity of the building would be achieved at another level of thought), and that therefore the deviations or better, in general all those forms that could not have fit into it, are most important for determining the shape, because in them, in these more empirical enquiries, the architect cannot but show his real intentions which any more systematic attitude would hide. So the beauty of the Parthenon does not spring from a Vitruvian codex but is lying in the naive will to articulate the work on every level of its own.[13]
Poly-dimensionality now produces the idea – which is the idea of hierarchy – that a system could be handled as a single concept, as a single shape. If so, there will be no rule, no order anymore, nor a substantial difference between the systems and the more singular

inventions, because all of them become occurrences and are to be perceived through a same sort of tactility. The real process of creation would be to make things, in order to make things happen. Not the design but the material of building occurs, and the design would be only part of the work.[14] Yet the material of the building does not define this very same building because it belongs to the hierarchical and poly-dimensional pyramid “translated into walls,”[15] thus affording us a definition of architecture that is material but not exhausting itself in that material. The predominance of ‘making’ over ‘thinking,’ which resembles Eupalinos' outsider position within Paul Valéry's dialogues on truth and beauty, does not result in a realism of building but only rests within a realm of portions of time and endurance. Architecture would have no inner inhibitions, it would only have an outer resistance,[16] and there would be no dialectic between the materials of a building. Moreover, it seems of the utmost importance that in this way Cattaneo's theory does not circumscribe the building itself as an object of architecture (but only as an activity), and, within his theoretical framework, does not provoke any representation of the building as a layer of architectural activities as such, be it ‘space’ or ‘box’ or any phenomenological or psychological viewpoints whatsoever. The building is indicated by the narrative logic of his texts only, wherein it is neither concept, system, object nor even analogy or metaphor. It is only their basic metaphor, which enables the architect to speak as an architect, and which need not be developed into a narrative or theory itself. There is no conceptualisation concerning the building as an object, and therefore it would be right to say that in this sense Cattaneo's actual building also differs from Terragni's, who held the building as a concept, like Silvia Danesi observed.[17]

Apartment house in Cernobbio.
The absence of a two-dimensional facade surface, whether actual or referential, which could have made the building into a more or less transparent and decomposable ‘object’ in the modern sense,[18] was already obvious in Cattaneo's main work, the apartment house in Cernobbio, stressed as it were by the direction of circulation within the house, which is parallel to the facade and never confronts it. So in a way the house might have appeared as a repetition of rooms but it does not, because of the balconies and their balustrades that dominate onto the street, denoting the repetition as being one flow. These balustrade beams are as tactile to the car driver as the human hand is inside the house. However, it would be wrong to state that these various elements were given shape as reactions to different viewpoints, to the speed of street traffic or the care of the inhabitants, because movements men make were not thought to be that simple, and anyhow the resulting shapes are highly imbalanced, for besides the tactility of the flow, also the tactility of the repetition should be reckoned with. The frontal facade is asymmetrical, with the balconies protruding to the left side, where they become flower boxes, whereas on the other side the built organism appears sectioned. The site specifics may have exerted a certain influence over this solution but the result is the same: on one side the flow is mastering over the repetition, on the other side the repetition is a cut-off-and-come-again. In the case of this house and its well-documented design process there is also evidence of the fact that Cattaneo actually developed single elements out of a state of repetition, like for instance the flower boxes. The entrance to the building is a side entrance, where the building stops and is cut off, and where the repetition starts – that the entrance is where the building stops and starts, would be a logic in itself, a commonplace so beloved by the architect, requiring however a far from simple built solution.
The narrative of tactility relates to a very complicated repetition that enabled Cattaneo to create architectural forms that were bold and different, thus remodelling the idiom of modern architecture into a state of freedom and eventfulness that Le Corbusier in his Five Points had foreseen but did not manage to elaborate properly because he could not get rid of an image of the building as ultimate object of architectural activity. The methods of both architects even seem to be nearly opposites, as Le Corbusier, with his Plan Libre, wanted to create free and uninhibited space for modelling forms, whereas Cattaneo searched for a density, within a concept of zoning, and for an “elimination of all dead zones.”[19] The Cernobbio house could be described as a zoning scheme in which the outside street would be one of the zones, so the house would not be the only image to define.
Within this zoning system, passages from one zone to another are never frontal. They are lateral, by means of sliding doors (between the insides and outsides of the apartments) or by their position in the side wall (entrances to the shop and to the staircase to the apartments). They are part of the walls, and sliding into and within them, in a way ‘making’ these walls, they make them immaterial as well. Walking from one zone to another would be a lateral and immaterial movement, in which every handle grasped would afford many possibilities. The door handles would seem to procure nearly free and independent, at least rather unexpected movements of the handled things. The inner doors within the apartments however, are placed outside their walls, covering a hole in them that seems to be already there. Being external to the walls, the inner doors leave the whole thickness of the walls visible, denoting them as materials. These doors also pivot around hidden and rather external turning points. Walking within the apartments would be frontal, central, and slightly processional, because passing from one room to another you would have first, to pass the wall itself, and second, to pass the door, whose handles are simpler. So the outside movements are coincidences, free differences, and immaterial, whereas the inside movements are hierarchical, complicated repetitions, and material. Not the outer facade but the centre of the house would be repetitive or in general the centre of every zone would be so. Each architecture would seek for its repetitiveness in order to be able to go out from there and define the material shape of the building by accident. Instead of a Free Plan, Cattaneo would level a Free Facade program, which could announce the sort of City of Hospitality that his later projects, the Christian Family House, the Ivrea hostels, and the Modern Churches, seem to urge.
In fact the frontal facades of all different types of the Christian Family House, for instance, share a material openness that is not on all fours with the proposed architectural patio type of dwelling.

Christian Family House.
The Christian Family House may be considered as a severe and rigid extension of the idea of zoning into the inner program of dwellings, as an exercise into the different architectures a house should be composed of, and explicitly employing the time factor as a way of expressing them within the scheme. There are the heavy, material, stone parts, denoting centre and boundaries, and that are meant to be permanent, and there are the thinner, lighter, and removable parts for the changing functions of family growth and shrinking, and the changing tastes of new generations.[20] Yet the real narrative would be from the repetitive backside of the scheme – the boys' and girls' rooms – towards a free development of the frontal facade that this time accounts for broken material parts as well as for independent immaterial ones. It is as if the idea of hierarchy, so strikingly present in the distribution of the functions, becomes manifest in every built part, and in every distinction of the scheme, which of course is summed up by the curious construction of the central family gathering room with its heavy and frontal, primitive, Roman, yet rather freely shaped structure, facing eternity. Since the time factor enhances the division between heavy and light materials in such an outspoken way, the house might be considered as consisting of two separate series of materials, one of them light and abstract, the other heavy and full of content, and both of them developing differentials out of repetition.
The ‘family stone,’ as a token at the entrance, and apparently the most individual element springing from the heavy meaning series, would be analogous with the whole range of free light weight structures within the front zones, and ending in the ‘abstract sculpture’ that is placed into the front garden of the upper-class version. The repetition of family members' bed rooms equals the repetition of stones within the enclosure, and the family gathering room echoes the cage-like structures of fowl-run and green-house in the gardens (in the ideal version). Thus is a problem solved which stays the same everywhere, namely how to shape an architecture within a zone, a place that is neither defined nor definable by architectural means.

[1]  Cesare Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe. Dialoghi d'architettura (Milan: Libreria artistica Salto, 1941), 191 [author's translation].

[2]  Cesare Cattaneo, quoted by Raffaello Giolli, ‘II quadro non è una figurina’, Costruzioni-Casabella, anno XVI, marzo 1943, no. 183 (Milan: Editoriale Domus, 1943), 26-27. Also Raffaello Giolli, L´architettura razionale. Antologia. Edited by Cesare De Seta (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1972), 366.

[3]  Cesare Cattaneo, ‘L'antibolscevismo dell'architettura italiana’, Origini. Quaderni di segnalazione. Periodico mensile, anno VI, no. 6-7, maggio-giugno XX (Rome: Stab. tip. de Il lavoro fascista[, 1942]), 1-3. Also C[esare] Cattaneo, ‘L'antibolscevismo dell'architettura italiana’, Enrico Mantero, Giuseppe Terragni e la città del razionalismo italiano ([Bari,] Dedalo libri, 1969), 175-182.

[4]  Alberto Sartoris, Giuseppe Terragni, ‘Lettera al Direttore della Provincia di Como del 28 agosto 1938’, Origini. Quaderni di segnalazione. Periodico mensile, anno II, no. 2, marzo XVII (Rome: Stab. tip. de Il lavoro fascista[, 1939]). Also Mantero, 175-176.

[5]  Cattaneo, L'antibolscevismo, 1. Also Mantero, 176: “[…] tutta la civiltà è un´architettura.”

[6]  Cattaneo, L'antibolscevismo, 1. Also Mantero, 176: “[…] la composizione, il semplice, l´uno.”

[7]  Cattaneo, L'antibolscevismo, 3. Also Mantero, 180: Hierarchy is defined as a common denominator of all aspects of the Italianity of Italian art, which are anti-Fragmentism, anti-Descripti­vism, anti-Individualism, as well as anti-Collectivism. Also the two “forms of social life today,” Fascism and Catholicism, are hierarchical, but only the latter is argued to be an ideal model: Catholicism is “the most architectural religion of all, in its powerful dogmatical and liturgical build-up, interfering in all resources and manifestations of the individual. […] The concept of modern architecture, that I tried to explain, may be easily inserted in the Christian spirit, and in the spirit of that Catholic Church that, being the Mystical Corpus Christi, makes up the most beautiful architec­ture that exists, the ideal model for all the other architectures [author's translation].”

[8]  Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 138-140. Also Cesare Cattaneo, ‘Leonardo. Modern Technology and the Artists’. Translated from the Italian by Tamira Tummers, Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943). First Monograph. Wiederhall 6/8. Edited by Joost Meuwissen and Ornella Selvafolta, translated by Christine de Baan, Hanna Pennock, Tamira Tummers, Paul Draaijer and Arthur Wortmann (Amsterdam: Stichting Wiederhall, 1987), 51-54.

[9]  Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 127-130. Also Cattaneo, Leonardo, 51, where the invention of details is described as a way of resting, not of making, involving the time factor thus in much the same way as when the artist enters the aeroplane factory, whereas, as for as the problem of making is con­cerned, the artistic value would spring neither from the rule nor from the exception: Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 193 and further on. The whole denunciation of an imagination of details is in accor­dance with Eupalinos' precept, that in making a building there would not be any details: Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, L'âme et la danse, Dialogue de l'arbre (Paris: Gallimard, 1944 [original edition 1921]), 19.

[10]  Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 67. Also Cesare Cattaneo, ‘Polydimensionality. Giovanni and Giuseppe (1941), Second Dialogue’. Translated from the Italian by Paul Draaijer and Arthur Wortmann, Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943). First Monograph, 69-73.

[11]  For the notion of ‘culturalist’ architecture, see Cattaneo, L'antibolscevismo, 1. Also Mantero, 176.

[12]  Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 33. Also Cattaneo, Polydimensionality, 69.

[13]  Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 193.

[14]  66.

[15]  33. Also Cattaneo, Polydimensionality, 69.

[16]  Cesare Cattaneo, Vito Latis, ‘Scuole d'architettura’, Quadrante. Mensile di arte, lettere e vita, III, no. 27-28, luglio-agosto 1935 (Milan: Modiano, 1935), 25-33. Also Cesare Cattaneo and Vito Latis, ‘School. Schools of Architecture (1935)’, Translated from the Italian by Hanna Pennock, Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943). First Monograph, 12-15: the more restrictions the better it will be, which denotes an attitude very close to Mies, be it that Cattaneo's normative is not the classical form but a moral one.

[17]  Silvia Danesi, ‘Cesare Cattaneo. The Como Group. Neoplatonism and rational architecture’, Lotus 16. Lotus international Quarterly Architectural Review (Milan: Electa, 1977), 89-112.

[18]  By literal or virtual transparency, as defined by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, ‘Transparency literal and phenomenal’, Perspecta 8. The Yale Architectural Journal (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1963), 45-54. Also Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.-London: The MIT Press, 1976), 159-183 or by decomposing the building object into relationships: Peter Eisenman, ‘From Object to Relationships, The Casa del Fascio by Terragni’, Casabella, 344, anno XXXIV, 1970 January (Milan: Editoriale Domus, 1970), 38-41 and Peter Eisenman, ‘From Object to Relationships II. Giuseppe Terragni, Casa Giuliani Frigerio’: Perspecta 13-14. The Yale Architectural Journal (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971), 36-75.

[19]  Cattaneo, Giovanni e Giuseppe, 73.

[20]  Cesare Cattaneo, ‘La casa famiglia per la famiglia cristiana’, Domus, anno XV, no. 12, 1942 (Milan: Editoriale Domus, 1942), 500-508.


Tags for this post:
cattaneo cesare
first italian rationalism

0 comment(s)
Blog posts   << Previous post | Next post >>