In Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny, he describes modern city architecture as cold, unfeeling, completely bereft of time or place. When an inhabitant lives in the city, they do not gain a sufficient understanding of where the buildings come from, or the intention behind them. Ideally, city architecture forms a “memory map” of monuments that allows citizens to form an image of a city that they can recognize as familiar and protected. This is done through monuments, which are “agents of memory” (p. 177).
However, modernism twists the memory map to make people forget as well as remember – it erases old monuments and old traditions in order to absolve itself of old world problems. In this way, this form of urbanism is “symmetrical but counter to that of the nineteenth century” (p. 180). By this, Vidler means that, when buildings change, or new buildings are erected around old ones, the sense of place and history that a city has is removed, and people who live there do not know where they came from. Similarly, a visitor who comes into the city completely fresh, with no real sense of history to the place, cannot gain it from looking at the buildings.
There is a “dislocation of memory in the modern city” – Modern architects expect the old world to be ready for modernism when it is not (p. 182). Therefore, attempts to change old architecture into a more modern sensibility completely removes the old meanings that were present in that former place.
Vidler discusses the “Intersection of urbanism and modernism…both use the figure of projection in their architecture” (p. 182). They wish to project the future onto the old architecture, but in the case of modernism, it does not work. Whatever changes are made to the previous architecture removes from it a sense of place and meaning. “The old city…presents itself to the postmodernist as a haunting absence, not a haunting presence.” (p. 183) Vidler claims we now live in cities without names, due to all of the changes that occur and the silence that happens when change is not happening. Suburbs and neighborhoods are becoming more and more similar as the days go by and change becomes more uniform, removing identity and feeling from each unique place. In this way, cities are becoming more and more homogenized, a term Vidler dubs posturbanism – it “offers more inclusivity, if less grand hope” than previous artistic theories (p. 186).
Rossi, on the other hand, has a much more optimistic view of this type of change that comes with urbanism. With the creation of new, modern architecture, we get urban artifacts – specific bits of architecture within an overall city which have their own history and form. Rossi states that, with urban artifacts, “Certain original values and functions remain, others are totally altered.” (p. 29) When something is changed, it must be evaluated based on whatever values remain of its original form, stepping in line with the individual’s sense of the building.
Much of the opinion of a piece of architecture depends greatly on the collective memory of the community. The sum of experiences of the people who visit a place constitute a city, according to Rossi. Someone may not like a place because of a bad experience they had there; as a result, that memory is ingrained within the building, and any future inhabitants or visitors can feel that experience (p. 29).
The architecture, or form, of a city “summarizes the total character of urban artifacts, including their origins” (p. 32). Its form, as well as its quality and structure, must be considered when weighing its overall value to its inhabitants and to the city at large. There is, however, no need to emphasize functionalism, as it is not a part of an urban artifact or what brings forms together to create architecture (p. 46). With urban artifacts, the function of a place continually changes. Many modern cities feature old architecture that “constitute whole pieces of the city and whose function now is no longer the original one” (p. 39). Different values can be attributed to different functions, and therefore naïve, or strict, functionalism does not apply to architecture.
According to Rossi, “There is something in the nature of urban artifacts that renders them very similar to a work of art…although they are conditioned, they also condition” (p. 32). While people insert their own meaning into an urban artifact, the urban artifact itself can inform that person’s opinion of it. Tourists and residents will almost always have a different impression of an urban artifact – it “will always differ from that of someone who ‘lives’ that same artifact” (p. 33).
Rossi’s ultimate opinion is that the city is a “man-made object,” a “work of architecture that grows over time” (p. 34). The “social content of the city is the basis for reading it,” and the social content “precedes forms and function,” becoming just as much a part of a place as the structure or type of it (p. 48). In this way, the city is far from bereft of hope and meaning as Vidler thinks it is; the meaning simply changes instead of being lost, creating a new work of art that appeals to the people who reside in it.
With this in mind, it could be said that the city of Chicago is an example of a place with plenty of urban artifacts that can have unique meanings for its residents, while still providing a sense of history and beauty to those who visit it. Its urban situation is very unique, in that the old and the new meld architecturally to form a thriving, modern downtown area that combines both modern skyscrapers (The Willis Tower, John Hancock Building) with older structures (The Michigan Avenue Bridge, The Elks National Memorial Building). These urban artifacts exist adjacent to each other, and yet tell a dramatically different story. The contrast of styles shows both newcomers and long-time residents alike exactly where this building came from, what came before it, and what is developing around it. This has the effect of creating a mélange of styles that coexist gracefully in the same area. Sharp lines are placed right next to older, more curved and Victorian structures in a way that somehow complements the two beautifully. Both residents and tourists alike can look at the buildings right next to each other and form for themselves a sense of meaning and a timeline for the city’s history. The city, therefore, becomes more alive in their minds, and a good part of the city’s original meaning remains.
At the same time, beyond the downtown area you can gain an even greater glimpse into the history of the city – each neighborhood is peppered with small two and three-level buildings and shops, some of which have existed since the late 1800s. Their original function is irrelevant, as Rossi says, as their new function is what really matters. The history of the architecture reshapes itself to the current needs of the citizens of that city. In this way, Chicago stands on its own as a city which exists in a vacuum, constantly reinventing itself while still maintaining a sense of its own history.
Rossi, Aldo, and Peter Eisenman. The architecture of the city . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.
Vidler, Anthony. Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. New ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.