To pose a problem is precisely the beginning and end of all history. No problems, no history. Only narrations and compilations.
The discourse was cultivated by a group of Lombard and Venetian architects in the Italy of the 1960s. Some of the auteurs of it such as Carlo Aymonino, Giorgio Grassi, Massimo Scolari, and Aldo Rossi later became international celebrities and were hailed as "Rationalists" or "Neo-Rationalists," particularly by British and American critics. Of course there were many others who were involved, as well. Some of these people are not known outside Italy; they were young assistants and students of the Milan Polytechnic, or Istituto Universitario di Architettura in Venice such as Ezio Bonfanti and Giovanna Gavazzeni.
This essay will use a term different than the one usually associated with the specific discourse to be scrutinized: It will use Tendenza instead of "Neo-Rationalism." It is the term used by Massimo Scolari in the book Architettura Razionale of 1973, the by-product of the Fifteenth Milan Triennale. In the book Scolari was talking about a certain Italian tendency of the time for which
"architecture is a process of recognition which, for achieving architectural autonomy, ... requires a disciplinary refounding; a tendency which rejects confronting the crisis with interdisciplinary remedies, which does not pursue and is not immersed in the political, economic, social and technological events only to mask its own creative thus formal sterility, but wants to know [these] in order to be able to intervene with clarity, neither for determining nor for submitting [itself] to them"
What Scolari defines --- a certain attitude toward architecture, a certain way of reasoning about architecture, rather than a body of architectural works --- is closer to what is under discussion here. The term "Neo-Rationalism," on the other hand, has come to be associated with certain formal preferences, with a specific body of works, with a certain "style." It has come to denote an international phenomenon, a group of architects from different countries, among which are Leon and Rob Krier and Mathias Ungers. The focus is on a distinctly Italian phenomenon, not on architecture per se, but rather on the discourse produced in relation to architecture. Hence Tendenza appears to be a more appropriate denomination to use vis-à-vis "Neo-Rationalism."
As an architectural discourse Tendenza comprised a series of heterogeneous projects which were at times paradoxical yet interrelated and can only be separated at a heuristic level. First of all it was an attempt to conceptualize architecture with its own rationale: "Le Corbusier," contended Aldo Rossi, "does not believe . . . in a form that can be born out of the political and social reality, and less in a form that may be the redeemer of social conflicts. . . . The position of Le Corbusier" he went on "is . . . very similar to that of Boullée: Boullée, as we know, had started to work on an edifice for the king and proposed it with absolute indifference to the revolution committee." Rossi, hence, suggested adapting "an attitude originating from architecture itself." And some students and instructors of the Milan Polytechnic in a publication which was a product of a "research" directed by Rossi asserted their "project" of "working on a scientific inquiry of the city as an artifact . . . till setting up architecture itself as the measure of architecture and of explaining its genesis with its own principles." In this way a key postulation of Tendenza was generated --- that of autonomy. Now architecture was to be, in Carlo Aymonino's words, a fenomeno autonomo.14
Although the concept of "rational" remained quite elusive within the problematic of Tendenza, "How can architecture be 'rational'?" was a question that haunted it. Rossi, Grassi and the others tried to formulate the "rational," immutable ways of making architecture and tried to trace the examples of such "architectures" in history. They had conceptualized architecture as having invariable principles. "Architecture" Rossi declared "is . . . a meditation on things and facts; the principles are few and immutable but the concrete responses that the architect and the society give to the problems that arise in time are many. Immutability comes from the rational and reductive character of architectural expressions." For them the fundamental ways of making architecture had already been settled in that there had already been a stabilized repertoire of architectural "types" and ways of relating these. This, as Grassi put it, made architecture circular -- a tautology. Architecture had to refer and re-refer to itself endlessly.
Particularly the concept of "architectural type" distinct from "model" was crucial for them. As Ignasio Solà-Morales has pointed out they envisioned "architectural types" as "formal constants" "which act as containers that reduce the complexity of architectural appearances to their most outstanding physical characteristics," and this allowed them to describe and classify "buildings of all periods and places." Accordingly the architects of Tendenza were engaged in morphological and typological analyses of various urban and rural sites such as Milan, Padua and Canton Ticino of Switzerland. All these were of course in accord with their attempt to cultivate an "urban science," as opposed to city planning, which would have studied the forces that are at play in existing urban contexts rather than developing future oriented plans as in the case of city planning.
As stated above, the architects of Tendenza saw the sources of future (architectural) production within an already established repertoire of architectural forms. This position, which openly glorifies "form" and which seems to be a commonplace thing to do in our era obsessed with form, was outrageous for the sixties. It was definitely a counter argument vis-à-vis various dominant positions within late modernism. First it was a rejection of the functionalist stand on architecture which, in Aldo Rossi's words "[is] dictated by an ingenious empiricism which holds that functions bring form together and in themselves constitute urban artifacts and architecture." Rossi continues:
So conceived, function, physiological in nature, can be likened to a bodily organ whose function justifies its formation and development and whose alterations of function imply an alteration of form. In this light, functionalism and organicism, the two principal currents which have pervaded modern architecture, reveal their common roots and the reason for their weakness and fundamental ambiguity. Through them form is divested of its most complex derivations: type is reduced to a simple scheme of organization, a diagram of circulation routes, and architecture is seen as possessing no autonomous value. Thus the aesthetic intentionality and necessity that characterize urban artifacts and establish their complex ties cannot be further analyzed.
This argument was obviously a far-cry from the "functionalist" doctrine of the "Modern Movement" in architecture the credo of which was characterized by Alan Colquhoun as "not that beauty, order or meaning was unnecessary, but it could no longer be found in the deliberate search for final forms." According to Colquhoun the "Modernist" attempt to eliminate the solutions provided by traditional (architectural) forms left "a vacuum in the form-making process" which was instead filled (paradoxically) either with a sort of "biotechnical determinism" or "free expression." Colquhoun explains the consequences of the former:
The path by which the [architectural] artifact affected the observer aesthetically was [begun to be] seen as short-circuiting the process of formalization. Form was [started to be perceived as] merely the result of a logical process by which the operational needs [under whose rubric function, as well, can be counted] and the operational techniques were brought together. Ultimately, these [it was thought] would fuse in a kind of biological extension of life, and function and technology would become totally transparent. The theory of Buckminster Fuller is an extreme example of this doctrine.
A second tendency within the "Modernist" attitude, according to Colquhoun, was an excessive permissiveness toward the expressive freedom of the "genius." By using Le Corbusier's and László Moholy-Nagy's statements he tries to show the "voluntary" and "intuitive" nature of the "Modernist" architects's choices in shaping their architecture. Tendenza's redemption of form was a challenge to both of these positions in that it was a rejection of both an "onomatopoeic relation" between forms and the functions they fulfill and the technology they use, and a subjectivistic, intuitive modus operandi for architectural form-making.