A chapel in southwest Virginia

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


“Now I seem to see all the things I have observed arranged like tools in a neat row; they are aligned as in a botanical chart, or a catalogue, or a dictionary.” - Aldo Rossi

Situated along railroad tracks that wind their way around a mountain near Charlottesville is an abandoned industrial structure whose stack can be seen from the I-64 bridge. I always strained to see over the concrete guardrail, but the most I managed to Gather was the remains of a roof and that incredible brick smokestack. The image of the once functioning machine which ceases to work, and which is locked in some bygone era has intrigued me from an early age. The energy once produced, or the task performed Is somehow still locked in these artifacts: the obsolete locomotive, the masonry chimney of a burned frame house, a beautifully worn toy long since outgrown. Within these objects is a melancholy that is both disturbing and sublime. Their architecture is subtle and silent, unnoticed by many, they offer a strength in their gentle variations, as well as their bold geometries.

Rossie’s beautiful ‘Scientific Autobiography’ explores his dreamlike world of forms based upon observations of daily life in Lombardy, Italy. A decidedly anti-modern and anti-post-modern essay it calls for present architects to draw inspiration from the vernacular. Rossi’s formal vocabulary seems to have derived through years of observing and sketching mundane objects inherent to life in Northern Italy.

The chapel project is an attempt to build a broken machine or an abandoned factory. Inspiration comes not from the spectacular, but the countless anonymous structures ever present in industrial zones of cities and along back roads in the country. Observation of old railroad structures, power plants, and farm machinery has played a pivotal role in the vocabulary that I have developed thus far. The sketch has proved to be an indispensable tool for extracting these images from my memory. Analysis of these sketches has allowed me to formulate basic premises about my work.

(1) Autonomy – I see the same object quality in industrial buildings in America as in deChirico’s ‘The Red Tower.’ However this autonomy is not the same of the moderns – of a pristine object placed within a hostile environment, but one of relative autonomy. That is one that is formally abstracted but still has a very definite connection to a long line of predecessors. The wheel is not reinvented, but simply evolves a bit more. There as in Rossi’s buildings and sketches, the image is a new one, but the skeleton is the same. Nothing illustrates this point better than visiting Modena, and not only experiencing Rossi’s cemetery, but its older neighbor.

(2) Strong Graphic Quality – This has solely to do with the image as a graphic composition. It has nothing to do with a particular ‘style’, but in the fundamentally strong relationship of parts, and of the proportion of the parts and the whole. An architect, beyond any other quality, should have a highly refined sense of visual laws. A basic geometric structure should be set up. Objects should be repeated and mutated with drastic changes in scale, material, and function.

(3) Silence-Referring again to ‘The Red Tower,’ there is a wealth of inspiration for architects in regard to producing a structure that is quiet and subtle in its forms. This image is bathed in a sense of longing and melancholy that explores the timeless. I see this in the crumbling remains of the old smoke stack.