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The construction of the city is influenced by historical architecture and the collective memory of the people, which help to shape both the layout of the city and reinforce the place’s identity. This essay addresses the historical significance of Reading Abbey and examines its importance in both the past and the present in shaping Reading town. It will then further analyse the building through the scientific tools created by Aldo Rossi in The Architecture of the City, focusing specifically on analysing it against three key aspects of Rossi’s ideology including, the urban artefact, the monument and the collective memory. It will then be concluded whether Reading Abbey aligns with Rossi’s view on the importance of urban artefacts in shaping and sustaining an urban landscape, alongside the relevance of Rossi’s ideas today.
Aldo Rossi’s approach to urban design, which is discussed in his book The Architecture of the City, unites architecture and the city as a collective where buildings within continually evolve “the city is thus understood as a homogeneous continuum”. Rossi, who was an influential practising architect and theorist, wrote The Architecture of the City in 1966. The book is divided into four sections: The structure of Urban Artifacts, Primary elements and the concept of Area, The individuality of Urban Artifacts and the Evolution of Urban Artifacts. Rossi begins by discussing the development and growth of the city as subject to certain rules which enable its construction, he describes the city to be understood as architecture as construction. To Rossi, architecture means the construction of the city over time, with the process of construction uniting both the past and the present.
The way Rossi believed the city should be understood is evident in the title; the city is made of architecture. Throughout this book, Rossi describes his tools for scientific analysis of a place. He believes that to understand a place you must understand its urban artefacts, and from there be able to work out the primary elements, monuments and the influence of memory. Rossi depicts the city as based on primary elements, these are key monuments, buildings and public spaces which when combined form the overall fabric of the city. Primary elements are integral to the ‘dynamic of the city’, and architecture critic Rafael Moneo further draws on primary elements as once installed, can influence the collective memory of a place .
Firstly, Rossi uses the term urban artefact throughout this novel, which is not an object but an act. To him cities are full of acts of people in the past, specifically acts of construction, that influence the surrounding town and remains throughout time. These acts affect the surrounding urban landscape and the way people view it, creating memories. This furthers his view on buildings having a character and a history which should be protected and preserved. At the time Rossi’s views on the city were revolutionary and opposed architects like Le Corbusier, who saw history as an obstacle which is demonstrated in his plans to remove historical buildings in Marseille and replace them with tower blocks. Arguably, throughout history urban buildings functions and their form have evolved – things have been added, destroyed and rebuilt, yet there is a continuation of their identity. The building has been rebuilt because of its iconic status as an urban artefact, and its importance in people’s memories. Additionally, Rossi identified that the city is structured around the artefact and as a result, is of great importance in shaping the urban landscape around it .
In relation to urban artefacts, Rossi focuses on monuments. To Rossi, monuments are the foundation of the city, and their remains ensure the continuation of historical ideas in the urban landscape. For example, Rossi discusses the Amphitheatre in Nimes who’s, following a series of historical events, function evolved to become a fortress. The versatility of these pivotal buildings that withstand the passage of time, remain throughout history to help sustain the form of the city. However, alongside sustaining the layout of the city, monuments also evolve and their change in function help accelerate “the process of urbanization in a city”. Nevertheless, despite a monument’s changes its importance to a place remains constant. Historian Diane Ghirardo in her book Aldo Rossi and the spirit of architecture discusses the role of the monument in the construction of the city. She raises the issue of the identity of a city and concludes that monuments help sustain the identity of a place, and is furthered by collective memory, thus aligning with Rossi’s views of the city. Additionally, collective memory is mentioned throughout Rossi’s book as fundamental to the formation of the city. The city is a unified memory of its people, that over time shape the urban form and result in a distinctive sense of place. Moneo expands on Rossi’s ideology declaring that the city is a collective entity, a place full of history that relies on people’s memory of historical monuments for its continuation.
The influence and relevance of Aldo Rossi’s theories detailed in this book have long been debated such as critic Rafael Moneo whose modern perspective examines and criticises Rossi’s influence in European architecture. Nevertheless, architecture practices such as Grafton Architects have regarded Rossi’s renewed focus on the history and construction of the city over time as influential to the formation of their practice. Rossi’s approach to the city is still relevant today as more influential historic buildings are being rediscovered by a new generation, and they are continuing to help shape the modern urban landscape.
Reading Abbey was established in 1121 by Henry I and, since its construction, has remained an integral part of the town. The abbey is situated by both the River Kennett and Thames and subsequently became a stopping place for travellers to and from London, thus ensuring its important role throughout the middle ages. The twelfth-century experienced major changes in architectural styles and techniques, such as the rise of gothic design. Reading Abbey was not isolated from these advances, which is evident in the construction of the Lady Chapel in 1314 which had a completely new style to the rest of the abbey. Benedictine monks resided in the monastery for more than four hundred years with thousands of pilgrims travelling to Reading specifically for the abbey, reinforcing this monument’s international significance. Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the abbey became the centre of the religious community in Reading and eventually became one of the largest and wealthiest abbeys in the country. However, it was subjected to Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries in 1536 where the land and wealth of monasteries including Reading Abbey were seized by the crown. From that pivotal point in history, the building’s purpose evolved into royal accommodation. However, the siege of Reading commenced the dismantling of the abbey in 1643 where its stone was instead used to build defences and fortifications. Following the English Civil war, the building changed owner’s numerous times and as a result, areas that used to be covered by this historical building were demolished and redeveloped to serve an entirely new purpose, demonstrated by Reading Prison which was constructed in 1786 on abbey land. Today, a large part of Reading town is occupied by the fragments of a once-great Benedictine monastery and serves as a reminder of medieval life, emphasising the abbey’s role in carving out Reading’s place in medieval architectural history.
This essay will apply Rossi’s theory of the city and the importance of historical urban artefacts in shaping the history and layout of the city, to Reading Abbey. The analysis aims to prove that Reading Abbey is still as relevant today as it was when it was first constructed, and through its protection, it will continue to have a positive impact on Reading town’s identity. In order, three of Rossi’s urban theories will be addressed including the abbey as an urban artefact, the abbey as a monument and the collective memory of the abbey.
The first element explored concerning Aldo Rossi’s urban theory is Reading Abbey as an urban artefact. Rossi describes an urban artefact as a pivotal building that has a key role in city history, a building that is so important that its iconic character is worth more than its material manifestation or form. As well as the physical remains of the abbey ruins, Ron Baxter explains that the memory of the Abbey remains in “street names like Abbey Street, Abbey Square and Forbury Road”. This emphasises the building’s importance in informing the layout of Reading town, thus relating to Rossi’s belief that pivotal buildings shape the urban form. Ultimately, the town has assumed its form around the Abbey. In addition to Ron Baxter’s interpretation, historian Daphne Phillips describes the gifts from Henry I, who established the Abbey, ensured that the abbots of Reading became Lords and as a result gained control over the town affairs. This existing layout can still be seen in streets today such as Broad Street, London Street and Forbury Gardens. Furthermore, in the twelfth century the Market Place, which closely adjoined the town, was created by the monks and weekly markets were held here for many years, thus contributing to Readings historic identity as a market town.
Additionally, Rossi discusses the evolution of an urban artefact’s function and form which reveals the persistence of the city and echo signs of the past. Following the dissolution of the abbey, its form evolved. Between 1550 and 1553 piers were removed and timber was stripped from the roof and reused in St Marys church, which had also suffered the effects of dissolution. The dismantling of the abbey adds to the history of the building and alters the collective memory of Reading from a pivotal religious centre to ruins. Nevertheless, the abbey ruins consist of layers of history and the remains demonstrate the part it played in centuries of history, which led to its survival today. Therefore, its meaning and historical significance remain the same, which aligns with Rossi’s theory that despite its physical manifestation the buildings iconic status as an urban artefact remains.
Secondly, Rossi discusses the importance of the monument as a type of urban artefact with a strong and unique identity. These monuments have a strong relation to time and their influence is not reliant on them still existing, but that their importance is continued through collective memory. Rossi describes the idea of monuments as the foundation of the city, and they serve as physical signs of the past. Ultimately, it is indestructible; you can replace parts and build houses on the site where parts of it once stood but its dominance will remain as an integral part of the urban landscape. The survival of a monument is significant when it survives the changes of time and accommodates different functions to ensure its persistence. Abbey gateway is a substantial part of the remaining abbey and is not only a historical reminder of the original abbey, but also the Victorian rebuild in 1861. The listed gateway overlooks Forbury Gardens and historically was used as a division between the public area of the abbey and the private part used by the residing monks. Following a partial collapse, the gateway was restored in 1861 by St George Gilbert Scott who also designed Reading prison. The fabric of the gatehouse includes remnants of the original medieval structure, however, most of the visible fabric was from the restoration. The Victorian restoration of this crucial part of this building, despite the majority of the abbey was in ruins, indicates that it was rebuilt because of its iconic status, reinforcing Rossi’s theory that monuments are influential on both the town and users of the town across time. This is further supported by the Reading Abbey Conservation plan in 2015, which describes not only the historical importance of the gateway but the integral communal role it played following the dismantling of the abbey. The gate allowed various groups and societies to use the building including the Berkshire Archaeological Society. This echoes Rossi’s theory that a monument stimulates interactions between community and history, thus altering the collective memory of Reading.
Finally, Rossi describes historical monuments as significant which is reinforced and sustained through collective memory. Collective memory helps to renew interest in these historic buildings and continues to shape the urban landscape. The history of the city is continued through the collective memory of the people and is evident in the abbey remains, which demonstrates significant societal changes. However, new buildings and developments were constructed over the Reading Abbey site, ultimately destroying integral parts of the abbey. The abbey quarter, which was once a prestigious aspect of Reading town, has now evolved into a commercial area with numerous modern buildings and office blocks. The site itself has become the Abbey Quarter Commercial District, which was set up to improve this business location and help businesses expand. Arguably, the Reading Abbey Conservation Plan describes the redevelopment of the abbey quarter, particularly the Blade which can be seen in figure 8 as a “marker identifying the Abbey Quarter as well as symbolising the revival of Readings town centre”. However, the construction of an office zone has hidden the abbey ruins and contrasts to John Speeds Mapping in Figure 9 which shows the building as the dominant structure over reading. The destruction of parts of this monument goes against Rossi’s belief that historical buildings should be sustained and protected, thus turning the historic memory of the abbey into a commercial one.
Rossi’s theories on the city provide a unique analysis on understanding the urban landscape and the value of both the past and the present in constructing the city. His theories on restoration are relevant to contemporary architects, specifically the rebuild of Notre Dame, which has raised questions as to how to maintain the historical identity while restoring the church. Furthermore, Reading Abbey, aligns with Rossi’s theories and remains a significant part of the town with its historic importance appealing to a new generation, and contributing to the collective memory of Reading. Rossi’s theories could be applied to the entirety of reading town to analyse the key monuments and urban artefacts, and then compare that to the significance of the abbey.
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