incomplete project robert alexander


The Last Act (or The Complete Project Part II):

Firminy, France - September 14th

Eglise St. Pierre, Le Corbusier (1971-1975) (2003-2006)

The Church of St Pierre in Firminy was finally finished after a protracted political dispute, 35 years after it was started in 1970. For a churches in Europe, this isn’t really that much of a pause when you consider the close to 200 years between the start and finish of Notre Dame in Paris. The time spent as an abandoned construction site may have seemed more significant today because the church, despite being started and finished after Le Corbusier’s death is like a letter from beyond the grave. The church speaks to strength of Le Corbusier’s lifetime architectural project that people other than the author were able to start and finish an architectural masterpiece without the architect even being there at start of the construction. It may have actually been easier with him not there; architects can be a difficult bunch to deal with- even in death. 

Although the original religious program for the church has shifted somewhat from what was intended as result of the state taking over funding of its construction, it is unmistakable through the architecture what its purpose was. The church sits at the center of a disparate and widely spaced modern landscape of other building’s planned by Le Corbusier: a cultural center, a swimming pool, a stadium and one of unite apartment buildings a little further up the hill. The impact of having the centerpiece of this “new” town of Firminy unfinished for so long still seems to still have had some consequences on the surrounding area today. Despite the new building being at the geographic center compositionally, it is far from being at the center of the town culturally. For residents who watched the church’s foundations being built in the early 70’s as a part of a strategy of rehabilitation and urban revival, it may have already seemed a bit naive that this complex of buildings would bring about the kind of societal change for Firminy that Le Corbusier had professed it would. Balancing people’s spiritual, cultural and athletic lives by positioning a collection of buildings close to each other may have been a little optimistic. In 2003, when work was taken up again, the goal for finishing the “church” was no less optimistic: tourism. The purpose of completing the project had become for the town, not spiritual renewal or religious seeking, it was the attraction of simply having Le Corbusier there. 


The Intrigue of Indeterminate Systems (Part I):

Modena, Italy - October 25th

San Cataldo Cemetery, Aldo Rossi (1971) (1978-     )

“(…) the term “fragments” seems to me to be adequate to depict the situation of the modern city, the architecture and the society. (…) In its physical meaning (broken things, mutilated elements) or in its general meaning (part of a complete drawing which went lost) it is beyond doubt that the fragments belong to architecture; and they belong to it almost as constructive elements, almost as theoretical elements. (…) This is perhaps the big dream of the great civil architecture; it is not the harmony in discord, but the beautiful and tidy city thanks to the wealth and variety of its places. It is because of this that I also believe in the future city as the one in which the fragments of something broken in its origin are rearranged (…). (Rossi, 1978:7-8, in Ferlenga, 1978: 7-8)”

Aldo Rossi on Fragments

Aldo Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery is the newest in a complex of cemeteries just outside Modena that were planned as ideal cities for the dead. The first of these was planned by the architect Cesare Costa and carried out from 1858 to 1876. It is a closed system, a walled city whose perimeter architecture blocks the outside world. Tombs and crypts are positioned on both a piano nobile and inside a plinth underneath it identifying the status of the individuals buried there. The Aldo Rossi addition to the cemetery was intended as a similar closed composition, but as executed, the project is only a segment of the proposal he submitted for the 1972 competition. Being a fragment itself, it seamlessly fits with Rossi’s ideas about how buildings in cities have roles and functions that take on lives of their own regardless of their intended symbolic meaning. A cemetery by its nature is an open ended architectural proposition as it must serve to function as architecture in an incomplete state while the process of occupying it is ongoing. The layers of Rossi’s cemetery are even more poignant given its relationship to the two existing cemeteries, which are both closed “cities” unto themselves. Left unfinished and open to the highway beyond it, the newest part of the cemetery unintentionally lays bare the messiness of the contemporary city.     


Ruins vs. The Incomplete:

Reims-Gueux, France - September 2nd

Former Site of the Grand Prix of France (1926-1972)

Somewhere in France, on the Champagne route outside of Reims, is the abandoned race track that hosted the Formula One GP of France from 1950 to 1966 . The “track”, a 5 mile triangular section of public roads linked together with two tight bends and several long straightaways, was typical of the era in which it was used- fast, dangerous, and disarmingly quaint. Like an ancient mayan ball court, the shapes of the pit structures, stands, and signboards left behind are vague enough force the visitor to wonder about how they may have been used and the characters who used them. Unlike Chichen Itza however, documentary film footage and photographs of the action at Reims exist. Even then it is difficult to imagine the “field of dreams” quality of the legends of the sport racing their handmade racing machines through pastures and vineyards. It was in the front of my mind while visiting this site that despite the pastoral beauty of the countryside and the relative calm of the surroundings, this was an extremely dangerous place where people died participating in a sport. The experience with the architecture there had very little to do with form or materiality or what I would normally think of as things that make up the experience of a place. In spite of this it had the weight of years spent being used, of an extraordinary life lived- a history that made it too important to tear down. 

This is the strange life of a ruin. It did not become a parking lot, or a shopping mall. It is still here, not preserved necessarily, but still with enough of its past life available to the visitor to have to confront it as a monument. It is eery there. The stands and the landscape are in color- not in black and white like in the newsreels and photos. Even as road cars and trucks whistle by, going the wrong direction, down the old front straight it is impossible not to contrast the gentle rolling hills of Champagne with the violent noise that normal road going cars make let alone what formula one racing machines of that era must have sounded like.



Beauvais, France-August 4th

Incomplete Beauvais Cathedral (1225-1600)

The cathedral at Beauvais is actually two cathedrals- one that has been half destroyed and the other that is half built. Construction started in 1225 on the new cathedral and as it progressed the old church directly adjacent to it was gradually taken away. This has created a chimera-like beast of a building - half norman romanesquse church-half high gothic cathedral, Catastrophic collapses in the choir (157 feet in height) in 1284 and the overly ambitious construction of a central tower (502 ft in height) in 1573 halted the construction at just past the start of nave.

The slender flying buttresses that make up the choir of the church were found to be being moved in the wind and were braced by iron rods in the 13th century. On the interior of the cathedral massive wooden beams form braces against the vaults making the architecture of the church a beautiful hybrid of wood and stone pieces. It is as if the wood is forming a mock up of some future cathedral construction or the scaffolding to build new parts. The whole cathedral actually smelled of wood the day we were there as workers had just brought in a fresh load of timber to begin replacing or adding some new sections of bracing.

The cathedral despite its age was still very a much a construction site although now the effort was one of preservation. Just like at the Ajuda palace in Lisbon, the stone workers have left carved and uncarved stones lying around the site in places adjacent to the Cathedral. It is really the only time I can remember being made aware of the weight of the stones involved in the construction of these places. Once the stones have been put in place like in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris there is a kind of inevitablitly about their place in the architecture and how they work. Seeing them out of place lying on the ground gave a sense of weight to these pieces and how devastating and disheartening the collapses must have been. It is very hard to capture in pictures and in words how vast this cathedral is and pointless to talk about how big it would have been. When I was there, contrary to what I thought before we went, I didn’t find myself imagining how big the finished cathedral would have been or how much ground it would have taken up. I was just forced to deal with what was in front of me. This maybe typical of most people’s experience with incomplete buildings. It is much more of an academic exercise to imagine or contemplate the effect that a building being complete would have had. The experience people have with this project is not at all dependent on its completion or incompletion.