Radical Localism

10/4/2009 Uncategorized


Aldo Rossi: an unlikely influence on Utile’s practice approach

Architecture business strategy guru Paul Nakazawa once pointed out that the self-conscious localism of our practice distinguished Utile from other progressive firms.  Rather than seek work across the country by answering RFPs, we have made a point to become experts within specific communities such as Downtown Boston, South Boston, the near South End, Chelsea, Worcester, Lawrence, and New Bedford and only expand our area of focus when we can coordinate several projects and planning assignments in one area. 

The consequence is that we can gain a full understanding of the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the local building fabric, real estate market, regulatory context, and political culture. The knowledge gained by successive projects cumulates in a comprehensive research project about a particular city or urban district.  Over time, we think less like designers and more like cultural anthropologists.

Few models for this kind of practice exist.  Eric Owen Moss’ work in a small area of Culver City, California is one example.  The work of South Boston-based Urban Designer David Neilson (an occasional Utile collaborator) is another.   

This approach has been discounted in the recent rush for forward-thinking design firms to establish global practices.  But as Also Rossi commented in The Architecture of the City:

No one who has been seriously occupied with urban science has failed to note how the most important conclusions have always emerged from the work of scholars who devote themselves exclusively to one city: Paris, London, and Berlin are indissolubly linked for the scholar with the names of Poete, Rasmussen, and Hegemann.

After a close reading of Rossi’s book, first published in 1966, I realized that Rossi’s recommendations are more closely aligned with the preoccupations and practice of Utile than Rossi’s own subsequent projects, which aimed for a generalized language and approach that was equally applicable in Milan, Modena, Berlin, and New York’s Soho. Perhaps Rossi never had the opportunity to work as an architect in one locale long enough to work through the hypothesis of his book. Utile, on the other hand, has had a chance to apply a similar fine-grained approach in several communties; and as a result, we can see strategies emerging that have a wider relevance. Rossi’s book verifies certain intuitions and gives us confidence that our practice model can have applications outside of our exiting orbit of subject-cities.