Obituary: Aldo Rossi

Alan Powers
Monday 15 September 1997 23:02

A tower of fresh yellow planking, banded in blue with an octagon pyramid roof and a little weathervane, Aldo Rossi's Teatro del Mondo was built at Fusina in 1980 as part of the Architecture Biennale. Towed into Venice on barges and moored by the Punto della Dogana, it made a memorable and much-reproduced image.

The 1980 Biennale, the first of its kind, was called "The Presence of the Past" and marked a significant shift in Western architecture away from the presumptions of modernism. As Christian Norberg- Schulz noted in the catalogue, Robert Venturi's "complexity" and Rossi's "typology" were leading ideas of the previous 15 years and Rossi was well chosen to provide its public face with the Teatro and the temporary entrance at the Arsenale.

Born in 1931, Rossi graduated in Milan in 1959, having spent time in Russia in the 1950s and found Stalinist classicism beautiful as well as popular. Neither was he afraid of the association of his work with Fascist architecture, for, as Vincent Scully wrote, "He is better at it than the Fascist architects were. He regains the tradition more vitally because he is operating through memory rather than ideology."

Rossi's The Architecture of the City, written around 1960, published in Italy in 1966 and translated into English in 1980, showed how "naive functionalism" had neglected the beauty and reality of cities. He drew on the theories of the Enlightenment to argue that all cities were ordered and structured entities, individual in certain respects but capable of analysis by common principles.

The idea of typology, an essential and unvarying form related to use, had been developed among Rossi's colleagues at Venice University, and "type" became an analytical and poetic device, characterised in practice by simplified representations of the forms of classical buildings. This idea has proved immensely powerful and can be seen demonstrated in the IBA housing developments in Berlin of the 1980s, where Rossi was a prize-winning architect, and in the more recent rebuilding campaigns in Paris, where he evoked a section of the Rue de Rivoli with a pavement colonnade and curved zinc roof in a residential block at La Villette of 1991.

This movement was known as the "tendenza", or Neo- Rationalism, after Rossi's manifesto of 1973, Architettura Razionale, for an exhibition at the 15th Milan Triennale, evoking its precursor of the same name 40 years before. The rationalism was not constructional or functional, but Platonic, intended to evoke the empty spaces of dreams and memories found in the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. Manfredo Tafuri described it as "a search that led to a liberation from fixed contexts and a movement towards a horizon where private and collected pasts merged". In this search, Rossi was "the only `school leader' capable of constantly fuelling around his own works and self a controversy and an interest that ended by affecting the very concept of architecture."

Rossi's own response to places and objects, like the beach huts of Elba and bright enamel coffeepots, is described in his A Scientific Autobiography (1981). It is a work of magical charm that, like The Architecture of the City, has remained constantly in print.

He wrote, "I have always claimed that places are stronger than people", and in his first major work, the Gallaratese Housing outside Milan (1969- 73), he transformed the memory of a section of city, standing on in suburban isolation, with long colonnades of thin rectangular piers, evoking the drawings of the French revolutionary architect Boullee, whose treatise on art Rossi translated into Italian.

His imagination was perhaps more appropriately deployed at the San Cattaldo Cemetery, Modena (1971-84), with its startling burnt-sienna cuboid Ossuary. Less imposing, although still glacially disciplined, was his Secondary School at Broni, 1979. Other executed works in Italy include the Town Hall at Borgoricco, 1983, and Casa Aurora offices, Turin, 1984-87, with his characteristic large, smooth, coloured forms.

In later years Rossi's practice became increasingly international with a hotel in Fukuoka, Japan, 1988, the School of Architecture at the University of Miami and Disney Corporation Offices at Celebration, Florida, and an abortive project for Canary Wharf, London, 1990. He taught at Arezzo, Milan, Zurich, Venice, Yale and the Cooper Union, New York. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1990.

On a less exalted level Rossi will be remembered as the designer of a range of coffeepots for Alessi which were marketed as expensive objects of fashionable taste in the 1980s. His work was exhibited in England at the ICA (1983) and at York City Art Gallery (where a 36ft leaning tower by Rossi was erected) and the RIBA, London, in 1987. The closest thing to a Rossi building in London is the temporary scaffolding cover of the Albert Memorial.

Aldo Rossi's ideas and images were influential on many architects who have been labelled Post-Modernist, particularly in their search for the reconstruction of the city. He wrote in 1988, "I still have a dream of great civil architecture; not the concordance of discord, but the city that is beautiful because of the wealth and variety it contains. I believe in the future of the city for this reason."

He suffered a serious car crash in 1971 and planned the Modena Cemetery during his recovery. He died as the result of another crash near his home in Milan.


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