November 5, 2015 - January 28, 2016
This exhibition of drawings and paintings by celebrated Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931-1997) marks the inauguration of the art program at the MA office and honors the foundational importance of Rossi as Morris Adjmi’s teacher, mentor, and partner.
The exhibited works range from small personal watercolors of somber urban vignettes inspired by the metaphysical landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico to large, colorful canvases depicting evocative buildings, and cityscapes drawn from Rossi’s memory. The repeated motifs in these works not only transcend time and place, they transcend scale. A single archetypal form could be used to represent a coffee pot or a cemetery, and many of his paintings reinforce this scalar agnosticism by blurring the distinction between object and architecture, still-life and skyline.
H i s t o r y / M e m o r y / A n a l o g y
The most fundamental part of Aldo’s work was his reliance on history. To understand his approach to history as it relates to his work can be summed up in his own words, “I cannot be postmodern since I was never modern.” In a way, this idea is most interesting in the way it both sets Aldo’s work apart and links it to the history of architecture. By rejecting modernism, Aldo chose to tie his work to everything that proceeded modernism. He also rejected post-modernism as disconnected and trite. While working on a project at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, where Aldo taught, I proposed a solution that abstracted some classicist elements. Aldo was furious. He exclaimed, “you don’t know anything about classical architecture, and you are from New Orleans.” At that point, he explained that I had two choices: one was to use the classical orders (any could work) as a quotation—accurate and precise, or use a modern form that was devoid of any historical reference or style. His approach to history was modern and absolute—black or white.
Memory and history are intimately intertwined. For Aldo, memory transcended history. Just as history was manifest in the physical form of buildings, memory connected the abstract metaphysical aspects of architecture to the essential symbols of mankind. It was these memories that infused architecture (and all art forms) with universal meaning. Memory could influence a building by virtue of its imprint on the site or context or in forms that recall traditional or universal symbols. When Aldo received the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, he spoke about Palladio and his influence in Architecture. His influence moved from Veneto to England, Russia, and ultimately America. The memory of the original sacred forms took on new meaning with each migration.
If history and memory were ways for Aldo to tie his work to specific moments, places, or persons, analogy enabled his forms to defy time and deny specific references. The use of analogous forms connected the built objects to universal symbols and images. Organization of these formal elements included the basic building blocks of buildings – domes, columns, arcades, pediments, as well as skeletons, horses, and teapots. His architecture was built with rigor in a rational way but these formal elements were infused by a metaphysical and sometime irrational presence. I remember one trip to the Modena Cemetery when the cube was being constructed. I accompanied Aldo and Gianni Braghieri to visit the site and decide the final material for the cube. Originally the cube was designed in brick and due to budget constraints the proposal was to change the material to stucco. After many discussions Aldo said, “okay.” He explained later that the red stucco was more metaphysical in it’s lack of detail and scale. He liked the power of the structure, the color, and most particularly the shadows.
F r a g m e n t s / T y p o l o g y / R e p e t i t i o n
Aldo’s fragments were his souvenirs of life. His personal experiences, bits of places or buildings, were recomposed in his own landscape of forms. Aldo liked to, and said he even preferred, to see a movie starting somewhere in the middle and watching the beginning after the end. He liked the displacement of the plot and time. For the same reason that I think he liked to incorporate pieces of his life into his projects. Bits of Hopper’s New York in Berlin, Italian piazzas in Florida, German towers in the Italian lake district. We see the elements in drawings and as built form. We see pieces of a city or particular project recurring in new projects or drawings until they become an integral part of his architectural lexicon.
If the fragment was a way to incorporate quotidian experiences into projects, typology was a way to incorporate the collective experiences of building morphology. The presence of type tied buildings to their regional heritage and the history of a specific building type. Aldo’s rational buildings mirrored generic building types. In this way, built form immediately has a heritage. (Think of a grid of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs.) Aldo also chose to eliminate all non-essential elements in order to produce buildings that were prototypical of their typologies. He saw his buildings as pure type. For Aldo, form did not follow function. Form followed type.
If we look at Aldo’s work in buildings and drawings, we see forms and images constantly repeated. Repetition was fundamental to his architecture and his process. When I think of Aldo, I think of long buildings punctuated with rows of square windows, columns and square arched openings, roof stacked upon roof stacked upon roof. Repetition and more repetition. His drawings were filled with similar images—pediments, bathing cabins, coffee pots, saint’s hands, figures peeking out of openings, pyramids, and conical towers. These forms and the reworking of these forms enabled Aldo to edit and reedit his vision. In a similar way he would tell and retell stories to those close to him. His son, Fausto and I would always talk among ourselves about how many times we each heard the same stories. It didn’t matter how many times he told a story that was important. He could retell every story in a new and fresh way each time. In the end, the material was not as important as the process.
P l a t o n i c F o r m s / S h a d o w / C o l o r
The forms that Aldo used to create his architectural vocabulary could be described as platonic. Perhaps not literally, however the use of basic fundamental volumes like cubes, cones, and cylinders relates to Aldo’s preference for objects and elements that were straightforward and honest. He felt that a building should look like it was put together tectonically. He enjoyed telling the story about a professor that criticized his work as looking like that of a stonemason. Much to the professor’s dismay Aldo thought that it was a supreme compliment. Aldo bougtht a villa on Lago Maggiore. He liked the rough and direct construction. One thing that bothered him, and the first thing he removed, was a balcony that had a large cantilever. To him, the cantilever was not architectural. He disliked it not because it didn’t fit stylistically, but because it appeared to defy gravity.
Aldo loved to create heavy shadows. Shadows added depth, melancholy, and mystery to his work. He used shadows in his buildings like a material. The effect was to create a product that was both substantial and metaphysical. If we look at his sketches of buil dings we find a careful balance of light with heavy shadows. DeChirico paintings and Italian neo realist films influenced his use of shadow. In fact, Aldo maintained that if he had not been an architect he would have been a filmmaker. He was avid filmgoer who enjoyed all movies from obscure Russian films to funny French films and Hollywood blockbusters. I took him to see Blue Velvet, which became one of his favorite films. Appropriately, he was fascinated by the mysterious undertone in the seemingly ordinary landscape.
Aldo infused his work with metaphor and meaning using color as a vital tool. Color had meaning rooted in both architecture and theory. His baby blue roofs, yellow walls, red square brick arches, acid copper cornices, and green window frames all had roots and meanings in Aldo’s life. The childlike quality of these Rossian colors defies their complex provenance. Most of these colors relate directly to his experiences. The roots are diverse and layered in meaning: baby blue (celeste della Madonna) relates to his catholic upbringing; yellow walls red brick are found throughout his Lombardia in the vernacular architecture; he discovered acid copper cornices when he first visited America; and green window frames are as typical and universal as his perfect four square windows. His love of color was reflected in his love of Goethe’s Theory of Colors. Here he found profound meaning in Goethe’s ‘scientific’ approach and explanations. He loved the description of blue as a color of beauty and sickness.
If I try to remember some event or aspect of Aldo’s personality that reflects his approach to architecture I think of his love of sushi. When he came to New York for a week, he would have sushi for lunch and dinner almost every day. (He would have gone every day but most people could not keep up.) The compulsion, the ritual, the perfect typological presentation, the color, simplicity and complexity, the history and the cultural implications were the perfect compliment to a man that brought those same qualities to his work.
– Morris Adjmi, 2015
Image Credits: Alexander Severin