There is an innate sense of poetry in architectural drawing, affording creatives the opportunity to collate their ideas through graphic expression and coherently wax lyrical on the tumultuous flood of thoughts performing cognitive contortions in their minds. Structure, meaning, narrative, and rhythm must all be considered when creating a drawing, so that its legibility extends to all that view it and more importantly, its aesthetic quality stirs strong sentiments within them. Hence, beyond the primary objective of communicating the conceptual underpinnings and technical specifications that can be used to turn representation into reality, there is also an aesthetic dimension to this subcategory of visual art, a beauty that transcends its functionality, much like the subject it is trying to convey.
When talking of poetry and architecture, there is a singular individual whose figure rises above the rest in the annals of history. A man who revered critic Ada Louise Huxtable described as a “poet who happens to be an architect,” Aldo Rossi’s name is forever etched among the pantheon of 20th century masters, his legacy built on an emotionally poignant and metaphysical outlook on architecture that has continued to impact designers over generations, even after his passing. Equally celebrated for the depth of his professional oeuvre as well as his contributions to architectural theory, the Pritzker Prize winning architect’s ideation, studies, and ruminations were almost inevitably given life through the medium of drawing—an aspect of his practice that has also garnered him much praise and recognition over the years.
In Berlin, an ongoing exhibition at the Tchoban Foundation – Museum for Architectural Drawing probes into this aspect of Rossi’s practice with over 110 graphic works and drawings on show from the late Italian architect’s archives. Co-curated by Nadejda Bartels, Director of the Tchoban Foundation, and Chiara Spangaro, Director of Fondazione Aldo Rossi, the exhibition is titled Aldo Rossi. Insulae. On view from February 4-May 14, 2023, the three-part showcase presents an in-depth look into Rossi’s various approaches to architectural representation and how it could be used to both study the past and infuse the inferences so obtained into new built forms.
Derived from the Latin word for “island,” the term insulae was also used to allude to a traditional method of construction for freely standing Roman houses, that Rossi often implemented into his own work. Each of the architecture exhibition’s three segments illuminate how the diversity of Rossi’s contributions have been expressed through his relationship with drawing. However, they are all united by his love for bold colours, geometric design motifs, distinct sense of form, use of analogy and historical references, and most prominently, the inherent sense of poetry in his style, which took the à la mode and sculpted it into a new ideal, founded in his perspectives on the past, which were reimagined for the present to persist into the future.
For instance, the first among the trio is Corpus Mediolanensis, which comprises prints that Rossi coloured and redrew between 1986 and 1987, affording a glimpse of nearly 30 years of his practice, as he perceived through his own eyes, in a more intimate and personal light. Next comes Insula, composed of Rossi’s reinterpretations of models documenting the work of Baroque-era artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Claude Lorrain, which grants insight into how Rossi developed his own architectural language by drawing from volumes such as triangles, cylinders, and cuboids, that were all prominent architectural forms in antiquity. This was a stark contradiction to the cultural inclinations of the 1970s, when most designers were trying to form wholly new approaches centred on modernity. Rossi, on the other hand, found his inspiration in the past. Finally, the third section is a peek into Rossi’s work in the city of Berlin, covering both his built projects, and unbuilt concepts, which together define a significant part of his glittering body of work. To garner more insight into these aspects of the great architect’s mind, STIR spoke to Nadejda Bartels and Chiara Spangaro on the story behind the exhibition, as well as the forces that shaped Rossi’s graphic investigations and scrutinisation of classical and contemporary architecture.
Jerry Elengical: What were the origins of this exhibition?
Nadejda Bartels: The origins of the show stretch back to approximately 2019 when Vera Rossi and Chiara Spangaro came to our museum, after gallery owner Antonia Jannone from Milan introduced Vera to Sergei Tchoban. Our museum seemed to be an ideal place for this collaborative project to showcase drawings by Aldo Rossi, and this is how it all started.
Chiara Spangaro: One of Fondazione Aldo Rossi’s goals is to highlight different aspects of Rossi’s work through unseen drawings and unpublished writings. Furthermore, we always try to draw the attention of scholars and researchers towards less explored avenues of Rossi’s wide intellectual, architectural, and artistic production. The scope of the exhibition proposal to the Tchoban Foundation arose from this same attitude as well as from the will to connect with its collection and present a wide excursus on Rossi’s works in time.
Jerry: How did you source and curate all the drawings featured as part of the showcase?
Nadejda: The final ideas and their selection were made by Chiara Spangaro, the director of Fondazione Rossi in close cooperation with me. We thought it would be a good idea to give an autobiographical introduction of Rossi with the Corpus Mediolanensis on the first exhibition floor. The show then continues with references to old masters and Rossi’s works for Berlin. With this selection, we tried to depict the many sides of Rossi’s talent shown in his own drawings—his architecture, including his special iconography and architectural forms, his theoretical projects, his designs and also the poetic and lyrical dimensions of his talent.
Chiara: Rossi’s researches on Lorrain and Piranesi, and in general on utopian architecture, made a natural connection to Tchoban Collection and also to the architecture of Berlin, where some of these theories were applied. We also wanted to give a tribute to the city where Rossi did four buildings and many more projects. Among them, his Deutsches Historisches Museum remains crucial in both collective memory and in its place as one of Rossi’s most important non-realised works.
Jerry: How would you categorise Rossi’s style of illustration? In what way does it render his thought process and metaphysical views on architecture?
Chiara: Rossi’s drawings frequently incorporate his ideas on analogy and fragment, the themes of memory, and his love for metaphysic and urban compositions (especially by artists like Giorgio de Chirico, Edward Hopper, Giorgio Morandi, and Mario Sironi, to name a few). The mix of reality and imagination in some of Rossi’s drawings is more connected to his intellectual research—like the continuous quotations of ancient buildings or other historical references in works such as Città copernicana or Il gioco della morte, now on display at the Tchoban Foundation. This liberty of vision also applies to drawings that are more connected to his professional work: as they are a way to process his creativity, and their extraordinary quality also allows them to broach the field of visual art as well as that of architecture.
Nadejda: It is also interesting to see how Rossi’s personal impressions from his childhood and youth are reflected in his illustrations—especially the cabins or the coffee pots that impressed him as a child during the time at Lake Como Lake, or the statue of Carlo Borromeo in Arona that he used as a motif in many of his illustrations. These “shards” or impressions are often added in his drawings to the “shards” of his architecture, iconography, or designs, and generally implanted within an existing urban situation, for example in New York.
Jerry: Could you take us through how the three segments of the exhibition have been spatially ordered in the museum?
Nadejda: The first floor gives an illustrated autobiographical view on the work of the architect in Corpus Mediolanensis, and on the second floor there are beautiful drawings from the series Insula that refer to works by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and connect them to Rossi’s own ideal masters, such as Claude Lorrain. The third part of the exhibition, Works for Berlin, is composed of projects for Berlin—realised and as well as unrealised.
Jerry: How does the first segment, Corpus Mediolanensis, render Rossi’s impressions of his own oeuvre?
Chiara: Rossi’s collection, selection, and revision of his own works in time, translate into this core of unique works, his own will as an architect to resume his professional path in 1987-1988. The complete Corpus is yet to be shown in its totality because we tried to focus more on architectural production and also compare later visions with other contemporary projects. Rossi has always revisited his works in his writings and books, enlacing them with personal memories. Doing it once again with the Corpus, is visually and conceptually extraordinary.
Jerry: What insights into Rossi’s studies of the relationships between architecture, culture, and history can be gleaned from the second segment, Insula? How does it narrate his concept of cities being built on a collective memory?
Chiara: The works in the Insula section narrate two different aspects of Rossi’s research. One being his interest towards Piranesi’s conception of space as mythic and hypnotic—as in his Prisons. The idea of an architectural labyrinth in which the human being is sometimes helped by signs—an eye, a hand, a red or a black threshold—is also present in the vision of Rossi’s Pyramids. The drawings devoted to the Roman Pyramid of Cestius also depict invented urban landscapes where Milan, Rome, New York, and other real or ideal cities are mixed in fragmented yet coherent visions. These visionary landscapes carry in their centre the pyramid, a classical element of great impact, as much as the classical quotations that come back in all the capriccios devoted to Lorrain and Italian monuments. Rossi likely drew this series after attending “Im Lichte von Claude Lorrain”, in Haus der Kunst, Munich, in 1983.
Jerry: What does the third and final segment relay about Rossi’s relationship with the city of Berlin, particularly his impact on its urban landscape post-reunification?
Chiara: Some of the classical and ideal forms Rossi studied in the works of his masters, were employed in Berlin buildings and projects—such as the column of the IBA building in Friedrichstraße, or the rotunda of Pariser Platz. On a more general level, the scale of Berlin gave Rossi the possibility to confront a space that exceeded the building and reached the block and ideally, the city.
Jerry: How are the notions of reference and influence ingrained in the drawings that express Rossi’s architectural language?
Chiara: The exhibition displays different examples of Rossi’s contemplations on architecture. The Corpus integrates past and present, adding the critical eye of the creator in time to the purity of creation. The Insula works use paper to highlight connections between Rossi and some of his sources of inspiration—in capriccios that show classical buildings and monuments as well as Rossi’s architectures such as the Gallaratese in Milan and the Monument to Partisans in Segrate.
The Berlin section displays the projects Rossi did for the city more literally, inhabited by the elements of his creativity (use of geometrical elements such as spheres or circles) or his recurring shapes (square windows and cabin-like components). Two of the Schützenstraße watercolour drawings, also show details on the use of colour and of materials in a mid-stage conception of the block.
Jerry: Timelessness is a quality that has always been associated with Rossi’s unique style. How has this been detailed in the exhibition?
Chiara: The idea of time pervades Rossi’s architecture, drawings, design, and texts. Symbolically, time appears as a clock in a building’s façade design or as a watch placed in the middle of an urban composition. Many titles given by Rossi to his drawings imply the idea of time and its suspension—youth as a mythic era, summer as a moment of expectancy in the year, the time of a conversation as a beautiful parentheses to be kept in memory. Works by Rossi prominently feature outlooks on time, that of life and that of death, and the timelessness of both, in continuous dialogue and sometimes in contradiction.
Nadejda: One of the best examples is probably the project of the cemetery in Modena designed by Rossi and the drawing The Game of Death in the exhibition which is designed as a dice game board, in this context also a strong metaphor of human time and the timelessness of style.
Jerry: Why is Aldo Rossi revered for his drawings as much as for his contributions to architectural theory and the era of postmodernism?
Nadejda: I am not sure if Aldo Rossi can be considered a postmodernist architect, especially on closer inspection of his architectural theories and books, like for example, The Architecture of the City. Some of his iconography is reminiscent of postmodernist forms, but Rossi’s style possesses a broader focus and a different foundation in architectural theory.
As for drawings, they are indeed beautiful and can be unmistakably recognised as works by Rossi due to his very specific style of illustration. He is indeed as known for his drawings as for his architecture and creating designs on paper was essential for him in his work as an architect. The harmonic combination of colours, the composition, and the media he used underline his great artistic talent.
Chiara: Rossi’s visionary power applies to both his works on paper and his architectural endeavours. He researched their limits through project sketches and drawings. Connecting his own creativity to the knowledge of each city’s historical and urban development ensured that his work was grounded in history and yet, it always carried his personal interpretations and contemporary reflections.