A Cult Hero Gets His Due

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – April 30, 1990

A Cult Hero Gets His Due

The bold, austere architecture of Italy’s Aldo Rossi wins the prestigious Pritzker Prize

 

As prizes in all realms proliferate, the outcomes — who wins an Oscar or a Pulitzer — seem evermore capricious and sentimental. Not, however, in the case of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s Nobel equivalent. The Pritzker, awarded since 1979, has earned an unsurpassed reputation for rigor, good sense and catholic taste (the $100,000 prize is an American creation, but half of the winners have been from abroad). The 1990 Pritzker laureate, announced this week, should only redouble the prize’s prestige: Italy’s Aldo Rossi, 58, has inspired and influenced a generation of younger architects, despite a modest built oeuvre. Rossi’s work, as the Pritzker judges declare in their citation, “is at once bold and ordinary, original without being novel, refreshingly simple in appearance but extremely complex in content and meaning.”

Like Philip Johnson, the first Pritzker winner, Rossi was born into a well- to-do family and spent a decade as an architectural chronicler before beginning to build in earnest. For most of his career, Rossi’s international cult status derived mainly from his writing (The Architecture of the City, published in Italy in 1966, is a woolly but right-minded and seminal inquiry into the nature of urban spaces) and from sketchy, evocative drawings. Like Johnson, Rossi has had to live down scandalous enthusiasms. Johnson was a fascist sympathizer in the 1930s, and Rossi, whose work is sometimes reminiscent of monumental Mussolini-era buildings, defends to this day “the great ((Soviet)) architecture of the Stalinist period.”

 But there the similarities end, for Rossi is serious and original, deeply persuaded of his vision and never calculatingly fashionable. His work recalls the local vernacular (the silos, campaniles and old-fashioned factories of his native land) and the international architectural pantheon (Andrea Palladio, Etienne-Louis Boullee, Adolf Loos). Seamlessly, he combines the down-to-earth austerity of the former with the self-conscious erudition of the latter.

 Rossi has a reputation, not altogether undeserved, for rueful, chilly buildings. Until the past decade, he was widely known for a cemetery in Modena, Italy, that was started in 1971. The complex is dignified, with utterly no attempt to prettify or embellish. One of its main features, a 2,625-ft.-long, colonnaded, concrete arcade, achieves serenity by way of severity. His 1976 school in the town of Fagnano was a similarly stripped-down collection of elemental components. Yet, as if to confound those who would pigeonhole him as a weltschmerzy ascetic, Rossi took the opposite tack for a family crypt completed in 1987. The little chapel has a sweet brick exterior, with oddly incomplete cornice and a carved-wood interior of pediments, columns and mock windows.

 The years between those two very different projects saw Rossi’s transformation from cult hero to blue-chip eminence grise. His floating 250- seat Teatro del Mondo, for the 1980 Venice Biennale, captured the imagination of architects around the world. In 1982 The Architecture of the City finally came out in English, and two years after that, the housewares company Alessi began marketing his gorgeous, Teatro-like silver espresso maker. Suddenly, there was a surge of important building commissions and groundbreakings. In 1988 five Rossi projects were finished in Italy.

 Over the past decade, Rossi has roamed the U.S. several times. He says he relishes “the richness of the countryside and the materials.” His first U.S. buildings, finished last year, are two developer-constructed houses in, of all places, the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. The clapboard houses, unmistakably American, prove that Rossi practices what he preaches about deference to local styles. Last December construction began on what could be his most relaxed, and among his finest, work: a village-like tropically colored campus for the University of Miami School of Architecture.

 Rossi has always taken all sorts of risks — ideological, stylistic, careerist — yet has never overindulged his own quirks and perversity, the besetting sin of creative risk takers. He avoids easy solutions of either the overdecorative or hyperlogical kind. Instead he seeks to create buildings that are sublime and humane, the riskiest — and noblest — challenge of all.