Italian architect and theoretician Aldo Rossi came to international prominence as an outspoken proponent of neo-rationalism. Adapting a postmodern approach, he advocated for a return to a more classical design aesthetic that embraced forward-facing expressions.
Rossi was born in Milan in 1931. Between 1949 and 1959, he studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano under the advisorship of architect Piero Portaluppi (1888-1967), whose work bridged the Beaux-Arts and modernist movement. Through the years of Rossi’s studies, the field of architecture in Italy was focused on reconstruction efforts following the damage of WWII. The tenets of modernism were not adequately answering Italy’s urgent building needs, as modernist structures didn’t always couple well with older buildings that were still intact. The limitations of modernist theory stayed with Rossi throughout the course of his career.
From 1955 to 1964, Rossi collaborated with architectural magazine Casabella as a contributor and editor. In 1959, he opened his own architectural firm in Milan. From the 1960s onward, he took on a long string of professorships at major universities—including his alma mater, the Institute of Architecture in Venice, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, among others—focusing primarily on architectural theory. In 1960, Rossi collaborated with Casabella colleague and friend, Carlo Aymonino (1926-2010), on the design of the Milan Monte Amiata housing complex, which caused a sensation among the international architecture community for the way it blended both austere aesthetics and historical motifs. The project drew inspiration from the writings of Adolf Loos (1870-1933), the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the pro-social utopianism of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (1947-52).
In 1966, Rossi published the influential book The Architecture of the City. Formed from previous lectures and notes he had written, the book was a manifesto against functionalism and modernism—arguing that a city is a complex, man-made object that develops organically over time. Rossi believed a city should be viewed from a historical perspective and was in favor of reinventing old architectural styles for the modern era. The job of the architect, in Rossi’s view, is to design in congruence with what is already established.
From the 1970s onwards, Rossi’s long-held architectural ideas gelled in the Neo-Rationalist movement, known as “La Tendenza” in Italy. Championed by fellow Italian architects Giorgio Grassi, Massimo Scolari, Ezio Bonfanti, and Carlo Aymonino, among others, La Tendenza aimed at socially and politically engaged architecture that would answer needs beyond pure, practical utility. Rossi’s many successful Tendenza projects include the minimalist and sober Cemetery of San Cataldo (1971-84) in Modena, designed in collaboration with Gianni Braghieri; the floating Teatro del Mondo (1979) for the Venice Biennale, an homage to 18th-century Venice; Hotel il Palazzo (1987-94) in Fukuoka, Japan; and the Bonnefanten Museum (1995) in Maastricht. Beyond his architectural work, Rossi was commissioned by major design brands to create numerous furniture and accessories designs, which often referenced his building projects. Standouts include the Conical Kettle (1984) and La Cupola Espresso Maker (1988) for Alessi, the Teatro Chair (1983) and Milan Chair for Molteni, and the Parigi Sofa (1989) for Unifor.
Rossi won many awards over the course of his career; most notably, he was the first Italian to win the Pritzker Prize for Architecture (1990). He passed away in 1997, but remains one of the leading postmodern architects, whose original design aesthetic continues to inspire.
* With special thanks to Fondazione Aldo Rossi