Scott Woods and Kim Vo Duy recently opened their two part mid-semester review, Studio 08: MAXXI Studio, to the public allowing us a glimpse into the inner workings of their Rossi-ian machine. This open invitation provided highly anticipated insight into the student projects and unexpectedly brought to light the cult of personality of the mid 20th Century Italian architect, Aldo Rossi. The premise of the studio, in collaboration with the MAXXI in Rome, anticipates the retrospective exhibition “Aldo Rossi. The Architect and the Cities” set to open at the MAXXI in December 2020.
In the opening moments of the review, Woods set the tone of the studio: “The final presentation will see the students design Rossi architectures for exhibition inside the MAXXI itself. Each student was provided with a Rossi multi-residential project to begin. This was the anchor for the student to then take to the idea of the city, monument and domestic object.” Further, students were made to select, lucky dip style, from a group of curatorial strategies carefully curated by Woods and Vo Duy, of which provided the premise for the students to devise their own strategy for their final project.
The polemic debate that divides interpretation of Rossi’s work played out through the review panel’s discussion. My intrigue was most aroused by the debate amongst the prominent names on the panel, who called in from across the globe. Most notably, Professor Diane Ghirardo (University Southern California School of Architecture) and the Senior Curator of Architecture Pippo Ciorra (MAXXI Museum, Rome), who were intimate friends of Rossi.
Images provided by Jacob Komarzynski, in MSD M.Arch Studio 08 MAXXI Studio, 2020.
Ghirardo, the author of “Aldo Rossi and the Spirit of Architecture” (2019), prompted me to reconsider my position on Rossi. In relation to one student project she warned that it is important to remember that the central premise of Rossi’s design process was his personal journey, where he drew on “his own repertoire and box of memories, images and experiences”: “In helping others to understand how to deal with an architectural problem, his (Rossi’s) was an architecture of experience. It’s hard to see in books and when you're not in places (the sites of Rossi’s architecture). That experience has its resonance in his background. As a child in boarding schools, going up a long staircase from where he was in school and a shrine to a particular saint. Those memories stayed with him and became part of the language he drew upon. It’s what he would encourage you to do. Although he did work on the architecture of others, that was always his underlying impulse.” During the review, Ciorra echoed this sentiment in his comment on Rossi’s autobiographical work. “Rossi is full of contradiction, emotion, memory, and autobiography that Diane knows very well. These little contradictions make him interesting and make him loved by the high and the low. People in Italy would tell you that I have been spending the last twenty years forgetting Rossi. It became such a problem for Italian architecture to move beyond this enormous figure because we live in the nostalgia of people who would do wonderful drawings and make buildings people hated. The risk is focussing on the object, and you look at him like Vicent Scully who thought it was vernacular. Rossi is extremely more complicated than one can think, every time he puts together history in a synchronic place, it’s about a place. It’s about his own personal story, it’s like a writer writing about himself. It’s a wonderful presence in history, there is no operativity in Rossi today. There is no possibility to translate this legacy into today.”
Images provided by Manning McBride, in MSD M.Arch Studio 08 MAXXI Studio, 2020.
Poignant to this discussion, and a slight divergence from the main premise of this article as a reflection on the debate sparked during the MAXXI studio, is the question that is on the lips of many; “what is architecture?” Ghirardo posed a rhetorical question to the students and audience, “Peter Eisenman always used to talk about doing a perfect Frank Lloyd Wright project. Paul Rudolph (Chair of Yale University's Department of Architecture at the time) criticised him. The next semester he did the same thing, Rudolph crushed him, and told him not to experiment with the same person's work more than once. So I would ask you, in terms of working with a Rossi language, what did this experience do for you?” In the spirit of a Ghirardian reading of Rossi, architecture is not the language of a simple “Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V”, copying and pasting because we see our predecessors, like Rossi or Wright, or even our contemporaries at famous practices or architecture schools, pursuing certain ideas and graphic styles (leading to an exercise of mindless replication). Architectural education and the profession in Australia and Internationally is battling one of it’s greatest struggles, the struggle for originality. The lack of thought, personality and originality in student and industry projects is getting tiresome. The rise of the internet and social media has exacerbated our reliance on the ability to have information at our fingertips in less than 0.02 of a second. In that moment of instant gratification it becomes an act where it is easy to be thoughtless, and where it is easy to forget one’s ability to be critical.
Images provided by Lachlan Welsh, in MSD M.Arch Studio 08 MAXXI Studio, 2020.
What was most admirable about Ghirardo was her tendency to not discredit other reading’s of Rossi’s work. In conversation about Peter Eisenman’s reading on Rossi, perhaps a polar opposite interpretation of her own, was as follows. “What Eisenman saw in Rossi's work was simplicity of form, and he did not not understand the personal, historical and experiential aspects of Rossi’s project. Rossi came to understand that Eisenman just didn't get it. Rossi was a great intellectual, he took from them in the same way architects take, insights, reflections, and which he expressed in his design process and architecture. Eisenman lacks that richness.”
In Ghirado’s words on Rossi, first and foremost, I saw a glimmer of what I have been championing for quite some time. I saw a light at the end of a long tunnel (almost six years of studies in architecture). A glimmer of hope for the profession at large. Architecture is a vehicle for the truest form of personal expression. As Ghirardo reiterated, “one of the last things he (Rossi) wrote was that architects need to think again,” and although that was over 20 years ago it couldn’t be more timely to reiterate to those of us existing in today’s ‘devoid of thought’ design climate. In another rhetorical statement, Ghirado encouraged students in an empathetic tone, “If I were a student today, what I would be looking at and what he (Rossi) would want you to look at, is the broad reading. Not high culture, but all cultures, always looking, drawing and thinking. So that whatever comes out of it will not look like Rossi’s project. That’s the problem with architecture school.”
Images provided by Yi Wang, in MSD M.Arch Studio 08 MAXXI Studio, 2020.
To truly understand Rossi’s work, although as difficult for the uninformed reader as it may seem at first glance or without the privilege of experiencing it, is to acknowledge that it is completely a personal exercise. Just as Rossi was able to transcend the aesthetic legacy of Fascism in postwar Italy, arguably by looking within himself and forging his own design-method, there just might be a chance for architectural education (and the profession at large) to claw itself out of this spiritless, devoid Dark Age, and especially those students in Woods and Vo-Duy’s class.
Images provided by Oskar Rosa, in MSD M.Arch Studio 08 MAXXI Studio, 2020.
There is an alarming sense of danger in a studio that focuses on a coveted figure, with a huge cult of personality. Rather than taking an approach or focus on the message of Rossi’s work, it's easy to be seduced by images alone. Ciorra conceded that “it’s very difficult not to get trapped by this guy...so what you can learn from this class is to be Rossi without Rossi, relate your own city to your own biography” and likewise Ghirado warned that “he doesn't want you to follow his road. He wants you to understand a process and each person has to find their way through it. Learn from an experience of creativity and experience of thinking.” A collection of highlight student work from the mid-semester review is scattered through this Opinion Piece to contextualise my thoughts and to bring you, the reader, on a journey back to their place of origin, the mid semester review. I was drawn to these projects solely for the personal flare that I saw in the work, where the students acknowledged that they could co-exist in their Rossian projects. Likewise, in the spirit of ag melbourne, to promote the projects which I found stimulating, and I hope you will too. They also demonstrate an ambition to pave the way out of dull, boring, and repetitive nonsense that is being churned out of architecture schools these days. Stay tuned for the second part, a continuation of this Opinion Piece, after Studio 08’s final review in November.
Project images provided by Jacob Komarzynski, Manning Mcbride, Oskar Rosa, Yi Wang and Lachlan Welsh.
Studio Leaders: Scott Woods and Kim Vo Duy
Studio: MAXXI Studio (Semester 2, 2020)
School: Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne
Further, if you are lucky enough to be in proximity of Rome “Aldo Rossi. The Architect and the Cities” curated by Alberto Ferlenga will run from 16 December 2020 - 29 August 2021. For more information click here