Sprezzatura schizzi: Luigi Rosselli’s adroit expressions

Posted on 24 November 2016

Luigi Rosselli exhibits an ‘intelligent hand’, a genial disposition and romantic values from both classical and Wrightian humanism in his architectural renderings across butter paper. To commemorate three decades of practice in Sydney, his LRA team has scattered multiple facsimiles of his graphite, felt pen and Tipp-Ex design schizzi across a biomorphic Paper Arch occupying the Mils Gallery in Surry Hills.

Instead of mounting or framing each work on paper, to be spaced formally around the walls, Rosselli presents his ‘scribbles’ as the tattered, yellow mantle for a lantern-lit portal-passage. With this self-subversive strategy, he reboots Baldassare Castiglione’s sixteenth century courtly ideal of sprezzatura: ‘that certain nonchalance that shall conceal the art and show [it] is done without effort and almost without thought’.

Cover of Luigi Rosselli’s Perspectives book.

In sculpture and architecture symbolism, Rosselli’s glowing yellow arch represents the torso or carapace of some primeval mammal, and we are invited to enter its skeletal void. This provides a memorable encounter with both front and reverse views of his oeuvre but it obscures our chances to deduce each design in detail. To repair that absence of clarity at the venue, this book catalogues Rosselli’s crucial sketches for 128 projects, listed in chronological order from the launch of his Sydney studio in 1985 to this fifteenth year of the third millennium. Each is highlighted in the architect’s own words … including second-language phrases which hint at curious insights.

Surveying these drawings, we see a generally luminous manner of expression; bright white masonry highlighting another foreigner’s pleasure with this city’s scintillating sunlight and aerated culture. Increasingly we recognise rejections of orthogonal geometries in favour of organic flows – and in 2009 he was experimenting (again) with extreme hull-shaped cantilevers for houses on waterside sites. Also we notice stronger line and tone techniques as he gained independence, the trust of affluent clients, and international recognition as an expert architect of large residences and small commercial premises.

Rosselli’s Australian clients include cosmopolitan achievers in commerce, politics and the arts; some introduced through his wife, artist Juliet Holmes à Court. He relaxes naturally in elite circles; eased by his privileged childhood in 1960s and 1970s Milan and Varese, where he lived in a house inspired by Finland’s Alvar Aalto and appreciated the Giorgio de Chirico-influenced local architect Aldo Rossi.

Moving to French Switzerland in 1975, he studied architecture with professors Umberto Riva, Alvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo and Kenneth Frampton at the École Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne (EPFL), and prematurely won student intern stints at a Mario Botta bank project office in Fribourg (1979) and with Romaldo Giurgola’s Australian Parliament House teams in New York and Canberra (1980-81).

Rosselli’s imagination has been pollinated by often conflicting influences from the three Swiss cultures, and some of his key Australian buildings interpret concepts from Botta, Rossi, Luigi Snozzi, Paolo Portoghesi and other architects from the Ticino-Milano-Roma region. Their crafted (and often striped) brick and timber homages to Filippo Brunelleschi and Francesco Borromini exemplified the 1970-80s theoretical challenge to ‘become modern and return to sources’.

Rosselli’s advent as a delineator began around 1979, when he subversively ruined 30 major architectural monuments via sepia and blue ink paintings fired onto white porcelain dinner plates for his sister’s wedding.

More melancholy, and proficient, were his black wax crayon etchings on thick cartridge stock for two EPFL student design projects. One showed a mythical catacomb, with three Étienne Boullée-style spherical chambers (dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 book The Library of Babel, Icarus and Fury) stacked inside the giant rock beside Lausanne’s suicide-magnetic Paul Bessières Bridge.

His 1984 thesis project proposed a luxury spa hotel majestically surmounting a sheer rock cliff above the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express railway track. He exhibited this speculative resort with meticulous drawings in multiple styles, each depicting a unique indoor or outdoor scene. Some sketches demonstrated classical European interior design concepts that were jettisoned from futuristic architecture courses after the Paris student riots of 1968. The paradoxical title of that formative (prize-winning) presentation was Eclecticism Theory. In retrospect, this suggests an attempt to find clear air beyond Europe’s then-ferocious arguments among writers identified as neo-classicists, late modernists, structuralists, post-structuralists and post-modernists.

Rosselli’s sketches were diversely influenced by his supervisor Riva (himself a disciple of the sensual modernists Alvar Aalto and Carlo Scarpa) and by his occasional lecturers Botta and Siza. He also is strongly influenced by the picturesque perspectives of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (interpreting sunny Mediterranean classicism while building Prussian Berlin’s post-Napoleonic monuments), Frank Lloyd Wright (who is scantily credited for delivering the prototypes informing all twentieth century modernist houses) and Hugh Ferriss (pioneering delineator of  New York’s 1920s-30s skyscrapers).

Arriving in Manhattan with his promising portfolio, he won a contract from Aldo Giurgola to become ‘Chief Inker’ for the winning submission to Australia’s Parliament House competition. Giurgola needed a European pens expert because most American architects drew with pencils, which had been banned by Australia’s competition organisers.

However, Americans tended to be ‘scientific’ with precise junctions of line ends at corners, while Rosselli’s ‘Germanic’ supervisor for detail drawings of Rossi’s State Bank of Fribourg had demanded precise line crossovers to represent artistic exactitude. Such were some of the feeble vestiges from twentieth century modern architecture’s ‘battle of the styles’ – initiated in the 1920s by young Europe-educated architects updating radical 1906-1909 building prototypes by Adolf Loos in Vienna and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. Rosselli decided to go with the flow preferred by each employer; a propensity which partially explains his apparent ease in business dealings with clients.

Also, one of his first supporters in Manhattan, designer Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014), encouraged him to enjoy ambiguity, especially in matters of scale. Vignelli has said:

For us [Italians], ambiguity means plurality of meanings, and that’s what makes it very exciting. For the Anglo-Saxon, it is something that seems neither here nor there. … Ambiguity brings another level of richness, but it’s very very dangerous as well...it’s not for everybody.

Ambiguity of scale was satirically epitomised in Sir William Hogarth’s 1753-54 engraving for a London treatise on linear perspective. Updating the meandering, multi-scene, pictorial narratives of the Middle Ages, Hogarth broke all the rules on vanishing points that Filippo Brunelleschi proved in Florence in 1420. Hogarth’s caption noted: ‘Whoever makes a Design without the Knowledge of Perspective will be liable to such Absurdities as are shown in this Frontispiece’.

Rosselli is no satirist but his architecture often includes subtle arrangements of planes, spaces and masses at unexpected scales and proportions. Compared with ruled and measured perspectives, his freehand lines often foreshorten, elongate and otherwise distort key elements of his buildings. To exaggerate his design impulses, horizontal layers appear more tightly stacked than seems possible for the corresponding terraces in real life; cantilevered platforms and enclosures may seem to project beyond familiar laws of gravity. Yet when Rosselli’s original sketches are compared with post-completion photographs from the same points of view, his visions and realities seem remarkably congruent. That is one of the mysterious zones of aptitude shared by most brilliant architects.

How should Rosselli’s designs be interpreted in Sydney’s relatively brief history of architecture? Like other migrant architects, he has gradually adapted his a priori concepts to suit the tastes of another audience. And he has absorbed the spirits and achievements of talented predecessors who worked the same territory. Most obviously, he seems to have abandoned his early tendencies to design cubic buildings as neo-classical symbols of the human body (dividing facades into a distinct base, torso and head). Since 1998 he has been gradually strengthening a more horizontally layered approach to his facade compositions (inspired by Wright’s sprawling precedents on the US mid-west prairies); even when dealing with tight sites around Sydney’s coastal hills.

At this mature point in Rosselli’s career, he is solidly plaited into more than one lineage of distinguished Sydney predecessors, including the city’s first architecture professor, Leslie Wilkinson (bringing Mediterranean climate responses from Britain), the Canberra and Castlecrag planners Walter and Marion Griffin (trained by Wright in Chicago), and the town’s early ‘white modernists’, Sydney Ancher and Arthur Baldwinson, who introduced splendid late 1930s (Aalto-influenced) designs for houses styled like cruise liners.

Rosselli’s early Sydney projects included neo-Renaissance themes and treatments, contradicting Sydney’s 1990s avalanche of Scandinavian-Japanese minimalism. Ambitious young minimalists and smug old-schoolers jointly tagged him with Melbourne architect Robin Boyd’s warnings against ‘featurism’. However these criticisms evaporated as Rosselli matured and made friends (and were obviously fuelled by envies about his prompt access to beau monde clients.)

Rosselli’s first important Sydney house was the neo-Baroque revision of a four-square block of red brick flats at Cammeray (1987), for INXS muso Kirk Pengilly. Echoing Borromini via then-new triumphs by Portoghesi in Rome, it instantly placed Rosselli ‘out there’ as a unique architect for Sydney: one with ‘other integrities’[ beyond local precedents and politics. During council approval delays, he discovered that new perspective sketches could charm and inform his clients and other stakeholders. In the Vogue Living cover article, he said:

It’s a difficult process, making architecture …You have to help your clients believe in what you’re doing. They must be able to visualise the final composition.

One jaunty black ‘squiggle’ which crystallised his convex-concave facade elaborations was later shrunk and line-reversed to become his firm’s red and white logo. This emulates Wright’s famous miniature trademark, inspired by Oriental red ink calligraphy stamps, which autographed the approved perspectives (many on butter paper).

Wright straddled and led architecture’s key responses to the massive technology and socio-economic changes which ruptured twentieth century creativity from previous history. Rosselli’s cusp decades of practice in Australia have coincided with another transformation of technologies and paradigms in art and architecture. Like every other transmillennial architect, he has been unexpectedly required to deliver new kinds of drawings, generated with increasingly sophisticated computer design programs. In corporate contexts, traditional Beaux Arts sketches been eclipsed by virtual reality and engineering simulation videos. The conceptual foundations of architecture – structural stability, social signifcance and permanence – now are being questioned, by architects who think it may be possible for buildings to actually dance. As always, drawings precede the realities.

Rosselli is smoothly and pragmatically using digital drawing and geospatial imaging systems. While he does not personally draw parallel perspective axos or tinker with physics engines in Rhino or Kangaroo, he takes his iPad to meetings with clients to pinch-zoom around 3D aerials of their houses in Apple Maps. As a declared eclectic, his impulse is to welcome and synthesise various ideas to suit each purpose. But he has found it much easier to engage his clients via hand sketches rather than computer realism:

Most clients don’t want to suddenly ’fly through’ a digital rendition of a fait accompli. They would like to gradually get to know the different challenges and options and the architect is not always ready to illustrate exact finishes and colours for the proposal.

In 1959, around the time that Jørn Utzon revealed his Opera House for Sydney and Wright died while building New York’s Guggenheim Museum (both white monuments juxtaposing rectilinear and spherical geometries in different ways), Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen argued for integrated design strategies that enhanced users’ ‘experience’.

Architecture is something indivisible, something you cannot separate into a number of elements. … Architecture is not produced simply by adding plans and sections to elevations. It is something else and something more.

Rosselli’s multi-faceted career seems to be a quest towards enlightened cohesion. His goal appears not so much the illusion of spezzatura, but what he calls ‘character’ … the entirely balanced constitution of a being.

This essay, with illustrations and footnotes, was published as the foreword to the 2015 exhibition catalogue Perspectives: Thirty Years of Architectural Drawings by Luigi Rosselli 1985–2015.