‘Imagination and fantasy can only blossom from the knowledge of the real,’ said the architect Aldo Rossi. The epigram appears in the Blue Notebooks, a personal and professional journal Rossi started in the late 1960s. It was a discipline he maintained over three decades, filling 47 volumes, which continue to offer an insight into his unique take on the poetry and practicalities of architecture and a wider creative life.

Born in 1931, he died just before the turn of the century. In that time, he established a reputation as one of the 20th century’s leading architectural voices, and was the first Italian to win the Pritzker Prize, in 1990. Rossi cut a distinctive figure with his expansive creativity, passion for any kind of talent and virtuosity, and solid belief in the vital role of the architect within society. He had an appreciation for film, theatre and books, which informed his take on architecture and the city as an organic environment. ‘One cannot make architecture without studying the condition of life in the city,’ he stated.

He is now the subject of an extensive retrospective exhibition at the MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome, while his iconic ‘Piroscafo’ bookcase is being reissued in a new edition by Molteni & C, one of his longstanding collaborators. 

‘Aldo Rossi, The Architect and the Cities’ at MAXXI Museum in Rome

Aldo Rossi MAXXI architecture model
Aldo Rossi’s project model for the UBS office building in Lugano

In 2001, the museum acquired 2,000 graphics and drawings, 1,895 photographs, 11 models and 30 files of documents from his archive for its permanent  collection, which now form the backbone of the retrospective. ‘We are proud that such an extensive and comprehensive exhibition is presented in Rome’, says the museum’s president Giovanna Melandri.

‘Aldo Rossi, The Architect and the Cities’, curated by Alberto Ferlenga, is born of a collective effort involving the museum, heirs Vera and Fausto Rossi, and Aldo Rossi Foundation curator, Chiara Spangaro, as well as various international institutions. Spangaro says: ‘Rossi had always been an intellectual and a designer with an articulated vision without borders, and he continued to investigate the connection between past and future, to bring his historical and theoretical reflections and his architecture from Milan to Italy and the world.’ 

Aldo Rossi sketches San Cataldo Modena
A sketch by Aldo Rossi drawn for a competition to expand the San Cataldo cemetery in Modena

The exhibition explores Rossi’s extraordinary influence, both practical and theoretical, and particularly of his ideas around urban vitality and renewal. His 1966 masterpiece, The Architecture of the City, is still a canonical text for architects and urban planners. Rossi had a special sense for cities: having experienced the horrifying destruction of the Second World War, he felt a real commitment to rebuilding his country – but applied the same passion and ideas all over the world and in diverse cultural contexts. Ferlenga adds that Rossi had ‘the sensitivity of a poet and the depth of a scholar’. 

The exhibition has been divided into two main sections, one covering Rossi’s work in his own country (including the San Cataldo cemetery in Modena, designed with Gianni Braghieri in 1971 and still unfinished, and the Theatre of the World in Venice, designed in 1979), while the second explores his work abroad (including the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, Disney’s Celebration Place in Florida, the Hotel Il Palazzo in Fukuoka, and the Quartier Schützenstrasse in Berlin). Rossi was a committed traveller and passionate about the value of travel, as witnessed in his theoretical approach and his activity as a designer; the Theatre of the World, conceived for  Paolo Portoghesi’s 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale, was a floating theatre, positioned in front of Punta della Dogana for the duration of the event, and then sailed to and from Dubrovnik before being dismounted. 

‘Piroscafo’ bookcase by Aldo Rossi for Molteni & C

Molteni Piroscafo by Aldo Rossi
The ‘Piroscafo’ bookcase, from £3,315, by Aldo Rossi and Luca Meda, reissued in a warm spice colour by Molteni & C

Rossi’s ability to think in big and small scales is clear in furniture designs such as the ‘Piroscafo’ bookcase (the name meaning ‘steamship’ in Italian), conceived in 1991 for Molteni & C, with his friend Luca Meda, who then served as art director of the Italian company. Molteni & C and its sister company, UniFor, are sponsoring the exhibition, and contributed original pieces from its archives as well as creating the museum’s display cases.

The ‘Piroscafo’ could be regarded as a floating palace in which imagination and fantasy can sail free. Its design, featuring long, unbroken, windowed walls of wood and glass, references the houses on the rocky, windy Atlantic coasts of Portugal and Galicia, which Rossi discovered during one of his trips. The idea of a boat interested the architect, who, in his creations, was keen on abstract associations: a charming object in the middle of the ocean, able to move people and things. Conceived like a building, it becomes host to objects, clothes, displaced memories, dreams and hopes. After 30 years, Molteni & C is now re-editing it in a warm spice colour with eucalyptus interiors.

Aldo Rossi sketches
A sketch by Aldo Rossi of the Centro Fontivegge, whose architecture inspired the design of the ‘Piroscafo’ bookcase

The idea for the bookcase came during a winter walk in Perugia. One cold afternoon, Rossi and Meda were walking through the Centro Fontivegge, the headquarters of Umbria’s regional council, which Rossi had designed. Construction had begun on the building in 1982 but had then been partly terminated in 1989, leaving numerous parts unfinished. Carlo Molteni, owner of Molteni & C and UniFor recalls, ‘The two were deep in conversation, but suddenly they stood still, their gaze fixed on the building’s large green glass façade, next to a chimney from the former Perugina chocolate factory. And here comes the stroke of genius: turn the façade of the building into a glass-fronted display cabinet! In just a few months, their intuition took concrete form and, at the 1991 Salone del Mobile in Milan, four large compositions were presented, two featuring white façades and two with Prussian green, in a place of pride at our stand.’

Aldo Rossi Molteni Luca Meda
From left: architect Luca Meda, owner of Molteni & C Carlo Molteni, graphic designer Dieter Pesch and Aldo Rossi photographed in Cologne during the furniture fair, 1990

Rossi became close to the Molteni family, even advising Molteni’s daughter Francesca on her choice of university subject (she is now a leading director of design films). Recalls Carlo Molteni: ‘Aldo Rossi has been crucial for us, he was a guide. His legacy is very important to Molteni & C and UniFor, and he defined the company’s history for almost 20 years. Today, our intention is to re-edit some of his most significant pieces to be part of the Heritage Collection, which includes other masterpieces, among them Gio Ponti and Afra and Tobia Scarpa.’ §