Aldo Rossi received the Pritzker Prize, the highest prize in the field of architecture in 1990. At the time he was the most well known Italian architect worldwide. His treatise L’Architettura della Citta’ (1966) remains one of the most important books on architecture and urbanism of the twentieth century, marking an entire profession’s move away from the tabula rasa inclinations of Modernism towards a more contextual and typological approach to urbanism.
In 1981 Rossi published a more personal book called Autobiografia Scientifica, in which he describes a youthful trip to the Soviet Union, which marked an important point in his formation as an architectural thinker. It is in these passages that we can understand a dimension of Rossi’s work that has long been overlooked: his relationship to the historical turn of architecture during the Stalinist period of the Soviet Union. It is in this architecture that Aldo Rossi saw a way out of a Modernism with which the majority of people had failed to identify with and take pride in. It would not be an overstatement to say that Aldo Rossi’ trip to the Soviet Union was one of those seminal events that would, with the translation of The Architecture of the City into English in 1982, change the entire course of Western architecture.
Aldo Rossi’s complex lesson on European urbanism can be inferred in its embryonic stage from the few words he wrote about his trip to the USSR. Of course, as Rossi wrote and practiced during the Cold War, all contemporary critical works on Rossi in the English language have sought to minimize how his architectural theory was defined by this youthful trip to the Soviet Union. It is now time to revisit these words, as they hold an important and long misplaced key of interpretation to his entire theoretical and built work.
This is what Aldo Rossi wrote about Russia:
When I was around twenty years old, I was invited to the Soviet Union. This was a particularly happy time for me, and as a result of it my youth became associated with an experience which was then unique.
I loved everything about Russia: socialist realism as well as the old cities, the people and the landscape.
Rossi describes how socialist realism helped rid himself of his attachment to modern architecture:
My interest in socialist realism helped me rid myself of the entire petit-bourgeois culture of modern architecture: I preferred the alternative of the broad streets of Moscow, the pleasant and provocative architecture of the subway, and the university on Lenin’s hills. I saw emotion mixing with a desire to construct a new world.
Rossi clarifies how this trip shaped his entire approach to architecture:
Many people now ask me what that period meant to me, and I believe I have to say, above all, that I became conscious of the possibility that architecture could be unified with popular pride, like the pride of the students of Moscow and the farmers by the Don, who showed me schools and houses.
Rossi goes to write about how he always saw Stalinist architecture as a positive development, despite the prevailing view within the profession at the time that it represented some kind of top down repression, rather than a change in direction that sought to address the lack of identification of the masses with the Constructivist model:
I have never returned to the Soviet Union, but I am proud that I have always defended the great architecture of the Stalinist period, which could have been transformed into an important alternative for modern architecture but was abandoned for no clear reason. A friend recently sent me a postcard from Moscow which reproduces the university in the greenish-blue light of the meadow and the sky, and I noted with joy how these buildings are authentic monuments that have also the capacity to be faithful to that holiday atmosphere which is displayed on every tourist postcard.
My defense of Soviet architecture has always involved me in polemics, but I have never abandoned it.
I am also aware that my obstinacy may have what I would call a private or autobiographical character. One morning, after being released from a brief stay in a hospital in Odessa, I was walking along the sea and I had the precise perception of a memory, or rather I was positively reliving this moment as a memory. I rediscovered this same experience in Vassily Sushkin’s film A Man’s Life, which I also associate with Alexander Dovzhenko’s Michurin, the film which became the basis of my essay on “The Awareness of the Power to Control Nature.” This seems to me a silly title, but it is like a program, and like every program, it remains independent of its shortcomings.
Aldo Rossi concludes his memories on Russia by reflecting on the relationship of geography to his own education:
In speaking of places, the Russia of my early youth and the others I later visited, I see how a scientific investigation of one’s work becomes almost a geography of one’s education. And perhaps if I had developed this book according to a different scheme, I could have called it The Geography of My Projects.
Further on, when writing about his Teatro del Mondo he compares its tower to one of the towers of the Kremlin:
The tower of my Venetian theater might be a lighthouse or a clock; the campanile might be a minaret or one of the towers of the Kremlin: the analogies are limitless, seen, as they are, against the background of this preeminently analogous city. I think it was at Izmir that I watched and heard the awakening minarets in insomniac dawns: in Moscow, I experienced the frisson of the Kremlin’s towers and sensed the world of the Mongols and of wooden watchtowers set on some boundless plain-I sensed things in this way far more than as elements reducible to those we call architecture.
Rossi summarizes his position with regards to modern architecture:
I must say that I have always had an ambivalent attitude toward modern architecture-and quite unwillingly. I made a thorough study of it at the start of my career, especially in relation to the city, and so when I recently saw the vast working-class neighborhoods in Berlin, particularly Berlin-Britz, and in Frankfurt, I felt a great admiration for the building of these new cities. But as I have already said, I have always completely rejected the whole moralistic and petit-bourgeois aspect of modern architecture. This has been clear to me since the beginning of my studies, especially because of my admiration for Soviet architecture: I think the so-called Stalinist architecture-a term which I use in a purely chronological sense-was abandoned for no reason. This abandonment was a capitulation to the culture of modern architecture, whose utter failure we see today not only in Europe but in every country throughout the world.
Read More: Scientific Autobiography (Oppositions Books)