Not all Australian architects start out working on the design of Canberra’s Parliament House — but Architect Luigi Rosselli certainly isn’t run-of-the-mill. The Italian-born and raised designer holds the Milan design spirit of the sixties and seventies close to his heart, attributing a love of his craft to the zealous design circles of his childhood.
Coming from a long line of engineers, Luigi Rosselli took the road less travelled by enrolling in architecture. His early years of study in Switzerland involved the words and know-how of European masters and time spent learning in New York City made for rich experience when Rosselli debuted down under. He started up his own practice in Sydney 1984, and as the clients flocked, Luigi Rosselli’s name came to define a distinct sculptural style and iconic yellow trace sketches.
Luigi Rosselli’s iconic residential work comes from a modest mix of wisdom and intuition. The geometry of his designs have always struck a chord here at est; lining Tamarama’s surf and set high in Bellevue Hill. What a pleasure it was to be given the opportunity to speak with the man himself, to explore the evolution of Australian design and the contentious comparison of Melbourne and Sydney. In the company of the eminent architect, we couldn’t resist asking for a design secret or two and the spaces he spies on for new project inspiration. Of course with his eyes always focused to the future, Luigi is working towards great design to be shared by all.
How did your childhood experiences impact your path as a designer? What was your biggest learning from studying in Milan and Switzerland?
Luigi Rosselli: Growing up in the sixties and seventies, there was a rich enthusiasm in the Milan design world and that was contagious, especially in our family. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were all engineers. I was always surrounded by magazines; a lot of them were about construction, but Italian engineering in the sixties had a lot of crossovers and influences from architecture. There were a lot of architect-engineers and engineer-architects coming out of the same school; there was a lot of cross-pollination. We had a lot of family friends that were architects or involved heavily in design such as Gio Ponti that were a great influence to leading me down the architecture path. I spent quite a few years living in a home heavily influenced by Scandinavian design. After so many generations of engineers I became the architect — which was a bit like the black sheep — because I didn’t continue the tradition, but my brother did follow in their footsteps.
I got very relaxed about the relationship between history, old buildings and furniture and contemporary design. The two were often side by side and there were no etiquette of separating them which was the case for many years in Australia. In Australia you either reconstructed to the heritage or you kept them completely seperate; you never mixed the two. My relaxation helped my design practice to not worry too much about having heritage and modernity combined.
In Switzerland, I studied at a university that was very well financed and not overcrowded. So there was a great personal relationship between professionals and students; a great student-teacher ratio. It was attracting all the best professionals from Europe at the time who taught but still run their practice. We had incredible personalities teaching us and inspiring us; it was very memorable.
You came to live in Australia in 1984 and started up your practice a year later. What was the first thing you noticed about Australian architecture when you arrived?
LR: Firstly, I came in 1980, working as a student for Romaldo Giurgola & Thorp’s team designing Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra and stayed for about a year; I then returned in 1984. After working in New York City and then going to Canberra, the lack of density was something I had never experienced. It was a shock but I really enjoyed the time I spent in Canberra. I also really noticed the insular aspect of architecture and design in Australia at the time. There was a very clear colonial influence from England and a subsequent North American influence. Influences that were very important in Europe, weren’t alive in Australia. In a way, this was a bonanza for me, allowing me to open a studio very quickly. There was a hunger for external influence and so I was quickly given two projects by clients for my more European approach and international background — a very good asset. I was lucky to get sufficient work to start my own practice.
What is the most prominent thing about Australian design that has changed since?
LR: Thirty and a bit years later, a lot has changed in Australian design. The insular aspect has gone, which has come with the accessibility of travel and the internet, opening up horizons. People at the time I started my practice were quite closed, architects knew each other and new architects were quite isolated if they went to a different school or same university. Today I think there are more connections and communication between architects and you’re not restricted by who you know. I think it’s a much broader palette and diversity in the design scene and far more experimentation. A new generation are keen on breaking the bad habits of a the previous generation so they are trying to find housing alternatives such as materials — which is kind of the norm in Europe.
More than 1,000 of your architectural sketches were displayed as part of the exhibition; ‘A Perspective: 30 year of Sketches by Luigi Rosselli Architect’. What role does drawing play in your work – what do you think they say about your approach and your design legacy?
LR: I always liked drawing as a kid. My father built bridges so as a little child, I spent a lot of time imitating them in my drawings. My brother and I used to compete with our designs and how complex they were.
My sketches are my personal contribution to every project. After the project architect develops the plan and concept, I come in and sketch on yellow trace to formalise the building. The success rates with the client liking the design and not making changes is 90% but computer rendering had a much lower success rate. The reason is that people at the early stage of a design, they cannot be put in front of a very realistic design because they don’t like the details; the plants, the colours etc. My sketches leave a bit more to the imagination, but sufficiently descriptive, to give a pretty image of the future image. Then we work out the details later on; that way the building can grow with the client. I find an image that’s too realistic can scare off the clients.
Your work is distinct by its sculptural style. How do you create the curves in your work and why is it a reoccurring theme?
LR: Everyone owns the curves, but I definitely like to use them in my work. A good builder will tell you curves cost and squares and corners are cheap and it’s also a material thing — bricks obviously aren’t round. When working with concrete, the cost of a square and a curve isn’t very different in the scheme of things.
You look in nature and you see curves everywhere. Why do we have to have everything orthogonal and edgy and angular? Smooth and fluid corners make movement from A to B far easier. A lot of my projects have curved corners or angle walls but softly done so that it favours a certain fluidity of movement, views and solar aspects. Curves are one element of geometry that’s very easy to use and I’m not afraid to use it. While some architects have banned it from their vocabulary, I have included it — but I know I’m not the only one.
Our buildings are sometimes used as inspiration for developers to convey the look and feel of what they want to achieve. So we say in our office, never do the same things for more than five years in a row. Sooner or later, you will have someone do it poorly or badly and there’s going to be a detail, material or a shape that may be embarrassing in 10 years time. So we keep on evolving, keeping everyone in the office awake and keen on their work. We try to never do the same work twice.
Can you share a rule from your personal design book?
LR: Rule number one: rules are there to be broken. Rule number two: always be inquisitive and research, never get stuck in habits. Be curious about what’s happening around you, that will develop new points of view and aspect to your design.
How is design different in Sydney from other parts of Australia? What do you see for the future of Sydney design?
LR: In terms of multi-residential design, I think Melbourne is better than Sydney; Sydney is heavily influenced by the ‘America’ look. The experimentation is in Sydney, but it’s a minority. I think Melbourne has more happening. Sydney developers are very conservative and tend to stick to what has been done before, to ensure they aren’t taking too many risks. But it is improving.
There is mobility practicing in Sydney. I get asked to do a lot of projects in Brisbane, Melbourne and Western Australia and vice versa. It is changing, but I think in general Melbourne is more conceptual in the development of architecture and design. Sydney looks more to the sculptural details. Overall, I don’t think there aren’t huge differences.
Finally, what have you not yet achieved and wish to fulfil?
LR: Obviously I have a reputation of building for the wealthy; that is something that I sometimes regret. I think we are looking at having a seperate pro bono office that works on low budget or low fees and is supported by the main office. That is my plan which is yet to be fulfilled.
Your quick insider guide:
1. Favourite local designers or studios
Smart Design Studio, Vokes and Peters, Casey Brown and Henry Wilson.
2. Favourite design stores
3. Favourite galleries and spaces
4. Where do you go to look at great design?
Travel; the Biennale Architecttura in Venice, Milan, Paris and Berlin.
Architecture exists in time, place and space. Each time is different, each place has its own opportunities and challenges, and so each space must respond uniquely.
“I believe it is possible to settle a building on its site, create a marriage and a dialogue with that site. … I don’t think the building needs to fly over the site …I think there should be a strong connection between the building and the land.” Luigi Rosselli
A building is the result of collaboration between client and architect. An architect who dominates the relationship, who imposes a style on the client does not understand the nature of the relationship. The architect should listen as much as speak, question as much as state.
“In general throughout the years, I have produced a great variety of buildings and this is because they respond to different environments and different clients. In designing a house, my motto is – ‘it takes two to tango’” Luigi Rosselli
A great building, be it house or school or church, is more than the sum of its material parts. The architect should add another element – call it soul, call it poetry, or call it personality. Whatever it is called, without it, any building merely takes up space.
The does not mean a building should shout to be looked at, or jar in its streetscape or environment. It means finding the spirit of the place and locating it in the building.
“Any art has a certain lyrical quality and poetic tension, this is what creates great buildings” Luigi Rosselli
This would not happen without an experienced team of architects that can deliver a result on time, on budget, and one which is as practical as it is beautiful in every detail.
“With my colleagues we are a very tight knit team, with common beliefs and goals in building sustainable, humane and well constructed architecture, efficiently” Luigi Rosselli
Finally, architects – and their buildings – are the sum total of their mentors, the cities in which they have worked and lived, and the influences they have absorbed and synthesised.
“After many years spent seeking wisdom and knowledge from the world, the places where I have worked, and the distinguished architects such as Mario Botta, Alvaro Siza and Aldo Giurgola with whom I have studied and worked, I settled in Sydney. For me, it is the best place to live. It is here that I am able to share that wisdom and knowledge with skilled and creative collaborators. I have brought my cosmopolitan pebbles to lie among the varied and colourful pebbles of Australian architecture.” Luigi Rosselli