Luigi Rosselli is one of Australia’s best known and most admired architects.
He also happens to be a terrific bloke. I love Luigi’s work so much that I asked him to design my home and I’m fortunate enough to be selling one of his other creations at 2/12 St Neot Avenue, Potts Point. I sat down with Luigi recently to ask him about his illustrious career, his philosophy, and what makes good architecture.
Luigi, what drew you to architecture?
As a child, I grew up in Milan, surrounded by great design and beautiful architecture. My family was also involved in the construction industry. It was a boom time in post-War Europe and we were seeing new buildings coming up everywhere. I became very interested in how things were put together and I started building my own mini-structures and learned plastering as a teenager. My first real construction was with timber. It was a cubby house I built with my sister. It was so large it was habitable and had two bedrooms.
How did you end up in Australia? What brought you here?
I studied architecture in Lausanne in Switzerland and less than a year later I was working for one of the world’s great architects, Mario Botta. He took me to New York and then I ended up coming to Australia to work on the new parliament house in Canberra. That was 1980, so I have now been here many decades.
How did you transition from designing on a massive scale like parliament house to residential buildings?
Italian architects pride themselves on being able to design anything ‘from the spoon to the city’. So you will see Italian architects interested in the contents of the home as well as the home itself. They design anything from handles, hardware, lights and furniture to large buildings. I have a family friend who designed an entire city!
The principles of design remain the same, you just need to apply them on a different scale. When I came to Canberra and then Sydney I intentionally chose to work for small firms to be closer to the work. That is how you develop contact with trades and learn who is a good carpenter or builder or concreter, and who can execute your designs. That is essential when working on a smaller scale.
What does it take to be a good architect?
I think it’s a lot of things but the short version is that you need to have a sense of interest, not just in design but in the assembling of materials. You need to understand the components of buildings and materials and have a broad knowledge. I think it pays to always keep your eyes open, to look at things when you travel and notice that there are different ways of building. You could look at a building in France or India, or in the cold weather in Russia or Scandinavia and realise that the windows may be different to what you’re used to but there may be something you can apply to your design. It’s like learning a language, you need to have a good sense of proportions, and to be able to dissect buildings and other things and appreciate why they are beautiful. That is not just size or opulence. Most often something is beautiful for proportion and balance.
On top of that, I think you need a lot of luck. I have been incredibly lucky and appreciate that. You need to be prepared to move around a lot and to take opportunities when you see them. You also need to be able to see the opportunities when they arise.
Tell me about how your architecture has changed over the years?
My work is very different to when I started in Australia in the 1980s and that’s a very good thing. The world changes and if an architect entrenches himself in one way of considering the world it becomes very sad. We have a lot of young architects in our office and it brings a stimulus of ideas and challenges me to reconsider some of my preconceptions. An architect should be surfing with the world, not opposing it with his age or with his stubbornness, but discovering something new every moment of every day of every year.
We also have to speak the language of our time. We don’t build for ourselves but for other people. We use this word ‘humanist’ and it may sound a bit pretentious but we have to think that someone is going to live in our creation and someone must live next door to it. We don’t want people to hate what we have designed. We don’t want to scandalise or create division between people who love and hate what we do.
What is the biggest design challenge you’ve ever faced?
My biggest challenge was also my favourite ever project, which we completed in the Pilbara. An architect’s work should always be tailor-made and we had to take this building from design to completion in a year, which requires a huge effort even without the remoteness. The building is approximately 1,300km north of Perth. The project brief was to build 12 bungalows in a sand dune and in close proximity to a historical homestead, that was beautiful in its own right. We also had to make sure the structures were cyclone proof. We ended up using the materials that were available to us on the site, and this led us to construct a 230 metre rammed earth wall from the clay in the ground, as well as gravel from the adjacent river. We also used water from the river as bonding.
The result was a building with cyclone-proof curved glass windows and the longest rammed earth wall in the southern hemisphere. When you look at it from aerial photos it looks like Aboriginal paintings of a rainbow serpent looking out from the spinifex. It was such a unique exercise and it gave me a few grey hairs but I was happy with how it turned out. It was very well received and won awards around the world.
What’s your favourite building in Sydney?
I love the Wentworth Memorial Church in Vaucluse. Unfortunately, it’s not a church anymore but it is a beautifully designed structure. One of my other favourites is not a building at all, but the Glebe Island Bridge that the Anzac Bridge replaced. It is a cute little structure. I think Sydney does maritime architecture well and there are many good examples of it, including the Sydney Opera House.
What about your own buildings?
One of my favourites is the first building I built here in 1989. It was in Cottage Point and I designed it for Andrew Farriss from INXS. I think it has survived the decades well and that it looks even better now than when it was built – a very good response to the beautiful bush environment in which it is located.
Currently, I very much love another project which was the refurbishment of a 60s house called Homage to Oscar. It was such a stunning house, which gave us great inspiration for the lifestyle we helped create. We brought the garden inside the house and there are no demarcations between inside and outside.
What can Australian architects learn from Italians – or vice versa?
I haven’t lived in Italy for many years but I still think Italians have this wonderful mixture of engineering and architecture, even if the bridges tend to fall down from time to time. Italians who come to Australia often appreciate the openness and the ease of life that our houses present. They are often much more integrated into the landscape.
What advice would you give to my readers about how to choose an architect and then work with them through the design process and build?
You have to have an affinity for their work and their design. These days it is easier than ever to research someone through the internet and social media. I think you should also drive or walk around and see what they have done in your local area. You shouldn’t go too far from home if you can help it and you should make sure you like what they do. Let somebody else commission them first and test them out. I know this can be unfair to younger architects but if they’re clever they’ll still know how to make themselves visible in a very short time. We live in an immediate society.
You should also make sure you judge them on what they have done in the real world, not just on drawings. People often say “I saw this home,” and will point to a drawing or a computer generated image but you should judge people on what exists In reality. It’s important that an architect doesn’t just design nice things but they can actually execute their ideas. This also means that they’re capable of dealing with the council and getting approval.
A new home or renovations are major costs, so you need to be confident an architect can also design to any budget and, just as importantly, that they can stick to a budget.
When you’re working with an architect you need to be careful not to flood them it’s too many images of things you like. If you do, they can be contradictory and confuse rather than help. When I receive too many images I can tell that the clients don’t really know what they want. That gives you a virgin field to develop your own ideas.
Finally, Luigi, your designs always stand out for the right reasons even though every single one of them is different. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My stomping ground is around Clovelly and, if I’m not at work, you’ll often find me on the beach or around the cliffs there. I love the rock shelves and the strong colours that you see around the coastline there.
Because these can sometimes be too bold for a whole home, I’ve actually started to do some ceramic work that incorporates these colours.
Thanks for your time, Luigi.
Luigi’s designs have won several major global awards, including the Archdaily Building of the Year 2016 – Housing category and the TERRA Award for Earthen Architecture 2016. You can see the Pilbara building here. And, you can view more of Luigi’s work on Instagram or at his website.
Photo credit: Luigi Rosselli website