The White Tail of Milan

In 1609, Paolo Morigia wrote of the uninterestingness of the Milanese palazzi from the outside, yet compared the interiors to “paradises on earth” (Ballabio et al., 2017, p. 11). If Morigia was alive in the 1970s, he might have said the same of the Milanese “red dinosaur with a white tail,” commonly known as the Monte Amiata, a housing complex in the Gallaratese district by Carlo Aymonino and Aldo Rossi. This essay will focus primarily on building D: the simplest of the five and the only one designed by Rossi. A piece of architecture that conceals its internal variability through its façades, emphasizes some of its parts by cancelling out others, and reminds us of history.

Rossi’s publication Architettura della città, of 1966, was the culmination of his initial research and the foundation of his semiotic interpretation of buildings as urban artifacts. He desired an architecture that came from the old city, an architecture of the city. He investigated the city’s finite parts, its individual buildings, each invested with a distinct character. By architecture, he said, “I mean not only the visible image of the city and the sum of its different architectures, but architecture as construction, the construction of the city over time.” (Kirk, 2005, p. 208)

In November of 1967, Aymonino invited Rossi to design the Northern extension of the complex. Rossi proposed a white, elongated slab with shared galleries, “a building form as recognizable to Italians as town houses are to the English”(Kirk, 2005, p. 210).

West elevation and its proportions
East elevation and its proportions

The complex deliberately ignores the surroundings and establishes its point of reference. It has its own oppositions and similarities, exposed structures and concealed corridors. Yet the exterior of building D relates more to the outside than to its inner logic. Rossi went against the tendency of modernist architects to directly express the structure through the elevations.

Consider, for example, Eero Saarinen’s conviction that the beauty of his CBS building consists in it being the simplest skyscraper statement in New York. “When you look at this building,” he said, “you will know exactly what is going on” (Baird, 1969/2000, p. 45). Rossi’s approach, as we will see, is in stark contrast to this.

Rossi was working when architecture neither supported the coherence of a modern style nor took a reactionary stance against the modern; it mostly aspired simply to represent an evolution of modern innovations. (Eisenman & Iturbe, 2020, p. 46)

If Eisenman is right, Rossi’s building is not postmodernit is late modern. It owes much to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation and is in a sense its development, but saying this doesn’t capture the novelties of this work. It also owes much to the Milanese case di ringhiera (“guard rail houses”), a type of housing with several apartments sharing an open gallery on each floor.

A casa di ringhiera by Paolo Monti (Milan, 1970) [1]

The building, however, is still quite idiosyncratic. Even within the Monte Amiata complex, it stands in obvious opposition to Aymonino’s machine-like complexity and individuation of parts into discrete elements.

In the Gallaratese Quarter in Milan, in opposition to the moderated expressionism of Carlo Aymonino, who articulates his residential blocks as they converge upon the hub of the open-air theatre in a complex play of artificial streets and tangles, Rossi sets the hieratic purism of his geometric block, which is kept aloof from every ideology, from every utopian proposal for a “new lifestyle.”

The complex designed by Aymonino wishes to underscore each solution, each joint, each formal artifice. Aymonino declaims the language of superimposition and of complexity, in which single objects, violently yoked together, insist upon flaunting their individual role within the entire “machine.” These objects of Aymonino’s are full of “memories.” And yet, quite significantly, Aymonino, by entrusting to Rossi the design for one of the blocks in this quarter, seems to have felt the need to stage a confrontation with an approach utterly opposed to his own, that is, with a writing in which memory is contracted into hieratic segments. It is here that we find, facing the proliferation of Aymonino’s signs, the absolute sign of Rossi, involuntarily and cunningly captured by the play of that proliferation. (Tafuri, 1974/2000 pp. 156-7)

Building B

If we compare Rossi’s building to modernist ones, several of its characteristics mark it as distinct in style. Both façades are flat with an array of functionally unnecessary pillars and square openings at regular intervals. The West façade might seem so repetitive that the arrays should become meaningless like background noise—emphasizing the part that rests on cylindrical columns—but irregular balconies and window blinds make the façade more chaotic than it seems at first.

The forms of the International Style of the twenties (in Italy called Rationalist) are revived, simplified, clarified, made stiff and static. Architecture is reduced to its geometric essentials in the typical Neoclassic way, recalling that of Ledoux. It is very Italian: the conception is on the one hand utterly immaterial and Neoplatonic, all pure idea and primary shapes in the ancient tradition of Renaissance humanist theory. But, as is also typical of Italian architecture, the forms are also very physical. They are heavy—in which they differ most from their Rational predecessors—solemn, and insistently repetitive, casting ominous shadows like those painted by de Chirico so long ago. (Scully, 2003, p.163)

Misterio y Melancolía de una Calle by Giorgio de Chirico (1914) [2]

Following Adolf Loos, Rossi uses no stylistic ornamentation. His “white blade” calls up images of ancient colonnades and de Chirico paintings, the Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares and the Milanese case di ringhiera, Le Corbusier’s Unité and Louis Kahn’s drawing of the hypostyle hall at Karanak through primary elements: doors, windows, walls, columns, stairs, and openings.

The east façade, the one you see first when entering the complex from the metro station, is a screen in front of a corridor which conceals the irregularity of doors and windows on the inside. It makes the corridor a space that is neither outside nor inside. Moreover, the square openings make us think that the building has two floors of apartments, when in fact it has three.

East façade screen and corridor

As such, this outer façade is like a mask with openings at an urban scale that do not correspond to individual rooms inside and that obscure the domestic scale behind it. This “frees” the façade from the logic of function, which differs from the modern free façade that “freed” itself from the logic of structure. (Eisenman & Iturbe, 2020, p. 51)

The opposite façade operates within a similar framework: it is regular with three strips of square openings but also obscures the variability inside. The apartments have balconies at specific intervals, but this is not apparent from the outside.

West façade screen and balconies

Following Le Corbusier, the building stands on a colonnade. Here, however, the columns can also be seen as walls which partially enclose the gallery inside. The depth of these columns makes the outside visible only if we look directly—when looking at an angle, all we see is an array of walls and shadows.

Rossi’s work—both at the urban and domestic scale—counters Le Corbusier’s insistence that modernism marked a divisive moment in history against which one could measure a before and an after. Rossi espoused a more nuanced notion of time, studying transformations in the urban fabric across time. For Rossi, there was no single moment that marked a new beginning in the city, as evidenced by his interest in Canaletto’s “capricci” or his collaboration with Arduino Cantafora on the mural Città Analogica of 1973 and his own collage of the same name of 1976. (Eisenman & Iturbe, 2020, p. 54)

Another feature of this building is the contrast between inner luminosity and outer darkness. In a 17th century Spanish monastery, Rossi “noted a striking luminosity which contradicted the nearly prison-like aspect of the exterior façade. The same shouts that reached the outside of the convent were perceived on the inside with even greater sharpness, as in a theater. In the same way the young man’s eyes perceive the sight of the exterior as in a theater, or as one who watches a performance” (Rossi, 1981/2009, p. 3).

Mosteiro de San Paio de Antealtares, Spain [3]

How is this effect achieved? The corridor, the frequency of windows, and their size. When looking at the east façade, the only thing we see through the screen is the dark ceiling of the corridor. Inside, the sun illuminates our path.

Analyzed in this way, we can see where Aldo Rossi diverged from his modernist predecessors and where he followed them. We can see how a building can conceal variability through repetition, look dark yet lack no illumination, emphasize its parts through noise, ignore its context yet look familiar, and simultaneously remind us of housing blocks, paintings, prisons, and monasteries.

  • Baird, G. (1969). “La Dimension Amoureuse” in Architecture. In Hays, K. M. (2000). Architecture Theory since 1968. MIT Press.
  • Ballabio, F., Hockemeyer, L., Sherer, D., & Sparke, P. (2017). Entryways of Milan. Taschen.
  • Eisenman, P., & Iturbe, E. (2020). Lateness. Princeton University Press.
  • Kirk, T. (2005). The Architecture of Modern Italy: Visions of Utopia, 1900-Present – Volume 2. Princeton Architectural Press.
  • Rossi, A. (2009). Autobiografia scientifica. Il Saggiatore. (Original work published 1981)
  • Scully, V. J. (2003). Modern Architecture and Other Essays. Princeton University Press.
  • Tafuri, M. (1974). L’Architecture dans le Boudoir: The Language of Criticism and the Criticism of Language. In Hays, K. M. (2000). Architecture Theory since 1968. MIT Press.
  1. By Paolo Monti – Available in the BEIC digital library and uploaded in partnership with BEIC Foundation. The image comes from the Fondo Paolo Monti, owned by BEIC and located in the Civico Archivio Fotografico of Milan., CC BY-SA 4.0,
  3. By Graeme Churchard from Bristol (51.4414, -2.5242), UK – Santiago de Compostela, Spain-29Uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0,

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