“Then came the colours of the sunset, and those of twilight.
“Faint lights peppered the landscape, which was suddenly painted grey.
“Then, there was the black of the night.”
“The horizon lit up and an immense stretch of houses appeared before my eyes.
“It was in that moment, that I saw Canberra for the very first time.
“I realised it was a real city. It existed. I wasn’t in the middle of a forest.”
It was the spring of 1981.
A 25-year-old graduate by the name of Luigi Rosselli sat at a table in that restaurant with architects and technicians, having been sent over from New York by the American firm Mitchell Giurgola to work on the construction of Parliament House.
Fast-forward 38 years, and Rosselli is now one of Australia’s most celebrated architects, thanks to his humanist approach and unmistakable style, which lies somewhere between history and modernity.
He lives in his studio in Surry Hills, surrounded by hundreds of books lining shelves which wind along a vast area, forming a maze in which maths and creativity combine to create masterpieces – great and small – that have made their mark in the history of modern Australian architecture, starting with Parliament House.
But how did a young intern manage to make it onto the team in charge of one of the most important architectural projects of the era?
“Luck and fate,” Rosselli laughs.
“I was a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne when I decided to venture to the US.
“I was collaborating with the professor Mario Botta when some friends asked the architect Romaldo Giurgola if he wanted to take on a trainee in his New York studio.”
Giurgola replied: “If they work with ink I’ll take them.”
“At that time, everyone worked with pencil but the project for Parliament House required ink designs... Luckily for me,” Rosselli recounts.
And that’s how his career as an architect began.
“Starting with that dinner a few hours after my arrival in Canberra, the whole experience was amazing,” he says.
“I made special friends and achieved professional fulfilment.
“They gave me the job of raising the building by several metres from the original design, to reduce the cost of the works.
“When I finalised the designs, based on precise measurements due to the conformation and structure of the territory, they were sent to the Senate committee.
“The next day, a national paper published an article that proudly stated: ‘Our Parliament will never be shorter than the US Embassy’.
“I was surprised and amused... I hadn’t even noticed the US Embassy, let alone its height!”
But it wasn’t Rosselli’s first professional success that convinced him to stay and plant his roots in Australia.
“No, it was what I call ‘boomerang effects’ which made me stay,” he explains.
“They can change your entire life: my future wife and the country itself, with its sense of space and freedom.”
During a ski trip to the snow, Rosselli met Juliet, the woman who would become his wife.
“We had a wonderful time together,” he says.
“Then we said goodbye and went our separate ways.
“I was convinced that our romance – like the rest of my Australian experience – would be just one of those fleeting adventures.”
But he was wrong.
“Two years later, when I’d completed his studies at Lausanne, I reunited with Juliet in Switzerland,” he says.
“Six months later, we were married and had moved to Sydney.”
Rosselli’s Australian story has two beginnings: first as a student on an adventure, then as a professional ready to start a new life far from home.
Two incipits with very different meanings.
“When I arrived in Australia the second time, I told myself I had to settle in,” Rosselli says.
“And that’s what I did, without hesitation... When you move to another country you have to be confident and determined.
“It would’ve been harder had I chosen to stay in limbo, with one foot in Australia and the other in Italy.”
Rosselli’s first step in Australia was like many other migrants’: to find work.
“I got a job in the architecture studio of Furio Valich; it was a small office which gave me the chance to learn quickly,” he says.
“The following year, in 1985, I started my own business.
“Being Italian was an advantage, not only for artistic and cultural reasons, but also because construction sites were full of Italians at that time.
“I remember one in particular: it was 1990 and I was taking care of the construction of a house for one of the members of INXS.
“Nearly every person on the site was called Tonino: Tonino the painter, Tonino the bricklayer, Tonino the plumber... Tonino, Tonino, Tonino!
“One day I arrived at the site and all the Toninos looked depressed, like a tragedy had occurred.
“And it had... Italy had been eliminated from the World Cup... And I didn’t even know!”
Despite what many may think, the project closest to Rosselli’s heart isn’t Parliament House, but rather the “Great Wall of WA”: a series of residences created to provide short-term accommodation for a huge cattle station in the Western Australian desert during mustering season.
The Great Wall of WA. (Photo: Edward Birch)
The rammed earth wall is composed of the iron rich, sandy clay that is a dominant feature of the site, gravel obtained from the adjacent river and bonded with water from the local bore.
“It’s perhaps the most ‘Australian’ project I’ve worked on,” Rosselli says.
However, the key to the architect’s fame and success is his Italianness.
“I grew up in Milan, in a house built in the 1960s,” he says.
“At the time it was very modern, even though it was full of my grandmother’s antique furniture.
“I believe that being able to marry modernity with history is an Italian trait and one that has contributed to my success.
“I’d advise all young Italian architects abroad to use their Italian savoir-faire and respect their history rather than being intimidated by it.
“We Italians grow up immersed in our history and we know how to mix it with modernity.
“Here there’s plenty to do, because Australia is beginning to form its own history, and it’s not just a question of age.
“Even a 40- or 50-year-old building can have history.”
Speaking of buildings and architecture, Rosselli has witnessed the changes in Australia with an observant eye.
To explain the evolution from the ‘80s until today, he tells an anecdote involving his old professor:
“Professor Botta – one of the top 10 architects in the world at the time – came to Sydney and I was asked by the Swiss Embassy to show him around.
“I organised a tour for him then breakfast with the then mayor, Frank Sartor, and several journalists.
“When asked about Sydney’s architecture, Botta said: ‘There are some very nice trees’.
“Today, in my opinion, the trees share a space with some of the world’s best buildings.”
Sydney is an open construction site and is currently going through what many believe to be a second phase of redevelopment.
“I don’t agree with this,” Rosselli declares.
“Sydney has never stopped transforming.
“Every time I went to Milan for a holiday, even after years, it was completely identical, frozen in time.
“Then I’d return to Sydney and find new skyscrapers.
“The problem is that it’s developing in the wrong way: urbanisation is occurring towards the west, instead of following the bay and taking advantage of the water, which would have enormous potential.
“It’s useless to build new streets: projects like WestConnex don’t decongest the city or speed up transport; they actually have the opposite effect.
“It would be better to develop sea routes and offer a fast public transport service and a more ‘democratic’ urban development.
Democratic urban planning: it’s a concept that would change the entire city’s structure.
“Towns always develop around public transport stations,” Rosselli says.
“Given that sea links are basically non-existent, there’s a phenomenon of ‘the richer you are, the closer you live to the sea’.
“But if sea routes were developed, everything would change and urban centres near the water would be more accessible.
“This would be beneficial to the entire population.
“Sydney is growing rapidly; in 20 or 30 years, who knows how many millions of residents it will have... Land transport will no longer be sustainable.”
Urban planning aside, there’s another aspect of Sydney’s future that Rosselli is sure of: multiculturalism.
“When I arrived there was a predominately Anglo culture and the first European migrants were starting to enter into politics and offer an alternative perspective,” he says.
“Then it was Asian migrants’ turn in politics... In a few years it will be Middle Eastern migrants’ turn.
“The influence of different cultures is a positive thing that will make Sydney an even more wonderful place in the future.”