Aldo Rossi and Jesse Reiser

In 2010 at Princeton University, I requested to be in Jesse Reiser’s studio and was accepted. I think Jesse took a liking to me once he found out that I used to be an aircraft mechanic in the Navy and that I used to work aboard aircraft carriers. During the final weeks toward the completion of my project, I had a desk crit with Jesse Reiser where I asked for his thoughts on my plan to only use drawings instead of computer renderings for my final presentation. When I discussed how I would use only grayscales for shading, Jesse Reiser suggested to me to use bright colors to convey intense emotional effects. Even though I questioned it at the beginning, I ended up listening to his advice: as a consequence, my project turned out really well. After that studio, Jesse invited me to work at his Manhattan office to help out with the Kaohsiung Port Terminal, while I stayed at his and Nanako’s apartment. I remember being immediately drawn to his collection of model aircraft that he had assembled and displayed in his home. Assembling, painting, and displaying model aircraft has been Jesse’s hobby since his childhood, and his fascination with military machinery seemed to influence a sensibility of crafting the sublime through assembled effects.

Recently, I had a chance to read Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto’s book Projects and Their Consequences along with Sylvia Lavin’s Architecture Itself and Other Postmodernization Effects. Recounted in both books is the story of Jesse Reiser’s tutelage under Aldo Rossi at the Cooper Union which lead to his unique rendition of a Modena Cemetery drawing while he worked for Aldo Rossi in Milan. As the legend goes: in 1979, Jesse Reiser got Aldo Rossi’s attention when the instructor was attracted to the meticulously realized models of the Second World War planes that cluttered Jesse Reiser’s desk. They discussed painting with lightened colors to approximate atmospheric effects to convey realism. They further discussed the fictional realism of Edward Hopper’s major oil paintings which conveyed realism through imagined settings. This discussion made an impression on Aldo Rossi as he invited Jesse Reiser to work at his Milan office after that semester. While working as an intern, Jesse Reiser was tasked with drawing a unique version of the Modena Cemetery (of which many versions exist). Rather than draw with misaligned corners and crayons smudged around and outside the lines, the drawing by Jesse Reiser entailed absolute perfection done with Day-Glo paint applied with fastidious attention to detail.

After reading about this story in two separate books, for the earlier part of 2021, I closely studied Jesse Reiser’s Modena Cemetery drawing while reading a second-hand copy of Aldo Rossi’s Rizzoli monograph for additional insight into the master architect’s methods. In the Modena Cemetery, the two figural objects arrayed along a strong central axis are the truncated cone (communal grave) and the square (ossuary). In Jesse Reiser’s drawing, these two figures are rendered in the signature red colors of Aldo Rossi rather than the bright and American Day-Glo colors. The square ossuary, rendered with a 45-degree angle cast shadows, fictionally illustrated the cube to be a thin and hollow shell, unlike the constructed reality which has a thick envelope loaded with circulation and program. Studying Jesse Reiser’s drawing of the Modena Cemetery made me better understand RUR’s obsession with figural objects with intense presence. For example, the Taipei Pop Music Center with its three figures suspended on a flowing and elevated surface plane –to me is a quotation of the Modena Cemetery and its figural objects floating on an irregular grid. The cube building in the Taipei Pop Music Center is also along a strong axis (this time east/west not north/south) and quotes the ossuary cube of the Modena Cemetery. Just as Aldo Rossi’s ossuary cube stressed a surface reading instead of a solid mass, Jesse Reiser’s Taipei Pop Music Center cube emphasizes a surface reading by differentiating each elevation with new surface treatments and articulations.

Continuing this tradition of quoting an influential teacher, I am currently working on a competition entry in which I am deploying the cube as a figural object. In addition to utilizing a strong axis, I too am utilizing a strategy of elevation differentiation to give a reading of the cube as a shell rather than a solid mass. Having studied under Jesse Reiser, and learning from the legacies of Aldo Rossi, has given me additional insights into formal expression through pure (and compromised) geometry that I find invaluable to my current design approach. Hopefully, my competition entry is a novel take on a classic trope that creates new realism from fictional effects.