“Too bad they were all Fascists.” —Kim Scarborough
Italian Futurism was primarily a literary and painting movement in the early part of the twentieth century. Architecture was added toward the end with the writing of the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture and the visionary designs of Antonio Sant’Elia. In painting they relied on the developments of Cubism, overlaid with a worship of and depiction of speed.
Sant’Elia didn’t stint on his rhetoric, based as it was on the original Manifesto of Futurism. He added architecture-specific analogies and posturing to Marinetti’s original.
Who were the Futurists? A few lines from their Manifesto suffice:
- We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
- The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
- We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
- We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
To these sentiments Sant’Elia added a few:
The decorative must be abolished. The problem of Futurist architecture must be resolved, not by continuing to pilfer from Chinese, Persian or Japanese photographs or fooling around with the rules of Vitruvius, but through flashes of genius and through scientific and technical expertise. Everything must be revolutionized. Roofs and underground spaces must be used; the importance of the façade must be diminished; issues of taste must be transplanted from the field of fussy moldings, finicky capitals and flimsy doorways to the broader concerns of bold groupings and masses, and large-scale disposition of planes. Let us make an end of monumental, funereal and commemorative architecture. Let us overturn monuments, pavements, arcades and flights of steps; let us sink the streets and squares; let us raise the level of the city.
None of that is fundamentally different than any other “Modernist” ideals, such as those of Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius. Unfortunately the rest of the Manifesto inextricably links Futurism and Fascism.
- That Futurist architecture is the architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity and of simplicity; the architecture of reinforced concrete, of steel, glass, cardboard, textile fiber, and of all those substitutes for wood, stone and brick that enable us to obtain maximum elasticity and lightness;
- That decoration as an element superimposed on architecture is absurd, and that the decorative value of Futurist architecture depends solely on the use and original arrangement of raw or bare or violently colored materials;
- From an architecture conceived in this way no formal or linear habit can grow, since the fundamental characteristics of Futurist architecture will be its impermanence and transience. Things will endure less than us. Every generation must build its own city.
Umberto Boccioni’s depiction of the elastic world no doubt influenced Sant’Elia.
By influenced, I do not mean a direct physical correlation between painted forms and forms depicted in architectural designs. Futurist sculpture, like Cubist sculpture, took the same idea of depicting space from multiple points of view simultaneously.
Unlike sculpture, architecture’s primary purpose is to provide shelter and amenities to people. Sant’Elia’s projects, although unrealized, were influential on later generations of architects, sometimes for surprising ideas. He decided to dispense with staircases entirely, designing exterior elevators which would follow curved paths in an odd precursor to the now ubiquitous “Hyatt Regency”-style of elevators.
His formal language of strong central axes, diagonal presentation to imply movement and speed, and monumental scale can be seen in the works of many architects who came later, up until today.
Sant’Elia’s drawings of building types were a part of his vision of a Città Nuova, New City. His urbanism was predicated upon clearing slums and building giant-scale public buildings. In that he was no different than other urban planners, from Louis XVI to Robert Moses.
Decreeing that the new shall destroy the old, that concrete and steel shall replace carved stone and wood ornament, it is not surprising that a visual trope of dams runs through Sant’Elia’s work. The idea of a dam both “taming nature” and generating electricity must have been a tremendous symbol of progress. Italy’s North African colony, which would become Libya, was adjacent to Egypt and the Aswan Dams on the Nile. Sant’Elia’s Airplane and Railroad Station and Theatre designs are perhaps the best examples of dam-like forms:
The Low Aswan Dam, as rebuilt in 1902:
Building the Aswan Dam caused the loss of many Egyptian antiquities, and at the same time provided much-needed flood control to the emerging modern nation of Egypt. The annual Nile floods could be controlled – to a point – for the first time in history.
Although hydroelectric power played a very small role in Italy until the 1930s it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the promise of the Aswan Low Dam as a future generating station. Sant’Elia designed a power station along Futurist principles.
That Sant’Elia insisted architecture be “impermanent and transient” was quite prophetic. Like many other Italian Fascists, Antonio Sant’Elia was killed in World War I in the Battle of Isonzo in 1916.
Antonio Sant’Elia, 1888 – 1916, premiere Paper Architect.