January 7, 2009

Fascism Builds: Nationalism in Italian Modern Architecture

by Daniel Toole

The cultural landscape of nationalism is one closely related to the State and its institutions, for example the edifices standing in the Mall of Washington D.C. or the Reichstag in central Berlin. These buildings, through their presence and site, act as indicators of the polity of the nation. As exhibits of pride and power, these built forms not only house the people and possessions of the state, but also create an image of the government to be understood by the governed. Throughout history, architecture has been used for political propaganda. The Greeks were arguably the most successful with this gesture, explaining the dominance of the classical Greek orders in the Roman Empire and many other contemporary cultures’ institutional facilities. Building is a necessary part of any culture and becomes beautiful through its meaning and relationship to humans and nature. The work of the early twentieth century Italian avant-garde movements of Futurism and Rationalism express a relationship of the State to architectural design through a progressive and rigorous nationalism.

In explaining the complex phenomena of modern nationalism, Craig Calhoun posits that when a “novelist (or painter or composer) presents his or her work as embodying the spirit of the nation; this is different from presenting it as the work of a rootless genius or cosmopolitan citizen of the world” (Calhoun 22). This idea exists due to the shared community that nationalism brings about in groups having similar cultural values and customs in common. The fascist reign of Mussolini in the first half of the twentieth Century sought to unify the Italian people under the State with no exceptions whatsoever. This included syndicates or groups for artists and craftspeople that were comparable to trade unions. Through the development of artistic movements and manifestoes, was created a series of architectural and aesthetic movements glorifying the dynamism of the contemporary city and its contemporary Fascist populace.

The first of these groups, Futurism, is the “group around which innovations unfold in Italy” (van Doesburg 225). This group of painters, sculptors, and architects celebrated the post-Industrial Revolution city with its loud noises, speeding trains, and sensual speed. This movement was spread through a continual series of manifestoes, essays, exhibitions, and the association with the Fascist party before the March on Rome. The futurist ringleader F.T. Marinetti was put in jail with Mussolini for interventionism, in 1915 after burning eight Austrian flags in the streets of Rome. This coupling of the movement’s leaders with the Fascist movement’s Ill Duce created an incredible relationship between art and politics. With the rise of futurism and the coup d’etat of Victor Emmanuel III’s democratic monarchy, a synergy of art and State arises in lieu of this new aggressive nationalist regime. The relationship of the early Futurists to Mussolini’s fascist regime is clearly exemplified when Marinetti claims, “Therefore the futurists, heralds of the contemporary Italy, honor the futuristic temperament of their national leader” (van Doesburg 225). Out of the futurists arose an architectural movement heralded by the “L’Architettura Futurista Manifesto” (Manifesto of Futurist Architecture) from the mind of Antonio Sant’Elia, who is the notorious driving force behind this sect of the Futurists bent on creating a new architecture for the new Italy. In this manifesto he demanded a break with the architecture of the past and that all “whose origins are in Egyptian, Indian or Byzantine antiquity and in that idiotic flowering of stupidity and impotence that took the name of neoclassicism be destroyed” (Sant’Elia). This begins to depict an architecture of the constructivist nationalism that Hobsbawm and Ranger define as newly invented traditions and movements to mobilize the people of the nation for unification, and thus control. Sant’Elia’s violent description of an architectural aesthetic continues in saying that it must be an architecture “whose reason for existence can be found solely in the unique conditions of modern life, and in its correspondence with the aesthetic values of our sensibilities. [It] cannot be subjected to any law of historical continuity. It must be new, just as our state of mind is new” (Sant’Elia). This politicization of avant-garde aesthetics results in many beautiful projects that celebrate the city, the industrial nature of mass transportation, and the new dynamism of the Third Rome under the leadership of the Mussolini.

Sant’Elia’s work began to receive national acclaim with his sketches of La Citta Nuova, the futurist city. These sketches were published in 1914, the same year in which his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture was published (a year before he was killed while fighting Austria in the trenches of Monte Zebio). This city, no doubt influenced by the new western conurbations of New York City and Chicago, was composed of multilevel streets with suspended bridges and step-backed skyscrapers linked by suspended aerial sidewalks combined with the Parisian terraced apartment building [type] (Etlin 92) (fig.1, 2). This city drew influence from the published images of the west but took this influence and made it something Italian, a city for the new state of mind and being. This depicts the tendency of the futurists, and artistic movements in general, to extrapolate various other movements and make them something new, or in this case something nationally charged. The dynamism and alliance of the Futurists with the Fascist party lead to the development of a whole breed of future-seeking architects who designed in the name of the new State. After futurism ended with the death of many of its proponents during the battle with Austria, rationalism arose in its place. This occurred at the same time the International Style began to flourish in other parts of Western Europe including France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and Poland. Rationalism’s alignment with fascism was in great contrast with the strong socialist ideals behind the international style that would essentially dominate the public sphere of avant-garde architecture for many decades to come.

Armed with the momentum of La Citta Futurista, this next group of radicals set out to put an end to the “empty formalistic archaism” that dominated Italy as a remnant of the architectural pride of the Roman Empire (van Doesburg 254). This leans again towards the constructivist ideals expressed by Hobsbawm in the discrepancy between the primordial and constructive tendencies in the production of new generations of nationalisms. The new group of young architects are part of a new order under a new leader and in a new age, thus they learn from the past, but create a new built environment, one of progress and speed which they begin to identify with the qualities seen in Mussolini’s Fascism. In his critique of the formative years of the Rationalists, de Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg writes of the emergence of an architecture “working from the new demands of life [that] will be at the same time a new expression of the reformed Italy and also a historic document for posterity” (van Doesburg 254).

Formally, the Rationalists aligned themselves with the fascist State with the First Italian Exposition of Rational Architecture held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome in March and April of 1928 (Etlin 313). This exposition followed the work of the most important group of Rationalists, seven young architects calling themselves the Gruppo 7 Milano with the dictum of “our movement has a single, high motive: the desire to bring Italy to its position even in the mother art that is architecture” (Etlin 313). The work presented by these architects was very simple and minimal much like the international style in other parts of Europe, but began to take on a unique monumentality as they began to receive commissions from the State for larger civic and institutional buildings. This became a sort of key to success for the Gruppo 7 and during the last ten years of building under Mussolini (before his expulsion) the Rationalists, particularly the Gruppo 7’s work became known as the “Architecture of the Regime”. Mussolini inaugurated an exhibit of Rationalist work on March 30, 1931 where the Rationalists produced a six-point manifesto that not only proclaimed an allegiance to Fascism, but also “revealed the profound personal reasons that were prompting many of [them] to take Fascism seriously”.


"The architecture of the age of Mussolini must respond to the character of masculinity, of force, of pride in the Revolution. The old architects emblems of an impotence that we cannot accept. Our movement has no moral purpose other than serving the Revolution in hard times. We invoke Mussolini’s confidence so that we will be able to realize this."
This quote establishes the link between the devotion to the avant-garde ideals the movement faced with architectural design and their nationalism and commitment to being part of the “organic” State of Fascism (Etlin 386).

Of the many civic projects constructed from 1931 to the early 40’s in the Imperial Rome decade for State architecture, no building exemplified more the relationship of modern architectural design to the Fascist State than Guiseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio at Como (fig. 3). Terragni was one of the Gruppo 7 hailing from Milan but would go on to become the most famous member for this building and a small selection of other built and unrecognized projects including the mausoleum to the great Italian poet Dante, or the Danteum.

The Casa del Fascio, as explained by Terragni was designed with “Mussolini’s concept that Fascism is a house of glass into which all can look”. This building was to function as a symbol of Fascism not merely by analogy between Mussolini’s dictum about the house of glass and principles of Rationalism, but to create a place for this definition to occur in the form of public gathering space at the front of the building. The immense use of glass on the exterior as well as the location of the room Directorio Federale (provincial directorate) within plain view in the courtyard established little boundary visually between those on the inside and those looking in. This was another of Terragni’s design goals. However, the monumentality of this structure exhibits the masculinity expressed in the Rationalist manifesto of 1931 with its regimented set of proportions and rigid use of concrete as structure and skin. In order to further the power of the experience of its users, Terragni demanded for marble to cover much of the surfaces of the ground floor as well as other important spaces throughout the building. This was a beautiful piece of modern architecture that the Italians could be proud of, at the same time being a Fascist monument to the nation as it sat in a very historically significant piazza in Como where many could assemble and be addressed by Ill Duce (Etlin).

These two generations of creatively fueled artists depict important phenomena of design and its relationship to the people of the area it inhabits. The parallel relationship of Futurism, Rationalism, and Fascism expresses the notion of nationalism fueling creativity as well as creativity fueling nationalism. It is important to take note of the political power of buildings, and the built environment, for it is a powerful tool in creating institutional senses of government for leaders to inhabit and make decisions while relating out to their nation. These two Italian movements are directly linked with the nationalism celebrated and propagated by the reign of the Fascists and Mussolini in the first half of the twentieth century.

Works Cited
Calhoun, Craig. Nationalism. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Minnesota. 1997.
Crispolti, Enrico. Attraverso L’Architettura Futurista. Galleria Fonte, Modena Italy. 1984.
Etlin, Richard A. Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890-1940. MIT, Cambridge \ Massachusetts. 1991.
Schumacher, Thomas L. The Danteum: A Study in the Architecture of Literature. Princeton Architectural, Princeton, New Jersey. 1985.
Van Doesburg, Theo. On European Architecture: Complete Essays from Het Bouwbedrijf 1924-1931. Birkhauser Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 1986.