Italian Futurism 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe is a groundbreaking exhibition that endeavors to “convey the spirit of Italian Futurism in all its complexity.” 1 This objective is particularly important in the case of architecture, allowing it to expand its reach beyond the modernist teleology that had boxed it (architecture) within the temporal limits of Antonio Sant’Elia’s exhibition of his Città Nuova drawings of 1913–1914 (the most significant architectural event of the movement) and his death in 1916. At the Guggenheim, a range of Futurist approaches to architecture are on view in a variety of formats: Fortunato Depero’s stage designs, his advertisements inspired by New York, and a large model of his 1927 Bestetti Treves Tumminelli book pavilion, built with oversized typography; Virgilio Marchi’s Fantastic City (ca. 1919), whose scenographic vernacularism accommodates trains and planes; the sophisticated temporary structures by Enrico Prampolini, including his Terminal for a Civilian Airport (1933); the mechanical art and abstractions of Ivo Pannaggi, one of only two Futurists to attend the Bauhaus; and the axonometric drawings of Alberto Sartoris, whose object/buildings float on the white page, promoting an ambivalent agenda for a rationalist avant-garde.
Alongside these instances of architecture, the 1930s journal bearing Sant’Elia’s name, displayed at some distance from his eight drawings, provides a clue to complex historical overlays and intersections. Flanked by two publications of similar format founded by the same editor, Mino (Stanislao) Somenzi (Futurismo  and Artecrazia ), Sant’Elia prominently announces a “Competition for Aerial Architecture” that makes reference to the “Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” (1934)—an incitement to think about “the large city unified by continuous lines . . . a parallel thrust of Airways and Airchannels,” to be admired from the sky in accordance with the tenets of aeropittura, a significant embodiment of the second phase of Futurist art production.2
Common to both the publication Sant’Elia and the “Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” is Angiolo Mazzoni, an architect who held a key position in the Fascist regime’s Ministry of Communications. Mazzoni joined the Futurist movement in 1933; in 1934, he cosigned the “Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Somenzi, and took a post on Sant’Elia’s editorial board. Mazzoni’s presence toward the top of the Guggenheim rotunda establishes a link between Sant’Elia’s “heroic” avant-garde drawings found below, and the temporal unfolding of the exhibition toward its last room, which presents the murals created by Benedetta (Benedetta Cappa Marinetti) for the conference room of the Palazzo delle Poste di Palermo in Sicily, designed by Mazzoni in 1926 and completed in 1934. [Ed. note: Benedetta's murals will only be on view through August 20.]
Mazzoni’s position within the Fascist regime’s power structure allowed him to support and further the Futurist notion of Gesamtkunstwerk as an opera d’arte totale: he invited many of the movement’s artists, including Benedetta, Depero, Fillìa (Luigi Colombo), Marinetti, Prampolini, and Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), to collaborate on his projects, such as post offices for Gorizia, Palermo, Trento, and La Spezia.3 Whereas the Futurists had difficulty in garnering commissions, as noted in the exhibition, Mazzoni realized more than one hundred buildings throughout Italy between 1924 and 1943, for most of which he also designed an array of furniture, light fixtures, door handles, and other decorative elements, reinterpreting the legacy of the Wagnerschule and the emerging rationalist idiom, among other architectural references.
Although not in the exhibition, Mazzoni’s extraordinary infrastructure project for the boiler house, control cabin, and personnel facilities at Florence’s Santa Maria Novella railway station (1927–34) prompts an exploration of the connection between this realization and the visionary urbanism of Sant’Elia’s 1913–1914 drawings. Mazzoni’s project (see above) engages two lines of traffic (trains and cars) on separate levels, accommodating their differential speeds and several types of energy (coal for the boiler house, electricity for trains, gasoline for cars). The design stages a convergence of these flows through a productive tension among diverse figural logics: a rounded, smooth volume with protruding strip windows and cantilevered eave for the control cabin; a prismatic skin with a large amount of steel glazing, and a steel superstructure of chimneys, catwalk, and spiral stair for the boiler house; and a rational building block for personnel facilities. The striking resemblance between Mazzoni’s 1934 building and Sant’Elia’s 1913–1914 imagery begs us to question the potential trajectory of a Futurist architecture over an arc of twenty years: could Sant’Elia have realized such a building?
In the same year that he completed this hybrid composition, Mazzoni stated in the journal Sant’Elia that “Futurism is an idea, enthusiasm, artistic optimism, but above all it is faith: maybe actually only faith. . . . Futurism is the dynamic expression of movement: the goal is, in fact, toward the future. . . . The Futuristic style is therefore only an absurd concept.” 4 Yet, looking retrospectively at his own work after his return to Italy in 1963 from a voluntary exile in Columbia, he acknowledged that his adherence to Futurism had offered a way to escape “the ferocious bonds of the ruling traditional style”—that is, from the pressures to which he was subjected while working at a Fascist government agency.5 Although these contradictions may be construed as opportunistic, the coincidence in the years 1933–34 of Mazzoni’s issuing the “Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” with Marinetti, editing the journal Sant’Elia, and complementing Palermo’s post office with Benedetta’s murals suggests that he played a singular, albeit controversial, role in Futurist architecture. This is even more evident when the language of Florence’s boiler house is compared to another statement of his, also published in Sant’Elia: “I have always been futurist, even if I was forced to express myself in a different way from my spiritual essence.” 6
Different is the case of Sant’Elia, the unquestionably iconic figure of Futurist architecture: although his Città Nuova was never built, its character represents an urban vision encompassing a powerful imaginary register of cinematic, rather than pictorial, projections. Instead of a single building object, each perspective of the Città Nuova depicts a city in itself, an apparition belonging to a world of mechanical dreams, less akin to the buildings designed by Sant’Elia’s studio mate Mario Chiattone than to the later set design of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927). The hybridity of Sant’Elia’s assemblages of urban components acting as switchboards for a multilayered metropolitan apparatus is summed up in the five programmatic attributes and four operational articulations of his most famous drawing, the full title of which is: Città Nuova: Tenement Building with Exterior Elevators, Gallery, Sheltered Passage over Three Levels (Streetcar Line, Motorway, Metal Footpath), Lights, and Wireless Telegraph (1914).The distance separating this ever-changing iconography from the conventions of architectural practice removes his project from the pictorial domain of mere architectonic prefiguration. The absence of plans and sections, which would substantiate the use and functions of this self-contained aggregate, asserts that its parts are transformers of energy operating on urban flows, rather than pragmatic anticipations of future buildings.
As Sant’Elia wrote in a text called “Message,” issued on the occasion of the 1914 Nuove Tendenze exhibition in which Città Nuova was displayed, and again in the Marinetti-infused rhetorical language of “Futurist Architecture: Manifesto” of the same year, the modern city was to be “like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic.” 7 While aware of the “constant renewal of the architectural environment” and the “material contingencies” of his time, Sant’Elia believed that “Futurist architecture . . . is not an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains art, that is, synthesis and expression.” 8 Looking at his drawings now, with the awareness of the hundred years that separate our understanding of the “constant renewal of the architectural environment” and “material contingencies,” how could we relate to his manifesto’s statement that architecture “must be as new as our state of mind is new”?9 I believe that this exhibition, by articulating the potential and perils of any rhetoric about technological progress, frees Futurist architecture from the strictures of modernist narratives about the avant-garde, allowing us to rethink a nuova città in ways that challenge architecture’s still-enduring obsession with object buildings, and point, instead, to the manifold dynamics of urban territories as environmental apparatuses.
- Vivien Greene, introduction to Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2014), p. 21. ↩
- F. T. Marinetti, Mino Somenzi, and Angiolo Mazzoni, “Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” (“Manifesto Futurista dell’architettura aerea”), Sant’Elia 2, no. 3 (Feb. 1, 1934), p. 3 (author’s translation). ↩
- See Vivien Greene, “The Opera d’Arte Totale,” in Italian Futurism, 1909–1944, pp. 211–13, which suggests a radical reconsideration of the late romantic notion of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) as an inclusive approach to high and low art practices, anticipated by Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero’s seminal manifesto “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe” (“Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo,” 1915). ↩
- Angiolo Mazzoni, “Arte Mussoliniana,” Sant’Elia, no. 70 (1934), p. 1, cited in Graziella Fittipaldi, “Italian Futurist Architecture: Angiolo Mazzoni and the Study Case of Littoria Post Office,” in Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History (Cottbus, Germany: Brandenburg University of Technology, 2009). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Mazzoni to Danilo Vittori, January 18, 1975, in Angiolo Mazzoni (1894–1979): Architetto Ingegnere del Ministero delle Comunicazioni, eds. Mario Cozzi, Ezio Godoli, and Paola Pettenella (Milan: Skira, 2003). ↩
- Antonio Sant’Elia, “L’architettura futurista: Manifesto” (Milan: Direzione del Movimento Futurista, July 11, 1914), trans. in Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman, Futurism: An Anthology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 199-200. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 200-201. ↩
- Ibid., p. 199. ↩