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Artist's house and studio, Milan Triennale (1933)

Artist's house and studio, Milan Triennale (1933)
Architects: Figini & Pollini, Photographer: Crimella
Architectural Press Archive,
RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection

Modernism’s legacy – the jury’s still out

Modernism is perhaps one of the most controversial movements in the history of art and design. Corinna Lotz reviews Framing Modernism, a new exhibition about an architectural approach that literally helped shape the 20th century.

On May 1, the BBC screened Romancing the Stone, which featured the campaign by English Heritage’s Simon Thurley to preserve the Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield. It brought out once again the sharp divisions between those who see Modernism as a style to be commemorated and their opponents who simply want structures like Park Hill torn down. 

Modernism arose after World War I to become a far-flung and amorphous movement of artists, designers and architects in different countries. As the Victoria and Albert Museum’s huge 2006 show documented, its Utopian spirit was fostered by the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius. From the early 1920s, it had an optimistic social agenda which briefly became a built reality, particularly in the young Soviet Union, Germany and Republican Spain. 

By the mid-1930s, however, the Nazis had shut down the Bauhaus in Dessau and persecuted all but the most conservative artists. In the Soviet Union, the movement was extinguished by state-imposed Socialist Realism. In Italy, on the other hand, Modernism was promoted by the country’s fascist leader, Mussolini. Italy’s espousal of Modernism, like Britain’s, came relatively late.

Framing Modernism offers a chance to widen debates over Modernism’s legacy. Over 100 period photographs are mainly drawn from the Royal Institute of British Architects’ collection by RIBA staff members, Robert Elwall and Valeria Carullo. This outing of vintage and new prints from original negatives could provide a new case study in how Modernism related to political power structures and the reality of people’s daily lives.

Palazzo dello sport, Rome (1960)

Palazzo dello sport, Rome (1960)
Engineer: Pier Luigi Nervi, Photographer: Oscar Savio 1960

It is great to see an overview of the Italian side of the Modernist movement and, more particularly, how it was promoted and enhanced by the rise and rise of photography and design magazines. The images encompass not just the pioneering period of Modernism of the 1920s and 1930s but extend to structures only completed in the 1960s, such as Pier Luigi Nervi’s iconic Palazzo dello Sport in Rome and Giovanni Michelucci’s church on the Autostrada del Sole.

There is no doubt that architects like Giuseppe Terragni were highly talented with a great flair in adapting the Modernist style that swept through the cultural avant-garde in the wake of Futurism. His Casa del Fascio (House of the League) in Como looks quite similar to Rodchenko’s workers’ reading room, recently reconstructed for Tate Modern’s outstanding Rodchenko and Popova show.

Casa del Fascio, Como (1936)

Casa del Fascio, Como (1936)
Architect: Giuseppe Terragni
Photographer: Stabilimento Fotografico Mazzoletti
Credit line: Fonds Alberto Sartoris,
Archives de la construction moderne, EPFL

But if you look more closely, the end of the Bauhaus-style boardroom table has a large image of Il Duce at the end. (The word fascio - literally a bundle of twigs - was appropriated by Mussolini and gave rise to the name Fascism, thus robbing it of its original revolutionary democratic meaning.)

The way in which Italian fascism usurped democratic and socialist ideals is revealed elsewhere. Angiolo Mazzoni’s Marine Colony seaside camp is dedicated to Mussolini’s mother Rosa Maltoni. (It is arguably more Art Deco than Modernist, by the way.) If you didn’t know it was built to glorify Hitler’s ally, you could be forgiven for seeing it as a great effort to provide masses of school children with the chance of a sea-side holiday.

Colonia Marina Rosa Maltoni Mussolini, Calambrone

Colonia Marina Rosa Maltoni Mussolini, Calambrone (1935)
Architect: Angiolo Mazzoni, Photographer: Anderson 1935

As David Crowley has noted: “The years after Mussolini’s consolidation of power in October 1926 were marked by a strong degree of cultural pluralism … at the same time, artists and designers of all stripes were keen to court power.”*  Unlike Hitler, Il Duce was in favour of stylistic diversity in his desire to force Italy out of rural backwardness into a modern industrial society. Thus the Fascists were happy to find architects who would promote images of modernity like efficiency, speed, industrialisation which Modernism inherited from the Futurist movement.

For me one of the revelations of the show is the photographic work of Giuseppe Pagano (1890-1945), who organised a show devoted to Italian rural architecture for the Milan Triennale in 1936. Pagano, born Pogatschnig in Parenzo, today’s Croatia, became director of the style magazine Casabella. He saw himself as “a hunter of images”. Although a founding member of his home-town Fascist party, his style was in stark contrast, as Elwall notes, to the “swaggering bombast” that characterised Fascist propaganda structures like the EUR exhibition centre near Rome. Pagano left the Fascists in 1942 and made contact with the Resistance. He was captured in 1943. He escaped but was recaptured, tortured and died in Mauthausen concentration camp on 22 April 1945.

Shadows, Stazione Termini, Rome (1950)

Shadows, Stazione Termini, Rome (1950)
Architects: Leo Calini, Massimo Castellazzi Vasco Fadigati,
Angiolo Mazzoni, Eugenio Montuori, A.Pintonello,
Annibale Vitellozzi, Photographer: Ivor De Wolfe 1952

It is only after the war that the monuments and buildings shown in these photographs become mercifully free of Fascist connotations. There is the touching Mondrianesque Memorial to the Deported Italian Workers in Milan cemetery. Most stunning of all are the beautiful wavy roof and springy floor of Rome’s railway station completed in 1950 and the soft piecrust roof of Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport (1957).

Selecting these images from RIBA’s archive sheds light not only on the buildings being photographed, but on the way in which the Modernist style was adopted and adapted in Italy. Examples of The Architects Year Book present fascinating documentation showing how gifted British and American photographers brought Italian Modernism to a wider audience in the 1950s.  But it is a pity that by underplaying the political aspects of the movement, the curators have avoided grasping the nettle, especially at a time when Berlusconi’s rule is promoting a revival of Il Duce and what he represented.

The RIBA library has collected an amazing 1.5 million images of world architecture, including the archives of the Architectural Press and Britain’s foremost architectural photographers. Some of its treasures came to light in the stunning Palladio exhibition at the Royal Academy.

7 May 2009

Framing Modernism – Architecture in Italy 1926-1965 is at the Estorick Collection, Highbury until 21 June after which it travels to New York and Rome.

* David Crowley’s essay National Modernisms, features in Modernism – designing a new world. V&A Publications, 2006.

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