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Antonio Sant'Elia: ‘one of the least understood pioneers of the modern movement’

Originally published in AR May 1955, this piece was republished online in June 2016

The Modern Movement can have left behind few monuments as baffling as the memorial to the war dead of the town of Como. Seen from a steamer coming down the lake its white form-a truncated dipylon gripped between powerful canted buttresses-· suggests the remains of some grandiose engineering project, such as a suspension bridge, abandoned before completion. Seen from the land, its stance astride the axis of the inevitable Via Vittorio Veneto, and its flanking hemicycles of cypresses, make its monumental intentions unmistakable. Yet it is quite free of the usual flabby symbols of Fascist military rhetoric; all is fine-drawn, stark and abstract. It is, as the red CTI guide-book of 1936 truly says, una severa costruzione architettonica.

The red guide offers one other piece of information on the monument: that it was built by the ing. e arch. Terragni, su disegni del caduto arch. Sant’Elia. The architectural information in CTI guide-books is usually perceptive and well informed, but most students of modern architecture would find the monument so unlike what they know of the manner and intentions of the fallen architect Antonio Sant’Elia, that they would suspect that what they see is much less his work than that of the engineer and architect Giuseppe Terragni, fallen, in his turn, in another world war, some six years after the guide-book was written. 

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But how much do we really know of Antonio Sant’Elia, futurist and architect? A very well-read student of the Modern Movement, who used the resources of the RIBA and Victoria and Albert Libraries to the full, going on even when the catalogue had lost interest in the subject, would be acquainted with: a longish footnote in Dr. Pevsner’s Pioneers; four paragraphs in Space, Time and Architecture; a collection of essays entitled Dopo Sant’Elia, which includes the text of the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture; two pages in P. M. Bardi’s Belvedere; a dim little book by Alberto Sartoris, whose accidental importance, as we shall see, outweighs its patent demerits; two articles in Casabella in the early thirties, and one in Architettura; and six pages of involved and high-flown exegesis of the Manifesto, in Zevi’s Storia. This may seem quite a respectable literary memorial for a man who never built a building, but the entire body is bedevilled by an inescapable defect-it is based upon a very limited knowledge of the existing evidence about the architect. Most of the Italian material is also spoiled by jingo rhetoric before the last war, and political embarrassments after it. The student who has consulted all these books and periodicals will have seen no pictures of the Monument, and only ten of his drawings. Four of these, all skyscraper projects, are from the Citta Futurista exhibition of 1914; one is a sheet of drawings dated 1913, which can be cut up to look much more numerous, and the rest, which appear only in the obscure second edition of Sartoris’s book, come from another source altogether and - suggest, faintly but tantalizingly, unknown aspects of Sant’Elia’s personality.

 ‘The basic obstacle is the fixed image we have in our minds of Futurism as a closed aesthetic system’

The student who commanded this material would know Sant’Elia’s views on architecture, as they appear in the Manifesto, but apart from the Citta Futurista drawings, would have only the vaguest idea what those ideas were to look like in the round; he would know that his memory was honoured by Sartoris, Terragni and the Italian rationalist architects, but also by the apologists of Fascism; that he was born in 1888, and was thus younger than the great masters of the ‘twenties, finally qualified in 1912, summa cum laude, joined the Futurists in the same year, and set up his own office in Milan, but had to waste his talents detailing other people’s competition projects; and that he died, under conditions of almost too-conspicuous gallantry, in the fighting round Monfalcone, October 10, 1916. His last words, according to a well nourished legend, were: ’To-night we sleep in Trieste, or in Paradise with the heroes.’

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Essentially, this information is all that is needed to form a true estimate of Sant’Elia’s historical position, and his contribution to the Modern Movement, but most of us would be hard put to interpret the evidence, or to know which saying illuminates which drawing, and vice versa. The basic obstacle is the fixed image we have in our minds of Futurism as a closed aesthetic system with a single aim, the praise and illustration· of movement. But though studies of motion represent the great contribution of the Futurists to twentieth-century art, it should not be thought that the delight in speed, noise and machinery which gives rhetorical vigour to the Manifestos of 1909 and 1910 remained the sole object of the Manifestos even of 1912, still less of 1914. The situation was quite otherwise, and after the Milan group had fused with Soffici and the Florentine Cubists in 1912, the leading Futurists began to retrace their steps. Lesser figures like Balla and Russolo might continue to pursue and refine the theme of motion, but the founder of the movement, F. T. Marinetti, and its greatest exponent, Umberto Boccioni, were both on the way back to a static and classicizing ideal, achieved by the latter, who died two months before Sant’Elia, in the form of an open and understanding imitation of Cezanne in the last two or three paintings he produced.

In the case of Marinetti the change is harder to see. One who is essentially a public figure and popular performer must inevitably repeat his accustomed verbal formulre, and his earliest phraseology carries through by its own momentum into 1914. But the title of his most carefully worked out policy-manifesto, which appeared in March of that year-Geometrical and Mechanical Splendour, and the New Sensibility of Number3-though it promises a greater change than the text exhibits, clearly reveals the new tendency. Sant’Elia, who was not a foundation member of the group, but rather the Beniamino della squadra, took his style from the leaders, and everything which remains of his thought and work is marked by this transitional frame of mind, between motion and stasis, between empiricism and classicism, with the world of machinery and an aggravated sense of patriotism as the only stable elements to which a man might look for support.

‘There has been no architecture since 1800, but only a hotch-potch of decorative styles’ 

The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture is almost exactly contemporary with that on Geometrical and Mechanical Splendour, and was certainly written very much under Marinetti’s influence. It has never been translated into English-very little Futurist literature has-and though this is not the place to examine it in detail; its main drift must be known before Sant’Elia’s drawings and projects can be understood.It is arranged in the common Futurist form of a general prologue, analysing the present condition of the aspect of life due for Futurist attack, followed by sets of tabulated propositions about what should be done. In this case the prologue opens with the statement that there has been no architecture since 1800, but only a hotch-potch of decorative styles. ’Socalled renovators of the art have simply added new revolution and mechanization of modern life, and our cities remain sunk in the squalor of the centuries, instead of answering the needs of to-day. Thus a great art is debased to an empty game of revivals, as if we, with our turbulent mechanized life, could live in buildings designed for the needs of five centuries since, and students are forced to copy the past, instead of studying the true needs of the contemporary city.

‘The problem of Futurist architecture is not one of finding another style of detailing, but of starting afresh on sound foundations, using every resource of science, abandoning all that is heavy and antique. Architecture has been worn out by traditions, and must be remade by force. Precise structural calculation, the use of concrete and steel, exclude architecture in the classic sense. We no longer believe in the monumental, the heavy and static, and have enriched our sensibilities with a taste for lightness, transience and practicality. We must invent and remake the Futurist city like an immense assembly yard, dynamic in every part; the Futurist house like a giant machine, without painting or sculpture, enriched only by the innate beauty of its lines, extraordinarily brutal in its mechanical simplicity; and streets must be buried storeys deep below the buildings, served by escalators and high-speed conveyors.

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‘We must abolish decoration, and solve the problems of Futurist architecture by strokes of genius and the use of scientific techniques. Everything must be revolutionized: roofs cleared, cellars opened up, facades devalued, and attention transferred to the grouping of masses and disposition of planes on the broadest scale. An end to monumental commemorative architecture!’ The reader who has been hanging on to his hat in the gale of prophecy that blows through this remarkable document-he will have noted the anti-monumentalism twenty years before Mumford, the house/ machine equation eight years before Le Corbusier, mechanistic brutalism nearly forty years before Hunstanton- has further buffets to follow in the tabulated propositions which make up the rest of the Manifesto. Sant’Elia proclaims:

‘(I) that futurist architecture consists of precise calculation, boldness and simplicity, concrete, steel, glass and lightweight materials’

‘(2) that it is not, for all that, merely an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains an art…’

‘(3) that diagonal and elliptical lines are dynamic by their very nature and a thousand times more emotive than horizontals and verticals’

‘(4) that decoration as something stuck on to architecture is an absurdity’

‘(5) that just as the ancients drew the inspiration for their arts from the world of nature … so we should draw ours from the mechanized environment we have created’

‘(6) that architecture must be understood as the art of disposing the forms of a building according to finite and stable’

‘(7) that architecture must also be understood as the power to harmonize man and his environment’

‘(8) that an architecture such as this breeds no permanence, no structural habits. We shall live longer than our houses, and every generation will have to make its own city.’

If these eight propositions reveal his sources - Adolf Loos, Boccioni, Marinetti and so forth - they also carry deeper the tone of prophecy. Not merely the short-term prophecies of the superficial aesthetic of the expressionists, as in §3, but also in the subtler and more durable prophecy of the essential philosophy of the International style, for §5 and §6 bring together, probably for the first time, the idea of mechanism and the idea of absolute aesthetic laws, the Machine AEsthetic. But we can go further than this: §2 rejects, as every great architect of the Twenties was to reject, the essentially Victorian concept of Functionalism, while §7 and §8 adumbrate a philosophy astonishingly close to that of Buckminster Fuller.

Yet to have prophesied the common intellectual currency of the Twenties is not enough to make him a Pioneer of the Modern Movement, any more than statements about beauty following function, uttered in the eighteen-fifties, can make Horatio Greenough a founding father of contemporary American architecture. To have bracketed together machinery and resthetic law, or steel, concrete, daring and calculation, would only guarantee Sant’Elia an honoured place on the side-lines, like C. R. Mackintosh, who anticipated many of the forms of modern architecture, without arriving at its essential intellectual basis. What gives an architect his place in the family tree of the Modern Movement is the manner in which he gives plastic form to certain basic assumptions about architecture and mechanism-and in the absence of completed buildings, this brings us back to the question of Sant’Elia’s drawings.

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As has been mentioned above, the apparently extensive literary record of his life and work contains very few drawings, and the literature normally available to an English speaking student, only one, from the Citta Futurista set. Other drawings from this set have appeared in Italian publications, there is the single sheet which appeared in Dopo Sant’Elia and in Belvedere, and there are the other five which appeared in the second edition of Sartoris. This is precious little to have survived from an artist who according to Reggiori, made hundreds, and died less than forty years ago.

However, when Sartoris issued the first edition of his book in 1930 it contained no drawings at all, and a rather huffy introduction by Carlo Ciucci explains that this is solely due to one who, though bound by the strongest moral ties to assist those who wished to honour the dead architect, had repeatedly put obstacles in the way of the publication of his sketches. The implication of this is clearly that the main corpus was already within one person’s control, and there is internal evidence in the book to suggest who this might be, for in the very full bibliography there is listed a de luxe edition of Marinetti’s book on Sant’Elia di 13 copie con allegata una opera originale di Santa’Elia though no example of this edition with original drawings bound into it seems to survive. Circumstantial confirmation of Marinetti’s respinsiblity is offered by a corpus of ninety-four drawings, all but four of them unpublished (except those mentioned below) which were given to the Museo Civico in Como in 1945, by the architect’s family it is said, yet within three or four months of the death of Marinetti at Bellagio, just up the lake.

‘Futurist architecture was to be not merely ‘an arid combination of practicality and utility, but an art’’

These drawings may have been out of Marinetti’s control even before his death since some of them appear in Sartoris’s second edition, dated somewhat uncertainly 1944, but even so it seems fairly certain that the paucity of published drawings must be attributed to Marinetti’s unwillingness to trust others to honour a memory to which he was deeply attached. As has been suggested, the five drawings from the Como corpus which appear in Sartoris’s second edition do give intimations of a more complex artistic personality, and the totality of this corpus, 6 of which the Citta Futurista set form less than one-eighth part, give so immensely broader and deeper a view of Sant’Elia that revisions of the common estimate of his stature are clearly required.

About a dozen of the drawings belong to the Citta Futurista, or are connected with it in some way, such as 2, with its Wellsian valley-section streets, graded for different classes of traffic, or 3 and 4, studies for the reconstruction of Milan Central Station which lead on to 5, the station for the Citta. The exterior view, 3, looks as if it must have some part in the prehistory of Erich Mendelsohn, but 4, looking out over the tracks, certainly prefigures one of the characteristic dream-images of the urbanism of the twenties-the airstrip between skyscrapers of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin de Paris.

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The other eighty odd sketches represent terra incognita. They do not exhibit much of the Viennese influence which has been suggested by some non Italian writers, and this is hardly surprising in view of the Futurist loathing of Austria-Hungary. Yet, in spite of the outburst in the Manifesto against ‘pseudo-Avant-garde architecture from Austria, Hungary, Germany and America,’ there are unmistakable traces of International Art Nouveau in drawings such as the villa, 6, or the frequently redrawn project, 7, for a theatre. Yet here, framing the apparently cast-iron-gothic detailing of the central bay, one sees great stone buttress􀃑s of simple geometrical form which do show some affinity with the Monument. But, in fact, there are nearly a score of drawings which show closer affinities than this, and reveal a designer whose intentions in the modelling and disposition of forms were of a simplicity and boldness far ahead of those of his older contemporaries Gropius, Lurçat, Mies and Le Corbusier at that time, though his functional and planning intentions remain inscrutable in the complete absence of any plans among these drawings.

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These purely formal exercises are called mostly dinamismo architettonico or torre faro; 8 and 9 are typical of the former, purely abstract group, 10 and 11 of the lighthouse projects. They all exhibit large plain areas of flat unadorned surface; bold arrises; thin refined re-entrants, as on the Monument, wherever a rounded form shoulders back on a rectangular one; the use of canted cut-backs in vertical surfaces, or of upright buttresses rising out of sloping planes; all imbued with a highly sculptural sense of form, of moulding and cutting large masses of apparently homogeneous material. But beside a sculptor’s sense of form, one can also sense that of a civil engineer, of the nineteenth century bridge and dam-builders, or of one who, as Sant’Elia had done, had occupied a responsible position in the works department of the city of Milan, and of the Villoresi Canal, even before his qualifying exams. Not unnaturally, it is when this particular and forceful formal sensibility is employed on substantial functional problems, especially industrial ones, that his talents begin to resemble those of a major designer.

The factory project, 12, is perhaps not the most exciting of these, though its combination of high, sculptural accents with the low shed between does pre echo Mendelsohn again, in this case the factory at Luckenwald. But in projects like the two-level bridge, 14, or the even more proto-Mendelsohnian airshiphangar, 13, one can see a truly imaginative, but wellinformed, appreciation of the possibilities of reinforced concrete, and can educe some idea of how Futurist architecture was to be not merely ‘an arid combination of practicality and utility, but an art …’ by virtue of the dynamic potentialities of diagonals and ellipses. However, it is in three power-station projects that we see the culmination of this engineer-sculptor sense of formal manipulation.

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The theme of the generation of electricity was clearly much in the minds of the Milan group in 1913 and 1914, and it contributed a characteristically rhetorical image to Marinetti’s Manifesto of Geometrical and Mechanical Splendour:’ There is nothing in the world so beautiful as a great generating station, humming with power, h o l d i n g back the hydraulic pressures of a mountain chain, storing the power for a wide landscape, integrated by control panels gleaming with switches and cornmutators. These powerful images 16 are our only models … ’This passage, another example of Marinetti pioneering an aspect of machinery as an emotionally-loaded symbol that was to have a respectable career in the avant-garde thought of the twenties, also shows the change which had come over Futurism by 1914. For however mechanistic and emotive this image may be, it does not deal with noise, speed and physical impact, but is static, clean, subdued and essentially abstract.

Sant’Elia parallels this with the superbly rhetorical composition of 16, with its sense of soaring excelsior and the shouldering up of the massive buttresses at its base; with the elegant understatement and simplicity of 15, which surely cannot have long to wait for realization by some Scandinavian architect; and in 17 with a design as prophetic as any of the propositions of the Manifesto. The block of the generator shed, with its ranked cylinders of the chimneys, its tall canted window and high transformer-tower (or condenser-stack) anticipates in general form and in some details, the aspect of power-plants designed by intelligent engineers in the last twenty years. It is far in advance of the worn-out classicism of Tony Garnier’s almost contemporary power-house in Lyons, and few architects since have conceived of forms which so truly summoned up the mechanical and geometrical splendour of the theme as this sketch of Sant’Elia, done in 1913.

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Where does this leave us with the various problems raised by the person and work of Antonio Sant’Elia. As to the Monument, we now see that, allowing for the fact that he despised monuments, this is the kind of monument he might have built. For obvious reasons he could not have designed a war memorial for 1915-18, but its flavour of frustrated engineering, its plain and simple modelling, its canted buttresses, and its general form combine to give it a place as an appendix to his works-and if a certain stiffness, and the rather unpleasantly Novocentista flavour of its base must be credited to Terragni, one should also recall that it is unlikely that the original architect would have been able in his own lifetime to erect a structure so blankly devoid of cornice or detailing.

The other two problems, that is: Sources and Stature, can only be dealt with under the important proviso that our conclusions are subject to there being no other drawings still in existence. The certainty with which Sartoris and Ciucci assumed that Sant’Elia could not be properly illustrated without the Marinetti drawings suggests that these were already, in 1930, either the largest, or the most important surviving collection, but this does not rule out the possibility that stray sheets, like that in Dopo Sant’Elia, may still turn up, and the decencies of art-historical method therefore require a certain caution.

Still, given this proviso, we can say that the problem of Austrian influence needs to be reconsidered, at least. One has the impression that it depends, to some extent, on a misapprehension of the scale of the Citta Futurista, for if one examines the drawing by Otto Wagner which Professor Giedion compares with the most famous of the Citta drawings, 7 one sees that its scale and intentions are roughly comparable with the bridges over the Seine in Paris, and is perhaps 11 fifty feet high from its BeauxArts basement to its Art-Nouveau cresting. Sant’Elia’s project, on the other hand, 1, must be practically 270 feet high from the lowest visible circulation level to the top of its ranked radio-masts, and there are at least six visible circulation levels, anyhow, as against Wagner’ s two. On this kind of scale, what are compared to decorative details on Wagner’s project are, in fact, quite large structural units. There certainly are Viennese influences to be detected, but they are more convincingly found in, say, the actual draughtsmanship of 14.

‘He intended ‘to introduce the futurist love of movement into this city as an artistic element’’

But these details are merely the surface flourishes upon a highly individual manner of conceiving architectural form, and the sources of that manner, with its simplicity and broad glyptic planes, are very difficult to identify in the Europe of 1910-14. Thus, though it is only too easy to see in W agner where the architecture leaves off and the engineering structure begins, Sant’Elia’s Citta exhibits a completely integrated structural conception, and blends different materials as equably as, say, the Library Wing of Glasgow Art School. That Sant’Elia could have seen pictures of this celebrated elevation is unlikely, and we are driven back to an enquiry as to the men he met in the course of his practice and training-who taught structures at Milan Polytechnic, or Bologna,8 whom did he work under on the Villoresi Canal, what engineering plants did he know, could he see in magazines, or were pointed out to him by Marinetti and Boccioni? Or was there still a constructive tradition descending from Antonelli’s work in Turin and N ovara, passed on to d ’Aronco and the Stilo Liberty?

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The fact that names and places do not immediately spring to mind is a warning that we have come to accept a rather narrow view of the sources of the Modern Movement, and inspires one to hope that some Italian student is currently gathering the personal memoirs of the survivors of what must have been an exciting period before it is too late. As to Sant’Elia’s stature in the Modern Movement, it seems unlikely that further drawings will seriously upset the estimate which one may now form, given the extended and deepened appreciation of his intentions which the unpublished drawings provide. Though he had no direct followers, he clearly ranks with Adolf Loos as an early abolisher of decoration, but whereas Loos seems often, as a consequence, to find himself stuck with a collection of rather dull boxes, Sant’Elia is rarely stuck, but goes on to create forms which are exciting in virtue of their mechanistic inspiration. In fact, putting the total corpus of drawings against the text of his manifesto, we see that he was among the very first to combine a complete acceptance of the machine-world with an ability to realize and symbolize that acceptance in terms of powerful and simple geometrical form. The acceptance is more complete than Le Corbusier’s, the forms more powerful than those of Gropius.

To say, as Professor Giedion has done,9 that he intended ‘to introduce the futurist love of movement into his city as an artistic element,’ seems now an underestimate of his mental calibre, and a misunderstanding of his place and time in the development of Futurism. The drawings entitled Dinamismo Architettonico make it clear that ‘movement’ as a quality of individual buildings has a very special meaning in his hands, while an examination of the Citta Futurista drawings suggests that far from trying to ‘introduce ’ movement, Sant’Elia is basing his whole design on a recognition of the fact that in the mechanized city one must circulate or perish. He seems to have foreseen the technological cities of the Fifties, each of which, in Gerhard Kallmann’s neo Futurist phrases,lo ’is a dramatic demonstration of motion-existence articulating space. At the centre of congress motion surges upwards…in towers that pin-point the sky… horizontally articulates highway ribbons charged with a continuity of energy missiles; omnidirectionally it radiates outwards by aeroplanes arriving and departing,’ and having seen all this he tried, and may yet prove to have succeeded, to give this concept of the city a comprehensible architectural form which should enhance its character and facilitate its essential functions. Even though he left behind no completed buildings, he was a pioneer of International Style, and the first to conceive the planning of the cities as fully three-dimensional structures, and his position in the family-tree of the Modern Movement is thus assured.