The recent recasting of Rome’s EUR shows that fascist values never really go out of fashion
One of the most useful of internet memes is the concept of ‘Godwin’s Law’. In short, it stipulates that anyone who brings the Third Reich into a discussion on something else has instantly invalidated their argument by resorting to a comparison with absolute evil. This came too late for the habitual description of Neoclassical architecture (in the 1950s) or Brutalist architecture (in the 1970s and ’80s) as fascist. Sometimes, though, someone just begs to be ‘Godwinned’. The Italian fashion house Fendi has just set up their headquarters in the stripped Classical arches of Rome’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, the most emblematic building of the Mussolini regime, intended to stand as the centrepiece of EUR, an expansion of the Italian capital to glorify fascist power. In Fendi’s window displays, the combination of different kinds of elitism and severity seems rather apt. That’s unsurprising, given that these aesthetics have had an appeal for haute couture for some time. Never mind the fascist sympathies of the likes of Hugo Boss or Coco Chanel, look at the ironic or semi-ironic re-appropriation of fascist architecture in cinema (the list of films that have used EUR is extensive indeed), or in fashion itself, from the deliberately Riefenstahl-esque Calvin Klein adverts of the 1990s to the deliberately fascistic soft porn aesthetic of Helmut Newton.
For all that, however, Italian fascist architecture has much more to it than flirting with the dark side. Fascist Italy, although it inspired, abetted and collaborated with the Nazis, was not the Third Reich, and as an open secret has long had it, it was an exceptionally rich era for architecture − again, unlike the Third Reich, whose architecture was by and large as dull as it was evil. Architects have consciously and unconsciously borrowed from it repeatedly since the 1970s. Is there anything really to worry about in this re-appropriation of the aesthetics of one of the 20th century’s most repugnant regimes?
The profound difference in quality and variety between German and Italian fascist architecture is owed partly to the fact that Nazism was a counter-revolution not only against the strong German left, but also against the open, modernising culture of the Weimar Republic. Mussolini mercilessly crushed the equally powerful Italian labour movement, but could hardly have suppressed a Modern Movement that had barely begun when he seized power in 1922. Modernism emerged as one of several competing factions that asked for Mussolini’s approval, and often got it. Whether the flamboyant ‘futurist Roman Empire’ pomp of Milan Central Station, the ruthlessly reduced classicism of EUR or the experimental Modernism of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, a certain neatness, coldness and sinister hauteur was common to the architecture of the era, one which still reflects its values. This has not, again, stopped it from being influential.
‘To assume that this is little more than a game with aesthetics, is to assume that fascism is ancient, dead history in Italy. It isn’t’
Many of the first architects to revive or refer to the architecture of Italian fascism actually espoused left-wing politics. Among them was the Communist-sympathising Aldo Rossi. The family resemblance is clear, if you look from the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana to Rossi’s Modena Cemetery − both are symmetrical, purged of rhetoric, devoid of ornament, imposing, haunting and deeply unnerving. This isn’t to imply an affinity between two ‘totalitarianisms’, given that the Italian Communist Party was probably the most open and democratic force in postwar Italian politics. Rossi was motivated by something different. Looking for a modern architecture that respected the historic city and urban memory − and the importance for both of monumentality − he may have found it in the architecture of his political opponents.
Although it had its CIAM delegation, interwar Italy had almost no Zeilenbau workers’ housing schemes (or many workers’ housing schemes at all). Its modern architecture was still very visibly part of a Classical tradition, and typical fascist-era structures − like the Museo del Novecento in Milan, working as gates to the Piazza del Duomo − were often designed to emphasise and complement historic sites, perhaps to the irritation of futurist fascists like Marinetti. Like today, the regime’s favoured architects specialised in luxury housing, sports stadiums, bombastic railway stations and high-spec office blocks. Also, it doesn’t take Godwin’s Law to finger the likes of Marcello Piacenti or Angiolo Mazzoni as obvious inspirations for the modernised stripped classicism currently ubiquitous in much of Europe, as in the work of David Chipperfield or Hans Kollhoff. It’s not just the classicists − Peter Eisenman has long admitted his own work is little more than a gloss on that of Giuseppe Terragni.
What of Fendi, what exactly do they see in the architecture of Mussolini? The architecture his regime commissioned propounds a notion of ‘good taste’ that is deeply similar to that of the fashion industry − shamelessly elitist, wilfully sinister, hierarchical, Classical, its apparent minimalism belied by an obsession with the finest possible material and the severest cut. It’s all highly unlike the overloaded ornamental ram-raid of Stalinist architecture, and compared with the buildings of Nazism, this is a very different sort of far-right kitsch from that of folk costumes and the vernacular. The appropriation of EUR by high fashion also marks part of a wider colonisation of space by the fashion industry − Fendi recently funded a restoration of the Trevi Fountain, at the cost, of course, of big adverts on the scaffolding. Fascist architecture, fashion, Fendi, all part of a history of amoral, elite good taste, something which appears to be becoming ever more inescapable as the lifestyle of the rich flies off into places ever more distant from that of the majority.
However, to assume that this is little more than a game with aesthetics, a play on history, is to assume that fascism is ancient, dead history in Italy. It isn’t. Not only until recently did governing parties like the National Alliance and the Northern League trace their ancestry or politics from Mussolini, the Modernist-classicist aesthetics of the era have proven appealing to young fascist intellectuals, such as the group CasaPound. This has consequences in the built environment − only recently, a memorial complex was opened just outside Rome in honour of Rodolfo Graziani, a fascist general, minister and convicted war criminal. It is, of course, stripped Classical, with chic ’30s-style lettering. Perhaps even worse than Fendi using EUR, because along with the frisson of elegant evil it provides comes a normalisation − ‘just another’ part of Italian history. However much the architecture of the era can be interesting and attractive, its values were deeply sick. It is right that its architecture remain tainted.