Figure 1 La Casa del Fascio, Giuseppe Terragni, 1932-1936
An architectural excursion to Italy invariably includes a visit to Casa del Fascio in Como, built for Mussolini in 1932 by Giuseppe Terragni. It is a beautiful piece of architecture representative of Il Movimento Italiano per l’Architettura Razionale, or in other words: Italian Rationalism. Terragni was a member of Gruppo 7, founded in 1926, along with Sebastiano Larco, Guido Frette, Carlo Enrico Rava, Adalberto Libera, Luigi Figini en Gino Pollini. Gruppo 7 believed that proper architecture emerges through rational determinism, which essentially means that form will result naturally by addressing the needs of the programme. This movement was much inspired by Modernism, though the architects rejected the notion of breaking with the past. In their 1926 manifesto, they stated that the past and present are not incompatible and so they refuse to let go of tradition. Their architecture therefore has a recognizably modern layout, with an abstracted Classicism, executed in concrete and clad in traditional materials like limestone, travertine and marble.
This is the architecture that is often seen as representative of Italian Fascism, and with good reason. However, if Fascism in Italy had lasted longer, this would not have been the only architectural movement that might exemplify Fascist Architecture.
Figure 2 Annibale Vitellozzi, Pier Luigi Nervi, Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome, 1954-1957
Mussolini gained power in 1919, in an Italy plagued by economic depression and chronic shortages, as well as civil unrest and serious discord resulting from WWI. Various radical and conservative movements were fighting it out, which was reflected in the architecture too. Initially Mussolini used only Classical architecture. The memory of an illustrious Roman history was meant to inspire collective pride, but this really only appealed to the conservative camps. The architecture of the Futurists, such as that by Pier Luigi Nervi who experimented with new materials like reinforced concrete, resulted in equally powerful, though more daring architecture – yet this went too far for many radicals because it was considered beyond human proportions.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Modern Movement and the International Style were the most popular architectural philosophies worldwide. Following on from the 19th century, in which social orders had completely changed due to the Industrial Revolution, the Modernist socio-political agenda was greatly influenced by socialist and communist ideas. Modernists broke with the past and focused entirely on the future, on the use of new materials and industrial production. Steel and concrete were the preferred building blocks.
In fact, these architectural movements represented precisely the diversity of the socio-political spectrum found in Italy before the war. Mussolini had said at the beginning of his rise to power that his allegiance was not to any political party, but that he would be a prime minister for all Italians. In this context it is not surprising that the ‘safe’ architecture of the Italian Rationalists was chosen as the style for his Casa del Fascio in Como.
Figure 3 Fendi’s opening of the New Headquarters in 2015
Figure 4 Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, 1937-1940 – Fendi’s New Headquarters
“In 2015, Fendi moved its global office to one of Rome’s most iconic structures – the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. The symmetrical arches and travertine marble are an exceptional example of 20th century Roman architecture. Fendi’s presence in such a historic structure reflects the commitment to honouring the Maison’s heritage while forging ahead into the future.” (Fendi, 2017)
Mussolini’s most impressive project, however, was the Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR), designed to house the 1942 World’s Fair. Its opening was also meant to celebrate 20 years of Fascism. Mussolini had a long list of prominent Italian architects from all the different architectural movements to be considered for the design. The project was managed by Marcello Piacentini and presented in 1938. Situated on the outskirts of Rome, the urban plan was inspired by plans from Roman antiquity, with strong orthogonal axes and sightlines and impressive stately buildings. Architecturally it drew from Italian Rationalism and Classicism, as well as Modernism and Futurism. Construction started in 1939 but was interrupted in 1942 when WWII erupted, just prior to its completion. The project was seriously damaged during the war.
After the war, the City of Rome decided not to demolish EUR and erase its Fascist past, but to finish the works and turn it into a business district along with new buildings and parks. It was done in time for the Olympic Games of 1960 which were to be held in Rome. Now, in 2018, EUR is a 40-hectare district of exemplary early 20th-century architecture with the most beautiful buildings housing offices, museums and shops. Favourites are the Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e dei Congressi, by Adalberto Libera (1938-1954), the Palazzo dello Sport van Nervi and Piancentini (1938-1960) and, last but not least, the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana by the architects Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Lapadula and Mario Romano (1938-1943). After a large-scale restoration, the headquarters of fashion label Fendi has been resident here since 2015, renting it for 2.8 million euros a year. An exhibition honouring Italian craftsmanship has been installed on the ground floor.
Figure 5 Adalberto Libera, Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e dei Congressi all’E42 di Roma, 1942
Great architectural projects usually represent an ideal and are built by those who can afford them, since apart from a talented architect, one needs capital and infrastructure – and hence a certain amount of power – to make it happen. Whether those ideals are reprehensible, dubious or even praiseworthy, is a question of distance. Few would question whether it is morally acceptable to preserve the Pyramids, the Colosseum or the Palace of Versailles. Stripped of its culpability or glory, what remains is the proof of craftsmanship by architects, artists and builders. Beauty does not judge.
If we want to keep probing the ideals that shaped this sort of architecture and the circumstances that brought it to fruition, then it is patently necessary to keep these buildings. Only their impressive presence can show us that they must have resulted, not from the efforts of a mere few, but of many. Obviously, this is more painful when viewed as recent than from afar.