Saw this exhibition on Tuesday, well worth a visit.
The first thing visitors will encounter is The New City, i.e. the series of twelve drawings presented by Sant’Elia at the Nuove Tendenze (New Trends) exhibition in Milan in 1914, which encapsulated the urban visions of this young Como native who had then just drawn up his manifesto for a Futurist architecture.
Ever since its advent during the nineteenth century, the metropolis has been considered to be one of the most spectacular and contradictory manifestations of the modern era, featuring unprecedented and dramatic hygienic, moral, political, cultural and functional problems that called for radical reforms in the areas of roads and transport, of housing and of the organisation of everyday domestic life.
Attempts were made to offer radical responses to these challenges by such great architects as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, with the extraordinary visions of the Contemporary city for three million inhabitants by Le Corbusier and Broadacre City, the ideal American city based on the single-family home and the car as means of individual transport, designed by Wright, whose large model is on show here. The future of the city was long a burning issue of the discussions and questions that agitated the neo avant-gardes in Europe, but also in the United States and Japan, until the beginning of the seventies: the Dutch architect Constant, his Franco-Hungarian counterpart Yona Friedman and the British from Archigram imagined cities suspended above the ground, whose inhabitants could organise their lives freely, not unlike what was proposed by the German Walter Jonas or the Japanese metabolist Arata Isozaki. In the tempestuous context of Europe’s 1968 upheavals, Italian groups like Archizoom and Superstudio then also developed an uncompromising critique of the capitalist city, questioning its very structure and meaning.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the modern city has been attracting the sometimes fascinated and often shocked eyes of generations of artists. The great boulevards of Paris packed with crowds and traffic were the undeniable stars of much of the work of the Impressionists, while the Futurist Umberto Boccioni interpreted their explosive growth in such paintings as The City Rises – a rare preparatory sketch of this work is on show here – and Mario Sironi followed suit with new cityscapes taken from outlying industrial areas. Nor were the Cubists insensitive to the suggestive growth of urban agglomerations, as demonstrated here by the oil on canvas by Fernand Léger, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1926, the German film director Fritz Lang made his masterpiece Metropolis against a backdrop of visionary, expressionist scenery, while only a few years later Erich Kettelhut and Hungary’s Moholy-Nagy celebrated the luminous, febrile panorama of the contemporary city in the sequences for the film Things to Come (1936), which the artist Jan Tichy has now re-used in a spectacular three-channel video.
The exhibition ends with a series of key pieces of artistic research conducted in recent years: Pizza City, the boundless model of a city made of nothing but hundreds of toys by the American artist Chris Burden and the video by the Chinese artist Cao Fei, which depicts a city suspended in the virtual space of Second Life. In an attempt to bring the experiments conducted by the avant-gardes in the twenties together with the conditions of the present, the German artist Carsten Höller has “reconstructed” the fantastic project conceived by the Soviet architect and artist Krutikov in 1928 for a “flying city”, setting it free to waft above the skies of Como today.
Manifesto of Futurist Architecture
No architecture has existed since 1700. A moronic mixture of the most various stylistic elements used to mask the skeletons of modern houses is called modern architecture. The new beauty of cement and iron are profaned by the superimposition of motley decorative incrustations that cannot be justified either by constructive necessity or by our (modern) taste, and whose origins are in Egyptian, Indian or Byzantine antiquity and in that idiotic flowering of stupidity and impotence that took the name of neoclassicism.
These architectonic prostitutions are welcomed in Italy, and rapacious alien ineptitude is passed off as talented invention and as extremely up-to-date architecture. Young Italian architects (those who borrow originality from clandestine and compulsive devouring of art journals) flaunt their talents in the new quarters of our towns, where a hilarious salad of little ogival columns, seventeenth-century foliation, Gothic pointed arches, Egyptian pilasters, rococo scrolls, fifteenth-century cherubs, swollen caryatids, take the place of style in all seriousness, and presumptuously put on monumental airs. The kaleidoscopic appearance and reappearance of forms, the multiplying of machinery, the daily increasing needs imposed by the speed of communications, by the concentration of population, by hygiene, and by a hundred other phenomena of modern life, never cause these self-styled renovators of architecture a moment’s perplexity or hesitation. They persevere obstinately with the rules of Vitruvius, Vignola and Sansovino plus gleanings from any published scrap of information on German architecture that happens to be at hand. Using these, they continue to stamp the image of imbecility on our cities, our cities which should be the immediate and faithful projection of ourselves.
And so this expressive and synthetic art has become in their hands a vacuous stylistic exercise, a jumble of ill-mixed formulae to disguise a run-of-the-mill traditionalist box of bricks and stone as a modern building. As if we who are accumulators and generators of movement, with all our added mechanical limbs, with all the noise and speed of our life, could live in streets built for the needs of men four, five or six centuries ago.
This is the supreme imbecility of modern architecture, perpetuated by the venal complicity of the academies, the internment camps of the intelligentsia, where the young are forced into the onanistic recopying of classical models instead of throwing their minds open in the search for new frontiers and in the solution of the new and pressing problem: the Futurist house and city.The house and the city that are ours both spiritually and materially, in which our tumult can rage without seeming a grotesque anachronism.
The problem posed in Futurist architecture is not one of linear rearrangement. It is not a question of finding new moldings and frames for windows and doors, of replacing columns, pilasters and corbels with caryatids, flies and frogs. Neither has it anything to do with leaving a façade in bare brick, or plastering it, or facing it with stone or in determining formal differences between the new building and the old one. It is a question of tending the healthy growth of the Futurist house, of constructing it with all the resources of technology and science, satisfying magisterially all the demands of our habits and our spirit, trampling down all that is grotesque and antithetical (tradition, style, aesthetics, proportion), determining new forms, new lines, a new harmony of profiles and volumes, an architecture whose reason for existence can be found solely in the unique conditions of modern life, and in its correspondence with the aesthetic values of our sensibilities. This architecture cannot be subjected to any law of historical continuity. It must be new, just as our state of mind is new.
The art of construction has been able to evolve with time, and to pass from one style to another, while maintaining unaltered the general characteristics of architecture, because in the course of history changes of fashion are frequent and are determined by the alternations of religious conviction and political disposition. But profound changes in the state of the environment are extremely rare, changes that unhinge and renew, such as the discovery of natural laws, the perfecting of mechanical means, the rational and scientific use of material. In modern life the process of stylistic development in architecture has been brought to a halt. Architecture now makes a break with tradition. It must perforce make a fresh start.
Calculations based on the resistance of materials, on the use of reinforced concrete and steel, exclude “architecture” in the classical and traditional sense. Modern constructional materials and scientific concepts are absolutely incompatible with the disciplines of historical styles, and are the principal cause of the grotesque appearance of “fashionable” buildings in which attempts are made to employ the lightness, the superb grace of the steel beam, the delicacy of reinforced concrete, in order to obtain the heavy curve of the arch and the bulkiness of marble.
The utter antithesis between the modern world and the old is determined by all those things that formerly did not exist. Our lives have been enriched by elements the possibility of whose existence the ancients did not even suspect. Men have identified material contingencies, and revealed spiritual attitudes, whose repercussions are felt in a thousand ways. Principal among these is the formation of a new ideal of beauty that is still obscure and embryonic, but whose fascination is already felt even by the masses. We have lost our predilection for the monumental, the heavy, the static, and we have enriched our sensibility with a taste for the light, the practical, the ephemeral and the swift. We no longer feel ourselves to be the men of the cathedrals, the palaces and the podiums. We are the men of the great hotels, the railway stations, the immense streets, colossal ports, covered markets, luminous arcades, straight roads and beneficial demolitions.
We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail; and the Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine. The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairwells themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the lengths of the façades like serpents of steel and glass. The house of concrete, glass and steel, stripped of paintings and sculpture, rich only in the innate beauty of its lines and relief, extraordinarily “ugly” in its mechanical simplicity, higher and wider according to need rather than the specifications of municipal laws. It must soar up on the brink of a tumultuous abyss: the street will no longer lie like a doormat at ground level, but will plunge many stories down into the earth, embracing the metropolitan traffic, and will be linked up for necessary interconnections by metal gangways and swift-moving pavements.