Sunday, February 12, 2012


Casa del Fascio
Totalitarianism darkened Europe as economies collapsed in the 1930s. Architecture played a critical role in Adolf Hitler’s (1889–1945) plans for a reinvigorated Germany. A onetime Viennese watercolorist with a penchant for architectural subjects, Hitler saw the value of great public buildings in boosting national pride and signaling the permanence of his Thousand-Year Reich. His friend Paul Troost (1879–1934) had designed interiors for luxury ships and understood his Führer’s lust for theatricality. Troost’s Haus der Deutschen Kunst, Munich (1933–1937), was a museum for ‘‘pure’’ art, not the ‘‘degenerate’’ modernism then being purged. Its style became the official Nazi one: grandiose classicism, but simplified and rendered rigid and coldly sublime. The German architectural tradition of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) was married to a primitive Greek classicism. After Troost died, Albert Speer (1905–1981) took his place in Hitler’s affections, conceiving a utopian rebuilding of Berlin as ‘‘Germania’’ with a preposterously oversized dome as its focus. Like Hitler, Speer saw Germany as a new Roman Empire dominating all of Europe and developed a suitably grandiose architecture, clad in stone. His built projects shared a megalomania, including the Zeppelinfeld Stadium, Nuremberg (1934–1937), for mass Nazi rallies and the Reich Chancellery, Berlin (1938), center ofHitler’s cult of personality. Its echoing halls, one nearly five hundred feet long, were meant to instill awe in visiting dignitaries. Hitler’s grim final days were spent in an underground bunker out back. Much of Speer’s work was bombed to rubble during World War II, and he was later imprisoned for his role in organizing slave labor and death camps. He is the twentieth century’s most controversial architect.

If the totalitarian regime in Germany rejected modernism, that in Italy was more receptive. Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) found an avid following among a young generation of architects, including the brilliant but short-lived Giuseppe Terragni (1904–1943), who helped found Gruppo 7 in 1926. Gruppo 7 was a gathering of Milanese modernists who pressed for what they called Rationalismo: antiindividualistic and pro-Fascist; embracing functionalism in design but tempering it with historical references to the glories of the Italian past. Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, Como (1933–1936), a Fascist headquarters and community center, evolved through various conceptions into a harmonious and cubistic work of pure geometries and white walls stripped of any ornament. Its rationalist composition embodied in a gridlike reinforced concrete frame was apparently simple but actually quite complex, blending functionalist dicta with principles from the Roman past, including perfect proportions, an interior atrium, and marble cladding. It has won a legion of admirers. In time for Terragni’s centennial in 2004 the New York architect Peter Eisenman (b. 1932) published Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques, a book he had worked on for forty years that celebrated the subtleties of Casa del Fascio and Casa Giuliani-Frigerio, also in Como. Never built was Terragni’s proposed monument to the poet Dante (1265–1321) (1938) in the Roman Forum, likewise a fusion of modernist rationalism with reference to the historical past, specifically the hypostyle halls of Egyptian temples, where columns stood as thickly as trees in a forest—only at the Danteum the columns were to have been of glass. World War II discredited fascism, but the ideas of Terragni later helped inspire postmodernism: Aldo Rossi (1931–1997) pioneered neo-rationalism in the 1960s, seeking to infuse history into themodernist vocabularies of concrete, glass, and steel, much as Terragni had done.

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