A century since futurism: Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone

One hundred years have passed since Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone pioneered futurism in architecture. Marinetti exerted his trademark influence over the two, putting words to the towering industrial structures they envisioned. Though they bear the mark of their age, in many ways the vision they present is more futuristic than even the sleekest digital architecture of today. Sant’Elia’s manifesto of futurist architecture appears below, along with some drawings by him and Chiattone.

Because of the Italian futurists’ notorious association with fascist politics from the early 1920s on, it is important to point out that Sant’Elia died in combat well before he could have joined such a movement. Like the other futurists, Sant’Elia was drawn to the sublime spectacle of mechanized warfare. His voluntary, indeed enthusiastic, enlistment in the Italian army eventually resulted in his death. Yet it would be premature to assume that he would have been sympathetic to Mussolini. Not all of the futurists were, of course.

An earlier version of this manifesto was published in a catalogue which accompanied the exhibition of a Milanese group called Nuove Tendenze  [New Tendencies], held in late May 1914. It was untitled, but has since become known as the “Messaggio[“Message”]. Though its ideas were Sant’Elia’s, it was drafted by Ugo Nebbia and perhaps others. In July 1914 Sant’Elia, who had long been in contact with Boccioni, met with Marinetti and decided to adhere to Futurism. Marinetti transformed the “Messaggio” into the manifesto “Futurist Architecture,” issued as an independent leaflet in late July 1914. It was republished in Lacerba 2, № 15 (August 1, 1914).

Mario Chiattone, Cathedral of Futurism 1914

Futurist architecture

Antonio Sant’Elia
Lacerba 2, № 15
August 1, 1914

Architecture has not existed since the year 700. A foolish motley of the most heterogenous elements of style, used only to mask the skeleton of the modern
house, goes under the name of modern architecture. The new beauty of cement and iron is profaned by the superimposition of carnivalesque decorative encrustations that are justified neither by structural necessity nor by our tastes, encrustations that take their origins from Egyptian, Byzantine, or Indian antiquities, or from that stupefying efflorescence of idiocy and impotence that has taken the name of neo-classicism.

Such architectural panderings are warmly received in Italy, and the rapacious ineptitude of foreign architects is passed off as inventive genius, as the newest architecture. Young Italian architects (those who attain their originality by the clandestine perusal of trade journals) flaunt their talents in the new quarters of our cities, where a happy salad of little ogival columns, sixteenth-century capitals, Gothic arches, Egyptian pilasters, rococo volutes, quattrocento putti, and swollen caryatids take the place of a style, presumptuously assuming monumental airs. The kaleidoscopic appearance and reappearance of new forms, the proliferation of machines, the daily expansion of novel needs imposed by the speed of communications, the agglomeration of people, the demands of hygiene, and a hundred other phenomena of modern life, are no cause for perplexity to these self-avowed renovators of architecture.

They obstinately persevere, armed with rules laid down by Vitruvius, Vignola, and Sansovino along with some little publication of German architecture that has come to hand, in restamping the centuries-old image of foolishness over our cities, cities that should instead be the immediate and faithful projection of ourselves. Thus, in their hands, this expressive and synthetic art has become a stylistic exercise, a rummaging through a hotchpotch of old formulas meant to disguise the usual passéist sleight-of-hand in brick and stone as a modern building. As if we, accumulators and generators of movement, with all our mechanical extensions of ourselves, with all the noise and speed of our lives, could ever live in the same houses and streets constructed to meet the needs of men who lived four, five, or six centuries ago.

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This is the highest imbecility of modern architecture, which is perpetuated through the mercantile complicity of the academy, that forced residence for intelligence where the young are constrained to an onanistic recopying of classical models, instead of having their minds opened to research into the limits and into the solution of that demanding new problem: the Futurist house and city. The house and city that should be spiritually and materially ours, where our restless activities might unfold without seeming a grotesque anachronism.

The problem of Futurist architecture is not a problem of rearranging its lines. It is not a question of finding new moldings, new architraves for windows and doors; nor of replacing columns pilasters, and corbels with caryatids, hornets, and frogs; not a question of leaving a façade bare brick or facing it with plaster or stone; it has nothing to do with defining formalistic differences between new buildings and old ones; but with raising the Futurist house on a healthy plan, gleaning every benefit of science and technology, nobly settling every demand of our habits and minds, rejecting all that is grotesque, heavy, and antithetical to our being (tradition, style, aesthetics, proportion), establishing new forms, new lines, new harmonies for profiles and volumes, an architecture that finds its raison d’être solely in the special conditions of modern living and its corresponding aesthetic values in our sensibility. Such an architecture cannot be subject to any law of historical continuity. It must be as new as our state of mind is new.

The art of building has been able to evolve through time and pass from one style to another while maintaining the general character of architecture unchanged, because in history there have been numerous changes of taste brought on by shifts of religious conviction or the succession of political regimes, but few occasioned by profound changes in our conditions of life, changes that discard or overhaul the old conditions, as have the discovery of natural laws, the perfection of technical methods, the rational and scientific use of materials.

Mario Chiattone futurist architecture Mario Chiattone 1

In modern life the process of consequential stylistic development comes to a halt. Architecture becomes dissevered from tradition. One begins again, by necessity, from the ground up.

Calculations of the resistance of materials, the use of reinforced concrete and iron, exclude “architecture” as understood in the classical and traditional sense.

Modern structural materials and our scientific concepts absolutely do not lend themselves to the disciplines of the historical styles, and are the chief cause of the grotesque aspect of modish constructions where we see the lightness and proud slenderness of girders, and the slightness of reinforced concrete, bent to the heavy curve of the arch, aping the stolidity of marble. Continue reading