ITALIAN MODERNISM SEEN FROM ACROSS THE ENGLISH CHANNEL
Disregarded until 1934, when the RIBA held an exhibition in London of the best international works of architecture made in the preceding decade, modern Italian buildings have been discovered and reevaluated thanks to photography. Here, Valeria Carullo gives an overview of British publications and shows that have lent visibility to rationalism from the 1930s to now The modern movement in architecture took hold with relative delay in Great Britain as in Italy, so it needn’t surprise us if in the early 1930s, modern Italian architecture enjoyed scarce visibility across the English Channel. Probably thanks to the 5th Triennale di Milano exposition in 1933, architectural endeavours in Italy caught the attention of the specialised press in Britain. The Architectural Review, a prestigious magazine, dedicated several pages to the exhibition. The Architect & Building News and the Architectural Association Files also published articles on the Triennale, written by the secretary of the AA School of Architecture, Frank Yerbury. As a photographer, Yerbury had a fundamental role in introducing modern architecture from the Continent to Great Britain. That year, in 1933, he travelled to Italy from London with students of the school, and returned full of admiration and praise for the new architecture.
The following year, the mostly photographic and highly popular exhibition “International Architecture 1924–1934” held at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) included work by Pietro Lingeri, Gino Levi-Montalcini, Edoardo Persico and Marcello Nizzoli, Ignazio Gardella, Luciano Baldessari and Pier Luigi Nervi. In the late 1930s, the British press dedicated sporadic articles to the subject, but almost always they contained positive judgement of the described and illustrated buildings. The second edition of Gli Elementi dell’Architettura Funzionale by Alberto Sartoris was reviewed both by The Architectural Review and its sister magazine, The Architects’ Journal. Both authors – the editor of the Review, James Maude Richards, and the critic P. Morton Shand – underlined the book’s importance and Sartoris’s role in the development and diffusion of the modern movement in Italy. Sartoris was friends with Morton Shand as well as the architects Francis Yorke and Raymond McGrath; he also corresponded with Leslie Martin and Denys Lasdun. Several times, Sartoris’s projects were the subject of articles in The Architectural Review, which promoted the modern movement by also publishing the work of Franco Albini, Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini, BBPR and Gino Levi-Montalcini. In June 1940, the magazine came out with an interesting and richly illustrated article titled Some Recent Italian Buildings. It was a critical moment in the history of the relation between the two nations (Great Britain had already joined the war), but this is not evident in the text, a thoughtful consideration of what had happened in Italian architecture in the preceding decade. After World War II, there was a renewed interest in Italian buildings, especially contemporary ones, but it did not exclude a retrospective look at the Fascist period. Architects such as Ed Mills and Bryan and Norman Westwood visited the country and took photographs of buildings from the rationalist period. The American architecture historian George Everard Kidder Smith held a lecture at the exhibition “Italian Contemporary Architecture” at the RIBA in 1952 that was published in the RIBA Journal, followed three years later by a fascinating chronicle of the modern movement in Italy, Italy Builds. The book is illustrated mostly with splendid pictures taken by Kidder Smith himself, and it includes an analysis of the country’s architecture between the two wars. The author writes how “Even in these early experiments [in International Style], influenced as they were from abroad, that wonderful innate Italianness always asserted itself...”. He defines Nervi’s stadium in Florence and Giuseppe Terragni’s work as “brilliant”, and describes the villa for an artist designed by Figini and Pollini for the 1933 Triennale as “the best modern house ever built in Italy” at that time. According to Kidder Smith, Fascist architecture had become increasingly uncertain and formalistic over the years, and he reserved particularly harsh judgement for the “dry formalism” of the EUR project in Rome. In the 1960s and 70s, references to this phase in Italian architecture grew extremely scarce. The Architectural Review rekindled curiosity for the architects of that period, first in 1963 with a long article by Panos Koulermos on Terragni and Lingeri; then in 1967 with an essay by Joseph Rykwert on Figini and Pollini; and lastly in 1979, with a lengthy article by Geoffrey Boradbent called
Italian Fascism. Terragni’s work was photographed in detail during the 1960s by the architecture historian Tim Benton, who studied this period in Italian architecture. It was again
The Architectural Review to open the 1980s with the issue From Futurism to Rationalism, which included 30 pages on futurism, with articles by Reyner Banham and Bruno Zevi, and another 40 pages on rationalism, with individual profiles on 20 architects from those days. Finally, the article
The New York – Como Connection explored the nascent interest of American critics for Terragni and Cesare Cattaneo and their influence on Peter Eisenman.
After a long article on Italian rationalism published by the magazine of The Thirties Society (now The Twentieth Century Society) in 1987, and an exhibition on children’s summer
camp buildings (colonie) at the seashore, held the following year at the Architectural Association, it was not until the 2000s that another two interesting cases of re-evaluation were made. One was by the architecture historian Edward Denison, who photographed and wrote about Italian architecture from the 1930s and 40s in Asmara, Eritrea. The other was by the artist Dan Dubowitz, whose photograph series on the summer camps forms the basis of the 2009 book Fascismo Abbandonato, featuring an essay by the architect Patrick Duerden in which he weighs, as others before him, the weak foreign appreciation of Italian architecture from the 1930s. We mustn’t overlook other events that took place in recent years connected to this subject. The first is the initiative by The Architectural Review in 2007 that collects the views of five British architects on Terragni’s building in Como. This article, which merits being a cover feature, is accompanied by beautiful photographs by Paolo Rosselli. The second is the 2009 RIBA exhibition “Framing Modernism” held at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London. The display underlined the role of photography in the diffusion of knowledge about modern Italian architecture. The third is the BBC programme Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments and Modernism, conceived and directed by the British writer, journalist and film maker Jonathan Meades. These initiatives demonstrate the intermittent but undying interest of British culture for the history and results of a complex and contradictory period in Italian architecture.
Left: cover of the catalogue to the 1934 RIBA exhibition “International Architecture 1924-1934”; top: Casa Rustici on Corso Sempione, Milan by Giuseppe Terragni and Pietro Lingeri, 1933-1936, with landings aligned flush with the main façade, connecting the two separate blocks of the complex
Valeria Carullo Carullo was born in Naples in 1965 and moved to London after taking her degree in architecture. She studied photography while working at the RIBA Photographs Collection. After collaborating with the photographer Richard Bryant, she returned to the RIBA, where she has been a co-curator of the Photographs Collection since 2012.
This page, clockwise from top-left: view of the exhibition by MARS (Modern Architectural Research Group) held in 1938 at New Burlington Galleries in London; swimming pool designed by Gherardo Bosio in 1935 at the Ugolino Golf Club south of Florence. The pool is lined in ceramic tile of different shades of blue, and the diving board was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi; partial view of three flights of steps leading from the living room level to the bedroom level at Villa Leoni in Ossuccio (Como) by Pietro Lingeri, 1938-1944; ‘House and Studio for an Artist’ by Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini for the 1933 Triennale di Milano exposition; the same photograph of Casa Rustici as on the opposite page