Modernism, avant garde and ‘tradition’: Ernesto Rogers’ case for ‘continuity’


I am currently reading a book about Ernesto Rogers’ concept of ‘continuity’ in Italian modernist architecture. I have to confess that I have always held an instinctive aversion to any discourse based on ‘tradition’. For me the way that ‘tradition’ is used as a shorthand for nationally rooted cultural canon is dubious, belonging to the same regressive arsenal of nationalist myths that stifle transnational hybridity. To talk of ‘tradition’ in the period that I am researching (interwar years) and in the context in which I am conducting my research (modernist architecture and urban planning) almost invariably meant imitative adherence to this canon of national rootedness and rejection of an open mind in relation to the international experience.

Or so I thought. Encountering Rogers’ understanding of tradition – as a dynamic force that is as far removed from a “passive emulation of the past”, pointing instead to a continuity, rooted in space, time, and ambient that constantly renews and innovates – is very different from the formalist ‘tradition’ of Ugo Ojetti or from the regressive ruralist nostalgia of Il Selvaggio group. Rogers spoke of tradition as “the concurrent presence of experiences – the validation of permanent emergent phenomena and the energies of mutations; these two work together to produce new effects that are infinitely active”. His modernist church was broad and inclusive, forgiving to theorised eclecticism. As editor of Casabella (to the title of which he added his key term 'Continuità'), he disagreed with collaborators who perceived the role of modernism in architecture solely as that of a permanent avant garde. For him, the historical function of modernism as intransigent and combative avant garde was largely exhausted in the 1920s and 1930s – the 'heroic phase' of modernism. The 'grand masters' – Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright – paved the way in his opinion for a more inclusive, more aware in cultural and ambiental terms, rallying cry for promoting a modernist sensibility that was not exhausted in particular styles but had a profound 'ethical' orientation. Between the prospect of open conflict ('crisis' – not in the Tafurian sense of the word but as an ongoing modernist polemica between contradictory and essentially irreconcilable programmatic positions) and a plural unity ('continuity' as the antidote to 'crisis' and a force of pluralistic inclusion), Rogers opted decidedly for the latter.

Rogers tread the most delicate of paths – between memory and innovation, between experience and expectations of renewal, between history and universality. His 'tradition' had very little in common with the same appellation used by the culturalisti that he, like so many other modernists of his generation, fought so consistently and vigorously against in the interwar years. Still, in defending the inclusive and dynamic nature that he attributed to his 'tradition', Rogers performed a similar kind of awkward dance in the 1950s that his Italian rationalists comrades had attempted in the 1920s and 1930s. I recall the desperate attempt of the authors of Gruppo 7 in the 1920s to insert their brand of modernism in an abstracted national genealogy that stretched back to the classical tradition; or even the embrace of the 'Mediterranean' designation by Giuseppe Terragni, Luigi Piccinato, and by the authors of the 1933 Programma di Architettura published in the first issue of Quadrante.

The attempt to plot razionalismo onto a national, in fact even anti-international horizon proved fatally self-defeating in the 1930s. In their pursuit of cultural hegemony within Fascist Italy, rationalists lost emphatically to the far more legible visual language of the 'new tradition' codified and promoted by Marcello Piacentini. Inevitably, the rationalists' claim to represent pure 'tradition' was barely credible in the eyes of the self-appointed curators of italianità. Meanwhile, even Edoardo Persico rejected the discursive acrobatics of 'mediterraneità' as hollow talk without programmatic substance that could amount to a genuinely Italian path to modernism. But Rogers chose to confront history neither as a fetish nor as an oppressive shadow, neither as an absolute faith nor as a profound rupture. His 'tradition' and quest for 'continuity' transcended the bruising polarities of the 1930s, recruited in the pursuit of constant innovation, albeit 'rooted', in the spiritual and ethical sense of the word, in a wide range of cultural inheritances and fascinating ambiental specificities.

Maybe 'tradition' is not the right word; one does not need to be a Futurist to feel distinctly uncomfortable with a notion of tradition that is anchored on past time and imposes formal prerequisites into the future. Maybe 'continuity' is misleading as well without its spiritual qualification and its embrace of constant innovation and open-endedness. But Rogers wishes to address the widest possible audience and strategically transcend the earlier tradition-modernism cultural fault line. No matter. His premise is more akin to a radical continuity, in which an abstracted 'tradition' becomes ingredient of a new creative matrix that constantly inspires a deeper creative impegno for the postwar modernist architect. After the bitter polemiche of the 1930s and the danger of their reproduction in the 1950s, he gave expression to the desire for a more measured and calm critical reflection on the range of possibilities for a new wave of modernist architecture.


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