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.

 

As it turned out, it was probably the most eventful talk I have ever given. But Flowboard at least worked like a breeze. Although exhausted after a punitive day (also featuring me speaking in Italian for an hour, ad lib), I enjoyed it. My last talk at the British School at Rome, methinks, definitely memorable!

View on Flowboard – Presentation Software for iPad and Mac

A few steps away from Libera’s and De Renzi’s signature post office on Via Marmorata, on the edge of the Testaccio working class district that was designed and largely built in the last years of the 19th century, Innocenzo Sabbatini collaborated with his namesake Costantini under the auspices of the ICP to produce a couple of ‘super blocs’. I did not know of this aspect of his late work (1930-31), nor that he had even built something in Testaccio. Sabbatini never fails to confound me. I stood under the building picture above, looking at it, thinking ‘could it be?’, searching frantically on the iPad to find any reference to his in relation to Testaccio. Unlike my ever-more-frustrating search for traces of his Trionfale V, the Internet search threw up a long list of encouraging finds, until I came across this article from ArchiDiap (http://www.archidiap.com/opera/case-icp-a-testaccio-2/) that confirmed the first impressions. Sabbatini left his traces gloriously on Testaccio, along the incongruous Via Marmorata that switches so spectacularly from the pyramid of Gaius Cestius to the austere Ostiense station, to the 1933 post office, then to vintage neo-classical palazzine, and finally to the distinct, fascinating layer of ICP eclectic mega-structures …

I have been working my way through the E42 at the Archive Centrale dello Stato in Rome. One of the many joys of this collection is that it is very well documented and punctuated by numerous drawings, original plans, and photos of models. I have stopped feeling guilty for lacking close focus, a guilt that took away some of the pleasure of shamelessly digressing during my first weeks here. Now I simply amass, camera in hand, €3 apiece, happily ploughing my way through bulky folders, getting excited when encountering an oversized plan that needs careful unfolding and fills up the entire table for four.

The original model for the E42 quarter is a gloriously unreal sight. One can debate the merits or demerits of the architectural style chosen for the quarter. But when I see the aerial photo of the zone in 1953, a haunting monumental waste land, the graveyard of an obsessive illusion, the most spectacular nonfinito of Fascist hubris, I recall the mental image of the model presented to the organisers of the world fair in 1939. By that time, Marcello Piacentini alone was running the show; all his initial collaborating architects had abandoned the ship – Giuseppe Pagano the most embittered of the lot. Still, there is something strikingly attractive and fascinating in glancing over the scaled simulation of such a gigantic project.

I often wonder how even this model would have looked had other designs been selected from the entries to the various competitions for specific buildings – in particular, that for the Palazzo dei Congreessi e Ricevimenti that attracted the highest quality of entries. But this is a matter for another post. Today I found out that the committee in charge of planning matters for the E42 and the associated quarter kept meeting until 13 June 1943. Yes, June 1943 – a year after the fair was meant to have taken place. The agenda for this meeting contained one single item – “Examination of the situation of work in progress”… No record yet of the minutes yet. I am curious to read whatever they were debating in June 1943, beyond perhaps a frustrating post-mortem.

I have joined a very long list of suitors, with not even the merest of chance. The stuff of design legends, the James Dean of modernist architecture, the obsessed genius with all its spectacular contradictions encompassing the full gamut of the colour spectrum. Fascist, nationalist, Catholic, cosmopolitan, inquisitive, committed, broken. A spectacular flash in the sky, blinding but gone in the most fleeting of moments. And that name – Giuseppe Enea Ercole. The crushing weight of universality on the fragile shoulders of a single human being.

I do not remember how and when I came across Terragni in my research on Italian modernism. It must have been quite a momentous encounter – and yet I cannot recall the moment. But I do remember encountering for the first time his plans for the Danteum – one of the many extraordinary designs that came so painfully close to fruition before taking a sharp, irreversible turn towards non-materiality. Thomas Schumacher brought the building back to life, publishing Terragni’s own description of the project, then producing a seminar study of its characteristics, symbolism, and significance. Peter Eisenman also had his own fateful encounter with Terragni that marked the most fruitful academic synergy between an architect and an insightful critic. I am part of the mainstream of admiring hordes who have discovered Terragni via the works of others. Nothing wrong with this; but I can only imagine what must have been like discovering Terragni and building an exclusive relation with his work.

Terming died at the age of 39. He came back from the Russian front a broken man, a haunting solitary figure in the streets of his native Como, collapsing first mentally before his final, sudden physical demise. Luigi Zuccoli narrates:

[quote]Tornato dal fronte russo non trova piu la serenita ; crolla una tragica sera sulle scale della fidanzata, la cara e fedele Mariuccia Casartelli, davanti ai suoi occhi, mentre si preparava come di consueto a passare alcune ore con lei in silenzio o scambiando poche parole sui fatti più minuti. Era il 19 luglio 1943, sei giorni prima del colpo di stato.[/quote]

I did my very own pilgrimage to Como in September 2013. Long overdue, a silly thought that had been brewing in my mind for years. I brought myself, first to the ex-Casa del Fascio, and then to his home and studio, on Via Indipendenza. I tried to look through the windows but I could not reach high enough. I took photos, walked away and came back, took more photos, no doubt seeking to capture an illusion of intimacy. Strangely, I found the carefully staged encounter even more haunting.

The Archivio Giuseppe Terragni has yet to answer my calls for some kind of access to their documents. I am still trying.