Skip to content

Parallel History

Post date:

I was curious about whether Hitler had really objected to flat roofs and came across an article titled Mies and the Nazis. I read that Hitler had said something along the lines that to be German was to be logical. Gropius therefore, was certainly German for thinking flat roofs were superior for technical and practical reasons. He refused to see a preference for one or the other framed in terms of politics and/or xenophobia. He left for America because his dream of sacrificing craftspersons for industrialized production had more chance of success there. It seems Mies left for America because he was miffed Speer became Hitler’s chosen one. It’s all history now. But what if the shape of a roof hadn’t become politicized as some un-German invention? Gropius, Mies, Breur, Chermayeff, Bayer, and all the rest might not have left Europe. Or even if they did, they might have found something else to do but I don’t suppose that was ever going to happen.

Circa 1920, Auguste Perret knew better than Le Corbusier what reinforced concrete could do. His sketch for Les Maisons Tours dates from about the same time Mies van de Rohe was doing his for the famously curvy skyscraper. Perret’s sketch isn’t so well known but it’s not worlds apart from the view from my once apartment.

If Europe had had elevators, land values and an economy that required skyscrapers, Perret would have been the go-to man and tall buildings would have had infill facades like 432 Park Avenue and not curtain walls like Lever House.

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over-represented by products of the 20th century US economy but as long as architects and architecture follow the money, it probably couldn’t have been any other way. In the 1970s we endlessly compared Johnson’s Glass House and van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. We were taught the seminal works of individuals such as Wright, Saarinen and Kahn, and only noticed when an individual such as Le Corbusier presented a sustained challenge to total American architectural media dominance. Less sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy that each had their well-documented golden ages.

Golden ages elsewhere seem to be things we notice when there’s nothing more local to preoccupy us. Whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never stopped being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. I shall go to Italy but mostly Milan (not Rome) and look for evidence.

Pre-Modernist Post-Modernism


Designed by Pier Fausto Barelli, the 1919-1923 Ca’ Brutta is a perimeter apartment block and one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy but nobody remembers it for that, its underground car parking or its centrally provided heating and hot water. Instead, it’s remembered for its stripped down neo-classicism borrowed from the Secessionists as a reaction to Art Nouveau and that earned it its name that translates as Ugly House. The external decoration caused much controversy at the time and was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, this pre-modernist proto-postmodern building would be enthusiastically studied by post-modernists for being all of those. Papers would be written. 

Proto Postmodern Classicism (Early Fascist Era)

In 1923 Walter Gropius stopped championing the skills of craftpersons and began to promote designing for machine manufacture. Giovanni Muzio’s 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan has masonry arches with little or no decoration. This is typical of Muzio and has come to indicate the architecture of Italy’s fascist period approximately 1923-1945. Muzio’s style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal [left, below] there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.

Historic Revivalism (Middle Fascist Era)

Wikipedia quotes Also Rossi as saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was really impressed by Milan Centrale Stazione that opened in 1931 “and said it was the most beautiful station in the world”. It is impressive, but a bit of an outlier.

Proto Critical Regionalism

In 1934, Villa Savoye was about to be abandoned for the first time. It was still two years before Fallingwater was completed, 14 before Glass House and 15 before Farnsworth House. Some time a long time ago, all buildings were critical regionalist. Ignazio Gardella’s 1934-38 Dispensario Antitubercolare, in Italy’s Alessandria had an upper floor courtyard screened by a brick lattice wall not uncommon in the rural architecture of the area. Screening the courtyard was a new problem that could be solved by a known technology architectural device that local builders were familiar with.


There’s such a lot to choose from. The mid-1930s were a very active period for architecture in Italy. In Milan, Terragni did some wonderful apartment buildings such as his Casa Rustici which he did with Pietro Lingeri in 1935.


I can’t not mention Guiseppe Terragni’s 1932-1936 Casa del Fascio that nobody had much to say about it until 1970 when Peter Eisenman’s analysis appeared, bringing it into the narrative (ugh!) of American architecture. [This is a link to a Domus article detailing the media life of Casa del Fascio over the years.]

Of course there’s Adalberto Libera and his Casa Malaparte that’s a long-term favourite of mine but there’s also Cesaare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa Cattaneo in Como. Frampton tells of the “premature and still somewhat mysterious deaths of both Terragni and Cattaneo’ in 1943 but didn’t go into details. He says their deaths marked the end of Rationalism. ( I think he meant say that Rationalism continued, only with clients more bourgeois, such as at Ignazio Gardelka’s 1953 Casa al Parco in Milan.) Much like Hitler, Mussolini didn’t have that strong an opinion about architecture until he realized how it could be brought into service.

Proto Post Modern Classicism (Late Fascist Era)

You can’t get more fascist than Rome’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – a building commissioned by Mussolini himself. It opened in 1943, the same year Terragni and Cattaneo mysteriously died. Tense times.

Rationalist Vernacular

Post-war recovery was quick. Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri‘s 1949-1953 Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano wasn’t a complicated building and nor was it spectacular. It was however very elegantly planned – most likely by Gardella who had a way with hallways and the positioning of walls.


Contextualism (What’s Already There)

Ignazio GARDELLA’S Casa alle Zattere is in Venice but the design took as its starting point his Casa Tognella (Casa al Parco) overlooking Milan’s historic Central Park.

The 1954-1958 Casa delle Zattere is a modern building in Venice that most precious of cities and Gardella has skillfully and unapologetically knitted it into its surroundings appropriating motifs and proportions from nearby buildings. Gardella did not elaborate on what he did or how he did it, but it flummoxed seasoned architectural commentators such as Rayner Banham.

“It is fancy-dress architecture, certainly, but the very manner of its disappearance is proof that the dressing-up has not been done for the usual reasons of historical cowardice. Very tricky…” (Reyner Banham)

Whether it was an office building or apartments or any other type of building, this notion of what’s already there was the starting point for Milanese architects Asnago & Vender. One would probably not look twice at their 1950 mixed use building on Piazza Velasca. Without resorting to obvious moves such as lining-through, it complements the building to the left. The building to the right is another one of theirs and complements the one in the middle and also the three more of theirs around the corner. These building come alive through progressive changes in the shape and/or size and/or position of windows. These variations are not perceptible unless one is looking for them. Theirs is an architecture designed to fit in to streets, rather than some fleeting notion of architecture.


Italian Modern

The 1950 were another golden age of Italian architecture and many of the office buildings were only several stories high but constructed to last. And last they have. The buildings of Gio Ponti are a case in point. They are all beautifully designed and constructed but have mostly been ignored by history and historians apart from the 1953 Pirelli Tower that may still get a mention, even if only for its elegant structure by Pier Luigi Nervi. I only mentioned Foster+Partners The Index last week so its tripartite typical floor, significant and tapering structure, and unobstructed office spaces are still fresh in my mind


Proto Iconic

In Italy, postmoderism took hold of the world of furniture in general Memphis in particular, but postmodern architecture never really took off. Why would it? Why should it? Why should buildings look like anything other than buildings? The closest Italian architecture got to postmodernism was the 1954 Torre Velasca by architectural partnership BBPR (Banfi, di Belgiojoso, Peressutti & Rogers) in Milan. [TWA Building: 1959, Sydney Opera House: 1958] Many people see a similarity to the historic towers of Milan but the only image I can find that might count as evidence is this image of the tower of Milan town hall.


Aldo Rossi and Neo-Rationalism

Some might like to think of Neo-Rationalism as Italian Post Modernism and it’s true they were both around at the same time. The difference is that Aldo Rossi’s 1969-1970 Edificio Residenziale al Gallaratese at Milan’s via Enrico Falck hasn’t dated.

Of course, Aldo Rossi did as much referencing as many a postmodernist but, perhaps because he was an Italian and referencing his own architectural culture, it always seemed more respectful.

There are many other architects I haven’t mentioned in this brief overview of an unbroken but parallel history of Italian architecture. Gino Valle for example. There were groups such as Dogma, Superstudio and Archizoom, who were not short on ideas or willingness to spread them. Italian architecture never stopped being Italian architecture. It’s just that the history of architecture tracks the dominant economic force at any one time and in the 20th century that force was not Italy. These buildings mostly outside the history of architecture still show us a different way of constructing a built environment to last.


Global society that we are, Italy couldn’t stay the same forever. Corporate behemoths ZHA, Isozaki and Studio Liebskind have respectively designed Generali Tower (left, 2014), Allianz Tower (right, 2015) and PricewaterhouseCoopers Tower (middle, 2020). The three buildings form an isolated cluster and will hopefully stay an isolated cluster.

• • • 


  • Great piece GM. Have been thinking about a core – space – core structure not unlike The Index. But in a continuous ribbon form, like English council housing. The Inland Steel office building in Chicago by SOM is a fine specimen of Kahnian served/servant and Miesian universal space. Harks back to last week’s topic.