‘The dictator who failed to dictate’: free-range architecture under Mussolini
He made a documentary about architecture in Nazi Germany and followed the Stalinist heritage trail. For his latest BBC4 film, Jonathan Meades is turning his camera towards Il Duce – one fascist monument at a time
After Jerry and Joe” was the cryptic subject line of the email from Jonathan Meades to promote his latest documentary. “The third and final piece on dictators’ architecture,” read the body of the message, followed succinctly by Meades’s address: Cité Radieuse le Corbusier, Marseille.
A man who resides in Corb’s “machine for living in” understandably has some interest in the architecture of dictators. It’s a subject that has occupied Meades for the last 20 years. Having covered the architecture of Nazi Germany in Jerry-Building (1994), followed by the Stalinist heritage trail of Joe-Building (2006), the besuited, bespectacled critic is back with a documentary about his third and final tyrant, Benito Mussolini.
It’s a trickier pitch, if only because Mussolini, at least for his first decade in power, wasn’t quite as interested in architecture as his fellow dictators. While enthusiastically censoring film-makers, writers, academics and journalists, he let architects do as they please. “He neglected to exploit architecture’s potential to affect his subjects,” as Meades puts it. “He failed to harness its capacity to suppress and control them, to exhilarate them, to bend them to his will.”
The resulting architectural output, between Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922 and the late 1930s, when he began to exert more control, embodies an accidentally healthy pluralism. While Hitler rejoiced in the traditional völkisch kitsch of his imaginary master race, and Stalin revelled in over-iced baroque confections, Mussolini sat back and let historicist revivalism compete with the crisp forms of forward-looking modernism. “His inconsistency was a pathology,” says Meades. “Or maybe it was a strategy.”
This stylistic tension is introduced at the beginning of the programme in the form of two monumental memorial ossuaries designed by architect Giovanni Greppi and sculptor Giannino Castiglione, built just a few years apart to celebrate the Italian dead of the first world war. The Sacrario di Monte Grappa, completed in 1935, channels the form of prehistoric burial mounds in a circular mountain of stepped terraces, punctuated by arched openings. It feels ancient and archaic, “boastfully retrospective” in Meades’ words, exuding a permanence rooted deep in Italian soil.
A hundred kilometres away, the Sacrario di Redipuglia, finished in 1938, is another gargantuan stepped ossuary, designed as an endless flight of steps that taper and narrow as they rise to emphasise the perspectival effect. But this time the composition is stripped of historical reference and wrought with a more minimal hand that makes it feel “cautiously futuristic”.
This dichotomy gets fleshed out over the hour as Meades meanders from Genoa to Milan to the new town of Sabaudia, south of Rome, each tableaux filmed in his trademark surrealist manner. Sometimes he is the omniscient narrator looming above the horizon with a booming voice; other times he appears miniaturised, standing among toy models, as if mocking the fascist worldview as a flimsy stage set.
In Genoa we find the work of Gino Coppedè, “the undisputed master of more is more”, whose buildings groan under the weight of rustication and “frozen menageries of malevolent animals which belong to no known bestiary”. His architecture sampled styles from across the ages, giving the timeless impression of having been around forever. It is a kind of revivalism that finds its way into Garbatella, a garden city in Rome, in watered-down form. Stripped of excessive ornament, but retaining traditional motifs, the style seems to be attempting to define a national identity – a “romantic peasant unifying glue”.
Next comes the “mass-market modernism” of art deco, as embodied in the Italian pavilion at the 1925 Paris exhibition by Armando Brasini, an architect Mussolini could identify with, says Meades, “because his megalomania matched his own”. He is swiftly followed by the futurists, who rejoiced in power of machines and the glamour of war. They are brilliantly and bluntly dismissed as a bunch of charlatans, proponents of an art movement that “happened at the far end of the intestinal tract”. “Manifesto,” he scoffs, “is an anagram of ‘I’m a no-hoper dork who knows a curator or two, but can’t write and can’t paint.’”
It is an engaging survey, if sometimes dense and muddled, but one which strangely ignores some of the more prominent fascist architects, such as Giuseppe Terragni, whose Casa del Fascio in Como features on the syllabus of every architecture student. There’s not much on Mussolini’s grand infrastructure projects either, although the landmark Fiat factory in Turin (as featured in The Italian Job) gets a look-in – for embodying doctrines of Taylorism and Fordism, which started in the United States, but which only flourished under authoritarian regimes.
The picture Meades paints is of a battle of styles with no real winner, nor an interested audience. Each faction, we are told, pleaded that their architecture best represented nationalism, sacrifice and moral fervour, yet they were competing for an endorsement Mussolini was unwilling to bestow. Instead, Il Duce tolerated it all. He was “the tyrant who neglected to tyrannise,” a “dictator who failed to dictate,” a man who styled himself as a living god, yet was forever “stalled on the lower slopes of Olympus”. “Was he,” Meades asks with a knowing look, “a demonic seed short of the full satanic sack?”
We end up at EUR on the edge of Rome, the intended site of an international exposition planned for the 20th anniversary of the Italian fascist government, which was never to be. Its crowning monument is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a stripped back stack of arched colonnades that stands at the end of a grand axis like a cubic colosseum. It has the air of yet another ossuary, each framed opening waiting for a martyr of the regime, but like much of the stripped classicism that thrived under Mussolini, it is newly fashionable. Meades strangely fails to mention the twist: this fascist beacon was recently acquired by Fendi as a new headquarters for the luxury fashion brand.
It is an interesting afterlife, if only because it reveals how far architecture of the fascist era remains untainted by political association. While Germany and the USSR quickly abandoned the buildings favoured by their respective tyrants, in Italy every style was equally blessed and damned by Mussolini’s eclectic pluralism.
So much so that Meades has no qualms about concluding with the work of David Chipperfield and his ilk of austere neo-modernists. He doesn’t quite accuse them of being fascists, but notes that their buildings exude the same “inkling of mortality”, standing as cold temples of “ethically sourced spa rub and enforcement grade nuclear butter pamper, which assure a calm ride to the other side”.
Source: The Guardian