„The architectural order is thus fixed on a political plane which coincides with the new order won by the Italian Fascists.“
Drawn to the topic through Terragnis quote I decided to analyse the Casa del Fascio regarding political influences and meanings on different levels of the building as well as social relations connected to it.
Casa del Fascio today. by Pier Fabrizio Paraiso. 2015
“The architectural order is thus fixed on a political plane which coincides with the new order won by the Italian Fascists.”
“The fact that an architect has to alter some aspect of a design to accommodate the wishes of his patron is quite common. But it does not happen too often that an architect sticks to his guns and even scores a partial victory.” [Girardo, 2014] Even more remarkable, if this patron is not just any client but the head of a totalitarian state, in this case, Benito Mussolini the head of his Partito Nazionale Fascista.
This quote of Diane Ghirardo, which I found at the very beginning of my research for this essay, summarises very well what made this project so interesting for me, beyond the fact, that it is one of the outstanding Rationalist buildings of the Italian inter-war period in the 30’s of the last century. That’s why I decided to analyse the Casa del Fascio regarding its correlation of architecture and political surroundings.Historians and architectural critics ignored the fact of the political influence persistently [Ghirardo, 2014] — may it be related to the strong will to forget this period of fascism and war in Europe or simply a lack of interest — yet it constitutes and important aspect of the building and should be taken into account to understand the building in its total I think. As soon as one starts to think about the relationship between politics and architecture there is one major question coming up:
Pier Vittorio Aureli is arguing that on one hand architecture is never political in a sense that the architect is consequently searching for consensus — negotiating between various interests like users, clients neighbours, governance, aiming to find the best solution for everyone and turning disagreement into consensus manifested in built form. At the same time, architecture is always political. “Architectural form always addresses a spatial condition and any spatial condition always implies an idea of the political.” [Aureli, 2014] As Le Corbusier points out, it’s a choice between ‘architecture or revolution’. These two arguments are forming a dichotomy that can be summarised as the ideology of consensus — considering architecture as a discipline and practice — versus the reality of conflict — looking at the purely built form. If we are looking at Terragni’s work, how did he handle this contradictory poles within his architectural work on the Casa del Fascio? How was he influenced by Fascism and the totalitarian regime he worked for — and is this influence visible in his built architecture?
To understand Terragni’s work better within a political as well as a historical context it is important to know some facts about the period he worked in: The Casa del Fascio in Como was built between 1933 and 1936, quite a while after the rise to power of the PNF in 1922. It was one of Terragni’s early works — he graduated from Politecnico Milano in 1926 — and at the same time, it is considered to be his Masterpiece. Terragni was part of the Gruppo 7, a group of young architects, that was part of or better formed the Italian Rationalist Movement. The Rationalists were aiming to bring the Ideas of Modernism to Italy. The ‘Casa’ stands for this International Style in Italy and embodies the Modernist school of thought, inspired by ideas of architects like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, adapted with Italian aesthetic principles.
Another interesting fact that should be mentioned here is, that “the Fascist state in Italy patronised modern architecture far more than did Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia [...] or the United States [...].” [Ghirardo, 2014] While the Soviet Union censored modern architecture from the late 1920’s and the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, Modern architecture was apparently considered as a suitable style for State architecture in Fascist Italy and not elsewhere during the 1930’s.
Terragni described this phenomenon himself: “The theme is new, with absolutely no reference to buildings of a representational nature; working from a new framework without forgetting that Fascism is a completely original phenomenon.” [Terragni, 1936] Because Mussolini‘s Fascism saw itself as entirely new and modern, it could be comfortably aligned to modern architecture underpinned by references from the great Roman empire and the ‘mediterraneitá’ shining through to support the nationalist necessities of the party. [Ghirardo, 2014]
In conclusion, it is to point out, that Rationalist Architecture and Fascist politics are closely connected in Italy — or rather Rationalist architecture celebrated Fascism. Most Rationalist buildings were either built for or in the spirit of Fascism. Even if over the years there were several attempts to discuss the interrelation away, there is no doubt that some architects, like Terragni, were ardent Fascists. [Ghirardo, 1980]
That Terragni was strongly influenced by the mindset of the Fascist world surrounding him, can be seen very well in the article he wrote for Quadrante. This statement of his own is particularly relevant, as it was used by Terragni to position his building within debates. He explains in the text not just how the design has been developed regarding the site, surroundings, and architectural necessities but gives as well an insight into the idea of space and concept, related to the political importance of a Casa del Fascio, he had.
The so-called Case served as headquarters of the political party PNF all over Italy, placing Fascist authority in every village. The buildings served on two programmatic ends as an implementation of the Fascist policy:
On one hand, they often contained the only theatre, cinema or library in town with newspapers including the latest information. In this way, they served as an only connection between the village, the local province and the rest of the world. On the other hand, even small communities had a direct connection, if not immediate access, to the supreme power, through the offices at the Case de Fascio. So the Case “[...] gave testimony to a new national organisation attempting to complete Italian unification [...]”. [Ghirardo, 2014]
Terragni described the building type as “political and moral centre of activity of every province in Italy as testified by the miraculous dedication to their duce. [...] A party headquarters such as this has the job of organisation, of propaganda, and of political and social education. But it is not a bureaucratic structure, a handsome and commodious palazzo for offices. The past and the fascist faiths are the flame and life that cannot, and should not, be forgotten or diminished. The great moral significance is thus linked to the typically functional concepts which must preside in the construction of the Casa del Fascio.” [Terragni, 1936]
After getting the direct commission for the building — most probably due to influence of his brother Attilo and the fact that he was already known by the regime as he designed a room, the sala del’ 22 for the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista — Terragni developed his very own type of Casa del Fascio interpreting the typology of the medieval municipio in a completely new and original way. The result is a Casa “that both blended with and was distinct from existing public buildings.” [Storchi, 2007]
The realised project is a four-storey, 16.6 meters high, half cube and a perfect square in plan 33.2 by 33.2 meters, further subdivided into a seven-square grid. The grid is slightly manipulated, to the extent that neither its dimensions nor its proportions are numerically regular.
The entrance that is located on the southern side of the building is leading into the forecourt and following into the main entrance hall, which is two storeys high and made of a concrete structure filled with glass tiles. It was meant to host big gatherings of people. Therefore the eighteen glass doors next to each could be opened to create a big public space connecting the inner courtyard of the building with the plaza outside. All the rooms in the building are located around the atrium but distributed to the exterior. The facade on all four sides differ from each other but are designed within the principle of void and volume.
On the first floor, the most important offices were placed: those of the political secretariat, the federal secretary and the Hall of the Directorate. On the second floor, there were the library and more offices while on the third floor was space designated to university groups. The building hosted beside the offices for the administration as wellasacrario [Storchi, 2007] on the left side right after the entrance doors, which turned the buildings in fact into a kind of temple of symbolic and monumental character.
“The architectural order is thus fixed on a political plane which coincides with the new order won by the Italian Fascists.” [Terragni, 1936] as Terragni summarises his idea of the layout for the building himself.
One main objective of the design process was to integrate a certain kind of tradition to ground the project on solid roots in Italian tradition as the Fascist claimed to bring the best of the Italian culture altogether. Terragni did that but not in an obvious way.
As Eisenmann argues: “Terragni utilises the typology of the town hall and the Renaissance palazzo, he manages simultaneously to reinforce these relationships between historical archetypes and Fascism and to disengage the work from them.” [Eisenmann, 2003]
This becomes clear comparing the Ground-floor set up of Palladio’s Palazzo Thiene and the one of the Casa del Fascio. Using main principles of the typology but adjusting it in modern ways of design he creates something new and original.
“The predominant concept in this Casa del Fascio is visibility [...]”, as Terragni explains himself. The expression is closely connected with the political background of the building. The idea of seeing Fascism in this way comes from Mussolini’s statement “Fascism is a glasshouse”.
The ‘glass house effect’ of the built form comes on one hand from the design of the wide open public ground floor as well as from the actual dimensions of its windows and openings. The outer frame of the building occupies the foremost plane and shows as well the important external impact the building should have as a symbol for the system for the whole city.
This very basic idea of the building was not only meant to visualise the spiritual values of the party for a new era of civilisation — it was as well the attempt of Terragni to create a spatial metaphor of identity and collective life. [Storchi, 2007]
Further, he explains in his text for Quadrante, that “The Fascist seat could no longer be a den, a refuge, or a fort; it had to become a House, a School, a Temple.” [Terragni, 1936] This shows in the same way as the preceding analysis that it was his major intention to create something more than just a convenient building. He wanted to create a very new type of space integrating layers of meaning in many ways.
“Solidity and planarity, abstraction and concreteness, materiality and ideality cohabit in the Casa del Fascio in a way that is unique in the architecture of the thirties.” [Schumacher, 1991] Terragni succeeded in a still impressive way translating his ideas into built form — even if the ideals are more than disputatious.
According to Terragni, the main representative facade should have had a documentary and educational function, illustrating a series of scenes of Fascist life beneath the portrait of the Duce. The idea was to attach panels with different scenes out of the Fascist life to celebrate the system. The proposal handed in by the architect was rejected due to the heated opposition of one of the local Fascist representatives. As the local party chief argued the building would have needed more decoration to correct the iconographic deficiency of the facade perceived by the locals. An anathema for Terragni [Schumacher, 1991]. Even if “Some people mistook the Casa for a simple office building instead of the representative structure it was.” [Ghirardo, 2014]
Regional and national party leaders suggested installing other, more symbolic decorations, what Terragni could forestall. The wall stayed bare for another two years except for the plumb lines for the erection of the photomontage panels.
Due to Terragni arguing consequently for and insisting on the photomontage design they were successful in the end, after handing in several proposals, even if the local politicians in Como still weren’t happy with the solution. However, due to the beginning of the World War II and the political focus on it, no panels were ever fitted on the facade. [Ghirardo, 2014]
Fascism is not celebrated by symbol or in a well known typological way as in other Case del Fascio but by purely built form. Terragni included a lot of abstract language by using, for example, the free plan, a richness of material and putting an emphasis on proportion and harmony to integrate different layers of meaning that are influenced by his fascist mindset. The Casa is a marble reflection of totalitarian propaganda.
Coming back to the very beginning of the text referring to Aureli I want to point out what I found more than interesting about the way Terragni worked and how much politics on different levels of the overall process played an important role:
It seems as if he did not search for any consensus within the design process — “he had a free hand to design the building as he chose” [Ghirardo, 2014] the party trusted in what he was doing. He had the even freedom to reject archetypical formal features like thearengario without them interfering.
Furthermore, the costs of construction were three times over budget and the building process took way longer than estimated. There is no doubt that “His unimpeachable position as an enthusiastic Party member [...] played a large role in enabling him to move freely with the building.” [Ghirardo, 2014]
As it came to the facade design after finishing the building, he had some difficulties to get his proposal through but that seemed to be more hostility between the architect and the local representative of the Party than anything else. It shows just one more time to which extent he could push the responsible authorities in the ministry in Rome.
The project has a lot of different layers, formal as well as conceptual, and there are for sure not all mentioned here. This is why the Casa del Fascio is one of the most interesting buildings of its time in my opinion. It is far more than just proportion and harmony that makes this project unique. Politics played a major role in this building and are for me an aspect that can not be excluded from analysing this project.
Translating Aureli’s idea of how architecture is political, the Casa del Fascio can be seen as a hyper-political. The part of consensus that is so common in the architectural profession is entirely missing while the influence and importance of politics regarding space are even emphasised due to Terragni’s obvious enthusiasm for the Fascist system. Even more - it was exactly this enthusiasm that guaranteed him freedom from the commission to design decisions culminating in realisation.
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