In his brief career, Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943) designed several key buildings which continue to intrigue and inspire. The AJ asked five architects to reflect on Terragni's relevance by considering his three most important built works, all in the town of Como, in northern Italy.
Jonathan Sergison and Neil Gillespie both focus on the Casa del Fascio, while David Wild discusses the Sant'Elia nursery school and John Pardey the Giuliani-Frigerio apartments. Thomas Muirhead puts their views in perspective by explaining how Terragni has been received in his home country. The photographs are by Paolo Rosselli.
CASA DEL FASCIO, 1932-36
By Jonathan Sergison
My relationship to the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni is problematic.
I am drawn to his work but feel cautious for two reasons. Firstly, his political position creates a dilemma. As an architect I have social and political responsibilities and I need to develop my own position with respect to these. In this sense, I feel a certain revulsion at the free choice Terragni made to align himself with the Italian Fascist Party.
The second difficulty I have is with the strong reliance Terragni placed on a strict ordering system, notably the golden section, employed as a means of determining the proportion and organisation of buildings. While I admire the rigour of this approach I could never subscribe to it as a way of working, because its rigidity denies the possibility of a form of adjustment that could well work against the system but improve the whole. There is a case for things to be proportioned by the (well-trained) eye and not some predetermined schema - a position that is ultimately more inclusive and tolerant.
I am nonetheless drawn to Terragni's buildings and hold them in high regard. As physical objects, as inhabited buildings, they move me.
Above all, they are the work of a highly gifted architect who was in control of his own relationship to the art of architecture. This is something one experiences all too infrequently, mostly in incidents or parts of a project, but rarely as a whole.
The Casa del Fascio is one of my key architectural references. As an urban object it is exact, and situated precisely in relationship to the cathedral, neighbouring buildings, railway lines and roads. It can be read as an urban villa with an enclosed, covered courtyard space at its heart. Equally the Casa del Fascio had a very public role to play and the blank panel to the right of the front facade was conceived as a space for fi xing propaganda images. This condition could probably be seen as the consequence of Terragni's difficulty with an overall symmetry and, more precisely, it assisted with the handling of the corners and reading of the building as a four-sided object.
Closer inspection reveals a highly exacting control of the stone cladding. The sizing of the structural members makes it clear that this is not a tectonic facade, but one which explores the freedom accorded by the frame structure. In this respect it projects a very modern image, further emphasised in the frame section sizes on the side elevations and balcony loggia spaces on the front elevation. It strikes me that Terragni was very aware of the ambiguity at work in the manipulation of material (stone) and structure in the making of these facades. The lessons they hold move and provoke me.
So how can I declare my alignment to a creative production whose ideological position I find suspect? May I suspend my beliefs in order to enjoy an aesthetic experience and learn from it? These are questions I am at a loss to answer. In a similar way, I am moved by the non-secular architecture of Dom Hans van der Laan. I have doubts about his selfdetermined ordering and proportional system, but find his few buildings I have visited evocative, powerful and exact. I do not need to be a practising Christian to be aware of their power.
I am also drawn to 18th- and 19th-century town houses - above all, I appreciate these buildings for what they are without feeling the need to subscribe to the social structure they supported in the first instance. And, similarly, I am moved by the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni without feeling a need to endorse his position.
CASA DEL FASCIO
By Neil Gillespie
In his book 'The Wanderer and His Charts', Kenneth White speaks of a 'nomadic intellect', an agile intelligence that moves from one source to another but that is also drawn back constantly to a few essential texts. As architects we steer an erratic, unmapped course through a shifting territory of ideas and theories.
Navigating by means of markers, key buildings, figures or texts, we gauge our progress or direction by reference to these absolutes.
Libera's Malaparte House, Lina Bo Bardi's House of Glass, Herzog & de Meuron's Stone House, Lewerentz's St Mark's and St Peter's churches are part of my constellation. What connects these buildings, beyond haunting me, is that I have not visited them. I have not experienced the reality of these places, the smell or taste of their interiors, their relationship to their site.
I am sure experiencing these buildings directly would only increase my admiration and understanding of them.
Some buildings, however, need to be confined to the imagination, and for me the Casa del Fascio is one of them. From a Northern perspective, one often longs for a Southern climate, a migration to the sun. Casa del Fascio exists as a rationalist mirage, a perfect prism set in a Southern context. Its pure white immaterial form appeals to a Northern imagination. Reality, I fear, might diminish its abstract perfection.
The building appears as a clear, absolute form: a half-cube some 33.2m in plan, 16.6m in height.
It expresses a moment of revelation or lightness - lightness as defined by Italo Calvino, who refers to 'lightness like a bird' rather than a 'feather'. There is an acute sense of control, precision and purpose about the building's prismatic form.
However, like a crystal - an apparently stable form that can in an instant be both dissolved or revealed by light - the Casa del Fascio's form conceals a complex and contradictory story. The plan is hollow. It culminates in a double-height covered court, a void at its core. Each facade is different, each a different essay in Cartesian composition. The mass of the building is constantly eroded, saved from mutation and collapse by an underlying grid that continues the sense of surface, thereby restoring the prism.
There is an image taken some time soon after completion that sets the Casa del Fascio against the Duomo and Mount Brunate beyond. The building is seen in contrast, in opposition to its context. As such it throws them into a kind of enhanced reality. Unlike the Malaparte House or the Stone House, that emerge from their sites, or the House of Glass, which merges with the site, or St Peter's, which becomes an extension of the site, the Casa del Fascio stands apart from its context.
Its enduring inuence is in its irrelevance to reality.
SANT'ELIA NURSERY SCHOOL, 1936-37
By David Wild
It's 1937, and Mussolini's Blackshirts are helping the Fascists put the clock back in Spain. The cost of this insurgency means a cut in the budget for the Sant'Elia nursery school: all that remains of the proposed second storey is an outdoor roof terrace, accessed by a generous dog-leg ramp. It is a masterpiece nevertheless: a testament to the increasingly beleaguered progressive wing of rationalist architects within the Fascist state.
Terragni and his engineer brother Attilo have constructed an object lesson of transparency and light, with a remarkable grandeur that belies its single storey. That's perhaps a residual effect of the missing upper oor, but high ceilings are common in this region, and together with a plan that brings cross ventilation to all areas, these tall spaces are cool in summer. Meanwhile, the relatively small glazing module acknowledges the scale of the children, and a further mediation is achieved by Terragni designing all the children's furniture himself, on the lines of the tubular metal and leather chairs for the Casa del Fascio.
In best Modernist fashion, the building thankfully does not follow the outline of an awkwardly shaped site. Anchored at one corner by the kitchen block, it oats across the longest dimension, offering the maximum outside space on the east side, away from the street. A beautiful photgraph in the 'Opera Completa 1925-1943' shows how the central courtyard, on a north-south axis, acts as a lens to focus beyond the mundane surroundings, toward the bosky hillside and crowning tower in the distance.
This image also illustrates just one example of how the interplay of structure and surface is manipulated with consummate skill, never at the expense of function: the glazed envelope either in front or behind the frame, depending on orientation.
Terragni takes this a step further with a freestanding frame on the east side. With its canvas awnings billowing in the breeze and sheltering the outdoor teaching space, this must be one of the most poetic images of the Modernist open-air school.
These classrooms can be opened up into one space, and the partition and storage wall that separates them from the corridor shows a degree of abstraction that continues the theme of shifted planes - something Terragni has in common with the compositions of his painter friend Mario Radice. This marrriage of rationalism and abstraction was lost, as the reactionary style of Piacenti became the official style of Italian Fascism.
Terragni was drafted into the army in 1939. Invalided on the Russian Front, he returned home to die in in 1943, renouncing the Fascism he had joined, 'having seen only their mask and not the true face, ' as Giulia Veronesi puts it.
With the face that he provided, the Casa del Fascio in Como remains one of the greatest buildings of the Modern era. Lacking the taint of occupancy that almost saw this headquarters demolished after the war, the school, carefully restored, seems as fresh today as when it opened 70 years ago.
'The philosophical and historical culture in Italy was too expert to accept the rationalistic justifications of the French, or the technical and utilitarian determinism of the Germans, or the empiricism of the English, ' said Bruno Zevi.
GIULIANI-FRIGERIO APARTMENTS, 1939-1940
By John Pardey
Terragni entered my consciousness one wet afternoon in the library of the South Bank Poly during my second year of studies, when I came across Peter Eisenman's PhD thesis 'From Object to Relationship: Giuseppe Terragni'. His study centred on the GiulianiFrigerio apartment block in Como and it really opened my eyes to how volumes could say more than just their innate forms, by expressing relationships between what seems like implied inner and outer volumes - and from this 'space between', succeed in creating a fertile architectural language.
The Casa Giuliani-Frigerio, completed after Terragni was called up to fight in Mussolini's army and not long before his premature death, is in many ways his most sophisticated work. A fi ve-storey building containing 14 apartments, it sits at the end of a block that also includes his Novocomum building of some 12 years earlier - the product of a precocious talent aged just 23.
With sketch designs made before his departure, over the next two years Terragni sent design drawings back to his assistant Luigi Zuccoli, who took care of the detailing and construction. Terragni apparently was a workaholic, a man totally wrapped up in architecture, and the monotony of military life must have given him ample time to dream up complex readings and depths to each aspect of the design.
The north facade of the Giuliani-Frigerio building overlooks Via Sinigaglia, and despite containing only bedrooms and bathrooms, provides a neat demonstration of how Terragni, perhaps instinctively, simultaneously creates 'subtractive space' (as if cut from a solid) with 'additive space' (as if made in layers).
By pulling a three-storey bay forward of the main volume to align with the front edge of a cornice above, a new layer is defined - and this bay is then shifted sideways, to reveal windows left like striations where the bay once was. Instead of a solid corner, the facade is revealed as a plane, with oor plates returning along the side facades to form separate but interdependent facades.
So with this one facade, Terragni reveals several layers and implied movements - relationships - to create depth and richness.
This combines with the his use of the golden section in plan, section and elevation, with results that are not only deeply intelligent but also simply beguiling.
There is another moment in Terragni's work, from the Villa Bianca in Seveso, that I return to time and again. The main living space projects out as a stone-clad bay, and this bay then sits within a framed opening that further contains a roof garden - so that the roof of this box then becomes a projecting terrace. As if this was not enough, Terragni oats a beautifully delicate white frame around the projecting bay forward of the main volume to create a space - a layer - that now contains a slender poplar tree.
The house feels as if a calm, rectilinear box has been frozen a millisecond after it had exploded, with the hidden volumes bursting their way out of a box, and once again, it is the 'space between' that provides such richness and depth.
By Thomas Muirhead
Discounting a sycophantic Enrico Mantero, who in 1982 extolled 'the great teachings of the master', for most Italian critics it remains ineluctable that Giuseppe Terragni's most important commissions, including the Casa del Fascio, came through inuential Fascist party family members.
Moreover, as Manfredo Tafuri demonstrated in 'The Subject and the Mask' (1978), Terragni's abstract architectural language, much admired by non-Italians, in its very withdrawal specifically embodies something significant about that degenerate period. No amount of post-facto rehabilitation can get around this, even if it is by Bruno Zevi, who in the 1960s had reinstated Terragni by publishing his work.
Daniele Vitale (Rassegna, 1982) focused on the discontinuity of Terragni's oeuvre, its 'different souls and different lines of investigation'. The Novocomum (1927-29), for instance, may look like 'white architecture' in monochrome photographs, but Terragni's colour scheme was in fact discordant blues and yellows.
Conventionally planned and 'far from being a machine à habiter' it is 'nothing but a perfectly normal apartment block'. But his gasworks project (also 1927) was quite different: an assemblage of industrial forms and spaces, strongly informed by Futurist ideas about dynamic machinery.
The abstract purism of his 1936-37 Sant'Elia nursery school in Como was successfully amalgamated with a warm empathy for small children, and his 1936 steel-and-glass project for Brera Art School (with the equally talented Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini, and partner Pietro Lingeri) remains one of his best compositions - what Vitale called 'the most advanced and complete of any of the directions Terragni was taking'. Yet the following year he retreated into rhetorical formmaking in two overblown 1937 projects for Mussolini's new chancellery in Rome. Seen in hindsight, his grossly overscaled Cortesella megastructure (1940) was emblematic of rationalist insensitivity to context; 'without the slightest compunction', writes Vitale, it proposed demolishing the entire medieval centre of Como.
But Terragni's abstraction had already been denounced in Casabella in 1938 by Giuseppe Pagano who, after the completion of the Casa del Fascio, noted that 'some architects will do anything to make a name for themselves with meaningless formal inventions - architects of real ability who waste time on strange confections that endlessly explore subsidiary aspects of architecture. . . formalist indulgences that eat away like a woodworm from the inside, destroying the healthy principles of rationalist architecture.'
Tafuri dismisses the Casa del Fascio as 'an enigma: totally silent and completely abstract, it sits there frozen. Its relationship to the city is mute and engages in no dialogue; the surrounding buildings and spaces simply exist; Terragni has nothing to say about them.'
Pagano had warned against Terragni's seductiveness - 'Let us never make the mistake of accepting this empty rhetoric of agitated formal inventions' - but many still fall for it. For Italians however, Terragni is not the central figure, and his work was no more important than that of his many gifted contemporaries, about whom still far too little is known outside Italy.