February 20: weapon of choice

2012/02/20 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1909 “Le Futurisme” was published.

Written by Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), the essay appeared on the first page of the French newspaper Le Figaro.  It argued against tradition, art, academies, and beauty and in favor of newness, speed, modernity, and violence.  For Marinetti war was “hygiene.”  He pushed the idea of revolution in his own art so far that he gave up on langauge and syntax, performing “sound poems” in the early 1910s.

By that time the Futurists were established in Italy and hell-bent on an agenda of artistic revolution in all realms–among them painting and sculpture, music and theatre, fashion and architecture–which were attacked by viciously energetic practitioners wielding the conventional and unconventional tools of their trades, spouting slogans and dashing off manifestoes.  For architecture, Antonio Sant’Elia (1888-1916) brandished the sharpest pen.  He published his manifesto in 1914 and it is, truly, a brilliant piece of writing:

No architecture has existed since 1700. A moronic cocktail of the most various stylistic elements that used to cover up the skeletons of modern houses is called modern architecture. The new beauty of cement and iron is profaned by the superimposition of motley decorative incrustations that neither constructive necessity nor our (modern) taste can justify, and whose origins are Egyptian, Indian or Byzantine antiquity, or that idiotic flowering of stupidity and importance that took the name of NEOCLASSICISM.

Sant’Elia railed against “architectonic prostitutions,” “greedy alien ineptitude,” and historic eclecticism that was to him “a hilarious salad.”  The manifesto is spiked by a real joy of langauge and a thrill of expression that is as engaging and enthralling as the manifesto’s content is chilling and repulsive.  Sant’Elia recognized the Futurists’ personal emptiness in their desire to reject everything (“we … are materially and spiritually artificial”).  His demands for hideous architecture (“extraordinarily ugly in its mechanical simplicity”), disposable buildings (they were to be impermanent and transient) and one’s own obsolescence (“every generation must build its own city”) is not hyperbole: he meant it.  Sant’Elia and his followers were as committed to building a new city as much as they were to one day seeing it destroyed; they were “the men of … beneficial demolitions.”

No matter your degree of enthusiasm or repulsion for the Futurists, you must give them credit for one thing: they were not just intellectuals flinging verbal Molotov cocktails at the establishment; they enlisted and went to war (literally), where they threw actual grenades–and sometimes caught them.  Although his most outrageous ideas died in the trench with him, Sant’Elia survived within the the billowing modernist theory that wafted across Europe like tear gas on the battlefield.  Most of those later theorists absorbed, but weakened, the message of Futurism, making it more palatable by focusing on urban regeneration rather than heritage demolition, and instead of admitting a mechanistic world would be ugly they redefined the job of the architect as arranging “masses … together in light” in a “masterly, correct, and magnificent play.”  Those followers, while trying to kill history, oddly became the first historians of Futurism, which is, when you think about it, pretty intellectually messed up.

Image: Antonio Sant’Elia, La città nuovo (1914)

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