Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be revived, since, for the first time in the history of civilized society, the mass of population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.
If we had seen this government center with that picture some ninety years ago, we would have, by association, formed one interpretation of it, a more favorable one for some of us, a lesser one for others. We might have said that architecturally it expresses how the monolithic mass of the state has been broken down into individual parts, these on a human scale, the independent parts brought together into coherent interdependence where everyone belongs in a structure that is open, light, and transparent. Walls have come down.
Terragni, in fact, says something similar in his interpretation of his building: “no barrier, no obstacle, between the political _______ and the people.”
But Lenin was not the picture we got on the wall.
It is the Casa del Fascio—the Fascist headquarters in Como, Italy—built 1932-36. Terragni’s full comment:
Here is the Mussolinian concept that Fascism is a glasshouse into which everyone can peer giving rise to the architectural interpretation that is the complement of that metaphor; no encumbrance, no barrier, no obstacle, between the political hierarchy and the people.
It is a statement about power and position, acceptance and submission.
The original political purpose of the structure is expressed in almost literal terms through the battery of glass doors which separates the entrance foyer from the piazza. These, when simultaneously opened by an electrical device, would have united the inner agora of the cortile to the piazza, thereby permitting the uninterrupted flow of mass demonstrations from street to interior.
The images, the metaphor, the associations haunted me as I built the model, as did this spectacle:
We’re now embroiled in an election that has contorted us in so many ways. I thought about much as I built—my models are platforms for reflection—without resolution. In art, as in politics, there is always an uneasy relationship between concept and practice, and between ideals and reality, however we want to define either.
Yet the Casa is a marvelous, even mysterious building, and I became entranced with it. It is not an oppressive structure, rather quite the opposite. One thing I am certain of is that authoritarian—or libertarian—regimes cannot handle such grace, such subtlety, such complexity.
First floor plan. The Casa is anchored by an atrium surrounded by galleries, offices, and meeting rooms. The front doors look straight through to the rear doors, also glass, and then out. To the right, upon entry, the main stairs, which ascend only to the third floor. Note the layout of the posts, how they aren’t plotted on an even grid.
Light enters from above. The hall is covered with a two-level ceiling and is lit by translucent glass bricks and a glazed slot down the middle that follows the line of sight from the piazza and marks passage through the building.
The space above the hall ceiling is left open, forming a light well for the rooms on the upper stories. There are open areas at the top, front and rear, contained within the grid.
Among the older buildings, within the city grid, the cube stands out with its abstract form but proportionately fits in, keeping in its details their human scale, their horizontal cast. Prominent, towering, across the way, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta-Duomo di Como—
which can be seen from the front fourth floor opening, framed by the Casa grid. The present recognizes the past, lets it in, and speaks to it.
I only knew the building by its front face, justifiably famous, and assumed the building was determined by an even grid to match that face, 7 x 7 x 4 perfect cubes. Not at all. But I carried this assumption into the early build and ran into many diversions and dead ends. While the base is 110 x 110 feet, the height half of that, I don’t think there is another perfect square on any of the facades. Still, the expectation of regularity is powerful and controls our perceptions. Order, after all, is the Casa’s reason. Reason for Terragni, however, is not an evenly ordered pose.
Proportions of the front grid are quite close. Expect variance in the details and in proportions on the other sides. I could not represent thin elements, especially vertical supports in this wall. Railings are not modeled. As always with my models I keep track of where I miss and collect adjustments in my head, trying to grasp a building as it is, as it was meant to be.
The rectangles of the the first three rows are in the proportion 4:5, while those on the top row are closer to a square. Terragni had to accommodate slightly sloping roofs on the sides, covered by the facade, but could have found another way to even the grid regardless. A modern design will not have the ornament of cornices, so the row of taller rectangles gives a sense of capping, of conclusion. Both sizes of rectangles, along with their containing grid, 2 x 4, are implied within the solid wall on the right, or appear to be—check the layout of the posts in the floor plan. The row of the top floor rectangles, with their greater height, also provides a lateral thrust that counters this vertical solid wall, helping bring the overall composition into balance. There is taller glazing on the far left rooms, floor to ceiling, providing a vertical complement and balance to that wall as well.
The design is both asymmetrical, with the right mass asserted on the far right, but also firmly centered and symmetrical, with the strong presence of the central three columns of the grid, defined and highlighted by the open space implied by the doors on the first floor, where there is entry, and the actual void of the open space on top.
I could keep going, tracing other patterns, all suggested, none prevailing. The variations and their possible patterns provide a quiet dynamism that gives energy to the expected order, always in mind. Broached, stated and implied, opened and divided, the basic form of a building that is a cube, elemental, solid, massive. Someone may want to invoke Plato. Of all the forms a building might take, a cube, whole, untouched, is one of the most stable, but also the most obstinate, the most static.
But the Casa is half a cube, the upper half implied but absent, and the facade is horizontal, which invites us to approach without being overwhelmed. This is not a Neoclassical construction that impresses with rising columns supporting the triangular mass of a pediment. Vertical elements are held within the grid and vie with other thrusts. As formal as the composition of the facade is, there is an informality about its guise in its pulse, its openness, in the play of competing elements. It is a design for the modern mind.
Terragni’s drawing shows the relationship of the inner windows and infill to the rest of the design. And I’m not sure how to read this. I see similarities among the rectangles but don’t know there are exact matches in proportion to the overall facade.
On the inner layer, more variety, more internal discussion. Within the cells, the top infills are on the left, which collectively from a sideways T that counters the mass of the wall on the right. Next to them are windows of the same size, an equation of equality among all the difference. The narrow rows of windows and infill below continue across the front asserting the essential horizontal character of the building. There are also three depths, cuts into the cube: the open grid foremost, the infill, and windows that are inset—not modeled. The top infill works against gravity and favors lightness. These rectangles of mass seem to float, unsupported, defying the notion of support. In their lightness, their openness, they emphasize the structure and bring attention, expressively, to a grid that doesn’t seem to bear any weight at all. His influence is obvious.
We are dealing with that type of construction defined by Le Corbusier as très généraux, which clearly declares the highly regular structural skeleton, permitting ample freedom in spacing and recesses (never protrusions) in the enclosing walls of the building.
Terragni/Building the Casa del Fascio in Como
There is, however, one protrusion.
Still, when we picture the Casa we most think of the grid of the front facade, which we conceive of as regular. It is the face that most of us know, in fact is the only one we know, and it has become engrained in our memory. It is the only look that appears in most architecture histories and tourist promotions, the one Como residents most see when they pass by. We think we know the building, or all we need to know.
We don’t know it at all.
It is not hard at all to imagine a building that repeats the major elements in the same proportions on all four sides without major change to program, a vertical solid plane on one side next to an open grid. It would have been an attractive and successful construction. Instead, as we walk around, we get a different building.
The vertical openings from the galleries on the front shift the composition and change its dynamic. The five bays on the left side are slightly narrower than those on the front grid. The mass with narrow windows on the right does not equal in width two of those bays but rather the width of the front solid wall. The three middle bays, with their large windows on the different grid, strongly assert a middle, but unlike the front three bays are slightly off-center, not centered in the total width of the facade or that width less the openings. They shift emphasis to the left, to the rear. (My proportions in the model here, necessarily, are off. I’m referring to plans and elevations.)
Also this facade is divided into four parts against the two of the front—two solid masses on the sides and the two groupings of windows within. The solid ends frame the rest and provide transition between front and back, indicating that this is the side of the building. Or we see three parts, walls with windows left and right and the central glazing. And other divisions can be envisioned. The clear two-part coherence of the front has been called into question. There are variations of rectangle sizes and proportions, different from those of the front, and alignments to be traced—the glass bricks of the middle windows line up with the bottom of the windows on the left and the slot windows on the right. Horizontality is asserted by those four narrow slot windows and they echo the narrow bands of windows on the front. Also they break up that section without denying its mass. The slight leftward leaning of the three middle bays is also offset by those narrow windows. But I still find those windows odd, even mysterious, maybe ominous. Slots are the windows of bunkers. They are the only windows for the rooms behind and they can’t have any practical justification.
This facade is more frontal, with fewer incisions in the cube, save for the narrow porch on the fourth floor, three bays wide, in front of what I assume is the executive boardroom.
The actual center remains evasive and rests in alternative possibilities. The apparent certainty of the front has turned to explicit questions on this side, along with questions that remain implicit, that may not have an answer. The overall cast of the composition is just unusual. It reminds me of an ideogram, a picture charged with some meaning.
The narrow gallery openings on the side are repeated by vertical narrow windows on the rear facade. Their orientation on the far right takes us to those openings, which in turn keeps the front in mind.
The mass on the left repeats the one on the front and stands behind it. It is broken by a tall glass window box that identifies the rear stairs and protrudes slightly from the facade, outside the cube, adding another layer of depth, although this depth is added by transparency.
The same mass is on the right, broken by the narrow vertical and horizontal windows. The composition is symmetrical and strongly centered. But this symmetry is challenged in two directions, to the left by the column of four narrow vertical windows pointing to the three-story stair box, and to the right by the pattern of horizontal widows, these bands picked up from the front.
In the middle, top floor, another open place to gather and look out. The fourth floor, the locus of authority, can only be accessed by the stairs at the rear, and the central open areas, front and back, are its privilege. Other elements are carried over from the front, the pattern of windows and infill above narrow bands within the grid, the grid itself. But here the grid is only partially stated in a pattern of three columns and two rows two stories high. It, along with the vertical windows on the right, make it the only side that asserts the vertical against the horizontal.
The other side, not modeled. On the right, a pattern of 4 x 4 window groupings similar to those on the front but having the same width as the bays on the other side. Note the thin horizontal bands before the L shaped windows, not on the front but used on the rear. These windows have a deeper inset.
Next to them, left, three groups of window columns, each with different arrangements, different degrees of openness and closure, the center one composed largely of glass brick to light the main stairs, the first two of different widths, both wider than those of the 4 x 4 bays. The third bay has the same width as the 4 x 4 bays and its elements fall within their grid, thus proposing a grid that is 5 x 4. This side, in fact, most closely resembles the front with a 5 x 4 grid against a vertical element—almost. Mass has been broken up and dispersed fairly evenly. We are aware of a controlling gird, but the grid of the front facade has been displaced. Where the rear has a vertical orientation, this side emphasizes a horizontal and, unlike the other three sides, has no sense of a center. The effect is to lead from front to back without disruption.
Another analysis can and should be made based on the program and inner structure, starting with the floor plans. There may well be other starting points, other perceptions, other conclusions. I’m not convinced, however, any approach will yield complete comprehension or answer all questions.
The Casa del Fascio adheres to the city’s traditional orientation in conformity with the preexisting grid, mirroring in its four different facades the fundamental concept of different insolation and illumination conditions.
Terragni/Building the Casa
I don’t know what he means by that. It’s hard to believe that natural light and shade couldn’t have been accommodated in any number of other ways, possibly more effectively. I note that when I look at photographs many blinds are drawn on all sides. But he refers to a concept for those conditions, which takes us to some abstruse thought. The urge is to reach for larger meanings, because it’s hard not to believe we’re being presented with some abstract yet symbolic message.
What all four sides have in common is the repetition of different elements of varying shapes and proportions, and varying references to other sides, and different degrees of depth, of openness and closure, of transparency and solidity. The grid also has a strong influence, directly or by implication, and there is referral to the Casa’s main reason for existence, the inner hall. Each side presents a different face that has its own combinations and dynamics and balances. With these differences comes a different experience of the building, and different perceptions. The temptation is to compare the four sides to a musical composition, a sonata with four different movements of varying tempos that combine to form a musical unity. Or there is language here, four different statements on the sides, or, as we circle the building, a continuous sentence with many parts, one that loops back into itself. But the elements have been broken up and rearranged into patterns that go against our expectations of a building and our common perceptions of doors and windows and walls, and it’s difficult to comprehend what holds the whole building together or what message it might contain.
Either the whole that defines the parts, their compositions, is not contained by the facades, singly or together.
And the notion of a whole has extended beyond the walls into some larger whole beyond the structure of the walls.
Or the notion of a whole has been discarded.
Yet ever in mind, in memory, reason, a regular grid, 7 x 4, or our wish for one.
This must be clear. . . we do not intend to break with tradition. . . . The new architecture, the true architecture should be the result of a close association between logic and rationality.
Statement by Gruppa 7, the Italian Rationalists, of whom Terragni was a member.
Greek temples served simultaneously as the symbol of a broad union of Greeks—a union predicated upon a common religion, a common tongue, and the belief in a common ancestry—and also as the symbol of each city’s special involvement with one of the immortals. . . .
Through a necessarily uncompromising process of analysis, modern architecture has revolutionized the values promoted by the old schools and the academies of the past by solving the problem of restoring spiritual and artistic dignity to our century. But until now, modern architecture has avoided in-depth examination of certain aspects of spiritual life which we feel cannot be suppressed in any epoch. We tentatively refer to such aspects as monumentality, symbolism, and solemnity.
Terragni/Relazione sul Danteum
Terragni’s design is classical in an abstract sense, in spirit. It continues the Classical desire for monument, balance, and proportion to express timeless meaning, gravitas of some sort. He wanted to create for the Italian people what the Greeks created for theirs, a building that represented them and their heritage, unified them and their beliefs, that brought them closer to an immortal being—il Duce. Casa is a fitting type. A temple, after all, is a kind of home.
The principal of empathy is central to the understanding of Greek architecture. It comes about intangibly, though the proportional interlocking of the members, which evokes the proportional relationships of a standing human.
Classical architecture is valued for its precision, its symmetry, its stability, its perfection. Such appraisal misses how “imperfect” the work is and ignores what are essential adjustments. In Greek temples corner columns tilt inward, all columns bulge—entasis. Roof and ground lines are not straight but convex. These are often explained away as optical adjustments to bring the work in line with the perception of perfection. Rather:
They are intentional and evident distortions that render the otherwise thoroughly rational design of the temple live and spry.
We are meant to feel the work, the coherent joining of their parts, their tensions, the compression of support. But the adjustments are slight, almost imperceptible, and that is what gives them life and purpose. We flex but should not strain. We should bear our loads gracefully. Overstatement of these adjustments would take us away from the proposition of reasonableness and our relationship to it. Absolute statement of perfection takes us to a perception that refers only to itself. There is a metaphor in that.
Similarly, Terragni’s building lives in all the subtle adjustments and variations and countervailing tensions that work within the expected order, stability, and perfection of a regular grid. The Casa is classical in this sense as well. But of course it is a modern building. The classical language of architecture has been put aside and ornament has been reduced to abstractions or discarded. Modern materials and construction techniques have their influence, along with the attitude and positioning of modern life.
Movements intrigue us and distract. They can be as much determined by what they react against as by what they put forward.
The hallmark of the earlier avant garde was a contrived impetus and a vain, destructive fury, mingling good and bad elements; the hallmark of today’s youth is a desire for lucidity and wisdom.
Gruppa 7 again, countering the Futurists. Movements are also reactions to shifts in mood and circumstance, the pulse of history itself, none of these as clear or coherent as we might like.
Rationalist architecture can be identified by its regularity and linear and geometric emphasis. Yet there has to be some impetus or justification. Pleasing proportions and geometry are attractive, soothing, stabilizing, and done right, invigorating. But geometry must stand for something.
Rationalism, in the architectural sense as in the general, is a stance, a posture, an appearance.
Based on what?
Now, there is only one rectangle that clearly expresses the harmonic law of unity in trinity, and this is the rectangle known historically as the “golden”; the rectangle, that is, whose sides are in the golden ratio (the short side is to the long side as the long side is to the sum of the two sides). One is the rectangle, three are the segments that determine the golden ratio. And furthermore, such a rectangle is capable of being decomposed into a square of a side equal to the short side and another golden rectangle of sides equal, respectively, to the short side and the difference between the two sides of the original rectangle. In its turn, such a smaller golden rectangle may be decomposed into a square and a golden rectangle, and thus it goes—through these possible decompositions is manifested the concept of the infinite—because such decompositions are in fact infinite.
Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.
One must be concerned, therefore, with seeing to it that the Fascist, the citizen, the masses of people receive the assurance even before entering that it is a house they are going into, and that they find the room distribution simple and logical.
Terragni/Building the Casa
Finding meaning in a building, or projecting meaning onto it, is a task as complex and problematic as coming to terms with the word meaning itself and negotiating the disciplines that attempt that. There are, however, visual cues. The classical language of structure and ornament has had a long play in the history of western architecture. Use of it shows continuity with the past, allows cultural and ethnic identification, makes a statement of civic order—and can express power and empire. Or a building can present symbols, literally such as crosses placed in a Christian church and figuratively in its ground plan, the cross taking its meaning from a historical act of persecution. And sometimes history can kill a symbol. It is unthinkable a building, even with the most innocent of intentions—make it a convent—might be constructed today that has the floor plan of a swastika, once the symbol of harmony and spirituality in other cultures, other times.
We can also study type and use. A house built around a courtyard of some sort is a plan that has been with us since the early days of architecture that found full expression in the Renaissance palazzo, an obvious source for the Casa. The plan allows ventilation and illumination for the rooms, gives order to their placement, and provides a protected sanctuary. It is the type Terragni found appropriate for a government headquarters, which was meant to offer a home for the people within the greater state, one that is orderly and transparent.
Being able to see what goes on inside is what distinguishes a casa del fascio built for the people from a royal palace, a barracks, or a bank.
Again, Terragni’s Casa makes no explicit reference to Classical language and eschews overt symbolism.
We realize that an adjective of absolute political significance—Fascist—is insufficient to provide a modern architecture executed in Italy, or by Italian architects, with a physiognomy and a guarantee of original superiority. Instead, the coordinated and sagacious effort of the most coherent young Italian architects could restore, even in art, that preeminence that has so often been the unmistakable mark of Italian intelligence.
Statement by explicit symbolism is inadequate, and instead he projects a quality more abstract, more flexible, more refined, higher—and transcendent. I wondered if the four different sides didn’t express different faces of the state and its functions in some abstract way, but nothing in the facades supports that, not in any recognizable way.
The headquarters of the fascio no longer need be secret, a refuge or redoubt; it must become a house, school, temple.
Yet its program is in part spiritual in some way Terragni doesn’t define, and he refers to its “mystical beauty.” The Casa should be a glass house that is rational and open yet expresses mystery.
I can’t decide if that is a contradiction.
Or a paradox on the threshold of resolution.
Or if the design doesn’t lapse into mere obscurantism.
“Short while shalt thou be here a forester,
And thou shalt be with me for evermore
A citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman.
Therefore, for that world’s good which liveth ill,
Fix on the car thine eyes, and what thou seest.
Having returned to earth, take heed thou write.”
The reference to the theme is clear: The universal Roman Empire that was envisaged and forecast by Dante as the ultimate purpose and the only remedy for saving humanity and the Church from disorder and corruption.
Our program is simple: we want to rule Italy.
The poetry of labor no longer resides in the rhetorical figure of the worker with a spade or a pick on his shoulder and the sun setting behind him. Instead, in the thousands and thousands of black-shirted citizens who amass in front of the Casa del Fascio waiting for the voice of the leader to announce the advent of the empire to Italians and foreigners. . . .
The struggle, the conquest, the responsibility of victory have ornamented those humble retreats with a mystical beauty, where enthusiasm for the leader and the heroic contribution of the members’ own blood were often the most pleasing and the most poetic fittings.
Terragni/Building the Casa
Terragni was scarcely alone. Ezra Pound leaps to mind.
And perhaps we need to view history not from the vantage point of our present, looking back on obvious horror, but from the heart of Terragni’s present, and there look back on the history that preceded, into the heart of history itself that lies within the breast of a monster, then try to conceive a future. Dislocations, privations, and unrest from the ravages of WWI and worldwide depression fractured vision. What might seem obvious to us today would have been much less so at a time that called for decisiveness, when a middle course was not a popular option.
But his comments speak to pathology. Blood and mass hysteria have become building materials. Ignored, glossed over, justified, or transmuted into mystical beauty, the violence of the Blackshirts, the brutal, senseless invasion of Ethiopia.
Terragni led the group that made this proposal for the competition for the Palazzo Littorio in Rome, what was to become the central Fascist headquarters and a memorial to Italy and its civilization, to be located near the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, within sight of the Colosseum. Its main architectural feature is the huge curved wall that rises above the ground, split down the middle to reveal its primary function, the building’s essential program, provide a rostrum—
and put the man above the crowd.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
This model of the Casa has been sitting on my dining table for several weeks now, a pristine cube-like structure resting on stained wood. Lately I have avoided looking at it, especially when I eat. Thoughts of current events swirl around it, along with the ghosts of a history we have somehow put aside.
How clearly do we see anything now?
To be in the present is to live in history, and to live in history is to be complicit in its abuse and distraction, however slight, however unintentional the involvement. To ignore, or be ignorant of, or deny that abuse compounds the complicity and allows it to emerge in disguise. Manfredo Tafuri, discussing Terragni’s work in general, tells us he “involves himself in urbanism as if to expiate secret guilt complexes.” I wondered if I had done the same building a model of the Casa that so much engaged me. Dark thoughts followed. Tafuri, however, could make the same claim about most modern architecture, and I believe he has.
Terragni was a devout Catholic and a member of the Fascist party, but I know little else about him. I’m not finding much online or in books. I’m not sure, though, what reading a biography would resolve.
Such a delicate, sensitive, and intelligent, shadowed face, with eyes that peer out and up with a look that might be hope. Or are raised from inner conflict. Or something black within.
But I do not trust my reading of faces, of other people.
I do not trust my reading of myself.
I do know, either because of my involvement and guilt, to whatever extent they exist, or in spite of them, I love this building.
And I want to know why the Fascists drafted a prized architect for the war effort and sent him to the eastern fronts of the Balkans and Russia, where he suffered a nervous breakdown. He died soon after.
When I return to the model, nothing lands.
The Danteum is another Terragni project, not realized, though Mussolini smiled on it. It was to be located at the same site as the Littorio and was meant to be a museum, library, and shrine dedicated to Dante, Italian culture, and empire. Essentially it was to be a horizontal box proportioned by the Golden Section, with variations and excursions, its program based on the Divine Comedy, where visitors would ascend through a courtyard and a series of rooms corresponding to its three divisions, Inferno, Purgatorio, and, at the top, Paradiso. Off to the side of paradise, a narrow columned space to represent Empire.
Above, his drawing of Paradiso. Thirty-three glass columns support a grid that holds the ceiling, transparent as well, open to the sky, to what we imagine there, beyond.
For a long time this drawing was all I knew about the project, the one that most makes the histories, and it intrigued me for years, in part because I didn’t understand the space. Nor could I grasp the scale, small, intimate one moment, vast, seemingly infinite the next. Flat, black and white with faint blushes of grays within a perspective grid that extends beyond the frame—the entire drawing is immaterial, as the walls of stone are only lines of syncopated sections against the grids of floor and ceiling, and the whole design rests in uncertain space. Even the clouds are tentative. I tried to project the rest of the building from the drawing but couldn’t imagine.
There’s a concept here, or a concept missed, yet still a concept.
The drawing still intrigues me, in ways I haven’t sorted out. I have since seen the full model, which disappoints.
In fashion then as of a snow—white rose
Displayed itself to me the saintly host,
Whom Christ in his own blood had made his bride
Once more before a crowd.
Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated, development (inflation, distension) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge, into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosised.
Lenin once more
The host vanishes.
I’m at a loss to think of another building that has four sides so different, except:
Peter Eisenman’s House II.
I wrote Surface Readings before reading Eisenman’s analysis in Transformations because I wanted to see what I could do on my own, and I approached the Casa from a different point of view, that of a lay observer. Needless to say I won’t make comparisons, nor will I attempt full summary. But, briefly, he reviews historical precedents, early conceptions, early plans, revisions, and final plans, which all figured into the final construction, and examines the building thoroughly, extensively, but perhaps not exhaustively, inside and out, from floor plans to exterior faces, in two and three dimensions, analyzing details and relationships and departures. His eye is sharp, his analysis exhilarating. We cannot understand anything unless we look at it closely. As a casual, general remark, it is a tribute to the building that it can sustain such intelligence, his attention.
The Casa, he argues, is determined by transformation, a process of changes. Paraphrasing Eisenman is a risky enterprise, so I’ll quote directly:
The critical nature of the Casa del Fascio’s facades—the residual overlaps and alternating readings of a generative process involving symmetry and asymmetry, stasis and rotation, and grid and solid—results from three themes, each of which inverts or contradicts the other two.
The first theme is the four-tower palazzo conception, which gives rise to a tripartite A-B-A system, with the center portion of each facade void and the two corner portions solid. . . . The symmetry of this A-B-A system creates a condition of stasis, since the articulation of and emphasis on the four corners tend to arrest any sense of movement.
At the same time, asymmetry exists on each facade, which suggests a theme of rotation. . . . Because of the repetition of the setbacks on both facades, a pinwheeling motion is suggested. An additional suggestion of rotation comes from the repetition of formal motifs; each facade seems to pick up a formal motif from the preceding one, and then introduce a new motif as a secondary element, which in turn is picked up by the next facade.
Countering this theme of rotation, and paradoxically implicated in it, is yet another theme, the play between the cage and the solid.
Verbal description of the simplest building can be tedious. The Casa pushes the difficulty further several orders of complexity. Eisenman’s ideas have to be seen to be understood and believed, and he shows them graphically in numerous drawings that illuminate his analysis. What we are supposed to believe is another matter.
Only two observations:
The theme of rotation explains much about the building’s design. This rotation begins expression in the corners when you look at the building not from the front but from an oblique view and continues as you study the four facades in sequence. We are conditioned to give priority to the front face, and the building counters that expectation. Practically, capturing the full rotation would require one to circle the building and assemble the different forms and compositions, which for users and general observers is not likely and difficult if attempted. Really, the theme of rotation and its variations requires considerable memory and mental effort. That doesn’t contradict Eisenman’s argument, however, but reinforces it. We are dealing with a concept, a mind. Still, the variations are unusual and rotation could have been accomplished in a more straightforward way. Yet the building works against simplicity, and other themes come into play that work against that reading. I might add each side deals with expectations of facades and their identities: the front faces us and announces the building, the sides take us back, and the rear is the rear and has to tell us it is the back of the building. The Casa respects these identities but also qualifies them with the implied rotation and the many variations. I see no contradiction here either.
Readings can go either way, work together, against each other. The Casa does not rest. Stability counteracts movement. Symmetry vies with asymmetry. Closure, solidity compete with openness and transparency and delicacy. For example, the two-story glass box on the rear facade, left, on the otherwise solid plane:
. . . these windows have been changed into a single projecting glass panel that, because of the thinness of its steel frame and glass sides, reads as a volume. This is the only instance in which glass is treated on the facades as a volume rather than as a void in a plane. This glass panel is also the only element that breaks through the perimeter of the building volume. In the context of either an A-B-A or A-C reading of the rear facade, the left segment appears solid. However, when the glass is read as a volume, the solid reading of the surrounding plane is called into question. . . . On the one hand, through a logic of inversion, the glass panel is a literal void within a solid segment; on the other hand, it is a conceptual solid, because it reads as puncturing the shell of the building. . . . This creates a paradoxical condition in which the rear surface of the building alternates between being read as a plane and as a membrane.
The window box does serve a function: it indicates the stairs, at least on two floors. And it works within and against the composition of the other elements on the facade in many ways as well as promotes rotation. But do we read its definite and obvious presence as a void, especially when compared with the actual voids? Then again, if we reject Eisenman’s void/solid condition, how do we account for it?
If the windows were flush, their relationship with the solid plane wouldn’t be decisive but muddled. The only other option would be having them inset, consistent with the glazing throughout. That, however, would work against the integrity of the solid plane and its relationship with the one on the front that it matches and refers to. Lost, the substantial presence of the box. Having them protrude seems to be the only option, but the window box is still unusual, in part because it is a sole exception and it calls much attention to itself, perhaps unduly, given its function. Literally and figuratively it stands out.
I won’t hazard an alternate explanation, much less try to sound Terragni’s thought. I wonder what explanation I might expect myself and why that would have any value or relevance. Eisenman’s, at any rate, fits the evidence.
And he concludes:
In the context of this work, this reading of alternation without resolution distinguishes a formal reading from that which is critical and textual, with no original or transcendental signified, but only an unstable alternation between several possible origins.
Similar ambivalence can be found throughout the whole building, in other elements and compositions, from detail to overall conception, and the indeterminacies coalesce in burgeoning complexity. Eisenman’s analysis may sound abstruse, but it is the building itself that is cryptic, if not baffling.
Which leads to the question why Terragni did what he did.
. . . the thesis posited here is that certain conditions of architecture are particularly open to textual readings that displace canonical interpretations through the use of a primarily formal discourse, defined within the parameters of a historical period. That is, certain buildings loosen the relationships between historical, aesthetic, and functional conventions and in doing so encourage readings that not only entail the internal recognition of such shifts but also displace the conventional notions of reading. Such displacements are here called critical.
Eisenman’s term critical relates not to knowledge but to the basis of knowledge, what makes it possible, how it shifts, diverges from accepted belief, what might lie beneath the process, beneath conventional wisdom. How do we know what we know, what can we know, do we know what we think we know. Closed certainties are opened up with questions. Contemplation of the matter leads to a state I have called elsewhere, poetically, tongue in cheek, dizziness.
A critical text therefore makes the subject aware of the unconscious forms of repression that determine consciousness. In this sense, a critical architecture is not merely one that is a manifestation of being or meaning but rather a manifestation of the unconscious relationships that determine being and meaning.
By critical text he’s referring to a building such as the Casa, which, with all its indications and disjunctions and oblique suggestions, can be read by formal analysis of its elements and their departures. We expect Freud here, a deep probing of the psychological comedy, that inversion of the divine, in a narrative that tracks the path desire takes through its own inferno, purgatory, and paradise, all shut tight inside our mind, though Eisenman does not provide that.
Dominant among these [unarticulated repressions] is the idea of historical precedent and stable and transcendent origins.
This precedent has guided western culture and been made manifest in its constructions. Gothic cathedrals opened up to pass the light of the divine. Palladio designed well-proportioned palazzi that seemed charged with import.
Renaissance artists firmly adhered to the Pythagorean concept “All is Number” and, guided by Plato and the neo-Platonists and supported by a long chain of theologians from Augustine onwards, they were convinced of the mathematical and harmonic structure of the universe and all creation. If the laws of harmonic numbers pervade everything from the celestial spheres to the most humble life on earth, then our very souls must conform to this harmony.
The desire lingers, but we question how transcendent projection fits the life we now know, what it is based on, whether it is based on anything, what lies behind it, what exists beyond it, if anything, what we are left with when we remove the focal point of western divinity, other than constructs shaped by illusions. Numbers, we have discovered, are numbers, which refer only to themselves. We are on our own.
And we still wonder where that leaves us. One answer is the work of Eisenman, whose House II makes disjunction explicit and leaves us not with answers but directed questions, posed, unanswered.
That could not have been Terragni’s intent. I would like to see his own formal analysis, one on the order of Eisenman’s, a text fully illustrated, rich with detailed discussion. We would get an intense, involved, even dizzying demonstration of parts and relationships that would be exhilarating as well, one that would soar with all the possibilities suggested. Building the model left me with so many unanswered questions, and I can only imagine all that went through his mind as he made design decisions. But when he moved to justification, we would get the same abstract language as that of “Building the Casa”—mysterious, transcendental, or transcendental-like, possibly, likely disturbing. Somewhere the ruins of an empire. Somewhere, somehow, the shadow of a man. Somehow, elsewhere, above, something else.
The authentic enigma is not in that calculated exchange of roles. Instead, it lies in the total annulment of any dialogue between the forms. Frozen in its absolute metaphysical dimensions, Terragni’s object rests casually on the ground; the fragment of a conceptual interregnum, it accentuates its own lack of place or, more accurately, the absence of desire for place. The same attitudes put the relationship between city and building into abeyance. The context exists: Terragni’s architecture wants neither to add nor to remove anything from it. Certainly, the new presence modifies the context and through absolute withdrawal assumes the astonished state of being only a sign, compelled with dissembling shrewdness into being what it is and nothing more.
Tafuri on the Casa. Guilt has turned to indifference. Ignored, the formal complexity of the building and whatever value that might have in itself. Denied, the possibility of transcendence, even the tradition of that wish. I’m not sure what context or relationship Tafuri refers to, but I suspect it is material and Marxist, which is fine. But absence of desire for place—the Casa aches for one.
Coming to terms with Terragni’s Casa depends on what question we are trying to answer. If we want to judge and condemn Terragni for his political beliefs, and by extension the Casa, we should examine those of all architects and all other creators, along with all they have created. I hate to think what we would find, where that might lead, and dread the purges and demolition that would follow. But if we have to judge, factor in Terragni’s esthetic sensibility, which is rare, and the refinement of the Casa. Art can save us from ourselves and our best intentions.
If we want to look only at the building itself, one conclusion might be that as a Fascist center it was a miserable failure. It lacked the massive forms that awe and subdue, the presence that dominates and controls public space. Nor did it promote obvious symbolism that impressed its forced meanings on the minds of the masses. And its intended message wholly missed the mark: transparency and participation were a pipe dream.
If we want to assess it for its demonstration of some transcendent truth, we have to conclude that it failed as well. We get nothing.
But cathedrals failed to demonstrate divinity, palazzi, universal harmony and order, in part because most have concluded that neither exist or that if they do they cannot be captured in numbers and openings. No building can demonstrate anything. Buildings can only present abstract analogies that depend on our knowledge of the concepts and beliefs they figure, whether we accept those. But those concepts and beliefs are constructs themselves. Everything we say and do is an artifice of some sort, each with its own structure and themes, including, especially our political ideologies. Some serve us better than others.
Yet one thing we are certain of is that cathedrals and palazzi once existed, and many still remain, and they could not have existed without those projections. And they still engage us and move us to think, and they satisfy and lift us up in ways few other structures can accomplish. We need to find ways to think beyond ourselves, a long standing tradition, and those buildings can influence us, at least in spirit. We will always bump our heads, but unless we reach we are trapped in tautologies and narrow certainties we can count. There is no resolution to this paradox; we always need to pose it. Terragni reflects that tradition, and while his ideas are misplaced, the Casa looks beyond itself, beyond his words. To the extent the Casa is classical it also reinforces that tradition.
. . . certain buildings loosen the relationships between historical, aesthetic, and functional conventions
Eisenman, above. In the first part of 20th. century, the break with tradition was abrupt and the changes in architectural styles were wholesale. The shift paralleled and was influenced by the breaks and shifts in the western world itself, the rapid acceleration of technology, the social realignment, the rethinking—and the violence and massive dislocation and disillusionment. Any building that tried to look both back and forward then would show disjunction. The Casa, perhaps unintentionally, inadvertently, reveals that disjunction. As such it is an expression of that time, a memory. Yet it also contains the fractures in interrelated and coordinated forms. It is coherent in its incoherence. It also projects questions, uncertainties, and complexities we still have not resolved, and keeps them alive. It doesn’t close thought, it opens it, and it reminds us the answer is never obvious or simple. Neither is the question.
Architecture, we forget at our peril, is inherently violent. It invariably subtracts from the range of available possibilities, especially the perennially attractive option of building nothing at all. In this sense, construction sites are crime scenes. Memories, landscapes, slices of sky, beloved vistas and old neighborhoods are violated even when buildings of distinction take their place. Perhaps the most architecture can do is convert aggression into desire, its primitive twin.
Muschamp/A Handsome Hunk
Despite the violence of its purpose, the Casa does not intrude, rather is modest and unassuming, yet still engaging. Desire speaks most—but softly. It is also beautiful, and it changes our notions of beauty and opens up others.
Buildings also acquire meaning through their use and our habits. Our lives fill them; we invest them with our practices and beliefs. The portraits of il Duce have come down, and there is no explicit symbol in the Casa that refers to that era. With time and new use the Fascist associations could be replaced with others. The space is ideal for exhibition and small and large gatherings. Its structure and spacial divisions provide a metaphor for belonging, community, coordination, and cooperation. Structurally, thematically, it is open to change and debate, whatever the future brings, whatever we want to argue then.
It could certainly be put to better use. It now houses the Command of the VI Legion of the Italian Finance Police.
I would remove the electric controls on the doors, if that has not already been done.
But the other host, that flying sees and sings
The glory of Him who doth enamour it,
And the goodness that created it so noble
And yet once more, the man before the crowd.
We have seen many marvels the past four years, almost too many to count. The one that moves me to wonder today is not the man but the crowd, how quickly, how passionately they give themselves to the man, to belief when, in fact, neither believes anything at all.
As for the man at the rostrum:
He has discarded the baggage of culture, Eurocentric, any other.
He has broken from the chains of the past.
He has freed himself from tradition, from stuffy morality.
Nor is he distracted by spiritual illusion.
He has released himself from repression and transcended inhibitions.
He is the culmination of the shift, centuries in the making, to the individual at the center.
He is the quintessential modern man.
All that is solid melts into air.
Everything that rises must converge.
Photographer Maurizio Montagna has taken exceptional pictures of the Casa, especially the interior, which can be found here.
The architecture department at Università degli Studi di Firenze has produced a marvelous animation that shows the structural construction of the Casa from start to finish, inside and out.
Lenin quotations via Marxists.org
“Here is the Mussolinian concept” cited in William Curtis, Modern Architecture since 1900
Peter Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History
The Gruppa 7 statement is cited here.
Giuseppe Terragni, “Building the Casa del Fascio in Como” and Manfredo Tafuri, “Giuseppe Terragni: Subject and ‘Mask'” found in Eisenman Transformations
Peter Eisenman, Giuseppe Terragni Transformations Decompositions Critiques
Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture
Terragni, “Relazione sul Danteum” translated by Thomas Schumacher and found in his book The Danteum
All Dante Divine Comedy lines translated by Longfellow. Several excerpts were selected by Schumacher and paired with his translation of “Relazione.”
Rudolph Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism
Herbert Muschamp, “ART/ARCHITECTURE; A Handsome Hunk Of a Glass Tower,” NY Times
Trump rally via AP News
Floor plan of Casa via WikiArquitectura
Casa interior, 3D reconstruction of the original color scheme, via Wikiwand
Diagram of Casa proportions via Modern Architecture: A Visual Lexicon
Fourth side photograph and drawing via ArchDaily
Diagram of golden rectangle via ScienceDirect in the article “Why golden rectangle is used so often by architects: A mathematical approach”
Dante holding a copy of the Divine Comedy at entrance to Hell, Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, beneath the spheres of Heaven, Domenico di Michelino’s 1465 fresco via Wikipedia
Mussolini rally before 60,000 militants at a Fascist rally, October 24 1922 via Wikipedia Commons
Littori drawings via DavidRifkind.org
His article “architecture and revolution on the street of empire” reviews the background of Fascist architecture.
“I found myself within a forest dark,” Gustave Doré via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Terragni via Casati Gallery
Danteum drawing via NCSU/Luna
The Saintly Throng, Gustave Doré, via DigitalDante
Book cover of Eisenman Transformations
Dante gazes at purgatory shown as a mountain, Unknown Master, Florence, 16th century via Wikipedia
The simple drawing of the facade and all photographs of the model by the author