Archive for September, 2011

The Point


According to Euclid:

A point is that which has no part.

but according to T.S. Eliot:

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.


Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet


Let those whose care for what is within makes them despise and neglect all that is outward, erect for their own use buildings conceived according to the form of poverty, taking holy simplicity as a model and following the lines laid down by the restraint of their fathers.

Blessed William of St Thierry

It is hard to conceive of a more moving architectonic assemblage of stone than that of the Abbey du Thoronet, the oldest of the three Provençal Sisters. A fictitious diary of its construction is presented in Fernand Pouillon’s novel Les Pierre Sauvages (The Stones of the Abbey). The building is a powerful demonstration of what architecture can aspire to in its most primordial concerns: light & shadow; solid & void; mass and volume.

It is an architecture of humility and grace – words not always celebrated in the journals of today.

In his introduction to Lucien Hervé’s book, Architecture of Truth, Le Corbusier describes the building thus:

Stone is thus man’s best friend; its necessary sharp edge enforces clarity of outline and roughness of surface; this surface proclaims it stone, not marble; and ‘stone’ is the finer word.

The way stone is dressed takes into account every fragment of the quarry’s yield; economy coupled with skill; its form is always new and always different. Bands, vaulting-stones of arch and vault, ways of setting window in the thickness of a wall, paving, unsupported pillar and archivolt, roofs and their baked tiles (the same tile endlessly multiplied, male and female – a population of tiles), the shafts of columns, both free-standing and engaged, plinth and capital (but none of these things are there to catch the eye)… such are the words and phrases of architecture. Utter plenitude. Nothing further could be added to it.

Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength. Nothing further could add to it.

Indeed, John Pawson concurs:

Nearly a millenium after it was built, Le Thoronet Abbey continues to astonish us with its beauty. For the architect, it offers an education. Here is a building which seems to have met fully the practical and spiritual needs of its clients. It conforms to an architectural blueprint, but not at the cost of common sense. It complies with budgetary restrictions all the more significant because they reflect theological principles as well as economic realities. Its construction exploits both the potential of the local stone and the skills of the workforce. It relates to its site. In its final assessment, Le Thoronet affords an extraordinary example of the way spirituality and philosophy can become architecture.



One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

refectory, library, sacristy, St Benedict’s, Vaals, Dom Hans van der Laan



more Italian Rationalism in and around Como


This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty … the union of culture and the untameable  profusion and loveliness of nature is here so close that the lines where they are divided can hardly be discovered.


Terragni, Vitrum Crystal & China Shop

Cesare Cattaneo & Mario Radice Camerlata Fountain

Lingeri Villa Leoni

Terragni Villa Floricoltore

Cattaneo, Casa Cattaneo

Terragni Asilo Sant’Elia

reconciling contradictions: giuseppe terragni & italian rationalism


there is a new spirit … A great era has just begun.

Le Corbusier, Ozenfant, Dermée (L’Esprit Nouveau)

A ‘new spirit’ has been born

Gruppo 7

Giuseppe Terragni’s reaction to modernity was one that was peculiar in many ways, indeed somewhat contradictory.  Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, though, as his was a complex personality, and he managed to reconcile contradictions in other aspects of his life, apparently living and dying believing in Christ and Fascism. Furthermore, he was not alone in his complex, and selective reaction to modernity.

In order to fully gauge Terragni’s reaction, however, it is vital to have a grasp of the era in which he lived, and in particular, its zeitgeist.  There was a deep sense of rupture in the historical continuum, many being convinced that they had entered a new and unique era.  A return to past times was seen as impossible, and history seemed to be a lost domain.  In some instances, traditions were invented, in order to provide an anchor to the past. In any case, a deep discontinuity seemed to radically separate the past from the present, which is not necessarily surprising.

No epoch has existed that did not feel itself, in the most eccentric sense, to be ‘modern’ and consider itself to be standing immediately before an abyss.  The despairing, wide-awake consciousness, standing immersed in decisive crisis, is chronic in humanity.  Every period appears to itself as unavoidably new.

Walter Benjamin

It was an age that had seen the Industrial Revolution, and mechanization.  Communication had become vastly more sophisticated, as had transportation.  New building types had emerged, and new materials and construction techniques had been developed.  Therefore architects were able to build buildings thought to be impossible a few decades before.  News and ideas spread rapidly with universal exhibitions, and journals.  Cities were becoming metropolises, and the notion of modernity was underpinned as being a new quality of life, indeed an experience of newness.  However, it must be remembered that this was an age that had just witnessed the full horror of technological ‘progress’ in the Great War.  Anyway, modern art and architecture had a fundamental role to play, in mirroring modern life. It was perceived that there was an inherent beauty in representing that which was of the time, and in the words of Baudelaire:

The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present.

Terragni must be counted amongst those whose reaction demonstrates complexity, and ambivalence.  He believed that modernity could be equally considered as a transitional continuity as well as a fundamental rupture. He believed that the past and present were not, in fact, incompatible.

He was born in Meda (a town that lies between Milan and Como) in 1904.  The son of a building contractor, he enrolled in the Scuola Superiore di Architettura, at the Milan Polytechnic.  A workaholic, he was obsessed with architecture, but it is important to note that he was a painter also.  That he moved to Como after graduating in 1926 is also significant.  Como is famous for its historic silk guilds, but more importantly, the myth of the Maestri Comacini lingers on there.  They were the legendary master-masons hailing from the Isola Comacina, the island further up Lake Como.  They were famed for their abilities in constructing buildings, particularly churches, to the most exacting standards.  This was a tradition that would not have been lost on Terragni, who also possessed the will to build well.

In 1928, Terragni joined the Fascist Party.  Some historians, being uncomfortable with this have chosen to ignore it, or dismiss it as being merely an opportunistic ploy to get commissions.  However, Terragni’s writings, coupled with the fact that he was a man of principles, betrays him –  he was a Fascist.  Incredibly, he was also a deeply religious man; although it would perhaps be taking it too far to infer that his devotion to both the Catholic Church and the Fascist Party, inspired him (or at least allowed him) to strike a balance between the traditional, and the avant-garde; faith and reason.

Gruppo 7 announced themselves upon their graduation from the Milan Polytechnic in 1926 and consisted of Sebastiano Larco, Guido Frette, Carlo Enrico Rava, Adalberto Libera, Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini, and Giuseppe Terragni.  The date which Gruppo 7 published their first manifesto (December 1926) in Rassegna Italiana is noteworthy, for in the summer of 1926, Italian architecture had received a damning appraisal in the Swiss journal Das Werk:

 Today’s Italian architecture has not yet been touched by the major movements and discussions of the rest of Europe.

Perhaps the late unification of Italy as a nation had kept Italian architecture behind in its development, but Gruppo 7 saw their late arrival as an opportunity to give the most mature, definitive character to the new style.  Thus they would be able to reassert the traditional Italian primacy in the Arts.

Albeit in books and magazines, Gruppo 7 studied the new architecture of Northern Europe assiduously.  They were the first Italian architects to import ideas from Europe intact.  However, they were schooled in the Classical style.  Terragni visited Rome in 1925, and made sketches in the style of Michelangelo.  Certainly, he did not shift towards the International Style without taking with him plentiful cultural and architectural baggage.  Historical sources were important to Terragni in order to justify his work.

For Terragni, the Classical was not servile imitation.  His work represents true Classicism, as opposed to Neo-Rationalism, in terms of the use of proportion, compositional regularity.  Therefore, Terragni condemned the Novecento movement as being purely decorative, insincere architecture.  If the Novecento was uninspired, then Terragni would also deny Futurism as being artificial, empty.  The Futurists were accused of being mistaken in their ‘vain, destructive fury’.  However, by the 1928 expo the Rationalists, too, had come under criticism, being accused of diminishing architecture to an engineering – of losing its spiritual content. They were also criticised of bringing a foreign (specifically German) influence to Italy.  Therefore, at the expo, the Rationalists were keen to appropriate the architecture of Sant’Elia as a precursor to their work.  Sant’Elia’s nationality was a guarantor of national, as opposed to foreign roots.  Thus, Futurism was a weapon used to disarm critics, and provided a continuum. Gruppo 7 wished to combine national identity and international values without sacrificing either.  The national traits represented an identity that they did not want to lose; whilst in the contemporary world they shared the international characteristics of modern culture.

Italian architects would realize an architecture that conveyed a symbolic sense of a machine civilization with a recognizably Italian aesthetic foundation.  This would be a fully contextual avant-garde architecture.

Etlin Modernism in Italian Architecture 1890-1940


The Rationalists faced a dilemma:  how to maintain modernity (in terms of a grammar of architectural forms) without adopting a machine aesthetic that would appear to devour national characteristics.

Schumacher Surface & Symbol

In the four essays of Gruppo 7, the relationship of art to culture was reaffirmed.  The questions of the nature of national and international identity in modern architecture had been raised, as had the characteristics of the modern aesthetic, and in particular, the role of Italian architects in creating a modern style.  The term ‘functionalism’ would have seemed pejorative to Italians, and so ‘Rationalismo’ became the battle-cry for the members of the movement.

But what, exactly, is Rationalism?  The Rationalist approach was a concern for the total integration of conceptual, structural and symbolic form:  Rationalism should compel the architect to the principle of sincerity.  Reason should lead the architect to develop an aesthetic from the system of construction selected according to available materials and resources, as well as the conditions and needs that he must satisfy.  The availability of materials was particularly important after Italy’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1936, when the allies put sanctions on steel.

There was a dual imperative of satisfying the programmatic needs, and deriving architectural form in response to the constructive system.  Therefore the aesthetic form had to embody the character of necessity; there was no room for artificial or superfluous ornamentation.  The formation of ideas should be produced by reason, and depend on logic.

Five aesthetic factors formed the absolute elements of the new architecture:

  • architecture should be stripped of any superfluous decoration
  • buildings should obey perfect proportion; abstract rhythms
  • the structural skeleton should be expressed
  • the cantilevered balcony
  • the corner window

The last two factors are obviously derivative of the need to express the structure.

Terragni Novocomum Apartment Block, Como

Giusseppe Terragni’s Novocomum apartment block of 1927-1929 opened in controversy; neither the populace nor the authorities had been expecting the long, horizontal building with its cantilevered floors and extensive glazing.  It was brightly coloured ‘cromatismi architettonici’; the colour was used to reinforce the compositional aims.

The executed facades did not correspond with the approved project.  Worried about planning, Terragni had submitted a design with a Novecento façade.  Obviously, when the scaffolding came down, there was a scandal.  A committee was appointed to examine the building, and fortunately for Italian Rationalism, their outcome was favourable.  Victorious in its confrontation with the authorities, it became a symbol of the new Rationalist architecture. Its location on the lake supported its nautical imagery, which had already been seen with Lingeri’s AMILA motorboat club. Indeed, the Novocomum was dubbed, first in derision and then in appreciation, ‘Il transatlantico’! In allegiance to Le Corbusier, Terragni likened the building to a machine:

The house can in a certain way be compared to a machine and must be constructed so that every one of its parts serves a precise purpose.  There should be nothing superfluous, because like a machine, this will end up hindering its functioning.

Terragni maximised useful space in his arrangement of rooms.  The building demonstrates a harmony of slender, straight, and thin elements; there is a simplicity in plan, and a rhythm of solids and voids.  Rather than using horizontal strip windows, Terragni relied on cantilevered floors and balconies to emphasise the structural frame.  The rounded corners are reminiscent of the early Modern Movement.  In fact, while the cut away corners exhibit the characteristic Rationalist concern for a displacement of mass, Terragni owed a lot to the Russian Constructivists; the treatment of the corners has been likened to Golossov’s Zugev Club in Moscow.

Where the corners of the building should have been reinforced in accordance with Classical canon, they were dramatically cut away so as to expose glass cylinders, which were capped by the massive weight of the oversailing top floor and bound into the composition by the overruns of the third-floor balcony, and the mass of the second floor.

Kenneth Frampton

The site was in a zone of the city to be developed for habitation and sport, with a new stadium to be built, and Terragni’s Monumento ai Caduti, (a commission from the Fascists in remembrance of the fallen of the Great War, and based on a sketch by Sant’Elia) as well as Gianni Mantero’s forthcoming Cannottieri Lario – an elite, private rowing club.

Anyway, Terragni saw an opportunity for a new architecture, and a new urbanism.  He also saw the possibilities for a new mode of living afforded by the new architecture and created a utilizable roof garden for the Novocomum. The result was one of the most strikingly modern looking buildings in Italy to date. However, whilst the Novocomum was a revolutionary modern building, it was also evolutionary.  The plan is organized like a standard bourgeois Italian apartment house of the turn of the Century, in a U-shape.  The apartment plans, themselves, are traditional.

Terragni Monumento Ai Caduti

Mantero Cannottieri Lario

Giovanni Greppi Guiseppe Sinigaglia Stadium

Como Aero Club

If the Novocomum was the first truly Rationalist building in Italy, then the Casa del Fascio was surely Terragni’s masterpiece.  Moreover, the Casa del Fascio can be regarded as the single most important image to describe the Italian contribution to Modernism.

Located to the rear of the Duomo, the Casa del Fascio was designed as a house of glass; a physical realization of a modern architecture, but also as a symbolic statement about the supposed nature of Fascism, recalling Mussolini’s doctrine:

Fascism is a house of glass into which all can look.

Terragni took this metaphor literally, and applied it to justify structural honesty, and constructional clarity.  Terragni employs extensive glazing; the meeting room overlooks the central atrium through a glass wall, whilst the glass wall on the front façade opens up to the crowds.  This integration of the exterior had already been seen in Hannes Meyer’s submission to the League of Nations, and in Le Corbusier’s submission for the Palace of Soviet’s. The building as an honorific space is clad throughout in Bolicino marble, important to Terragni for its symbolic meaning, conveying the status of the Casa Del Fascio as a monumental building (in importance rather than size). The use of marble came in the aftermath of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, where Mies showed how the rich beauty of polished stone could be complimented by modern materials.  Terragni may also have sought inspiration from the Barcelona Pavilion, in his use of a slight elevation of the base, ‘piano rialzato’, establishing the monumental status for the whole structure. The spatial aesthetic is grounded in the exposed reinforced concrete frame.  Terragni did not create this skeleton in order to hide it; the frame occupies the forefront plane.

The Casa del Fascio presents a complex rhythmical layering of partial walls, openings, and frames in which clear glass, glass block, polished stone, and filtered light, as well as direct views to the exterior, form a total architectural organism whose gridding carries straight through the structure while undergoing transformations of patterns that leave no two facades the same.


Terragni does not depart from the grid, or the rigours of rectilinear geometries, employing the golden section.  Material is removed from the half-cube to create layers, emphasised by the marble returns, and deep-set glass. The plan, arranged around a central (covered) courtyard, is almost Palladian, whilst the empty frame at the entrance is the modern equivalent of a portico or colonnade.  The Classical qualities are masked by the four facades with variations of fenestrations integrated into the frame system, representing modern construction, but nonetheless the building is Classical in nature.

To the extent that an interest in proportion, massing, regularity of groundplan, and cubical massing are Classical ideas, Terragni – like Le Corbusier or Mies – was a Classical architect.


There is also another important reference that the Casa del Fascio relies upon.  As well as the grand tradition of the Renaissance palazzo, Terragni pays homage to the modest tradition of the vernacular.  The non-bilateral symmetry, and the loggia bears a striking resemblance to an Italian farmhouse. The building is the result of rigorous Rationalism, but grounded in references to the past.  We must read between the lines of the Rationalist’s rhetoric, and be aware of their conservative audience, and their need to receive approval from the authorities.  We must also be aware of their other audience; the previously mocking architects of Northern Europe, and the rhetoric that the Rationalists employed for their benefit, following the lead of Mies, Gropious and Corb.

However, their greatest rhetoric is their actual buildings, and it is heartening to see that Terragni, unlike the bland Universal Style of some of his Comasco counterparts, was able to realise his theories, his intentions in practise.  Terragni created undoubtedly modern, Modernist buildings that would be masterpieces by any architect.  Yet, he did not claim a rupture in the historical continuum.  Far from it, his buildings allude to historical references, and not by any means, in a superficial way.  Modernity for Terragni was a logical progression and he saw no need to break from the past.  As such, his is a Modern architecture, enrichened, enlivened, and informed by its acknowledgement of the architectures before it.

zumthor’s kolumba – art museum of the archbishopric of cologne (ii)


Whilst the exterior of the building and the photogenic grotto housing the excavations were the images most commonly represented in the architectural journals, the most moving spaces in this multi-layered building were found at its summit. What with its tall, slender columns, the cavernous excavation room is vaguely reminiscent of a petrified version of Terragni’s Paradiso, housing remains dating back to Roman times, including the mediaeval church, and the post -WW2 chapel by Gottfried Böhm (son of the renowned ecclesiastical architect, Dominikus). This chapel was built to house the Madonna in the Ruins, a late-Gothic Madonna and Child that was found miraculously standing amongst the ruins following the Allied aerial-bombardment of the city.

The next level up is a purgatorial experience (architecturally) due to there being no daylight in order to protect its delicate exhibits – including: cassocks, mantle, rochet and Cappa Magna of Josef Cardinal Frings, Archibishop of Cologne; and an armarium containing the Reliquary Cologne, monstrance, relic monstrance, and processional cross.

However, if anything the experience of transferring through this artificially-lit level only serves to heighten and emphasise the architectural feast in store above. With a little indulgent license, we may consider the 2nd exhibition level as an asymmetric nave, bounded by three aisles (referred to as cabinets and highlighted blue in the plans). These are stepped up from the main floor and serve as a preparatory ante-chamber for the side-chapelesque towers. The three towers each differ slightly but share in their tall proportions and diffuse clerestorey, which draws the eyes heavenward, and the feet onto tiptoe, the light giving these spaces a sacred quality. It is these peculiarly intimate spaces that are the architectural tour de force of Zumthor’s building.