Giuseppe Terragni and the rationalist architecture in Italy

The Italian Rationalism, that had its maximum exponents in the Gruppo 7 (among which Giuseppe Terragni), subsequently flowed in the MIAR, came out in the European scene in the conception of an architecture close to logic and rationality, based on the abstract perfection of the pure rhythm and the simple constructiveness, but more particularly in the identification with the roots of the same rationalism in the Mediterranean background.

As a matter of fact the adoption of the geometry – that, especially in Terragni’s works, was conceived as the element that allows the control of all the components of an architectonic system – was identified as point of departure of the whole architecture that developed along the Mediterranean basin, subtracting the paternity of the use of the rational forms to the North Europe.

Elaborating a personal rationalist language, marked by the search of classical proportions, the architecture of Giuseppe Terragni starts from a pure geometric shape, already ordered, that corresponds to the square or to the rectangle and for the plan to a solid form that coincides with the parallelepiped – the artist’s study in his house for holidays can be considered a symbolic case.

However, it should be recognized to Terragni the merit of having brought back a protagonist role to the characters of the façade, so that in their relationships of space and form, of heavy masses and of light structures have to give to the observer an artistic emotion. In fact, setting aside the free façade codified by Le Corbusier, he conceived in every of his projects a predetermined orthogonal grid, in which he chose an inside articulation, underlining the logical principle of clarity in the legibility of the work.

Historical context

The historical period in which lived Giuseppe Terragni crossed the last years of the Belle Epoque, the Great War and the birth of totalitarian regimes (among which the fascism in Italy), that supplanted the democratic political institutions, up to the outbreak of the World War II.

The First World war marked indeed the end of an era, as it changed every aspect of the life, the politics, the society, the culture and the business. The consequences of the conflict, in fact, were devastating and they didn’t benefit to the reconstitution of new international stability; if we add the feeling of revenge, the nationalistic enthusiasm, the divergent politic and ideological visions and the reaction to the fear of the socialist revolution that accompanied the rise of totalitarian regimes like the Fascism and the Nazism, we can understand the reasons that contributed to the burst of a new disastrous war.

As regards Italy, gone out as a winner from the first conflict, predominated in the country the idea of the “mutilated victory“, or the missed promise of new territories; it should be added the economic crisis, the high unemployment, the crisis of the liberal government (Giolitti) and the rise of new parties, with ideological visions absolutely antithetical among them and with an inside fragmentation that prevented the formation of governments. In this context the fascist party bore; initially – in the phase of the “fascism movement“, as the historical critic De Felice said – it had revolutionary and renewing ambitions and a program strongly marked in a social way. The great popular approval and the law Acerbo (unique list) favored this party, driven by Mussolini; in 1924 he obtained the majority of the votes and began a real dictatorship.



Giuseppe Terragni

Giuseppe Terragni was born on 18th April 1904 in a family of builders. In 1921 he enrolled at the Superior School of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Milan, where he studied with particular passion the architectures of the past and appreciated the new rationalist architecture encoded by Le Corbusier. Obtained the degree in 1926, he engaged himself in the study of the theoretical premises of the new architecture, still in elaboration (“as the world appeared to Sant’Elia without style, the harmony between the man and the forms extinguished, it was urgent to draw from the last origin the new sense that would have reawakened the whole to human sense “). Along with Luigi Figini, Guido Frette, Sebastiano Larco, Gino Pollini, Carlo Enrico Rava and Ubaldo Castagnola, in 1926 Giuseppe Terragni founded the group 7 that contributed to the affirmation of the rationalist architecture in Italy; in the same  period he elaborated a personal and rationalist language, marked by classical proportions, as it’s possible to see in his first great project: the Novocomum.

This building, a residential complex, was characterized for the use of materials and innovative elements like the reinforced concrete and the wide windows; the rigorous volumes, with its squared lines in the central and top part of the construction, contrasted with the cylindrical shapes and curves.

Even if this design represented the first modern house in Italy, it didn’t find the agreement of the fascist party and provoked a big scandal. At the beginning, the fascism was a young and innovating movement that proposed to emancipate Italy in a modern way, lining it to the other great European nations under the economic and cultural profile, and therefore proposing an architecture that accomplishedly expressed this wish of change and refusal of the traditions; notwithstanding this, with the installation of the dictatorship repressive intents emerged dangerously behind the modernism of façade.

Thinking to translate in architecture in a civil and democratic way the ethical-social characteristics of the fascism, Terragni would have realized the true reality of facts too late; he wrote articles that focused subjects like the air, the light, the glass revolution, with the aim to create a program of political and social renewal of his country. These texts were published in the Quadrante since 1933; it was the only Italian magazine _of which he was among the founders _ that realized in all of the expressions of the spirit the anxiety of primordial transfigurations in the new architecture.

From 1932 to 1936 he built the famous Casa del Fascio; the critic Giordano Belli said that “nothing of similar has ever been seen before”. In fact, thanks to this building, architecture became a rational thing in which everything is closer and measurable and at the same time a look open to endless spaces and to illuminating perspectives.

In the 1939 Terragni was called up to weapons, and at the outbreak of the war he fought in the Balkans and subsequently in Russia; there he designed his last project, that was a cathedral. The brutal experience of the war put his ideals in crisis; repatriated for illness, he died on 19th July 1943.

Notwithstanding his premature death, the enfant prodige of the Italian architecture went down in history as the man who knew, through the daily torment, how to draw to light the pure forms that confess the dawn of our modern architecture.

One of Terragni’s designs: the house for artist near the lake

The design of the house for artists, completed in 1933 on the occasion of the Vth Triennial in Milan, was a part of the program of realization of 30 experimental houses, prototype of a supposed village for artists on the Comencina island in the lake of Como. It was a rented house for a painter – especially for a student of Brera – which had to live with his family near the lake of Como during holidays. Representing a type element, if it was multiplied many times would have given place to a colony. Unfortunately Terragni’s house, designed with a wood skeleton and walls in masonry as a model in real scale, was demolished at the end of the exhibition, due to its transitional character, and the colony was never realized.

Fundamental heart of the house, the artist’s studio was designed to be useful for the artistic demands of whom lived there; with an ample living room that took the whole height of the facade, it had a long wall made by concrete-framed glass panels on the north side.

Here Terragni exploited for the first time in his career the frame structure, exploiting this way the alternation of space and shape and favoring wise contrasts of light and shadows; the light volume of the studio was connected to the volume of the residence, with a compact shape but at the same time with many apertures on the side which was less exposed to solar rays.

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by Andrea Pagotto

2 thoughts on “Giuseppe Terragni and the rationalist architecture in Italy

  1. Pingback: Fun Facts about the Architect | sbrandimarte6

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