We must invent and rebuild our Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic, and the Futurist house like a gigantic machine. —Antonio Sant’Elia19
For the Futurists, a natural extension to the concept of the opera d’arte totale was architecture. Industrialization with its train stations, ports, factories, and automobiles had already transformed their old European cities. Inspired by these changes and more, two young architects and friends, Antonio Sant’Elia (1888–1916) and Mario Chiattone (1891–1957), developed projects that manifested both a grand, poetic vision for the future and an apprehension about moving too far away from the past.
Both architects were inspired by photographs of grain elevators, power plants, and airplane hangars. They also looked beyond architecture for their inspiration, toward the commercial work and advertisements of the time with their stylized forms and bold color combinations.
However, their architectural training had not given them the modern technological and engineering knowledge necessary to actually build their high-flown visions. Rather than anticipate the need for steel, they advocated for the replacement of masonry with concrete and iron (materials of the 1880s). Rather than envision the transformation of the city as a whole, they only redesigned small fragments. Some of the hesitation was nostalgic. The architects both built on a relatively small scale—fifteen stories as opposed to American skyscrapers several times that height— seeming to adhere to Europe’s old cities’ restrictions on height.
Still, Chiattone’s watercolor Buildings for a Modern Metropolis (1914) anticipated today’s skyscrapers. His buildings’ dizzying heights and sleek facades were unprecedented for the time. Sant’Elia’s drawings for New City (Città Nuova) (1914) invented methods for high-speed travel along and even through modern buildings, while his elevators “swarm up the facades” of his buildings.
By the time Sant’Elia died in 1916, he had left behind only two built architectural projects: a house and two tombs. Chiattone lived four decades longer than Sant’Elia but only saw unadventurous projects built.
Show: New City: Tenement Building with Exterior Elevators, Gallery, Sheltered Passage over Three Levels (Streetcar line, Motorway, Metal Footpath), Lights, and Wireless Telegraph , (1914)
- Ask students to describe this drawing and compare it to their own architectural surroundings. How would this city function differently than their own environment? What about the form of it is unfamiliar?
- Share the title and ask students if they can identify the elements listed.
- Sant’Elia was envisioning a “new city” for Italy in the midst of its industrial transformation. Train stations, ports, factories, and automobiles were relatively new at the time. Ask students to talk about how they think Sant’Elia was addressing these changes in his design.
- Now look together at another Futurist image of the “new city”: Umberto Boccioni’s The City Rises (1910). Ask students to compare the two Futurists’ takes on the modern city.
- While Sant’Elia developed projects that demonstrated a grand, poetic vision for the future, he also showed apprehension about moving too far away from the past. Which elements of the past, if any, do you see in his drawing? If you were to design a futuristic vision for your city or town, which elements of the past would you be hesitant to forgo? Which elements would you want to remake entirely?
- Ask students to discuss changes they have noticed in their city or town. Which aspects of life are relatively new? For the early Futurists, factories and even automobiles were new. Students today might list smartphones, telecommuting, hybrid cars, density, or green space.
Now, tell students that an architectural competition has just been announced. Students must enter architectural sketches that redesign aspects of their current city or town to address one or more of these recent changes. How can buildings or other spaces in the community be rethought? What might be outdated? What might function poorly or be clichéd in terms of its form or aesthetics? For instance, a student might rethink the local library for our modern era and technology. In the end, students should present their competition entries and the class should vote on three they would most like to be implemented.
- Both Sant’Elia and Chiattone looked beyond architecture for their inspiration, toward the commercial work and advertisements of the time with their stylized forms and bold color combinations. (See the picture of Depero’s 1927 kiosk for booksellers below.) For this activity, encourage students to design a building inspired by something modern and nonarchitectural such as a font or haircut. They will probably focus most on form: shape, color, pattern, texture, or materials. When they have finished, ask them how using form as their inspiration seems different than using function. Is form important to architecture? Why or why not?
- Chiattone and Sant’Elia were not so future-oriented that they lost all affection for the older aspects of the city. For instance, their drawings demonstrate that they limited their buildings to the restricted heights of the old European cities. Ask students which aspects of their city they would be loathe to lose. Then, ask them to think of the drawbacks that might accompany some of today’s technology. Challenge students to write a letter to their mayor that a) argues for the preservation of older aspects of their city or town and b) warns of drawbacks to technological changes. Why is it better to keep some aspects of our cities or towns rather than destroy them in favor of the march of modernity? What would their ideal future city/town look like in terms of its mix of old and new?