Futurism: Celebrating the Shock of the New

Led by the poet F. T. Marinetti, the Italian Futurist movement was opposed to ‘all that is old and worm eaten’ in both art and society. Their work had a dual purpose: to refute moribund traditions, and to create a new art that would encapsulate th

Led by the poet F. T. Marinetti, the Italian Futurist movement was opposed to ‘all that is old and worm eaten’ in both art and society. Their work had a dual purpose: to refute moribund traditions, and to create a new art that would encapsulate the mental and environmental changes of modernity. In Marinetti’s words, ‘Nothing in the world is more beautiful than a great, humming power station … synthesised in control panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.’

Futurist montage depicting F.T. Marinetti

These intentions were propagated by a series of aggressively worded manifestos that openly celebrated the various ‘miracles of contemporary life,’ such as industrialisation, the dynamism of the city and scientific progress. In this last field, new discoveries about x-rays and the persistence of vision inspired a new way of perceiving the world, which found expression in their concept of ‘universal dynamism’ as the defining reality of the age. Objects were no longer considered in spatial and temporal isolation, but were integrated with each other and their environment in dynamic interpenetrations suggesting speed and energy. In Umberto Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House, universal dynamism is expressed in the use of web-like diagonal lines of force and plastic forms which seek to engage the spectator in their violence and confusion. The merging, protean forms and splintered vectors replicate the effects of the fast-paced, rapidly evolving Machine Age.

Boccioni, The Street Enters the House

Ball, Automobile at Speed

As this brief analysis indicates, Futurism was primarily a literary and artistic movement. It was characteristic of its paradoxical nature that a movement initiated as a response to the changing environment should possess no means of expression in the art form that most directly conditioned the environment - architecture. This was the case until 1914, five years after the publication of the first Manifesto, when Marinetti was finally able to welcome Antonio Sant’ Elia into the ranks.

Sant’ Elia recognised the metropolis as the environment of the new age, and accordingly pioneered designs that were replete with intimations of the machine aesthetic. In Sant’ Elia’s Messagio (1914), Marinetti wrote: ‘We must invent and rebuild ex novo our modern city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard . . . mobile and everywhere dynamic, and the modern building like a gigantic machine.’ Such lofty intentions are evident in Sant’ Elia’s designs: his perspectives for La Città Nuova (1914) emphasise the geometry and verticality of his vision by juxtaposing stepped-back sections with sheer verticals. The interaction of diagonals and verticals this produces invests his works with the same energy and dynamism to be found in exemplary Futurist paintings. In addition, his buildings are frequently surmounted by features resembling industrial chimneys or radio masts (e.g. Casa gradinata con ascensori,1914), thus making perhaps slightly picturesque use of an iconography derived from machines.

This is compounded by his device of incorporating tramlines and roads into buildings, in a way that always enlivens the design and suggests that they are used primarily for visual rather than practical effect. These, and his trademark external elevators and interconnecting bridges constitute an architecture, which, as Penny Sparke has written, ‘proselytises a cult of the machine,’ that celebrated the excitement of machinery, speed and even war. The lack of substantiation in reality is indicated by the fact that Sant’ Elia built only one house in the course of his entire, admittedly short, career. This is partly due to the fact that his vision far exceeded the technological capabilities of the day.

La Città Nuova

La Città Nuova

In other words, the Futurist interest in the machine aesthetic arose from a naïve and romantic celebration of the machine for its qualities of energy and dynamism. The machine was therefore valued solely for the expressive potential it offered. Since they failed to grasp its practical aspects the Futurists neglected to adapt their aesthetic to technological limitations. For this reason Sant’ Elia’s designs remained on the drawing board.

Severini, Armoured Train.

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