New life for the pioneers

Curated by Marco De Michelis, the "La Città Nuova: Oltre Sant’Elia" exhibition invades Como's historical Villa Olmo, shedding light on a century of visionary urban designs by artists and architects.

La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013
La Città Nuova: Oltre Sant’Elia ” (“The new city: beyond Sant’Elia”), an exhibition that recently opened at Como’s Villa Olmo — designed at the end of the eighteenth century by Simone Cantoni  —, comes as something of a surprise in these lean times. It focuses on a century of visionary designs, in the sense that Henri Focillon gave to the term: visionaries “help us to define art as a heroic obsession, to see in the imagination transfigurative power that seeks out and spontaneously creates its own technique”. Heroic indeed is the case of futurist Antonio Sant’Elia , who volunteered to fight in World War I and was killed at the age of 28. He gives his name, appropriately enough, to the exhibition: he was a pioneer not only of the twentieth century’s architectural revolution but also of the whole of Como’s rich modernist microcosm, which saw contributions in architecture and painting from such diverse figures as Giuseppe Terragni , Cesare Cattaneo , Pietro Lingeri , Ico Parisi, Manlio Rho , Mario Radice , Carla Badiali and Carla Prina .
La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013
"La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013", installation view at Villa Olmo
The exhibition concedes very little to the genius loci : it is the pioneers who take centre stage. Giulio Carlo Argan , in his book Dopo Sant’Elia (published in 1935 by Editoriale Domus), noted that pioneers differ from the masters in that “they hint but do not expound.” The exhibition in consequence displays only designs that were never realised, even for genuine masters like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, represented here, respectively, with a large model of Broadacre City and a substantial series of drawings for a city of three million people. The other main thread running through this diverse exhibition is the influence exerted by art on architectural imagination. This is particularly evident at the beginning and end of the show. Sant’Elia was the only architect , with the possible exception of Mario Chiattone, among the painters and the poets of Futurism. His drawings of a vertical city, where green public spaces are totally absent, resonate with Erich Kettelhut’s sketches for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). After seeing the visionary film, Luis Buñuel solemnly declared: “cinema will be the most faithful interpreter of architecture’s boldest dreams.”
La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013
"La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013", installation view at Villa Olmo

The final part of the exhibition is reserved for artists alone: the works include the (not particularly visionary) miniature buildings of Chris Burden’s Pizza City, Cao Fei’s crazy videos from Second Life, and Carsten Höller’s acrylic models of flying cities, which were reworked from Georgij Krukatov’s 1928 designs. Between these two poles, some of the twentieth-century’s champions of the avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde shine through. Aforementioned Wright and Le Corbusier feature, as does the restoration of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s magnificent film Things to Come, alongside Constant’s New Babylon and Friedman’s Ville Spatiale.

 

The central hall is occupied by Archigram, Archizoom, and Superstudio, alongside the radical Florentine groups. Here, contrast between the gold-stuccoed, neoclassical statue of Neptune and Archizoom’s viewers in colourful ‘70s-style pinball machine aluminium is worth the ticket price alone. Not that this varied yet cohesive group of designs with their strong interrelations (accompanied by some solitary forays like the Swiss painter Walter Jonas’s Intrapolis or the City in the Air model, by a very young, then Metabolist Arata Isozaki) was immune from artistic influences. Constant had been a painter before he became a situationist; Charles-Edouard Jeanneret also started as a painter before assuming the name Le Corbusier; and even Adolfo Natalini is considered the youngest exponent of the Pistoia school of painting, to give a few examples.

La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013
"La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013", installation view at Villa Olmo

Curator Marco De Michelis wants to suggest something more. For the last forty years, artists alone have been pursuing visionary design ideas for cities, whereas in the first part of the twentieth century architects had a leading role, one that they gradually lost. It is a debatable idea, but its clarity offers a certain conceptual coherence to the exhibition as a whole. It plays down the contrasts — sometimes apparent, sometimes real — between the original exhibits on show in this historical villa. It would have been much more useful to have been able to visit the exhibition and read not only the catalogue — which brings together contributions from leading historians, such as Jean-Louis Cohen, Mark Wigley and Roberto Gargiani; pieces from younger researchers, such as Anna Rosellini, Gabriele Mastrigli and Simon Sadler; and the writing of other figures, including Domus editor Joseph Grima —, but also the book that De Michelis has been writing for Phaidon for too many years on the relationship between art and architecture.

 

This is especially true since the Venetian historian, who also heads the Ratti Foundation in Como, is the leading exponent of that Venetian and Tafurian school/non-school intertwined with the idea of autonomous disciplines, which is traditionally in opposition to the idea of blending the arts. But this is an exhibition worth visiting, not just because of the difficulty there is Italy of seeing at first hand so much valuable original material, but also because of the attractiveness of the setting — a villa on the lake, with a delightful public garden in front and Como’s historic centre close by. It is further proof that everything in Italy that works and turns out well, happens by stealth and — most of all — at the country’s margins. Manuel Orazi

Please, edit the Gallery

 

Through 14 July 2013
La Città Nuova. Oltre Sant’Elia. Cento anni di visioni urbane 1913-2013
Villa Olmo
curated by Marco De Michelis
Villa Olmo, Como

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