New York

“Precursors of Postmodernism: Milan 1920–30s”

The Architectural League

Hidden histories have unmistakable allures, as does finding unnoticed antecedents to “ruptures” in architectural or esthetic time. But what this exhibition of buildings constructed in Milan in the ’20s and ’30s suggests is not only that a body of remarkably similar work was produced half a century before architectural postmodernism, but also that the Modernist movement was not the seamless fabric it is conceived, retrospectively, to have been. For it was only in the early ’60s that people began to speak of architectural Modernism, and to extend the cool reductions of the International Style so as to envelop, and muffle, heterogeneous directions. This show brings to light one of the breaks in the encompassing orthodoxy—a coherent enclave of indigenous production—and suggests its relations to a broader network of cultural references.

Curated by Fulvio Irace, the show consists of black and white photographs of the different apartment buildings, hotels, and office blocks executed in the “Novecento” style. The architects—Mino Fiocci, Giovanni Greppi, Giuseppe De Finetti, Alberto Alpago Novello, Giovanni Muzio, and Gigiotti Zanini among them—worked in a consciously classicizing manner, using historical references, “lifts” from Renaissance buildings, and other decontextualized, ornamental motifs to articulate neutral structures. In a period known for stylistic amnesia, then, they are notable for both a concerted call to the past and a delight in sensuous, ornamental pleasures, just as they can be characterized by their overwhelming focus on the architectural “skin” or facade, divorced from program or function. The earliest incarnation of these tendencies is found in Cà Brütta (Muzio, 1919–22), an apartment complex composed of two elements structured in three zones, encrusted with lattices, niches, arches, and pediments, and linked by a giant Palladian arch. The rhetorical flourish becomes more extreme in Aldo Aldreani’s Palazzo Fidia, completed in 1930, with its myriad curving balconies, textural plays with brickwork, and the baroque plasticity of rounded bay windows. Here Aldreani’s attention is directed to the pleasures of composing—to polarities of square and round, to material shifts and tightly imbricated intervals, to rhythmic repetitions, and to stylistic bricolage, a kind of composing with referential cues. The latter process can range toward eclectic aberration, as in Muzio’s Palazzo dell’ Arte with its accentuated entranceway and round galleries, reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, and in the narrow “screens” of empty arches piled one-on-one in rows of his Angelicum Complex, 1939. And it ends, finally, in its own exhaustion, or in conversion into a geometrical idiom. In Zanini’s Piazza Duse (1933–34)—constructed, like other late Novecento buildings, under the critical chastisement of Rationalism—we see the shift from recurring classical elements to streamlined abstract forms.

These architects, as Irace notes in his catalogue essay, displayed a taste for the “classical readymade” long before it became an architectural fad. One of the strengths of the essay, however, is to link this taste to an underlying cultural program, moving it beyond the sort of internationalizing historical quotation that has characterized recent work. In these buildings Irace sees influences of metaphysical painting and of Surrealism; he finds parallels between Muzio’s published desires (1921) for a “reestablishment of the principle of order” and Giorgio de Chirico’s proposal, stated in the “Valori Plastici” essay of 1919, to renew classicism and for a suprahistorical scheme. The latter would conceive of the city as a stage set, lending significance to “a portico, a street corner, masses, heights, arches, volumes”; similarly, the Surrealist esthetic explains the facade conceived as a pliable surface, subject to a range of expressive modes. Such speculation, then, links these structures both to their time and place, mooring them within a general culture, and to a coherent history unencompassed by Modernist sway.

Commendations are in order to Gabriele Basilico for the sternly straightforward photographs, which run counter to the aggrandizing, mystificatory tendencies of recent images of architecture.

Kate Linker