New York

Antonio Sant’Elia

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

Antonio Sant’Elia (1898–1916) was 28 years old and at the cusp of his creative potential when he was killed in World War I. Fueled by the tragic circumstances of his premature death, his promise as a leader in 20th-century architecture could easily be inflated to mythological proportions: hope for a viable contemporary architecture is rekindled in the ashes of unrealized possibilities. There is a great optimistic instinct at work in an exhibition such as this one.

Sant’Elia’s abundant and compressed body of work is both aspiring and triumphant, and unflinchingly oriented toward the future. With remarkable confidence, he challenged the hypocrisy and archaism of the existing architectural landscape with a vision for cities based on movement, innovative technology, contemporary materials, and temporality. Curated by Dore Ashton, this exhibition included drawings from 1911 to 1916, many of which had never been publicly displayed in the United States. In this five-year period Sant’Elia oscillated between his conventional training and a formative Futurist ideology For Sant’Elia, the future clearly won the debate.

Sant’Elia brought Futurism to architecture—or perhaps architecture to Futurism. He was obviously an artist of independent vision, but it can also be argued that he was a pawn for Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the promotional mastermind of Futurism. At least one of Sant’Elia’s published essays—his Manifesto de l’architettura futurista (Manifesto of futurist architecture, 1914)—was liberally edited and amended by Marinetti. Yet in Sant’Elia’s drawings there is much more than willful propaganda; there is an earnest attempt to dispel old architectural forms, an assured progression toward the considered and plausible convergence of modern industry, society, and architecture. Several studies from 1913 outline structures intended to function as either power stations or office buildings, conveying in their ambiguity a robust, mechanistic energy. In all of his drawings for future cities, transportation is the leading metaphorical device. Sant’Elia understood that efficient circulation would be the life-sustaining system for the contemporary city; cities that cannot move cannot exist.

Sant’Elia’s work remains a semaphore for the future. Futurism passed with ironic rapidity, but this artist’s vision remains relevant, escaping time and circumstance. His views of the city still reside in the collective imagination, making him the most emphatic and quixotic Futurist of all. While he never addressed the issue of how new cities can be constructed within the old, his urban largess is a source of conscience for both myopic and grand architectural schemes, and an inspiration to understanding that the future is both a rejection and an acceptance of the past. In the study of architecture, the unbuilt continues to be as significant as the accomplished, asking nagging questions like Why not? and What if? Sant’Elia’s drawings ask some of the most intriguing questions of all.

Patricia C. Phillips