“Let us overturn monuments, pavements, arcades and flights of steps; let us sink the streets and squares; let us raise the level of the city.”
-Antonio Sant’Elia, Futurist Manifesto of Architecture.
“I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms.”
-Lebbeus Woods, War and Architecture.
Whilst the name of Antonio Sant’Elia is not widely known, anyone who has ever seen Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), or Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) has beheld the striking power of his legacy as his imposing and gargantuan, yet highly plausible, architectural drawings inspired the architecturally dense worlds of both films. Elia’s most well known works all come from his Citta Nuova (New City) series which the American experimental architect Lebbeus Woods described as, “perhaps, the most famous and influential [drawings] of the early 20th century.”
Lebbeus Woods is well positioned to critique and build upon the works of Sant’Elia, as he, more than nearly any other contemporary artist, embraced and carried forth the brilliant flame of Futurism which Marinetti first kindled in Italy in 1909 with his incendiary manifesto and which Sant’Elia further crystallized with his astounding architectural drawings and conceptual writings which brim to overflowing with the steel of mind and the light of purpose. Whilst, like most modern men, Woods certainly was not nearly so sanguine about the prospects of war as the Futurists (who glorified it as the hygiene of the world), he certainly understood its nature well, having dedicated many works to the torturous Siege of Sarajevo – the single longest concentrated attack on a capital city in modern history – which Woods witnessed first-hand. In 2011, Woods wrote of the conflict:
“For anyone who saw the burning twin towers in Sarajevo, in the summer of 1992, which were attacked by terrorists bent on undermining the morale of the people of that cosmopolitan city, the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, nine years later, with the same goals in mind, came as no great surprise. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War had produced a new type of global struggle based not on vast armies clashing in the field, but on small-scale insurgencies attacking the centers of their enemies’ power, disrupting them, and thereby undermining their self-confidence and ability to dominate others. This new type of warfare was called terrorism. Its main weapon is creating fear in the enemy, both government and ordinary citizens, leading not to armistices, treaties, and other official instruments of reconciliation between legally recognized states, but to de facto victories, in which the insurgents hope to win economic or political concessions that strengthen them in their own domain or globally, in the sense that they are ever more feared and hence ever more powerful and influential.
One significant new feature of this new type of conflict is that opposing sides are not drawn along socio-political lines—one communist and one capitalist—as in the Cold War rivalry between two superpowers, but rather along religious ones. This is a throwback to the Middle Ages, and not Modern at all, except in terms of weaponry and techniques of command and control. The conflict now is primarily between Christians and Muslims. The attack on Sarajevo was carried out by a Christian insurgency against a Muslim majority. The attack on the World Trade Center in New York was carried out by a Muslim insurgency against a Christian majority. Both had the goal of degrading a way of life. Both attacks were attacks on the idea of the city itself.”
Woods’ sensitivity to the times, the city and to the cultural zeitgeists which shape it, is a attribution which he closely shared with Sant’Elia who in his Futurist Manifesto of Architecture, wrote:
“No architecture has existed since 1700. A moronic mixture of the most various stylistic elements used to mask the skeletons of modern houses is called modern architecture. The new beauty of cement and iron are profaned by the superimposition of motley decorative incrustations that cannot be justified either by constructive necessity or by our (modern) taste, and whose origins are in Egyptian, Indian or Byzantine antiquity and in that idiotic flowering of stupidity and impotence that took the name of neoclassicism.
These architectonic prostitutions are welcomed in Italy, and rapacious alien ineptitude is passed off as talented invention and as extremely up-to-date architecture. Young Italian architects (those who borrow originality from clandestine and compulsive devouring of art journals) flaunt their talents in the new quarters of our towns, where a hilarious salad of little ogival columns, seventeenth-century foliation, Gothic pointed arches, Egyptian pilasters, rococo scrolls, fifteenth-century cherubs, swollen caryatids, take the place of style in all seriousness, and presumptuously put on monumental airs. The kaleidoscopic appearance and reappearance of forms, the multiplying of machinery, the daily increasing needs imposed by the speed of communications, by the concentration of population, by hygiene, and by a hundred other phenomena of modern life, never cause these self-styled renovators of architecture a moment’s perplexity or hesitation. They persevere obstinately with the rules of Vitruvius, Vignola and Sansovino plus gleanings from any published scrap of information on German architecture that happens to be at hand. Using these, they continue to stamp the image of imbecility on our cities, our cities which should be the immediate and faithful projection of ourselves.”
How sharp and true do his words ring today! And, likely, well shall they ring unto the future. Both Sant’Elia and Woods share in their ruminations on architecture a delicate sensitivity to time and place, to the nature of the city and its shaping by the forces of a hundred thousand different traditions all vying for dominion (and nearly all ignorant or uncaring about meeting the needs of the evolution of human civilization). Sant’Elia, like all of his Futurist brethern, rejected these traditions as a supreme giving-in to decrepitude and decay, and instead opts to turn The City into a majestic symbolic representation of a “projection of ourselves as we are.” Reification of the present without delay! Woods doesn’t entirely agree (nor entirely disagree) as he writes in his piece War and Architecture,
“In going over what I wrote about this work [on Sarajevo] at the time—in 1993—I find it inadequate in its explanation of what inspired the designs, drawings, and models and what I hoped to achieve by making them. No wonder, I say in hindsight, that they were accused of “aestheticizing violence,” and merely being exploitative of a tragic human condition. I failed to put the work in the broader human context that it needed to be understood as proposals for architecture serving rational and needed purposes. I hope to correct—to the extent I can here—this failure.”
Woods is here throwing up a, “I would never aestheticize violence!” as if that were somehow criminal. We should hastily remark that aestheticizing violence is just as laudable (and potentially deplorable) as aestheticizing any other domain of significant human activity. Nevertheless, Woods, in a slightly less politicized context, writes of war:
“Architecture and war are not incompatible. Architecture is war. War is architecture. I am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms. I am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no “sacred and primordial site.” I declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful fears. I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then “melt into air.” I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky. I cannot know your name. Nor you can know mine. Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.”
Such vivacity, why Marinetti or Sant’Elia could well have written those words themselves and should surely laud them were they able! One sees here the convergence most starkley between Sant’Elia and Woods, the city is new because the city, to be a proper and well fitted city must always be new. Perfection is anathema for perfection is stagnation and stagnation is death. Thus they war with time and space itself, eternally, in, as Aaron Traywick once said, “The Endless Game.”