Fascist architecture is a unique style that originated with the dawn of the fascist political party in Europe. Its purpose was to inspire awe through sheer scale and sense of monumentality, while returning to classical roots to invoke ideas of the Roman empire, a society fascist leaders Hitler and Mussolini idolized. Fascist architecture is very easily related to classicism as it directly draws from it and, when the ideals and ideas of the fascists are known to the observer, is laid out for the observer through its form. What is less apparent is its relation to the modern architecture movement. Modern architecture, though shunned upon and considered abhorrent to fascist leaders, infects fascist architecture, weaving the ideas and principles of modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier into the classically minded buildings of 1930s fascist Europe and clashing with the desired neoclassical style.
As a whole, fascist architecture is reflectively modern due to three main principles; the usage of the unadorned facade, a common theme of phenomenal and literal transparency, and stark white or unpainted facades. These themes are what separate fascist architecture from its hoped for classical aesthetic as the Roman buildings fascist architects attempted to reproduce were heavily adorned and lacking phenomenal transparency. A reliable example of all three principles utilized in one Italian fascist building is Casa del Fascio by Italian architect Giuseppe Terragni. The building features a plain, unadorned facade on all sides, phenomenal transparency through its usage of columns that slice through the building to provoke the idea of them literally “cutting through” the building to create the balconies, and the color of Le Corbusier’s early works; stark white.
Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture are incorporated into many fascist buildings. Most all fascist buildings adhere to at least three of the five points, with the majority adhering to the points of a free facade and pilotes, and some, such as Lodovido Belgiojoso’s Feltrinelli Building, utilizing ribbon windows. Corbusier’s five points are towards a “new architecture”, that is, a modern architecture. The fact that fascist architecture utilizes these points to a beyond-common extent proves how deeply engrained modernity is in the fascist spectrum of architecture. This isn’t to say that any building with a free facade is automatically following Corbusier’s five points and is, in turn, modern simply because of it, but the extent to which these points are utilized and how they appear in form on the buildings, notably the facades as a mix of ribbon windows, pure white paint, unadorned surfaces, provide substantial evidence that the fascist architects who designed these buildings take the very modern idea of Corbusier’s five points to heart.
Of all branching styles of modern architecture, fascist architecture is most reminiscent of brutalism. Most examples of fascist architecture are built to house political facilities or represent the fascist political scheme, which is explained by David Rifkind who, in his academic journal, argues that Italian architects used modern architectural principles to “reshape and restructure Italian society”; essentially saying that the ideals of Fascist Italy were reflected on the new wave of architecture Mussolini prompted.
This is purposeful as, like most brutalist architecture, fascist architecture relies heavily on monumentality and excessive mass to portray a strong, solid form. The “three principles of brutalism” are; memorability as an image, clear exhibition of structure, and the valuation of materials “as found” (Engle). Of the three, memorability as an image is most clear in the portrayal of the idea of a building. Fascist architecture keeps this in mind in that it wishes for the image of the strong, solid building, such as the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana or Stadio Mussolini, to stay lodged in the eye of the observer, making an impression that the fascist government is a strong unit that cannot be toppled.
To grasp the concept of brutalism related to fascist architecture in particular, comparisons between a traditionally brutalist building and a fascist-brutalist building must be made. The Casa del Fascio is an example of fascist architecture with influences from brutalism while the Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger is an example of brutalism rooted in the modern movement. The pair have obvious differences, mass being the main contradiction as the Casa del Fascio is a more horizontal building and the 31-story Trellick Tower has a more vertical aspect, but share modern aspects. Both the buildings share the same balcony form, with long beams cutting through the end of the balcony all the way down the facade, while the floor of the building is pushed behind these weight-bearing modern columns to provide room for the balconies. The buildings are so close in form that it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the Trellick Tower is essentially the Casa del Fascio is it were to be stretched vertically and given an accenting tower on its left side. The pair also share similarity in material as both are unpainted, with the raw concrete reflecting the brutalist principle of utilizing materials “as found”. With brutalism so heavily engrained in what was a major center of the Italian fascist party, it is easy to see the influences of modern architecture on the fascist architectural mold.
More an architecturally based sculpture than a building, Mussolini’s Obelisk is a prime example of the marriage of classical and modern forms and ideas in fascist architecture. Mussolini’s Obelisk is stark white and made up of layered rectangles of varying heights all melded together with a central rectangle towering well over the others. When pictured next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s
sketch of The Illinois, the perceived similarities multiply. Both are, essentially, the same form stacked against and atop itself over and over until a melding occurs and creates a sort of “layered” look, but the forms that are stacked create the barrier between pure modernism and modern tinged with the elements of classical architecture. The Obelisk uses vertical rectangles, making the form more brutal and harsh, whereas The Illinois favors the slimness of tapered edges and extremely tall layers that seem to fan out of the central form like petals of a flower. An obvious difference between the two is the fact that The Illinois was sketched with the idea of it being realized as a building, and Mussolini’s Obelisk is only an obelisk and not meant to be used, but the difference is minute and unrelated to the idea of modern and fascist architectural ideals.
The Palazzo della Civilta Italiana is where classical seems to overcome the modern architectural virus and prove supreme in the themes of fascist architecture. Its heavily classically styled arches, repeated over several stories and proving reminiscent of The Colosseum by the marble statues placed under the arches, give the facade a first-glance classical appeal. The accent that truly makes the building appear more classical than modern is in the lettering at the top of the structure. This adornment is the “one thing above all else that separates Fascist architecture from modern architecture (Shaw)”. Shaw strengthens this assumption by arguing that
“Lettering, inscribed and in relief, had always been an integral part of Western architecture until the Modernists, in their drive for purity and functionality, threw it out along with ornaments and other decorative motifs. In Italy, lettering survived and flourished in Fascist architecture because it served to advertise the regime’s aims and accomplishments (Shaw)”.
The lettering of the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana and other fascist buildings is the main aspect that keeps fascist architecture in the realm of classicism 6. Even the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana is, in the end, a modern building. Combining a brutalist sense of monumentality and mass with the modern appeal of a free facade, sans the lettering accent, a coat of white paint, and phenomenal transparency makes for a very much modern building.
The struggle between modern and classical aspects is not limited only to the aesthetics of buildings during the fascist reign on Italian architecture. Mussolini wished for fascist architecture to represent the “spirit of the Fascist movement” in Italy and this meant resurrecting the pride of the glories of Ancient Rome via artistic aesthetic. To do this, fascist architecture called for a classical sense of style. Thusly, anything with a more modern twist on it was prompted denied construction if it proved too radically modern. In an architecture competition regarding the construction of the Palazzo della Littoria, a team of architects included a statement in a pamphlet, which was then published with the competition entry. Called Progetto di Terragni par las Casa Littoria, the pamphlet starts out its second paragraph with the statement: “We have not forgotten that in the proud archeological remains before us was a great historic epoch in architecture.” This statement summarizes the fascist feelings towards classicism in architecture and their desire to resurrect the power and glory of Ancient Rome and have that power reflect in the architectural tastes of Italy. Ultimately, the team did not win the competition as their entry was too modern for Mussolini’s tastes.
Ironically, the winning entry still contains heavy modern influence. As stated before, as much as the fascists and Mussolini wished to rid themselves of modern architecture and stick strictly to the past glorious of their classical ancestors, the modern themes in fascist architecture are simply inescapable. With a large tower standing above a wavy, brick-built lower portion, the winning Littoria design utilizes phenomenal transparency, mimicking the transparency found on the Casa del Fascio on a vertical plain by usage of the balconies being pushed back and strong lines accenting the floors of the balconies, bringing the design idea into the lime light.
A focus on Nazi Germany’s style of fascist architecture reveals the same threads of modernism and a want to revel in the pride of ancient civilizations, but with a German touch. Though German fascist architecture and Italian fascist architecture are similar on the grounds of accidental modernist flare and want for classicism, German fascist architecture cements itself more in the brutalist aspect of modern accent. To create an imposing image, much of German fascist architecture is monumental. Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect and the defining architect of German fascist architecture, designed his buildings with mass in mind. Many of his works were of political use, and as such the monumentality is to be expected, but his less political works, such as the Neue Reichskanzlei museum contained the same threads of sheer mass 9. The large columns guarding the entrance and enclosing of the central courtyard with the tall, thick and deep-set windowed walls impose on the guests of the museum the glories of the Roman empire. But, as with most fascist buildings, the lack of adornment makes the building modern. The columns may fight for the label of classical, but a classical building would be adorned with dozens of sculpted pieces and etched text, something the Neue Reichskanzlei is barren of. Speer’s buildings fall easily into the category of brutalism and carry with them the label of modern, even when they are explicitly not supposed to.
Modern ideas and principles sinking into fascist architecture cements the new timelessness of modern architecture. It can be seen as a new classical, something that is, usually not intentionally, placed into a building when the architect was trying for a completely different aesthetic. Classical architecture is still very much something that is seen throughout architecture movements and something that is an inescapable architectural truth, but now, with the fascist movement as an example to prove it, modern architectural principles are taking hold. It takes a movement directly opposed to the idea of modern architecture, yet containing almost all its principles, to prove the point and fascist architecture does so exquisitely.