As you travel the Guggenheim Museum’s ramp leading to nowhere (well, you eventually reach the sixth floor gift shop) this summer, you will see a small drawing by the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni. Killed in 1916, when the world was beginning to change in ways the artist and his Futurist colleagues imagined would liberate us in beautiful and terrible ways, but whose repressiveness they did not foresee, Boccioni created “Study of a Bottle and Building Blocks (Table + Bottle + Building Block)” (1911). It consists of a spiral of half-defined forms spinning out of each other against a background that hints at both a city and a mountain range. Rooted in a still life, its aspirations are immense as it draws us into a vertigo that for me made real the title of the exhibition this little sketch introduces: “Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe” (through Sept. 1).
Architects see Futurism mainly through the work of its most well-known designer, Antonio Sant’Elia. Yet, as the architectural historian Esther da Costa Meyer shows in a short essay in the exhibition’s catalog, Sant'Elia's work, abbreviated by his death in World War I, was essentially conservative. It proposed structures rising with heaviness and a lack of either glass planes or functional specificity out of infrastructure. They were more proposals for the foundations of a future world, rather than visions of its possibilities—which is especially remarkable for an era in which American skyscraper builders were already constructing what the Italians thought was the future.
The more radical purveyor of Futurist architecture was Ivo Pannaggi, whose drawings of the late 1920s (like “Design with 4,” ca. 1926–29, and “Design with H M,” 1929) combine planes and cylinders floating in the air with numerals and letters made of flesh. The more prolific Fortunato Depero translated a similar sensibility into stage sets and a proposal for a book pavilion for the publisher Bestetti Treves Tumminelli (1927) (the exhibition provides an evocative, though frustratingly not full-scale, model), making us believe that a new world defying both gravity and scale was possible.
By then the Futurists had turned from the promise of tomorrow of their name to the then-present realities of inter-war Italy. The Great War had not cleansed the world in a manner that they had hoped, and the Fascists they thought would finish the job soon turned away from the artists’ radical aesthetic towards re-establishing order. Pannaggi emigrated and became a factory worker, and Depero and the other remaining artists descended into kitsch portrayals of airplane flight and a glossy surrealism.
What remains as the Futurist vision is not the building of a new world, but Boccioni’s realization that in a modern landscape that was and is still rising all around us, and that, as it swirls around and transforms our reality continually, the borders between buildings, people, objects, and images of all scales were and are becoming increasingly porous. The best Futurist paintings, by Boccioni and fellow artist Giacomo Balla, make visible that modernization is fundamentally the continual movement of goods, people, and information and—beyond even that modernist vision—that all reality is a mirage of energy fields.
From Boccioni’s “The City Rises” (1910) to Balla’s “Speeding Car” (1913), the Futurists produced, in the few years between the appearance of F.T. Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto” and the outbreak of the war, a vision of a universe that would always be building, rising, moving, falling apart, and reassembling itself, carrying us up into that motion with a force that would dissolve our very beings into a destiny that goes beyond progress and technology towards a realization of the inner forces of the universe. These Futurists—the Guggenheim exhibition makes clear—were, at their best, mystic visionaries, and at their worst, panderers to powers-that-be, spending most of the time building a new reality that today, in the work of their heirs, still makes us question not just where, but who and what we are.
Staged in Frank Lloyd Wright’s attempt to carry Boccioni’s spiral into a concrete fact, Italian Futurism made me realize how far architecture still has to go to realize that vision, and how easy it is to think that all architecture will be a retreat into order, practicality, and the gift shop before the exit.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.