July 19th, 2010

The original Modernists' emblems of space-time

A remote branch of the Italian Futurist movement, known as the Tuscan Group (or Gruppo Toscano), no doubt surprised many when they won Mussolini's endorsement for their Florence Santa Maria Novella railway station, that they had designed in the Modernist style. Mussolini, like most despots, preferred revivalist classicism.

That was in 1932. Less than two decades earlier, also in Italy, Antonio Sant'Elia had exhibited his Futurist visions of buildings dedicated to anything that moved (most notably, trains). One year before him, the Italian Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni had displayed a fascination with the movement, or "dynamism", of bicycles. At its heart Modernist architecture was a celebration of transport machines, and by implication a celebration of a new way of thinking about space, not in terms of inches or miles, but in terms of the units used to measure a newly discovered spatial dimension: time. Today we take this way of thinking for granted, and would thus rather say Florence is 2 hours from Rome, via train, than say Florence is 200km from Rome (a fact I just had to look up, using maps.google). I know for sure that my office is half an hour from my home via bike, but am not so sure as to the exact distance. Where I live we all know Newcastle is 2 hours from Sydney by car, though I only have a vague idea that it might be 140 something kilometers away, if measured length-wise. 
I'm reiterating something I wrote in an earlier post, that making Einstein central to our understanding of Modernism and its emblems, helps us see bicycles, alongside trains, as equally emblematic to Modernist art, as cars are. The car became such a dominant symbol because cheap oil made the car key to the way post-war cities took shape. As that oil dries up though, room is being made for old symbols of time-space to come back to the fore. (Hmm, there might be an abstract in that last paragraph!)

What does this have to do with a Futurist's railway station in Florence? Not much, except that I was there recently, and found it smothered in bikes.