Historical an artistic context



At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the new century was heralded with great expectations for technological progress and industrial innovation, while the great expanding cities themselves set about addressing this future with ideas for the reorganisation of the urban landscape to ensure better social and community living. A number of different models emerged from this process.
In England Ebenezer Howard (1858-1928) came up with the concept of Garden Cities that was not limited to a design project but which embraced an organic complex of principles, standards and procedures.
The matrix for his proposals was inspired by Roberto Owen’s utopian socialism and the anti-urban philosophy of John Ruskin which aimed at freeing up overcrowded city centres and moving the population out into new towns surrounded by green land, i.e. “garden cities” each with no more than thirty-two thousand inhabitants.
These would be well equipped with efficient infrastructures while remaining well connected to the historic city by a good transport network.
Industrial plant would be situated on developments at the margins of the settlement along the railways.
The project was presented as an ideogram with a series of satellite centres each sufficiently distant from the other to stop them from joining together and to ensure the independence of each.
The Garden City model was successful and at least two were actually built, at Letchworth and Welwyn between 1904 and 1926, with a simple residential plan (not suggested by Howard who left the builders free to choose the system most convenient for them), that included detached, semi-detached and terraced houses, all on two floors, doubling the number of dwellers envisaged in the rules sketched out by the founder.
While Howard proposed an idea of the city that put the brake on its excessive expansion and raised the possibility of a system that echoed medieval communities with a wholly modern twist, from 1901 to 1904 the French thinker Tony Garnier worked on ideas for an integrated city for the industrial age.
He drafted each part with great attention to detail and included the factories, hydroelectric power plants, utilities and housing, while systematically applying the new processes of construction with reinforced concrete.
He too rejected the idea of the oversized metropolis and envisaged a medium-sized city, suggesting its possible ideal location on a plane crossed by a water course and dotted with areas of raised ground.
To such a chequerboard of different levels would be allocated functionally differing areas, with residential zones, general service industry areas and quarters equipped with sporting and leisure time amenities, clearly separating pedestrian thoroughfares from motor traffic areas.
The urban fabric would be low density, determined by a heliothermal axis (along the direction of the sun) with detached homes and apartment blocks made in diverse variants.
Schematic plans with specific reference to technological modernisation would be useful for the development of future urban planning.
Of particular interest to Garnier was the idea of correlating industrial areas with residential zones through the efficient layout of infrastructures that would not interfere one with another.
It is worth noting that to facilitate the flow of intense motorcar traffic and heavy goods transport, in 1905 the Parisian engineer Henard drafted plans for an industrial area with highways running on different levels.


Milan, the Italian city that had more than any other been subject to an impetuous wave of industrialisation did not turn a deaf ear to the new theories on city planning.
Without wishing to dwell on the influence of theories emanating from central Europe, it should be noted that Howard’s idea was implemented by a cooperative that intended to build a garden city in the area between Cusano Milanino and Cinisello Balsamo, announcing a procurement competition for a “small modern villa”, one of the entries for which came from the very young Sant’Elia and the new “green” quarter was in fact in large part actually realised.
Much more importantly a project was funded at the same time by the two major manufacturers of Pirelli and Breda for the building of an entire “citadel” for industry for northern Milan towards the San Giovanni area, a clear sign that even the ideas formulated by Garnier could be effectively employed in the metropolitan area.
The plans never however left the drawing board due to the outbreak of the first world war, with the result that an important and possibly decisive route for urban expansion outside the strict confines of traditional town planning regulations was left untried.
The path taken was therefore conditioned by the Beruto radiocentric planning of 1884 that involved the dismantling of the ancient Spanish boundary walls to replace them with the new encircling Bastions, while allocating the central areas the privileged function of representation.
It was a sprawling structure only partly modified by the subsequent Pavia-Masera plan of 1910 for a city that had grown from a population of 314,817 in 1881 to 600,612 in 1911 (before and immediately after the Beruto plan), with an increase in the residential properties in the period from 260,000 to 480,000.
The make-up of Milan had changed rapidly over just a few decades, with the bourgeoisie occupying the areas within the circle of the Bastions, relegating the working classes to the outskirts, and concentrating capital investment in the central areas.
These were the years of the opening up of Via Sempione, now Via Dante, together with the areas of Cordusio and the Foro Buonaparte, that of the Sforzesco castle and Piazza d’Armi and also the restoration of the façade of the Duomo.
They were years in which projects of architectural prestige sought solid reference points in the Italian cultural heritage, restoring also the city’s monuments to their former glory, with the dominating force was the philosophy of the Camillo Boito school, patrons of “philological” restoration, and the “stylistic-Romantic” school of Luca Beltrami and Gaetano Moretti.
Running counter to the cult of preservation of the historic was the modernist reaction that sought inspiration in the Viennese example of the school of Otto Wagner and his pupils with their severe and rigorous buildings characterised by harmonious lines.
Late Art-nouveau and the Secessionist ideas went head to head with the variously represented eclecticism of Boito and Beltrami in the public works competitions and at the exhibitions, while in the universities and in the academies engineers and “lecturers in architectural design” were being trained, and diplomas obtained, primarily for virtuous expertise in embellishing styles and for tireless defenders of conservation.
Few indeed were those representing independent creative originality, those more inclined towards the twentieth century impulse as exemplified by Ernesto Basile, Raimondo D’Aronco and above all Giuseppe Sommaruga (1867-1917).
One of the most daring works of this latter was the Hotel Tre Croci at Campo dei Fiori (Varese) perched on a hill that could be reached by a funicular railway and often compared with the building ideas characteristic of the later period of Sant’Elia’s artistic language; including as it did such features as powerful buttresses supporting the massive edifices of the New City, where Sommaruga used huge piers for the vertical support of buildings standing sheer above the valley below this Varese hotel.
The fact is that to whatever extent his works of the time straddled the two centuries, the past and the present, the traditional and the modern, influenced also by his cultural education and Secessionist background, they were nevertheless for Sant’Elia only to a moment of transition.
They represented the architectural environment he had grown up in, and he would burn his bridges with much that was imparted to him in his school days.
He was not so much interested in detailed studies of individual buildings in the urban setting but rather with the relationships of the buildings as a whole.
He wished to envisage how they could be put together into a living future city, a megacity that could fearlessly take on the great load of a populati on that was growing almost immeasurably.
His gaze turned towards the inspiring forest of growing skyscrapers in a distant science fiction New York that came to and appeared in Italian magazines as fantasy illustrations of cartoonists rather than actual photographs.
The Città Nuova or New City of Sant’Elia did not seek to break itself up into independent nuclei in the manner of the future proposed for urbanisation at the beginning of the twentieth century, but tended rather to take head on the idea of an extreme synthesis of the modern conurbation.
It was this approach that made him stand out at his debut in the Milan exhibitions of 1914, something that was well understood by the critic and architect Giulio Ulisse Arata, who for his part had quite different taste, a different background and addressed the matter from a different perspective.