RATIONALISM

   European modernist architecture of the 1920s and 1930s was defined as a functional style of construction stripped of applied decoration, whereby the intrinsic characteristics of a building's materials were brought to the forefront of its design, allowing for a better understanding of the true beauty of the structure. Modern architects maintained that two forms of beauty existed: one that was sensual and emotional and therefore prone to degradation, and one that was more objective and therefore reflected a "higher" form of beauty, timeless and universal. The idea that architects should aspire to a more objective, rational approach to architectural design is philosophically classical in origin, but the stylistic qualities of Rationalist architecture did not include overt classical Greek or Roman references that might trap the building in a specific time or place. This thinking runs parallel to the ideas of the Bauhaus artists in Germany, led by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to French Purism, epitomized by the disciplined buildings of Le Corbusier, and to the Utilitarian forms of architecture developed after the Russian Revolution of 1917 by architects such as Vladimir Tatlin. The Rationalist style was most fully developed in the Netherlands, where its regional variant is called de Stijl, and in Italy, where it is called razionalismo. Distinctly different in style, these two forms of Rationalist architecture confirm the idea that the International style, as this general European phenomenon of modernism later was called, did not, in fact, transcend national or cultural differences. These national differences can be seen, for example, in the works of Giuseppe Terragni in Italy and Gerrit Rietveld in the Netherlands.
   While German avant-garde modernism was brutally suppressed during Adolf Hitler's reign, Rationalism thrived in Italy under the rule of Benito Mussolini, who saw an underlying classical ideal that fit with his interest in Roman antiquity. For Mussolini, Rationalism was a natural modern outgrowth of the Ancient Roman Empire, the greatness of which he sought to restore during his own rule through both conquest and construction. Giuseppe Terragni was the leader of the Rationalist movement in Italy. He was born in Lombardy in 1904 and studied at the Milan Polytechnic before establishing his ideas in the Gruppo Sette manifesto, published in 1926 by seven like-minded Italian architects. These architects built upon the work of the previous Italian Futurists, such as Antonio Sant'Elia, who wanted to bring Italy further into the modern world by rebuilding the country in the form of a giant, dynamic machine. The dynamism that formed the central characteristic of Futurism was based in part on the thriving Italian automobile industry, which consisted at this time of Fiat, established in Turin in 1899, and Alfa Romeo, begun in Lombardy in 1910. Certainly, the advent of the automobile played a major role in the design of modern architecture in general, causing homes such as the Villa Savoye, built outside Paris by Le Corbusier in 1929, to feature a carport and ground-level garage. Rationalism differed from Futurism, however, in its greater focus on efficiency and its rejection of the more chaotic elements of Futurism. Rather than dynamism, Rationalism was more focused on a universal timelessness.
   Terragni's most famous building is his Casa del Fascio, built in Como in 1932-1936 as a regional administrative center for the Fascist government. The white reinforced-concrete building is a perfect prism, set off-center with four rows of five large openings on the left two-thirds of the building's façade and a thick, uninterrupted wall surface that takes up the right third. The rectangular openings have windows throughout to flood the interior with light and provide a transparency meant to symbolize the supposed openness of the Fascist regime. This building conforms to the three principles of the International style: the primacy of volume rather than space, the design of regularity rather than symmetry, and the lack of applied decoration. In particular, the façade of the Casa del Fascio demonstrates the principle of regularity, and it is this distinction that separates Terragni from the more stripped-down Neo-Classicism of other early 20th-century Italian architects such as Marcello Piacentini. Piacentini is best known for his design of EUR, the Esposizione Universale di Rome, in 1938-1942, and the Via della Conciliazione in front of Saint Peter's Church in Rome.
   In the Netherlands, both J. J. P. Oud and Gerrit Rietveld worked in an equally geometric style, but instead of the classically inspired white surfaces of Terragni's buildings, Rietveld in particular experimented with primary colors. As a member of de Stijl ("the style") which was a movement formed by the painter Piet Mondrian, Rietveld sought to design both buildings and furniture to create a uniform ambience in his interiors. His Schroeder House, built in Utrecht in 1924, is further influenced by the geometric structure of Analytic Cubism, because he did not seek classical symmetry but a more dynamic equilibrium of colors and shapes. The exterior of the building is made of gray and white squares of reinforced concrete, pieced together in vertical and horizontal sections with cantilevered squares and balconies jutting out in an asymmetrical design that negates the traditionally flat exterior wall surface. Small sections of colors accent the exterior surface and prepare the visitor for the inside of the house, which is entirely given over to bold primary colors. Wall partitions can be moved back and forth throughout the house to create different room arrangements and maximize interior flexibility. Although the owner of the house was quite wealthy, she requested a house that was modest in addition to elegant.
   Although Rationalism was short-lived, perhaps due in part to its utopian ideals, Neo-Rationalist tendencies can be found in the Post-Modern architecture of the Italian architects Mario Botta and Aldo Rossi, and in the current work of Richard Meier in the United States. Richard Meier was born in Newark, New Jersey, and established his profession in New York City. In 1972 he was identified as one of the "New York Five," which consisted of a group of architects under the mentorship of Philip Johnson. Meier worked primarily in an updated version of the International style and was influenced mainly by Le Corbusier in his use of highly geometric forms stripped of any external decoration. His extensive career includes the recent construction of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995 and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which opened in 1997. The exterior of the Barcelona Museum employs a series of white squares and rectangles pieced together in a three-dimensional form, much like Rietveld's Shroeder House, yet with the restrained, classical white concrete of Terragni's buildings. Thus, in the works of Rossi and Meier, it is clear how Neo-Rationalist architects continue to find meaning in the early 20th-century European modernist style of Rationalist architecture.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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