JAE Reviews

Book Review: Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922-1943

JAE Review

Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922-1943

University of Toronto Press, 2014
272 pages, 65 images
$58.50 (hardcover)


By David Rifkind

In Fascist Italy, architecture and urban planning served key roles in the formation of new social identities. Yet while the transformation of Rome and the construction of numerous new cities closely followed the regime’s rhetorical goals, the development of Milan—the nation’s business center—often responded to a far more diverse range of concerns. Lucy Maulsby examines the transformation of Milan in relation to the political, commercial, and cultural forces at play locally and throughout Italy in this important new book.

Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922–1943 is Maulsby’s first monographic work and has been recognized by the Society of Architectural Historians with a Mellon Author Award. The author, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture at Northeastern University, developed this book from her 2007 doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. Endowed with lucid prose and well-structured arguments, the text provides an in-depth study of both the design of the urban fabric and its significant monuments. Maulsby is concerned with the elites and power structures that commissioned the built environment, the architects who gave form to their concerns, and the public that used—and was shaped by—those spaces. She explores the city’s symbolic landscapes and describes its everyday spaces with an admirable attentiveness to detail.

Modern Milan is, in part, a product of the Fascist period. The city expanded to incorporate exurban areas outside the old bastions during the administration of Luigi Mangiagalli (1922–26), more than doubling in size and adding the vast industrial areas that included both factories and worker’s housing districts. Public investment on the part of the national government and the Fascist Party helped the city prosper as a manufacturing and financial center, and social reform efforts left Milan with an admirable stock of subsidized housing, as well as cultural, medical, recreational, and transportation facilities.

The book is structured around a series of case studies that exemplify the numerous ways civic construction projects were used to shape social identity in Milan during the Fascist era (1922–43). The city’s unique role as Italy’s financial center and cornerstone of its industrial heartland, as well as birthplace of the Fascist Party, found concrete expression in buildings commissioned by a range of municipal, federal, party, commercial, and private clients. The buildings chosen are all important to the transformation of Milan in the twentieth century, yet they are not well known outside Lombardy, and so Maulsby’s text offers the first extended English-language analysis of these important yet understudied structures.

Three chapters focus on buildings whose construction involved the reconfiguration of surrounding neighborhoods and whose prominence reflected the importance of commerce, state authority, and mass media in the growing metropolis. The Trading Exchange (Palazzo delle Borse, 1928–31) and its plaza (the Piazza degli Affari, 1928–39) by Paolo and Vittorio Mezzanotte, the Palace of Justice (Palazzo di Giustizia, 1932–40) by Marcello Piacentini and the headquarters of the Popolo d’Italia newspaper (1938–42) by Giovanni Muzio offer excellent examples of the varied concerns and constituencies that shaped the city and its architecture. With a critic’s eye for detail, Maulsby specifies numerous ways these designers reconciled complex programs with difficult and irregular sites and used historically rooted architectural gestures and figurative arts in order to infuse abstract architectural projects with recognizable iconographic symbolism. The author weighs the arguments of stakeholders in the local business and legal communities and explores the significance of building sites, which were often selected through contentious political processes.

Maulsby also devotes two chapters to the neighborhood Fascist Party headquarters buildings (called a casa del fascio, gruppo rionale, sede federale, or palazzo del littorio) that served as administrative, social service, cultural, and recreational centers for both working- and middle-class neighborhoods. She explores how each structure engaged the surrounding district in a manner analogous to the party’s attempts to penetrate the daily lives of Italians. Divided by period, the chapters explore the differences in party-sponsored architecture and urbanism in the first and second decades of Fascist rule. The result is a series of careful analyses of important but understudied buildings like the Fabio Filzi Headquarters (1936–38) by Eugenio Faludi, which was funded largely by local industrial firms, such as Pirelli and Breda, and included a decorative program that culminated in a monumental relief by Leoni Lodi. Another building that benefits from Maulsby’s scholarship is the sede federale in Piazza San Sepolcro, a fascinating project—part preservation and renovation, part addition, part urban intervention—by Piero Portaluppi (1936) that exemplifies how the events of the period, such as the violence that helped bring Mussolini to power, was memorialized in key construction projects.

Maulsby uses these case studies to explore the complexities and exigencies of the era’s architectural production, which is too frequently mischaracterized as a consistent and unified expression of an authoritarian state. She argues convincingly, for example, that while building patrons often presented their efforts as supportive of the regime’s policies, disagreements between local and national authorities (as well as between different organs of the Fascist state) impacted the design of buildings and public spaces. The author details how the competing interests of a host of actors, including industrialists, landowners, developers, political leaders, technocrats, party officials, critics, urban planners, artists, and cultural elites shaped the city. She uses archival and printed material to explore the tension between party officials in Rome, who were concerned with the ability of the built environment nationwide to project a sense of Italianità (Italian-ness), and local officials in Milan who sought to emphasize the city’s preeminent role in the commercial and industrial life of the country. Like the work of such scholars as Diane Ghirardo, Victoria de Grazia, Maristella Casciato, and Medina Lasansky, Maulsby’s book draws on a broad range of evidence in order to craft a fine-grained study of the built environment that is rooted in the social context of interwar Italy.

Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922–1943 is an important contribution to the literature on Fascist-era architecture and urbanism and will prove to be an essential resource for any future work on the topic. Maulsby offers a number of key insights that bring valuable nuance to our understanding of the period, arguing (for example) that the close collaboration between industrialists and the Fascist Party grew from the long history of paternalistic social engagement on the part of Milan’s industrial firms. Her work is informed by a keen awareness of architecture and urbanism in other Italian cities, and of the international debates and movements that impacted Italian modernism. Rooted in rigorous archival and field research, this book is a welcome addition to the scholarship of architecture and politics in the twentieth century.