Colonial Modern 1920s1940s

The non-West, as its name implies, represents the non-place, terra incognita, the wasteland ... But it also stands for the place of timelessness, a space without duration, in relation to which the temporal break of modernity can be marked out ... [T]he colonial-modern involves creating an effect we recognize as reality, by organizing the world endlessly to represent it.'

Timothy Mitchell, 2000

Must buildings be dressed up, in a word, as Romans or as Moors?2

Armando Melis, Architect, '935

How did Italian architects' "colonial-modern" differ from their other theoriza-tions? The terms of their colonial-architectural debates were virtually identical with those discussed in the last chapter, regarding all but one issue: difference. Self-conscious, state-mandated architecture in the metropole took an increasingly didactic turn in the interwar period, attempting to depict a unified Italy by minimizing architectural allusions to internal, regional differences. In the colonies, however, differences of ethnicity, "race," religion, and political-cultural capital could hardly be dissimulated (and it is unlikely, in any case, that Italian colonizers would have wanted them to be). At the same time, the incorporation of local ornamental elements also held great aesthetic appeal for many architects. More important still, many architects wished to emulate native structural provisions for local climate conditions such as bright sun and intense heat.

Even had they wished to, in any case, architects who theorized colonial architecture could not have sidestepped the question of whether to incorporate local architectural elements, as Italians had been practicing architectural syncretisms for some time before architects began to consider the subject. We have already seen that Italians bought and replicated local buildings in East Africa, and that their Asmara residences were often out-of-context transplants of European models; overall, by the '920s cities in Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya were already showcases of disorganized variety. As businesses and government invested more in the colonies - especially in Libya's cities from 1912 on - medieval, Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and international "Art Deco" styles continued to proliferate, in tune with Europeans' constructions in Tunis, Alexandria, and Cairo.3 Worse still, to the architects who wrote on the subject, equally inappropriate European "neo-Moorish" concoctions began to appear among the most high-profile buildings in the colonial cities, namely hotels and restaurants (Piacentini, for instance, designed a "neo-Arab" Hotel Roma in Benghazi in the early 1910s4), as well as major banks and government buildings (Figures 5.1, 5.2).

When Italian architects began to comment on the colonial-modern in the second half of the 1920s, then, the question at stake was whether it was best to transplant European models of any or all historical periods; imitate local forms wholesale; build fanciful hybrids that belonged nowhere in particular; or follow other alternatives which had not yet been devised. In sum, if solving the problem of "Italian modern" in the metropole meant figuring out the place of history in modernism, the question here was to define the exact emphasis architects should place on differences between Italians and the colonized within their colonial modernism.

The complexity of the question emerged in stages. In 1925, just when archaeologists were defining what was historically and aesthetically "worthy" in Tripoli and Rhodes, Giovannoni first commented that Italians had begun to copy native buildings in Rhodes, and should break this nascent pattern. Another architect, Salvatore Cardella, soon made similar remarks with respect to North Africa.

Figure 5.1

Banca d'Italia (Bank of Italy) in Massawa, Eritrea (1925-1928, Architect Giuseppe Cane).

Italian Buildings TripoliFascist Architecture Libya

Figure 5.2

Palazzo del Parlamento (Parliament) in Benghazi, Libya (1921-1923, Architect Carlo Rossoni).

Figure 5.2

Palazzo del Parlamento (Parliament) in Benghazi, Libya (1921-1923, Architect Carlo Rossoni).

Novecento and Accademico architects - historicists - would continue to make such remarks through the 1930s, in the context of statements that what Italian colonial buildings should do was "speak" clearly of modern Italy and/or its Roman heritage, unambiguously proclaiming the colonizers' origins and superiority. A more complex set of positions began to develop in 1929, when Rava published his first contribution on colonial architecture and city preservation in Tripoli, describing local vernacular architecture in more positive terms than the Italians' own transplanted European models and faux hybrids.

From 1931, when Rava reframed his argument in terms of "Mediter-raneanist" theorization and other Rationalists began to respond, through 1936, Rationalists (principally Rava, Luigi Piccinato, and Giorgio Pellegrini) discussed how to incorporate local elements, and which ones, into Italian colonial-modern architecture. These architects' overt admiration for the structural "functionalism" and ornamental simplicity of North African vernacular architecture was as central to their views as notions of historic value and Italian superiority were to those of the Novecento and Accademico architects. At a rhetorical level, however, adaptations of local architecture required complex justifications in order to avoid accusations of placing Italians "beneath natives" by building architecture similar to theirs. Drawing on the same theoretical arsenal they applied to discussions of Italian modernism in the metropole, Rationalists relied on principally essentialist tropes for their arguments, emphasizing the vernacular's ahistorical design features - in this case, a "Mediterranean" rather than "Italian" regional vernacular - and invoking a Latin or Mediterranean "spirit" as well as Mediterranean climatic conditions.

Meanwhile, Novecento architects (Alberto Alpago Novello and Ottavio Cabiati in particular) held their own, calling for buildings that were both "modern" and "recognizably Italian" (i.e. not modernist). As they were not attempting to reconcile architectural practices of syncretism with a political ideology of Italian superiority and autonomy, their arguments did not require the complexities of the Rationalists. Furthermore, their authority was buttressed by the high-profile government commissions they garnered for some of Libya"s cathedrals and mosques and for Tripoli and Benghazi's new masterplans.

Discussions within and between both groups of architects culminated in the professional journals in 1936, and then began to fade almost immediately. Colonial architects and governments turned their attention to urbanistica and colonial segregation with the formation of AOI,5 and by and large, Italian theorizing architects returned to their original silence on matters of colonial architecture and syncretism. It is, of course, worth noting that the period of greatest activity in discussions of Italian colonial architecture coincided with the era of most intense professional consolidation and artistic "pluralism" in Italy itself. From this point of view, battles between architects over the best designs for Italy's colonies appear to have been an extension of battles for professional "supremacy." Indeed, Mussolini had visited Libya in 1926, and various royal family members traveled to Italian holdings in North and East Africa, signaling personal interest in the colonies' development. Architects turn to colonial activism can therefore be seen as yet another attempt to earn the privilege of designing some of Fascist Italy's most representative architecture. I would add, though, that this temporal coincidence also underscores how inextricable theorizations of colonial architecture were from elaborations of modernism for the metropole, and vice versa. The colonial-architecture debates, in fact, involved only Rationalists and historicists (Novecento and Accademico architects) - the same groups who argued most vociferously about other facets of Italy's "moderns" - at the very same time that they argued nearly identical issues in the context of the metropole.6

Despite the groundswell of colonial-architectural interest from 1929 to 1936, however, the debates I describe in this chapter concerned only the architects who were active in the journals. These authors attempted viable generalizations, hoping to influence the shape of Italy's colonial cities - Tripoli in particular7 - but government was only rarely involved except for sporadic interventions on a local level, such as De Vecchi's stripping of Rhodes' Grande Albergo delle rose in 1938. Furthermore, when they did occur, such interventions were usually directed at traffic and hygiene rather than the political implications of architectural design. Architects calls for a greater role in colonial urban development were eventually heeded in 1936, in the context of the newly-invaded Ethiopian Empire, when the government formed a "Central Committee on Building and City Plans" (Consulta centrale per l'edilizia e 'urbanística) meant to oversee design and planning in

AOI's cities. But despite the prominence of several individuals on the committee, and the apparent success of the profession in having obtained the formation of such a group, the Committee's main activity consisted in evaluating city plans; definitions of colonial architectural "style" had already faded from view. Meanwhile, individuals and individual government offices continued to commission and build as they chose.8

Thus I would argue that when architects ceased to publish articles on the virtues of colonial vernacular architectures, theirs was a helpless silence. They had attempted to take a position of power in colonial architectural design, and failed; they therefore turned their hopes to colonial city planning. Publications on the colonial built environment after 1936 were authored by other specialists, including architectural historians - who picked up where they had left off in the early 1920s, dismissing aspects of local architecture that were not of Roman origin as "unworthy" - and field researchers of anthropological inclinations, who typolo-gized the native material culture rather than considering its design benefits.

Because it may seem paradoxical to describe the entire project of a national colonial-modern architecture in terms of how Italian architects interpreted native architectural Other-ness, let us note that questions of syncretism in colonial architecture - whether to practice it, how to practice it, how to justify it, and what to name it - gave definition to all national colonial architectures in the modern era. British colonizers in India conducted enormous classificatory studies of Indian architecture, and came up with hybrid decorative styles along "Indo-Saracenic" lines.9 French architects in North Africa and other colonial territories used deliberate, sanctioned syncretisms in their government-commissioned buildings.10 Similarly, Dutch architects in Indonesia, Spanish architects in Spanish Morocco, and Zionist and Israeli architects in Palestine elaborated systems of syncretism for their local architecture.11

Finally, colonial syncretisms were always at center stage in European nations' depictions in the metropole of their colonial territories. Without fail, interwar European exhibitions related to colonial territories resorted to syncretisms in abundance for their own designs. In the Italian Triennial Colonial Exhibition of 1940 (Mostra Triennale d'Oltremare), for instance, Florestano di Fausto designed the pavilions representing the Dodecanese Islands and Libya, the very colonies in which he had designed multiple buildings for the Italian govern-ment.12 In other words, the syncretisms that architects developed on the ground in the course of representing Europeans in the colonies were imported (or exported) to the metropole, suggesting that Europeans' means of representing themselves to the colonized turned out, inversely, to be the most appropriate vehicles for representing the colonized to Europeans.13

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