Rationalism (1922-1945)

As far back as Aristotle’s doctrines, many have argued that reason and rationale represent the pinnacle of human intellect, if not the key to our potential; such beliefs have, through time, bled into multiple fi***elds of study and work.

Milano - Palazzo di Giustizia
Palazzo di Giustizia_ Milano- (Arch. Marcello Piacentini) 1929-47.

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Reason as a paradigm

In architecture, the concept of rationalism is applied to a building devoted to a logical, functional and mathematically ordered design; indeed, while many edifices may possess rational characteristics, a full commitment to these qualities is required in order to qualify an environment as fully rationalist.


While, in stylistic terms, rationalism can be identified into three main eras (17th century, early 20th century, and late 20th century), its roots can be traced as far back as ancient Greece: their palaces and temples, notorious for having perfect symmetry and geometry, were built through carefully calculated mathematical principles.  These concepts and techniques were later coopted and further expanded upon by the  Romans; formally, the first to codify architecture as a rational deduction was the architect Vitruvius.

The Parthenon - Acropolis, Greece
The Athenian Parthenon; symbol of Greek architecture and exemplar use of ”sacred geometry” in a building_ Acropolis, Greece

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The turning point for rational-based architecture came with the 17th century and the birth of the Enlightenment; this marked the rise of a new intellectual and philosophycal era, where science and reason were championed as humanity’s prime driving force. As such, Enlightened architects too sought to create a structural language that complemented human logic and rationality; building on the Renaissance interpretations of classical architecture, the first unified style of rationalism was therefore conceived.

The image of a regime

Between the 1920s and the 1930s, the Italian rationalism came into the spotlight as the main entity in the movement, fueled by the newly self installed fascist regime and its need not just to be represented aesthetically, but to be linked to the classical Roman legacy it sought to emulate as well.

This (short lived) expression begun, in 1926, with the creation of the Gruppo 7, counting in its ranks names likes Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini, Giuseppe Terragni and Ubaldo Castagnoli (soon replaced by Adalberto Libera); the group grew further through a later merge with MIAR (Movimento Italiano Architettura Razionale).

In these two decades, Rationalism would enstablish itself as Italy’s most prominent style: it strives, above all, to balance the tension between its core elements – the search for a “new architecture” and societal renewal; the use of new materials and technologies (such as reinforced concrete); the influences of European modernism (such as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius); the will to question the absolute value of these models, and the interest in completely rethink their approach on the subject; the continuity with past’s legact, and the reality of totalitarianism.

The use of rationalism as the regime’s image came to an end after the collapse of the MIAR, during the mid-1930s, as fascism cut its ties with the movement, preferring to identify itself with the monolithic weight of of Piacentini’s monumental buildings, rather than Rationalism’s more “abstract” classicism.

the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana.
Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, Rome; by Ernesto Lapadula and Giovanni Guerrini

Image source: https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/ef1ee736-c9e4-4b28-979f-0f98627c2edf by Nick Kenrick..

Rationalist Characteristics

What were then the basic tenets of Rationalism?

Taking its first steps from the Enlightened revival of classical styles, it emphasized the ordered geometry and structural logic of antiquity, ideally bridging the modern philosophies of human agency and people’s rights with the conquests of Greek democracies and the Roman Republic.

Its language focused on breaking complex elements into basic shapes (squares, circles, triangles…), as a rejection of the more ornate and baroque movements; as such, everything deemed excessive or superflous was stripped away, revealing the bare shapes, elements and materials as an expression of stylistic “honesty”.

To summarize, the most importat characteristics of the movement are:

  • Priority of urban planning on the architectural project;
  • The need for an increasing number of houses to solve the housing problem;
  • The rigorous rationality of forms;
  • The systematic approach to industrial technology and standardization;
  • The conception of architecture as a key determinant of social progress.

Rationalism, the Most Important Architects

Adalberto Libera was one of the most important Italian Rationalist architects, considered the author of many key projects designed under the Fascist regime. Some of his most famous works are: Casa Malaparte, Palazzo dei Congressi and the post offices in Rome.

Casa Malaparte. Capri, Italy. The unique beauty of Villa Malaparte also struck the director Jean-Luc Godard, who filmed the second part of Contempt
Casa Malaparte. Capri, Italy. The unique beauty of Villa Malaparte also struck the director Jean-Luc Godard, who filmed the second part of Contempt

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Casa Malaparte is a brick red coloured house with stairs shaped like an inverted pyramid, located on the Gulf of Salerno. It is completely secluded from civilization, only accessible by foot or boat.

Casa Malaparte, Adalberto Libera. 1963
Casa Malaparte, by Adalberto Libera. 1963

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The house was commissioned by the Italian artist, Curzio Malaparte, whose eccentric demeanor led him to oversee the entire design process, often clashing and arguing with Libera. Malaparte wanted the house to recall his own intimate persona; it become a place for loneliness,contemplation and writing.

Giuseppe Terragni was an Italian architect who worked during the fascist regime and pioneered the Italian modern movement under the rubric of Rationalism. His most important project, the so called Casa del Fascio, in Como, begun in 1932 and was finished in 1936.

Giuseppe Terragni- Casa del Fascio, 1932-36
Giuseppe Terragni, Casa del Fascio, Como, 1932-1936

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Giuseppe Terragni- Casa del Fascio, 1932-36
Giuseppe Terragni- Casa del Fascio, 1932-36

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Casa del Fascio, also known as Palazzo Terragni, is built as a perfectly regular prism whose height is half the base length; as such, the building is a perfect cube. Terragni used few materials, all chosen with a symbolic intention; as well as troubleshoot, of course, the practical aspects of the daily destination of the edifice.

TORINO/ PALAZZO GUALINO OGGI UFFICI MUNICIPALI, CORSO VITTORIO EMANUELE II 8, PROSPETTO PRINCIPALE, VISTA DI SCORCIO DA OVEST
The Palazzo Gualino, Turin.

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Palazzo Gualino is an office structure in Turin, built in 1928–30 for the entrepreneur Riccardo Gualino by the architects Gino Levi-Montalcini and Giuseppe Pagano.
It is a famous mark of early Italian rationalist architecture, its design inspired by the simplification of lines and  attention to functionality and technical necessities. The building features a symmetrical facade and several rigourously geometric elements, in line with this vision.

TORINO/ PALAZZO GUALINO OGGI UFFICI MUNICIPALI, CORSO VITTORIO EMANUELE II 8, PROSPETTO PRINCIPALE, PARTICOLARE DELL'INGRESSO
THE PALAZZO GUALINO

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Info source:

https://study.com/academy/lesson/rationalist-architecture.html

https://www.domusweb.it/en/movements/italian-rationalism.html

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