Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments and Modernism

It seems wrong to spend lovely long evenings watching the television, but in this case I’m glad I did. Jonathan Meades’s documentary was about Italian architecture under Mussolini (and, once again, I am surprised to relearn that he was in power from 1922), and his point was that Mussolini imposed no particular style on buildings built during his rule – suggesting that Mussolini’s grip on life was less throttling than Hitler’s or Stalin’s. Meades pointed to Gino Coppedè (stile Liberty with knobs on) and Armando Brasini (20th century baroque) as architects who built in a style that isn’t recognisably “fascist”, while two ossuaries (which are) built by Greppi and Castiglione are, on the one hand, backward-looking (in 1935) and, on the other, futuristic (in 1938).

I’m not sure that it’s an argument that stands up – for one thing, Meades made no distinction between private villas and commissions for public buildings – but he is so thought-provoking in his surreal presentation that it’s of secondary importance. Even when you have a feeling that he’s talking through his hat or could cut out some of the visual frippery, you are engaged and responsive.

And I’m not even sure about Hitler: would you call the Berlin Olympic stadium “völkisch”? But, on second thoughts, the staff quarters at Ravensbrück concentration camp were incongruously twee.

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