Jay Johnson -- A few years ago I was eating lunch with an interior designer, his mother, his sister, and his sister's boyfriend. The boyfriend is a university professor, an expert in art history. He haunts European libraries, researches beauty inside medieval churches, and loves the world of art.
The discussion went something like this -- remembered sketchily through the hoppy-lemony haze induced by a great Belgian clouded ale:
Art Historian/Professor -- As a decorator, what is your favorite style?
Designer -- I don't lean to one style in particular. I'm fairly eclectic, and my preferences often depend on my clients' tastes.
Art Historian/Professor -- Fair enough. But what style influences you the most, barring your clients?
Designer (ironically) -- Well, that would be fascist architecture, I think. Probably Italian fascism.
Art Historian/Professor (aghast, gasping) -- WHAT DO YOU MEAN? No, no, no. You can't mean fascism!
Designer (even more ironically) -- I just adore a good fascist building. You can't beat it.
Art Historian/Professor (deadly serious) -- No, please don't say that. Even in jest. Fascism has no soul. It is sterile. It is evil.
Designer (perfectly serious) -- I do like fascist architecture. There is something amazing about the look of the buildings. It's all about scale.
As this discussion escalated, we were taken on a verbal tour of great cathedrals, where sacred architecture was held up as the platonic ideal of beauty. The adoration of the divine, the purity of form, the elaborate grand design of pious artwork and decoration -- we covered all this ground. And at the other extreme was the monolithic, sterile, atheistic, alienating buildings created by Albert Speer (Hitler's favorite architect) and Mussolini's men, from Gruppo 7 to Marcello Piacentini.
The designer was goaded into being a champion of fascism, but he did not love fascist architecture in a literal way. He personally despises double-volume entry foyers in McMansions or huge columns anywhere inside a home. He prefers residences that have livable, warm, human scale to them. But some of the furniture and other decorative pieces can absolutely be oversized to play mindgames with scale and give a sense of humor to his favorite decorating projects.
I was a quiet observer of the conversation. The sister was also mute. The mother was morbidly fascinated with the turn of the conversation, half amused by the sparring and half wondering how her son could be so balmy. But she really knew he was teasing.
The conversation stuck with me. During a recent visit to Washington DC by Amtrak, I was struck by the scale of Union Station and recalled this dialogue. There's a strong Neoclassic and Art Deco beauty about Union Station that underscores the designer's points about fascist architecture (or Italian Rationalism, as some label this design movement). Both Neoclassicism and Art Deco contributed to the surprisingly diverse expressions within the Italian branches of fascist architecture.
In Italy, fascist architects tried to recapture an "ideal" from medieval and renaissance Italy. The movement actually saw the rebuilding of plazas and piazzas throughout Italy, creating cobblestoned spaces with impressive new buildings that were made to look old in order to promote civic pride and encourage tourism. American tourists, we have been duped!This trick of architectural revisionism was very surprising to me and is documented in an excellent book, Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy. Taken literally, fascist architecture took Italy from something real, authentic, and a bit grubby and transformed it into a big, clean Epcot Center exhibit.
That's not to say that the scale of many fascist buildings isn't grand and awe-inspiring, like the famous Square Colliseum and the EUR community in and around Rome or the train station in Florence. There is a reason why many art movies filmed around the EUR in order to capture the plight of humans as they live in an overscaled, totalitarian, souless world. Ah, the angst of it all. Big buildings, puny people.
In the over 300 home videos contained in my Design2Share Video Diary on YouTube, you will see examples where I have taken my video camera -- a sturdy palm-sized Radio Shack $99 camtastic Sanyo special -- and taken videos of different architectural styles. I'm a design sponge, so any architectural style fascinates me. I'm the midwestern-raised lad who applauds any attempt by people to build or make anything. I would give every Broadway show a standing ovation, but I've learned to curb my enthusiasm and act in synch with my seated fellow New Yorkers.
I had my camera with me during my DC trip and shot two videos of Union Station that will get you thinking about so-called fascist architecture here in America. The first video takes you from the outside of the station into the front foyer. Grand indeed! The second video has me sitting down inside the front foyer and shooting panoramic views. Imagine yourself in fascist Italy. It's not too much of a stretch, oddly enough.
I look back on the conversation between the art historian and the designer with a bit more insight now. I think both admired the same inhumanly huge scale we see in many civic buildings and in public spaces everywhere. Let's face it -- fascist architecture, whether in a luxury home or a railway station, can be breathtaking.
Where do I fall in this debate? I prefer small packages, thank you.
A beautiful church, especially a grand cathedral, is awe inspiring. There's no doubt about it, and I admire the design achievement. But most of these buildings are human-dwarfing structures that emphasize the totalitarian aspects of theology: you, tiny human; Me, God.
I contrast these huge houses of worship to the beautiful one-room Friends Meeting house I visited last Sunday morning, with small-scale simplicity and rustic charm that made me feel achingly close to the Divine within . . . as opposed to forcing me to look up and away for a little spark of heaven.
So are you a fan of grand-scale architecture? Please post your comment . . . .