italian rationalism

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Santa Maria Novella Station (in Italian Stazione di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
Photos by Caleb Racicot

My best friend and his husband are in Italy, where he and I have previously traveled on several occasions. He asked me what things I’d like him to bring home for me and among my requests was pictures of Italian Art Deco and/or Modernist and/or Fascist architect.

Since I knew they were going to Florence, I asked for at least a couple pictures of the station, which I recall as being amazing. I love the design of the central hall as well as the shopping arcades and those windows are spectacular.

The station as it is now dates to the 1930s when a mid 19th century station was remodeled. Here is background from Wikipedia on the design, which is a mix of several design schools:

In 1932 through a number of newspaper editorials, published in La Nazione, Florence’s main daily, Romano Romanelli a reputed and influential Florentine sculptor, criticized the original project by the Architect Mazzoni for the new Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station.[2] A constructive debate resulted in the final choice of the project sponsored by the Architect Marcello Piacentini and designed by Gruppo Toscano.

The station was designed in 1932 by a group of architects known as the Gruppo Toscano (Tuscan Group) of which Giovanni Michelucci and Italo Gamberini, Berardi, Baroni, Lusanna were among the members; the building was constructed between 1932 and 1934. The plan of the building, as seen from above, looks as if it were based on the fascio littorio, the symbol of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, many documents give this explanation, but, that shape was forced by the pre-existing station. The “blade” represented by the first two passenger tracks and the postal ones were in fact the extension of the 1861 alignment which included the tracks of the line from Livorno.

The building is a prime example of Italian modernism, but has little to do with the Italian Rationalism movement, being more strongly influenced by the Viennese architecture of Loos and Hoffman, with perhaps a nod to Wright; but it is the building’s complete originality that makes it outstanding. The competition to design the station was controversial but the approval by Mussolini of the Gruppo Toscano project was hailed as an official acceptance of modernity. The station was designed to replace the aging Maria Antonia Station, one of the few example of architecture by I. K. Brunel in Italy, and to serve as a gateway to the city centre.

The Gruppo Toscano was only responsible for the main frontal building of the station. The heating plant, platforms, other facilities and details such as benches were all designed in a contrasting style by the official Ministry of Communications architect, Angiolo Mazzoni. The benches and baggage shelves illustrated on this page were not part of the Gruppo Toscano project. Outside and adjacent to the station is also Michelucci’s white marble Palazzina Reale di Santa Maria Novella, built to host the Royal family on visits to Florence.

While it is of a ‘modern’ design, the use of pietra forte for the station’s stone frontage was intended to respond to and contrast with the nearby Gothic architecture of the church of Santa Maria Novella. The interior of the station features a dramatic metal and glass roof with large skylights over the main passenger concourse, which is aligned perpendicular to the tracks and acts as a pedestrian street connecting one side of the city with the other. The skylights span the passenger concourse without any supporting columns, giving a feeling of openness and vast space and reinforcing the convergence of all the public functions of the station on the passenger concourse.

Villagio Cesare Battisti, Libya by Floresano di Fausto [1934]. The project was realized as part of a program to develop and integrate Libya as an Italian province. It features rationalism, a minimization of Italian forms, with the layout of an Arab desert town, highlighting the interaction between the two identities of the country. Elegant, modern, elongated lines and all white surfaces contrast against the harsh climate and unusual landscape giving the scene a surreal feeling that resembles a Giorgio de Chirico painting more than reality itself. The conceptualism of the Italian desire to explore space and light combined with the utilitarianism of Arab architecture however, create an adaptive language that plays a vital role in the growth of the urban fabric.