Antonio Sant’Elia


This project for a kiosk with a masculine figure shows the technical mastery and the personality of Sant’Elia’s draftsmanship, as in the plan for the Societa Comessi (right), or the drawing of a fagade at the beginning of this chapter.

Antonio Sant’Elia

Antonio Sant’Elia was born in the Italian city of Como in 1888 arid died, at the age of 26, fighting on the front line in World War I. in spite of hardly ever having worked in tie profession, his drawings have, ever the course of the twentieth century captivated different generations of architects. And his 1914 manifesto of Futurist architecture is the first text of the historical avant-garde to set forth a renovation of the architectural culture.

This drawing featured in the Futurist Architecture Manifesto is one of Sant’Elia’s most well-known sketches, which shows the elements that best define his vision of the city.

Sant’Elia acquired his technical know-how in the Casteani School of Fine Ans in Como, specializing in civic architecture, hydrates, and road building in 1907, he moved to Milan, and here established his first contact with avant-garde movements. specifically with the Futurists, followers of Marinetti. This tendency. which began as a literary movement and swiftly spread to other spheres, was the platform and me cultural backdrop from which Sarftlia went about creating his proposals In fact. Futurism was more an intellectual attitude than a concrete artistic program—even though the e existed a widely shared idea of modernity one which tended to exalt the concepts of machine, city, dynamism, and the future, contrasting these to the idea of the past, bourgeois society, the museum, or the library. Futurism wilt in fact nconstitute me first avant-garde movement that «tempts to define, in all artistic fields, that which fits into its vision of modernity on 1909, Manned will publish the first rnanfesto-inciutiingehe famous phrase “a racing car (…) is more beautiful man the Victory of Samothrace”—following it with a second manifesto on painting (1910). then third, or, sculpture (1912). These precedents will then in turn be followed by the appearance of the manifesto on architecture, sired by Antonio Sant’Elia and revised by Manneiti in the first edition Somewhat after the fashion of Adolf Loos (Ornament and Crime. 1908). the great precursor of rationalism, Antonio Sant’Elia affirms that the repertories of the past are in congruent in the context of modern society and that architecture must exploit the new materials—iron and concrete-without recourse to the language of the past. He also defends The need to develop an ephemeral architecture so that each generation can build the city of its needs.
From the manifesto and from his drawings comes Sant’Elia’s concern with mode rizing the cites on the basis of an idea of the great metropolis based on communications and energy: electric power plants, airports and railroad stations, wireless communications, factories, and high-rise houses are the subjects of h-s pictures Arc) they are f’ramed in an industrial Milan, but one which still is moved bascally by animal energy, coal and gas.


This drawing could be intended to represent a public building that gives onto a plaza. The sketch of a person walking, a very simple piece, contrasts with the drawings of people done some years earlier, which were much more elaborate.

In spite of sharing certain cоncerns and sourtions with the later modern architectural movement the configurations proposed by Sant’Elia owe no smell cobt to bis own recent past, That is both to the Viennese Secession of Otto Wagna and he successors as well as to the industrial projects of Tony Garnier, or the vision of the New York cf the first decade of the last century. Sart’Elia’s drawings will anse as visual approximations more than true architectural projects rarely do there appear ground plans and elevations, and what predominates s a monumentalism of forms over their practicality, use or planing n any real given environment. This is largey what instances him from the later rationalist positions.
In spite of this anachronism the Como architects proposals are revolutionary and deneate the transition toward a new era. indeed the work of Sant Elia along with the Fritz Lang film “Metropolis” (1927), comprise a highly potent twentieth- century image of the modern city.
The first works of Antonio Sant’Elia are deepy marked by the eclectic style of the beginning of the twentieth century, and influenced in no small measure by The work of Оtto Wagner and Its successors. Sant’Elia’s preference or this architecture characterizes all of his mausoleum pieces including The cemetery e tanned in 1916 or the victims of his micary unit, the Arezzo Brigade, where he himseif was also build Sant’Elia rears to the patterns of Viennese Art Nouveau because these are these are more accepted by the рubliс train is the innovative with which he will experiment in parallel but also because of a personal preference. Even the protect for the Milan railroad stat on he entered in a 1912 competition (at a time when he had been researching new architecture forms for more than three years) will show in obvious debt to the teachings of Wagner—above all the earliest. The project of Monza cemetery plays with tho grandroquent designs of Art Nouveau and presents many symbols (cypresses. fallen anthropemorphic sculptures, moldings that create powerful chiaroscuros). The human figures that appear in these pictures show the refinement and the delcacy on the conception, rather distanced from the manner in which he would present these figures from 1914.

The project for Monza cemetery surprised the jury, who praised the originality of the drawings in spite of not awarding it an honorable mention. On the preceding page, a sketch for the same dossier is seen with a preparatory drawing for the plaque and small gravestone monument of Gerardo Caprotti (1914), in the same cemetery.

Cassa di Risparmio
Once he’d taken his diploma to work as an architect, in 1907, and moved to Milan, Sant’Elia began to collaborate with different architects, not only to earn his living but also to continue learning about his profession. The Canoti studio contracted him in mid-1913, along with the painter Leonardo Dureville, to design the new headquarters of the Verona savings bank, a building which was to be located on the Piazza delle Erbe, one of the most important in the city center. The end product of this project was an eclectic work that blended neo-Gothic components from the repertory of the north of Italy—e.g. the alternation of light-colored stones and dark-colored ones in the arches—with the preference of the Viennese Secession, such as the windows or the gilt facings. Sant’Elia will foresee here an exterior vision that realizes the most important features through a variety of solutions: one of the corners will be comprised of two perpendicular arches that form a portico, or a different roof to the zone making up the main entrance.
There is an extant series of drawings on which Sant’Elia began to work from 1909 onward and which the critics have classed together under the denomination of “monumental buildings”. While it is difficult to establish their exact use, all of these works exhit it similar characteristics that allow them to be defined as exercises in composition, One of the interests they demonstrate is the control of a building’s exterior hierarchy: large domes appear that jut out from the rest of the piece; staircases of a considerable degree of slope—and without a human scale—that establish perpendicular axes into powerful accessways; vast buttresses that transform the building into a tectonic mass that more closely resembles a lone pyramid than a structure destined to any urban use. In these sketches, you see the overlaps with the work of Wagner, whose most immediate reference point for domes, entrances with colossal staircases, or exorbitant perspectives is the Steinhof church. Wagner encouraged his students to work on fantasy projects to get them to give their imagination a workout. It is owing to the library of the Brera academy that the Como architect had access to the work of the students of Wagner, both to the pieces that were in fact realized and to the ones that remain architectural fantasies.

Electric Power Plants
From the opening of the twentieth century, and from the beginning of the Industrial Age, the driving energies par excellence have been coal and gas. In the first decade of that century, electric energy rose up to become the symbol of modernization. The new city proposed by Sant’Elia instituted electricity as the driving force: from heavy equipment like that used in rail power to the utensils used in homes. It is not strange, then, that one of Sant’Elia’s most often repeated designs was one for power stations. In spite of the somewhat diffuse definition in regard to technical characteristics, these drawings show some delimiting elements as to function, such as turbines, dams, and changes in grade as well as tension line installations beyond the building itself. The intent, then, is to establish a zero point for the electrical network linking city and energy source. The plans of Sant’Elia set out certain structures that are absolutely vast in their dimensions. Simple comparison with the station that supplied half of Milan at that time (the basis of the drawings’ inspiration), allows us to see the architect’s desire to design a much larger complex that could supply the needs of the modern city.


The notable differences in grade and the domed towers clearly refer to the work of the disciples of Otto Wagner, above all, the architect Emil Hoppe.

Architectural Elements

These drawings make up an interesting sample both of the way Sant’Elia worked and of one of his greatest aspirations (revealing an unadorned architectural compositional language where the forms were the building’s sole protagonists). The greater part of the drawings are pencil sketches. They were only later redrawn in ink. No interest is visible in light or shade, which were included only in the color pieces, or in any of the buildings’ potential apertures. Nor is there apparent the least inclination to define clearly a specific use What we see instead are fragments, parts, volumes: the aim is to create a formal repertory that serves as basis for a language to build in concrete and steel. Conscious of the enormous possibilities still to be explored in these questions, Sant’Elia studies and imagines the forms that can be achieved with both these materials before considering the technical possibilities. This is the rational path chosen by the greater part of modern architects, people like Peter Behrens (1868-1940} who, in 1909, will design the turbine plant for AEG and, later, in 1911, the Frankfurter Gasgesellschaft factory. These will both comprise entities where the German architect develops his research in a way very close to that of the Italian.

The manufactories needed large warehouses and hangars, also foreseen by Sant’Eiia The use of the Zeppelin was common in this period, and the large hangars of airports doubtless influenced the work of the Como architect.

Industrial Buildings

The construction of large manufactory structures had begun some years earlier in Germany, France, and England and it was starting to extend to Italy precisely, by way of Milan, in the context of the time, these large complexes are identifiable wth heavy industry, which needed many adjacent infrastructures. As in his power plant designs, Sant’Elia here also shows an intention to monumentalize the machine and its industry: the drawings are in no way ambiguous in regard to the wish to create a generic type of factory under the obvious influence of Tony Garnier. Sant’Eiia will take advantage of elements tike the large deposits or the powerful buttresses of these complexes to create h s exp essive solutions. But many of these sketches Sack the human scale, the resource inherited from the tradition of architecture designed without the intention of building, that represented by Piranesi, Boulee, and Ledoux. These plans respond to the will of the architect to do the modern city project. But in spite of Sant’Elia s not developing a theory of urbanism, he stilI worked with the desire to create the spaces of this new metropolis, electric, monumental, welt served by transportat on systems.

The line in this drawing is much more fully defined than in others The architect’s language, now more assured, serves here to delineate the basic features of a theater in a more finished way than in many of his other pictures.

Sant’Eiia studied the typology of theater in different drawings. Along with the movie theaters he did, the live stage of the beginning of the last century already constituted one of city society’s entertainment centers. Simple though the sketches may appear, they show a growing interest to establish a relationship between inside/outside. The orchestra seats, which inside appear empty, will translate outside into a metallic cladding with clerestories that work like large lanterns, while the untextured exterior walls will translate inside into the accessway to the theater itself. This power play establishes itself on the basis of a perspective elevation with a simple twin counterpart that consists of an associated ground plan. The Como architect’s pictures make it possible for viewers to discern a relationship between use and form. They constitute an application of the architectural forms established per se on a blueprint of a concrete case. Much less monumental than in other projects and thus all the more surprising is the solution given to the apertures.

The interest in establishing different models of theaters seems clear.
The drawings are highly perfected, as witness the one on the right, where different elevations define the project in a more finished way.

La Citta Nuova

The series of drawings for “La Citta Nuova”, a global project that was never published as such but that does appear in the Futurist manifesto, shows how, in spte of being isolated buildings, they stem from the same ideation of city. The commumc ition. and the power lines are the protagonists of the metropolis and at the same time cement and steel are the leading actors of II к* l ник I ings themselves. Sanffiia f nds his place as a visionary when he creates a large communications center with an airport forty before the commercial use of the airplane. Moreover, accompanying this work is the propose: of wireless telegraph lines гusimment in the story thus anticipating today’s omnipresent telecommunicat ons. But even more revolutionary is the block of fht with terrace, based on ideas of the French architect Henri Sauvage (1873-1932). Sant Elia will foresee elevators traveling throuph tin fagade as a way of taking advantage of more inside surface. He will seek formulas to ventilate all of the apartments and provid» them with a sunwashed terrace. Electricity runs not only the lifts but also the lighted sign on the roof, still another element tluit .ui prises us in its anticipation of the city panorama we are living in.

The importance Sant’Elia will give electricity as the driving force of the modern city prompts him to design a series of power stations. They are notably larger than are those of the beginning of the twentieth century

Metropolitan Churches
For Sant’Elia, churches were a very important part of the city. In almost every one of the architect’s sketches, the accessways are monumental: a large staircase delineates an entry of very pronounced symbolic function. Flanking this, at times on the fagade itself, cyclopean sculptures appear to magn fy even further the Catholic tradition of using sculptures to ornament the outside of its temples. The nave inside becomes a space of powerful buttresses, in the form of arches or of triangular pieces, a move that confers different plastic solutions on a single function. The aim of these pictures is concentrated on the fagades: in very few of them does the viewer find a desire to create a solution for the transept or for the main altar, and these are spaces that usually stand out. The ways Wagner and Hoppe have set out are visible in these plans. This is true above all in the manner in which the staircases rise up, and in the sculptural repertory—in spite of the fact that we do not find it in the dome—a solution much employed by the Viennese architects, and one which Sant’Elia himself uses in other pieces.

The electrical cables often define the use of these buildings, since the formal setting is often the same as in many other depictions.

The bodies and the coordination among the parts are the main things that interest Sant’Elia when he does these sketches. And the use of perspective is never absent from the drawing.

In no small number of these pictures, the interest resides in the forms that stress the architectural monumentality, which evokes factories. Here, a large staircase forms the accessway, while the buttressing pieces establish a striking fundamental rhythm in both walls.

Chronology of Sant’Elias works
1888 Birth, April 30, in Como, Italy.
1903 Diploma from the Cantu Technical School, Cantu, Italy; entry into Castellam Industrial Arts School, Como, Italy. He specialized in civil and hydraulic construction and other subjects.
1906 Completes his studies in Como, Italy.
1907 Moves to Milan, Italy, where he begins to work as an architectural draftsman in the technical office of the Milan Town Hall.
1909 Matriculates in the Academy of Brera, Italy.
1910 Project “Villino Moderno” presented to the Cooperativa Milanino competition (for the construction of a city garden). Published in “II villino moderno. Racolta di proggeti per il concorso omonimo”, 1911, Como, Italy.
1911 Participates with Italo Paternoster, a fellow student in Brera, in the international competition offered for the new cemetery for Monza, Italy.
1912 Builds the Villa Elisi, a small summer house in Le Colme, on the outskirts of Brunate, Italy. (Later renovated without much respect for the original project). Project for the central station, Milan, Italy.
1913 Project for the Cassa di Risparmio on the Piazza Delle Erbe, Verona, Italy.
1914 National competition for the new parish church of Salsomaggiore, Italy.
Exhibition of his drawings of the Citta Nuova in the Nuove Tendenze group, Milan, Italy.
In July, the “Manifesto dell’architettura futurista” is published in pamphlet form and later included in the August number of the magazine “Lacerba”. Stands in the municipal elections of Como for the socialists and is elected a member of the communal council.
Funerary monument for the tomb of Signor Caprotti, in the cemetery of San Gregorio. Years later, this would be moved to the central cemetery of Monza, which occasioned some modifications.
1915 Enlists in the Lombard Volunteer Bicycle Battalion, where other members of the Futurist group such as Marinetti and Russolo had also enlisted.
1916 Draws the project for the war cemetery for the Arezzo Brigade, where he will be buried.
Death at the front, 10 October, in Montfalcone, Italy.
1921 His body is moved to the main cemetery of Como, Italy.