30 April 2021

Antonio Sant’Elia - architectural visionary

Futurist’s ideas were decades ahead of his time

Antonio Sant'Elia's design for an apartment block with external lifts, above a network of roads
Antonio Sant'Elia's design for an apartment block
with external lifts, above a network of roads 

The architect Antonio Sant’Elia, best known for producing hundreds of drawings based on his vision of an idealised modern industrial city, was born on this day in 1888 in Como in Lombardy.

Sant’Elia’s life was short - he died in battle barely a year after signing up for military service in the First World War - and his physical legacy comprised only one completed building, the Villa Elisi, a modest house in the hills above his home city.

Yet, thanks to the boldly imaginative designs he captured in dozens of sketches illustrating how he saw the cities of the future, Sant’Elia is still seen as one of modern architecture’s most influential figures, more than a century after his death.

A builder by trade, in 1912 Sant’Elia set up a design office in Milan with fellow architect Mario Chittone.

He was already a follower of Futurism, the avant-garde artistic, social and political movement that had been launched by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909.

Sant'Elia's vision of an airport rail terminal with escalators from the rail platforms
Sant'Elia's vision of an airport rail terminal
with escalators from the rail platforms
The Futurists’ admiration for the speed and technological advancement of cars and aeroplanes and the new industrial cities, which they saw as demonstrating the triumph of humanity over nature through invention, aligned with his own rejection of traditional design.

The movement’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, published by Marinetti in 1914, is thought to have been written by Sant’Elia, outlining his vision for the industrialised and mechanised city of the future, comprising interconnected multi-level buildings in the style of modern skyscrapers, with integrated transport systems that facilitated fast, efficient movement.

In the same year, a collection of Sant’Elia’s drawings called Città Nuova - New City - was displayed in May 1914 at an exhibition of the Nuove Tendenze group, of which he was a member, at the Famiglia Artistica gallery in Milan.

It was these drawings that revealed Sant’Elia’s remarkable vision, his designs so futuristic they would scarcely have seemed dated had another architect unveiled them towards the end of the 20th century rather than in its infancy.

Antonio Sant'Elia opened a  design studio in Milan
Antonio Sant'Elia opened a 
design studio in Milan
They featured pyramids, buttresses and towers, giant factories and multi-floor, stepped residential buildings complete with external elevators, linked with walkways, and interspersed with roads and railways suspended at different levels. 

One of Sant’Elia’s drawings was of a transport portal for trains and aircraft with escalators linking the railway platforms with the runway.

Although the Città Nuova was never built, Sant’Elia’s ideas influenced many generations of future architects. The Pompidou Centre in Paris (1977), designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1986) and Piano’s The Shard, also in London (2012) all carry echoes of Sant’Elia’s designs, as does Helmut Jahn’s James R Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel in Georgia by John Portman, both built in the 1980s.

Many within the Futurist movement were strongly nationalist in their political leanings, which inevitably led some to be drawn towards Fascism and its vision of a powerful, self-contained Italy free from foreign influence.

It was Sant’Elia’s own nationalism and irredentism that persuaded him to join the army as Italy entered World War I in 1915, excited at the idea that he could play a part in finally evicting the Austrians from northeast Italy, where they still controlled an area stretching from Trentino through the South Tyrol to Trieste.

Sadly, he did not live to see that ambition realised. The focus of the Italian-Austrian conflict was the valley of the Isonzo river, also known as the Soça, which runs from its source in the Julian Alps in western Slovenia and enters the Gulf of Trieste near Monfalcone, and there were a series of 12 battles fought along this front between June 1915 and November 1917.

Sant’Elia died in the eighth of these battles in October 1916 near Gorizia. In all, the Battles of the Isonzo, concluding with the catastrophic Battle of Caporetto, resulted in almost one million Italian casualties including 300,000 dead, half of the number of Italians killed in the whole of World War One.

Sant'Elia's only finished building, the Villa Elisi
Sant'Elia's only finished
building, the Villa Elisi
Travel tip:

The Villa Elisi can be found in the San Maurizio area above the town of Brunate, about 8km (5 miles) up a winding road from Como, to which it is also linked by a funicular railway. The area offers spectacular views of Lake Como. Villa Elisa, the only building designed and built by Antonio Sant’Elia, was commissioned by the Como industrialist Romeo Longatti as a holiday home. The villa features the asymmetrical, geometric designs typical of much of Sant'Elia's work. It represented an opportunity for Sant’Elia to prove his worth as an architect and overcome the structural problems posed by the house’s location on steeply sloping ground.

Palazzo Volpi in Como, home of the city's civic art gallery, where Sant'Elia's drawings can be seen
Palazzo Volpi in Como, home of the city's civic
art gallery, where Sant'Elia's drawings can be seen
Travel tip:

Sant’Elia’s drawings of his Città Nuovo are on permanent display in Como’s Pinocoteca Civica, the city’s art gallery. Inaugurated in 1989 in the 17th-century Palazzo Volpi in Via Armando Diaz, the gallery houses a collection that spans the Middle Ages through to contemporary times, documenting the Como area’s artwork from religious buildings to portraiture, landscapes and 20th century works related. In addition to Sant’Elia’s drawings, the centrepieces are the sixth century Portraits of Illustrious Men collection by Paolo Giovio and some major works by the Gruppo Como, a group of 20th century abstract artists from Como.

Also on this day:

1306: The birth of Venetian Doge Andrea Dandolo

1885: The birth of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo

The Feast Day of Saint Pius V



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