Before Mies Van der Rohe, before Metropolis, before the Bauhaus, there was a guy who invented the future before anyone thought we needed one. Ever wonder what the future would look like? Just hop into your virtual DeLorean and travel back to the years before WWI, right where the Stone Age begins for most millennials.
It was in a remote town in Northern Italy that a guy called Antonio Sant’Elia decided to invent the future in a time when everyone else was looking at the past. Architects were uncomfortable with strange new technologies; as a result, the new railway stations and power plants were disguised as monuments from the past.
Sant’Elia hung around with the poet Antonio Tomasso Marinetti and a bunch of other non-conformists who called themselves the Futurist Group. Rejecting the disappointment and despair of their contemporaries, the Futurists embraced the speed and energy of the emerging modern life and all its machines that would influence generations to come. In Marinetti’s words, “Nothing in the world is more beautiful than a great, humming power station.”
Against all odds these guys managed to lay the foundations of our modern culture and its architecture. While other avant-gardists like Adolf Loos were already working in this direction, the Futurists’ boldness overshadowed all else and inspired the visionaries of the following Modernist decades.
It was Sant’Elia who created a catalogue of drawings so powerful that one doesn’t know where to begin describing them. His sense of the future took flight and projected cities with the user in mind. Form would follow function and a dynamic lifestyle would shape the forms—this in a time when architecture was regarded as the ultimate static art. Presenting solutions that we take for granted today, the Futurists showed the potential of architecture to create mega-skyscrapers towering above huge traffic intersections, thus sweeping away the urban planning of the last 3000 years. Say goodbye to individual buildings and hello to integrated functional systems.
Sant’Elia pursued his dream by simply being himself. Not one of his proposed buildings was ever built. He did not adapt to cultural trends; he simply relied on his talent. In 1915, Sant’Elia enlisted in the Italian army. For the Futurists, the Great War was seen as a historic event and a chance to shape the future. Within a year, Sant’Elia was killed in action.
And yet his ideas have lived on. Sant’Elia’s Futurism is considered one the most influential cultural movements Italy has produced in the last century. The Modernism movement built upon these ideas and completely reinvented the twentieth century to create the modern world you live in today.