The advent of the machine and mass-production had such revolutionary significance for the early twentieth-century that this era came to be known as the Machine Age. Among the great number of cultural changes engendered by this new age was the adoption of a Â‘machine aestheticÂ’ in art and design.
The advent of the machine and mass-production had such revolutionary significance for the early twentieth-century that this era came to be known as the Machine Age. Among the great number of cultural changes engendered by this new age was the adoption of a ‘machine aesthetic’ in art and design. The machine aesthetic was of central importance to Modernist activity, infusing the work of Bauhaus designers, the Russian Constructivist movement and canonical figures such as Le Corbusier. However, the first stirrings of an aesthetic derived from machines can be seen in the work of the Italian Futurist movement.
Led by the poet F. T. Marinetti, the Futurists were entranced by the speed, energy and violence of modern life. They turned their backs on the past and opposed ‘all that is old and worm eaten’. Their work had a dual purpose: to refute moribund traditions and to create a new art that would encapsulate the mental and environmental changes of modernity. In Marinetti’s words, ‘Nothing in the world is more beautiful than a great, humming power station . . . synthesised in control panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.’
Marinetti was a dynamic and charismatic figure, known as the ‘Caffeine of Europe’ due to his boundless energy. He powered the Futurist movement throughout its short but turbulent life. His intentions were proclaimed in a series of aggressively-worded manifestos, the first of which was published in Le Figaro, a French newspaper, on 11 February 1909.
Futurism celebrated the ‘miracles of contemporary life,’ such as industrialisation, the dynamism of the city and scientific progress. In this last field, new discoveries about X-rays and the persistence of vision inspired a new way of perceiving the world, which found expression in the concept of ‘universal dynamism’. Objects were no longer to be considered in spatial and temporal isolation, but were integrated with each other and their environment in dynamic interpenetrations suggesting speed and energy.
In Umberto Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House (1912), universal dynamism is expressed by the use of diagonal lines of force and plastic forms which seek to engage the spectator in their violence and confusion. The merging, protean forms and splintered vectors replicate the effects of the fast-paced, rapidly evolving Machine Age.
Similarly, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) is a sculpture of a running figure. He has sculpted motion-blurs into the figure to give a sense of surging kinesis. Photography had shown up motion-blurs for the first time; the sculpture comments on the fact that the new science of photography had altered human perception.
Giacomo Balla’s painting Automobile at Speed (1913) has a characteristically Futurist title. The image is almost totally abstract, but we can just make out the form of a racing car amid the lines of force. The image is reminiscent of Cubism and has a fractured composition which infuses it with kinetic energy; the colours seem to vibrate with explosive force.
Gino Severini painted Armoured Train (1915), another study of an object in motion. It depicts a military train loaded with weapons. The Futurists were fascinated with energy and war, and this image brings these obsessions together. Again, the composition is broken into dynamic fragments, charging the image with energy.
The Futurists wrote manifestos on painting and sculpture, but there was no manifesto on architecture until 1914, five years after the movement had been founded. This was ironic because Futurism was concerned with transforming civilisation, yet they had no recruit in the area that could most directly influence society – architecture. This embarrassed Marinetti, so it was a relief when a young architect named Antonio Sant' Elia joined the movement in 1914.
Marinetti recognised that the archetypal modern environment was the metropolis, the gargantuan city. In Messagio (1914), Marinetti wrote: ‘We must invent and rebuild ex novo our modern city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard . . . mobile and everywhere dynamic, and the modern building like a gigantic machine.’ Such lofty intentions are evident in Sant’ Elia’s La Città Nuova (1914), a series of futuristic cityscapes that form a vast, technological metropolis. The interaction of diagonals and verticals invests his work with the same energy and dynamism to be found in Futurist painting. In addition, Sant' Elia’s buildings are frequently surmounted by industrial chimneys or radio masts, thus making use of an iconography derived from machines.
The buildings are penetrated by tramlines and roads, mass transit systems which seem to be used for visual rather than practical effect. The buildings become giant machines in themselves. These, and Sant’ Elia’s trademark external elevators and interconnecting walkways, promote a cult of the machine.
However, these visionary cityscapes are all on paper. Sant’ Elia’s vision far exceeded the technological capabilities of the day. In other words, Futurism celebrated the machine in a fundamentally naïve way: they embraced it as a symbol of modernity, but failed to grasp the practical aspects of technology. For that reason, Sant’ Elia’s designs remained on the drawing board. Nevertheless, Sant’ Elia was influential. His work had a major influence on science fiction texts throughout the twentieth century in both cinema and literature. Above all, Futurism anticipated a technological future and had a profound influence on the Modernist design of those who followed.
1 Marinetti quoted in Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism p31.
2 Marinetti quoted in Kenneth Frampton Modern Architecture: A Critical History p86.
3 Marinetti quoted in Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism p32.
4 Marinetti quoted in Kenneth Frampton Modern Architecture: A Critical History p87.
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