Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Modern Baroque of Armando Brasini

Brasini's proposal for the regularization of the Vatican Borgo.

When Ralph Adams Cram died in 1942, one of his obituarists described him as the "One Major Forgotten Man" who, despite gigantic fame during his lifetime, would nonetheless see an eclipse of his reputation in the years after his death. Indeed, most of Cram's generation--Ninian Comper, Charles Maginnis, James Gamble Rogers and the rest--have been largely forgot until only recently. I recall seeing very little in my youth (by which I mean about five or six years ago) on the great Gothicists, eclectics and classicists of the first part of the twentieth century, with the exception of canonical standouts like McKim, Mead and White, who, while brilliant, had a plain-vanilla aura which strongly contrasted with the more interesting, innovating traditionalism of lesser-known architects such as Delano and Aldrich or Bertram Goodhue. Now, of course, they're everywhere. Cram's old firm is producing churches again, and the likes of Arthur Brown and John Russell Pope are all over the bookshelves in shiny new monographs if one at least finds the right shelf or noodles around online.

One continental member of this generation that still remains lost is the Italian Armando Brasini, whose career stretched into the early 1960s. Indeed, the only print references in English I have found for him are in the postmodernist Robert Venturi's groundbreaking if in retrospect somewhat silly book Learning from Las Vegas, which suggested there was more to life than modernist streamlining; and Walter C. Kidney's sympathetic and rather charming 1974 book on twentieth-century eclecticism, The Architecture of Choice. In both instances, his name is unfortunately spelled wrong. My own only really substantive reference for him is L'opera architettonica e urbanistica di Armando Brasini dall'urbe Massima al Ponte sullo stretto di Messina published in 1979, an enormous and rather flimsy paperback edition of which I purchased in Rome when I was studying there. Unfortunately my Italian is rather rusty, so I defer to our readers if they find any mistakes.

Brasini's work is by no means from the same Anglo-American universe as Cram and Goodhue; Kidney's designation of all of them as Eclectics is useful up to a point, though stylistic purity was of more importance to some rather than others. (Personally, as a stylistic omnivore, I cannot help being swayed by Ninian Comper's theories of "unity by inclusion," and the more extravagantly prodigal juggling-acts of men like James Gamble Rogers, who once built one range of buildings at Yale with elevations in two different styles to bridge a transition between Gothic and Georgian quadrangles). On the whole all embraced the styles as theaters of experiment and development, some cautiously and others rather more boldly, and indeed some very new and beautiful varieties of architecture came out of this laboratory.

Another rendering from his proposal for the Vatican Borgo.

Brasini's work is intriguing as he applies that same vigor, bold massing and sense of experiment to the Roman Baroque. He is not necessarily the only one, as quite a few churches were built on the outskirts of Rome in a modernized or even streamlined Baroque style in the late twenties up to the early fifties. The most famous is probably the plain, facistic-looking miniature St. Peter's at EUR outside Rome but most were far more pleasant and much less ideological. On the whole, Brasini largely eschewed the 'futurism' in vogue during the Fascist period (and his career began and ended long before and after that era), and even submitted (for better or worse) some sketches for a competition to design a Palace of Soviets in Moscow.

Brasini's most interesting and most successful work, however, was ecclesiastical, though he also engaged in a variety of rather fanciful urban-design projects (including some very grand proposals for Rome itself, as seen above--though it is unclear to me if this predates or postdates the disastrous intervention of Mussolini in the same spot--and some odder outliers like one design for Riyadh in Arabia), public buildings, film sets, monuments (including a lighthouse-shaped monument to Christianity whose purpose still remains rather obscure to me) and even bridges. Sometimes they are more impressive than beautiful, giving a sort of unintentionally Goodhuesque strength to Roman Baroque, and others retain the delicacy of their original models, if perhaps at times developing them in intriguing new directions. While not at the level of the great masters Bernini and Borromini, and by no means a substitute for them, Brasini's work suggests paths for a future classicism undoubtedly worth exploring.

A proposal to complete the absent dome of Sant' Ignazio in Rome.

The interior of the proposed dome.

The Buon Pastore Orphanage outside Rome (1940).

One of several designs for a votive church in the Roman suburb of Parioli. Begun in the 1920s, it was not consecrated until 1954; the dome remains unbuilt.

Details of another variant plan for the Parioli church.

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