From their origins, the universal exhibitions served as a showcase for their host country best achievements. The issue immediately arose: build only temporary buildings or even a few permanent facilities?
Each of these major events sought to respond to this alternative. England had originally reassembled the Crystal Palace from the 1851 exposition; a fire finally destroyed it in 1936. The symbol in 1889 of the French Revolution centenary, France retained the Eiffel Tower. Then for 1900 Paris built the Grand and the Petit Palais – designed from the outset in stone and metal to help re-equip the French capital with more efficient or elegant museums and exhibition halls. The same strategy in 1937, with the remodeling of the Trocadéro into the Palais de Chaillot – now housing several museums and a theater. Italy went even further, planning in 1936 to build a complete set of buildings, which could serve after the exhibition planned in 1942 – celebrating actually the 20th anniversary of the fascist dictatorship – as a veritable new urban district for Rome.
Since its inception, Mussolini's regime hesitated between nationalist assurance in regained Roman power and the temptation to convince the world by tangible proof of this same preponderance. Likewise, the country was experiencing heated debates over which architectural form would best express fascist grandeur. Renovation of the past, or modern affirmation? Two architects had a pivotal action in this controversy: Armando Brasini (1879-1965) and Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960). Their academic training certainly predisposed them to continue a certain Italian tradition. The former practiced a renewed and often exacerbated version of the Baroque heritage. The second partly changed his approach thanks to his urban works in Bergamo, Brescia, Genoa. The two strongly opposed each other during the 1920s, over the difficult remodeling of Rome. Brasini produced nostalgic and phantasmagorical monumental projects, while Piacentini gradually accepted a relative modernization of the classical vocabulary, including in his Casa Madre dei Mutilati headquarters. In comparison, the youngers Mario De Renzi (1897-1967), Adalberto Libera (1903-1963) Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943), diffused or campaigned for a true modern fascist creativity. Terragni produced with the Como Casa del Fascio in 1932 a manifesto of modern Italian Rationalism; De Renzi and Libera co-signed in 1933 the equally functionalist Poste in Via Marmorata in Rome.
Several major works in the capital city center, or the founding of new cities, allowed various trends to express themselves. Among others, in 1934 and 1937 the two phases of the competition for the Palazzo Littorio, to be built near the Colosseum had brought together some of the best Italian architects of the time. Among them, Terragni, De Renzi, Libera, Giuseppe Vaccaro (1896-1970), Luigi Moretti (1906-1973), or Enrico Del Debbio (1891-1973) associated with Arnaldo Foschini (1884-1968), and even finally Luigi Vietti (1903-1998). Vaccaro was finishing the abstract and solemn Post of Naples; Moretti just worked on the Foro Mussolini general plan, where Del Debbio signed several key buildings. Foschini cooperated with Piacentini in the realization of the La Sapienza University. Vietti in turn tried to break through with proposals between modernity and emphasis. The Palazzo Littorio excited both the imagination of the architects to shape this symbol of the regime and the harsh feuds between rival factions.
The contradictory signals sent by the dictator to artistic circles complicated the task. The balance of power between the dignitaries of the regime also imposed upheavals. Foreign policy choices had also an impact on the work of architects. Thus, the brutal invasion of Ethiopia provided fascism with a nationalist triumph, by expanding out of the Italian peninsula. However, war crimes – including the use of gas against civilian populations – tarnished the international image of a country moreover overtaken by the 1930s world economic crisis. The EUR project was therefore initiated in a troubled climate. Growing difficulties both financial and diplomatic added problems to the already tense situation created by the rhetorical gesticulations of an authority claiming more and more a natural link with the glorious imperial heritage of antiquity. Even the rapprochement with Nazi Germany was far from smooth, the two tyrants quarreling over several key issues. During an exchange with Albert Speer (1905-1981), his privileged builder, Hitler meanly mocked Piacentini – to the point of seeing in him a nullity ... Between Rome and Berlin, architecture thus also entered into this rivalry between totalitarian plans.
Carefully chosen, the site remained far from the city center, towards the port of Ostia. The ultimate objective: to facilitate the development of the capital in this area. The wide urban layouts benefited from the experience of Piacentini and Luigi Piccinato (1899-1983) – then working to create Sabaudia, one of the new fascist towns. The EUR also accelerated the reinforcement already planned since the 1920s of the railway network, Piacentini preparing the plans for a Via Imperiale between the sea, the exhibition and Rome.
The first sketches surprise by their extreme modernity, so different from Piacentini’s evolved classicism. This visionary imagination rather hints at the influence of Giuseppe Pagano (1896-1945), an ardent defender of a contemporary conception in the Casabella review. Despite their differences, Piacentini and Pagano nevertheless managed to combine well their reciprocal capacities in the Italian Pavilion at the Paris 1937 exhibition. Initially, this two-headed synthesis between tradition and innovation presaged a EUR ecumenically bringing together several creative processes. As part of the planning team, Vietti also tipped the scales for innovative solutions.
This encouraged declared moderns such as Terragni and Libera to join competitions in 1938 for the exhibition key buildings, including the Palazzo dei Congressi. Despite being a sincere fascist militant, Terragni’s rigorous functionalism immediately collided with the regime's desire for prestige. More aware of the stakes and the balance of power, Libera found a convincing compromise between formal simplification and ancient memories. The purist volumes of his project remain abstract, while the vast ridge vault covering the aula magna recalls the imperial baths glorious precedents – those built under Emperors Trajan, Caracalla and Diocletian. Still oscillating between two poles, the ambiguous Piacentini weighed with authority for modifications to the project – insisting that Libera adds a colonnade on the facade. If the latter achieved a still abstract general arrangement, the columns of the porch seem a superfluous collage, less structural than ornamental.
Despite this concession, Libera's radical work offended Mussolini – who immediately demanded architectural choices reflecting more the Italian national heritage. Following the Duce intervention, Pagano and Vietti lost any active role in operations – the favorite Piacentini henceforth becoming the sole true master of the EUR. The message passed to the other builders, who quickly moved away from rationalist options and embraced the more monumental vision sought.
Mario De Renzi, Luigi Figini (1903-1984) and Gino Pollini (1903-1991) therefore transformed their modern initial hypothesis for the Forze Armate pavilion, endowing it with simplified exterior porticoes and colonnades. This cosmetic dressing satisfies the desire for Roman magnificence. At the same time, Marcello Canino (1895-1970) used a similar strategy for the Mostra d'Oltremare in Naples. In the same way, the collective bringing together Pietro Aschieri (1889-1952), Cesare Pascoletti (1898-1986), Gino Peressutti (1883-1940) and Domenico Bernardini (1902-1991?) designed the Palazzo per la Mostra della Romanità as an ostentatious imperial decor. Here a majestic colonnade at the back of the courtyard connects the two exhibition buildings. These have theatrically carved accesses between rows of columns. Peressutti having contributed to the construction of Cinecittà film studios, the team knew how to stage architecture through spatial effects. Daedalus from which a minotaur can emerge! This bombastic Fascist Era Romanity has colonnades that seem to march like a goose step... Similarly, Ernesto Lapadula (1902-1968) put aside his previous rationalist works, making the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana the most pompous of the EUR buildings. A large square block with six levels of arches, the thing affirms an overwhelming abstract geometric character. Oppressive solitude of travertine masses… This megalomaniacal delirium would become almost the stone equivalent of Giorgi de Chirico’s (1888-1978) metaphysical paintings... This earned it the fairly justified nickname of Square Colosseum!
While Luigi Moretti also prepared for the Piazza Imperiale a curious project for an amphitheater surmounted by an antique temple facade, most of the other facilities chose more reasonable solutions. For example, Gaetano Minnuci (1896-1980) made the Palazzo degli Uffici a rather sober administrative site, where rhetorical effort is deployed above all in the rear portico, with its bas-reliefs exalting the Roman imperial past, and a refined garden. This received the full attention of Raffaele de Vico (1881-1969), a specialist in parks and fountains. His work at the EUR brought a little elegance and natural life to a very mineral or too hieratic urban ensemble.
Giovanni Muzio (1893-1982), Mario Paniconi (1904-1973) and Giulio Pediconi (1906-1999) used in the double exedra of the INA-INPS Palaces a device of course inspired by antiquity – but with restricted formal treatment, avoiding unnecessary effects. The mass took precedence over the ostentatious effects. Finally, religion was not forgotten. Arnaldo Foschini designed the Santi Pietro e Paolo Basilica. Here a good balance was found between remembrance of centered plans and Renaissance domes, with contemporary formal simplification.
However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the cancellation of the exhibition. Some works were nevertheless continued even during the conflict, others abandoned. This was the case with the Forest Institute, designed by Brasini, whose very imperial Roman-style colonnade remained unfinished. After the war, the architect proposed converting the building into a church. Without success: the structure was demolished.
A few builders who cooperated with the EUR continued after the fall of the regime with fine careers. Two notable exceptions: Pagano and Lapadula. The former did not spare his sharp criticisms against the monumental drift of fascist architecture, an opposition which ended up pushing him to join the resistance. Arrested, he was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp where he died. The second, too identified as the author of an architectural symbol of fascism, emigrated to Argentina. As for Moretti, he then dedicated himself to the international dissemination of Italian modernity. Vietti chose an entirely different path, devoting himself to the picturesque treatment of Italian seaside resorts. EUR's conductor of operations, Piacentini, continued to act on the site – co-signing in 1957 the Palazzo dello Sport with engineer Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979). This daring structure marked the beginning of the district transformation. Henceforth the architects were turning away from the emphatic fascist taste, returning to a functionalism closer to international style.
Evidence of the tensions running through the architectural milieu under Mussolini, even with a new function these monuments continue the regime pretentious discourses. This rather spectral testimony of fascist dreams seems to have escaped the artist De Chirico anguished visions. As if his paintings had ended up contaminating reality, imposing themselves in the real Roman city.