David Rifkind’s masterful new book is a welcome addition to Italian fascist studies as well as architectural history. It is refreshing to have an in-depth study of one of the formative institutions of Italian modernism: the journal Quadrante, which transformed the practice of architecture in fascist Italy by helping to establish coherence to the modern architecture movement during this time. As we learn, Quadrante, more than any other journal, was the most devoted to developing a unified theory of “architecture of the state,” specifically rationalism, to promote its fascist political agenda. The journal was the most ideologically committed publication of the interwar period. That this even happened is striking given that the short-lived journal was published for only three years between 1933 and 1936 in thirty-one issues.
The most inventive aspects of this solid, well-written, and thoroughly researched book (more than twenty archives were consulted) lies in exploring how the history of architecture is simultaneously a history of mediation and a history of networks. Rifkind’s study emphatically shows us the importance of a journal in mediating or choreographing the reception, understanding, and importance of architecture. While simultaneously a study of media, this book is most certainly a study of architecture (with a capital “A”): classic buildings and projects are discussed in detail (Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in Como, the Stadio Berta in Florence, the Palazzo del Littorio competition in Rome, the master plan of Como). Indeed, this text shows us the extent to which media venues (journals in this case) can be valuable, if not pivotal, architectural building blocks.
Quadrante promised an interdisciplinary approach in its mission statement, and it is thrilling to see how Rifkind successfully mimics this structure in The Battle for Modernism: Quadrante and the Politicization of Architectural Discourse in Fascist Italy. The history of the journal is told in terms of networks—of buildings, master plans, other journals, key players (whether they be architects, engineers, writers, or filmmakers), films, exhibitions (V Triennale di Milan), conferences (CIAM), patrons (Valderami), industrialists (Olivetti), painters (Soldati, Ghiringhelli, Picasso), competitions (such as that for the Palazzo del Littorio), government officials (Bottai), and even bars (meeting places such as the Bar Craja). The reader comes away with a real understanding of the period—what and who (Bardi, Bottoni, Ciocca, Del Debbio, Faludi, Fasolo, Figini, Fiorini, Griffini, Libera, Lingeri, Monotti, Nervi, Pagano, Persico, Piacentini, Pollini, Ponti, Ojetti, Rava, Rogers, Sartoris, Terragni, et al.) were important in terms of the built environment. Some of the figures we meet are household names, some are not. Given all the people, places, and projects mentioned, an index would have been useful.
While we are thoroughly convinced of the importance of Quadrante and the architects circling around the journal, writing articles, serving as editors, and so forth, we are left hungering for information about its reception. Rifkind mentions that as many as five thousand copies of each issue were printed. But where did they go? Who had subscriptions? What schools, libraries, institutions? Were there contemporary subscriptions in the United States? Elsewhere in Europe? How does the circulation of Quadrante compare to other period journals such as Architettura, Domus, or Casabella? How did a wider audience become familiar with the journal? These are important questions since the journal and circle of contributors was very Milan centered (even if the journal was purportedly based in Milan and Rome), and the projects discussed seem very northern. Even Rifkind himself seems reluctant to mention key players from a wider Italian geography such as Michelucci and other members of the Gruppo Toscano. As such, one would like to know how the journal was viewed and received in its time.
Scholars have recently discussed the tremendous aesthetic dissonance during this period and the multiplicity of modernities. This is not Rifkind’s interest. He does not cite these scholars, and we should not necessarily expect it in a study of one journal’s history, a history that was militant in promoting a fascist, rationalist architecture as well as devoted to interpreting international modernism.
We would also like to know more about how Quadrante shaped the field of architectural history. Rifkind remains puzzled by the extent to which Quadrante ignored the work of Luigi Moretti, Gio Ponti, and Angelo Mazzoni, all of whom undertook work that certainly supported the regime. Here we think of Moretti’s stunning fencing academy built at the Foro Mussolini in Rome, Ponti’s tireless efforts editing the influential Casabella, and Mazzoni’s seemingly universal design language developed for Italy’s train stations and post offices. Did Quadrante’s intentional disregard of these projects have important historiographic implications? Does it explain why Mazzoni took so long to catch on? To answer this, we first need to know how influential Quadrante really was. And this speaks to reception.
Quadrante ceased publication in 1936, just as the regime was embarking on its most aggressive imperialist and racist acts (invading Ethiopia being the first of many). It would have been interesting to see what this most fascist of journals had to say. Of course, it would also have been interesting to see how foreign architects such as Le Corbusier might have been rescripted for a country that was becoming increasingly autarchic and anti-French (among other things).
Finally, this is a well-illustrated book. The many illustrations and pages reproduced from Quadrante give the reader a good sense of how the journal was laid out. These are coupled with strategically placed color plates and photographs of extant buildings taken by the author. That said, the book is not pretty. And for this, no blame should be levied against the author. It is off-putting that the book’s cover is dominated by the huge letters “JA” (for the Premio James Ackerman awarded in 2011). Indeed, it is visually more important than the book’s title. This is a shame for a book about a journal that was conscious of its graphic design throughout its print run—choosing cheap newsprint and dense text. I beg for a more integrated approach between design and scholarship. Presses (and, in this case, also their partner in the publication, Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, Vicenza) undermine their own project by not giving more attention to this.