Autarky and Material Contingencies in Italian Architectural Debate (1936-1954)
On 3 October 1935, Mussolini’s fascist regime invaded Ethiopia with undesired but foreseeable consequences for its imperialist aims: four days after the conquest, the Society of Nations imposed economic sanctions, promoting an international economic blockade. This soon translated in both a control of foreign currencies in order to purchase iron and steel on the international markets, and a vociferous campaign discouraging the use of materials that were demanded by the military endeavour. Architecture as a discipline and all the industrial activity around it suffered from government directions as well as the scarcity and control of commodities. Hence, its discourse accommodated to the new material situation. National and autochthonous values came to the fore, promoting local materials like wood or stone for construction as well as artificial and newly created ones.
By the end of the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s the dispute about available materials became one of the main concerns in Italian architecture. If during the immediate past the defence of modern materials was traditionally articulated around technical and social values, the battle in interwar Italy was understood in political and economic terms. After stigmatising modern materials such as iron and steel as ‘antinational’, the dispute between those who recognised in modern techniques a threat to traditional Italian architecture, and those embracing the formal and intellectual basis of the modern movement, became predominantly ideological and represented both sides of the political spectrum. This paper examines the way these interwar debates were shaped by economic policy, political ideology, and material scarcity, and in turn affected architectural production during Italy’s postwar reconstruction.
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