The original Modernists’ emblems of space-time

A remote branch of the Italian Futurist movement, known as the Tuscan Group (or Gruppo Toscano), no doubt surprised many when they won Mussolini’s endorsement for their Florence Santa Maria Novella railway station, that they had designed in the Modernist style. Mussolini, like most despots, preferred revivalist classicism.

That was in 1932. Less than two decades earlier, also in Italy, Antonio Sant’Elia had exhibited his Futurist visions of buildings dedicated to anything that moved (most notably, trains). One year before him, the Italian Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni had displayed a fascination with the movement, or "dynamism", of bicycles. At its heart Modernist architecture was a celebration of transport machines, and by implication a celebration of a new way of thinking about space, not in terms of inches or miles, but in terms of the units used to measure a newly discovered spatial dimension: time. Today we take this way of thinking for granted, and would thus rather say Florence is 2 hours from Rome, via train, than say Florence is 200km from Rome (a fact I just had to look up, using I know for sure that my office is half an hour from my home via bike, but am not so sure as to the exact distance. Where I live we all know Newcastle is 2 hours from Sydney by car, though I only have a vague idea that it might be 140 something kilometers away, if measured length-wise. 
I’m reiterating something I wrote in an earlier post, that making Einstein central to our understanding of Modernism and its emblems, helps us see bicycles, alongside trains, as equally emblematic to Modernist art, as cars are. The car became such a dominant symbol because cheap oil made the car key to the way post-war cities took shape. As that oil dries up though, room is being made for old symbols of time-space to come back to the fore. (Hmm, there might be an abstract in that last paragraph!)

What does this have to do with a Futurist’s railway station in Florence? Not much, except that I was there recently, and found it smothered in bikes.


  1. Anonymous says:

    The oil rony

    Interestingly, if a move from oil-based to manual transport is forced on us, then its just a move from one solar-originated energy to another as both have solar origins. Really, the only feasible non-solar option is nuclear which would require both a major change in our philosophy of transport, as well as trully making transport Einstein-centric (as it would depend explicitly on mass-energy equivalence). Plus, a nuclear-powered bike would go a long way between re-fuels. I’d say there’s more then one abstract in it!

  2. Steven says:

    Oilronic indeed!

    I am reeling from the profundity of your reply! I’m seeing art and architecture to the glory of nuclear powered light speed machines. (Can geothermal be added to nuclear power as non-solar energy form?)
    What I want to know now though, is where things currently stand with regards to nuclear powered bikes, cars, and propulsion footwear. Can nuclear engines be smuggled into tour de france rider’s bikes to help them win sprints or climb mountains???
    Next, I want to know if human are able to consume nuclear energy, preferably in some potent form that makes us very strong in the legs.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Geothermal and tidal are non-solar … but both must be converted to a middle phase (energy storage) prior to use for propulsion on land whereas nuclear powered cycling shoes really should be an off-the-shelf item! I guess an interesting aside is that these non-solar energies could be used to help grow food to fuel manual propulsion. You would struggle to argue an Einsteinian focus in design on the basis of space-time as our observations are typically based on classical relativity. I’d see energy as the conduit.

  4. Steven says:

    You’re killing me with your superior intellect. But I’ll persist. 1. an artist/architect would be happy enough simply representing space-time. Representing the unrepresentable is a famous way of defining contemporary art. But giving users of buildings an actual experience of space time is, as you say, unrealistic. 2. I’d be pleased if you could expand on your comment about energy being a conduit. I sense there’s potential there, that I can’t clearly see. 3. We’re drifting away from the point I started from, which is considering emblems of space-time (that to be honest, I’m bullshitting about and don’t fully grasp). Architects often use emblems, say aeroplanes for example, and design buildings inspired by them. Half the time architects are just washing their bricks and mortar in positive associations that come from suggesting their buildings are Boeings, but nobody minds.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I thought Einstein rode a bike?

  6. Anonymous says:

    He also married his own cousin.

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