MIT: Comparisons to Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova

Tony Kim
MAS.110 Paper 1

1. Background and Introduction:

At the exhibition “Nuove Tendenze” of May 1914, there emerged a number of surreal drawings of then-unusual buildings and novel town-planning ideas under the title Citta Nuova. The creator, the Italian architect Antonio Sant’Elia, accompanied this exhibition with a denunciatory Messagio – later reworked as “The Manifesto of Futurist Architecture” – a polemical treatise attacking what Sant’Elia perceived to be the sorry state of architectural practice. In it, he charged:

“The problem of Modern architecture is not a problem of rearranging its lines; not a question of finding new mouldings; new architraves for doors and windows… But to raise the new-built structure on a sane plan, gleaning every benefit of science and technology… rejecting all that is heavy, grotesque and unsympathetic to us (tradition, style, aesthetics, proportion.).” [1]

Thus, in the place of historical customs and conventions, Sant’Elia proposed a vision of a Modern city that took the form of a “gigantic machine.” [2] Central to his Citta Nuova concept is the electrifying dynamism championed by his futurist contemporaries. Sant’Elia embraced the ideal of motion and activity. And as Marinetti had claimed few years prior that the “roaring car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” [3] Sant’Elia replaced classical elegance (“We must resolve the problem of Modern architecture without cribbing photographs of China, Persia or Japan”[4]) with the vision of an “immense, and tumultuous shipyard” as the model human environment.

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Several architectural features found on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus reflect on city design theories originally championed by Sant’Elia. In particular, the Italian architect’s de-emphasis on the autonomy of buildings, his obsession with circulation are apparent consistently throughout the campus.

2. Some components of Sant'Elia's futuristic city:

The obsession with circulation:

A striking aspect of Sant’Elia’s design is his de-emphasis on the autonomy of buildings. That is, his design choices for the Citta Nuova implicitly reflect on the futurist philosophy of beauty in motion, and correspondingly seek to promote the unfettered circulation of objects – people, automobiles, trains, etc. – through what Banham calls a “knot”-like design in city planning: each structure is connected to its neighbors by a “network of multi-level circulation at their feet.” [5]

In “La Citta Nuova, detail” (above) Sant’Elia demonstrates this concept by converging the various channels of transportation – glass and metal walkways, highways and railways – at various heights near the base of the structure. The critic Carlo Ragghianti has characterized this aspect of Sant’Elia’s work as his “obsession with circulation.” This fascination, he writes, manifests itself in the Citta Nuova “vertically, horizontally and at times even obliquely and elliptically. Traffic channels penetrate everywhere, and are the only structures that have been determined… What else does the Citta Nuova do other than circulate?” [6]

The lobby of building 7 displays a similar consideration for the circulation of the community. There are a total of nine connections visible from the ground floor converging at the atrium of the structure, with each set of three stacked on top of the other. Such a vertical stack maximizes the amount of traffic that can flow in a limited space. And according to Banham, Sant’Elia seems to have anticipated this solution as well, as he utilized in some drawings “as much as seven levels [of complex network of transport services]” [7] beneath the ground floor to achieve maximum output.

Like the structures in Sant’Elia’s design, the seemingly disparate entities of MIT campus are interconnected with a surprising variety of linkages. A few are shown below. (Note that the element of stacking appears here again.)

Naturally, most of the Maclaurin buildings (the series of Romanesque buildings surrounding Killian court) and others in its immediate vicinity are thoroughly interconnected. However, these subtle passages connect even seemingly solitary elements such as the Dreyfus building, which sits on its own island, and even the monolithic Green Building to the rest of the campus. (Bottom left, the triple-tiered passage connects Dreyfus to the Whitaker building, which in turn is connected to the main campus.)

On the bottom right is a sky bridge over Albany Street that connects the Francis Bitter magnet lab directly to the Plasma science and fusion center. While the structures are modest, each of these numerous channels reveals the similarities between the priorities of the MIT community and those of Sant’Elia’s envisioned city: the ideal of circulation is of utmost importance.

MIT, the underground city:

Reverberating Marinetti’s call that “Time and Space died yesterday,” [8] Sant’Elia wrote in the Messagio that technology had advanced to a point where traditional constraints in architecture had lost their meaning. For instance:

“The street, which, itself, will no longer lie like a doormat at the level of the thresholds, but plunge storeys deep into the earth, gathering up the traffic of the metropolis connected for necessary transfers.” [9]

The Citta Nuova envisions an underground network which responds to the transportation needs of the community. The underground network system that exists below MIT achieves these goals. As seen on the photograph below, the network weaves various buildings throughout the campus into one whole: through the passages, even the solitary Green building can be accessed, and one could potentially get to MIT Medical, on the eastern edge of the campus, from Massachusetts Avenue without setting a foot outside. (Handy for East Coast winters, I’m sure)

Aesthetically, I find it difficult to remain unimpressed as Sant’Elia, in his depictions, peels away the material ground to reveal complicated and definite structures below. The vision instantly strikes me with a sense of the impossible. At various sites on campus, I feel the same awe when imagining that underground structures exist, despite my disbelief, for instance, under the Eastman and McDermott Courts. (The above right image is the passage leading from the humanities library to the Dreyfus building.)

Numerous buildings at MIT reveal that underground space is not utilized solely in the interests of transportation; instead, as modern engineers and architects are equipped with more sophisticated and advanced building techniques, they reveal an instinctual eagerness to “dig in.” For example, the Stratton Student Center and Kresge Oval have significant portions its volume submerged into the ground. And the free usage of underground space, for instance, in the Media Lab and the newly-built Stata center (the largest entrance into the Media Lab directly leads to the “Lower Level” and the Stata center houses three floors below ground level that are not visible from the exterior) certainly answer Sant’Elia’s call to “plunge storeys deep into the earth.”

3. Evaluation:

Sant’Elia’s Messagio and Citta Nuova are in part reactions by an architectural community that, with the advent of new technologies, found itself no longer confined by the limits of traditional practice. Sant’Elia responded to this freedom by eagerly encouraging builders to advance with “cold calculation” and “temerious boldness” to fully translate these new ideas into practice.

Various sites at MIT too express an eagerness to transform technological knowledge into reality: Sant’Elia’s call to “plunge,” in particular, has been answered with vigor by the various designers behind the MIT campus.

Commitment to efficient circulation is a common theme in both the MIT campus and Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. At MIT, many of the structural elements that make up Sant’Elia’s creation – floating passages and underground networks, for example – are apparent. Although Reyner Banham laments that “the possibility of a Futurist architecture perished with Sant’Elia in 1916,” [10] an archetype of the futurist city has taken root at MIT.


[1] Banham 128.
[2] Ibid 129.
[3] Marinetti, F.T. "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism." Accessed 26 Sept. 2005.
[4] Banham 129.
[5] Ibid 133
[6] da Costa Meyer 121
[7] Banham 133
[8] Marinetti, F.T. "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism."
[9] Banham 129
[10] Ibid 135

Banham, Reyner. Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

da Costa Meyer, Esther . The Work of Antonio Sant'Elia: Retreat into the Future. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
(The various works of Sant'Elia were scanned from da Costa Meyer's book.)