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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rome's most famous Building that Never Was: the Arch for E42

It may be Rome's most important building--that is, among those that were never constructed. Certainly the architects and engineers involved--Pier Luigi Nervi, Adalberto Libera, Gino Covre, Vicenzo di Berardino, among others--were top-notch.  And the stakes were high.  According to one authority, had it been built "it would have become the symbol of modern Rome."  Likely true.

Via dell'Impero, 1938 illustration
The "building" was not even quite that.  It was an arch, but a spectacular one, intended as the centerpiece of the grand exposition E42--a world's fair, really.  The fair was designed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Fascism (the 1922 March on Rome) and, then, to become a model suburban neighborhood in the south of Rome.  The great world fairs of the past had been represented by, and left behind, iconic constructions: London's Crystal Palace from the 1851 fair, Paris's Eiffel Tower from 1889 and, it was expected, Rome's triumphal "Arch of the Empire," from its 1942 extravaganza.  A gateway to Rome, from the south, just as a planned 100-meter "Colossus of Mussolini" at the Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico) would have functioned as a gateway from the north.

The arch was not to be.  The war intervened, of course, and the half-finished grounds of EUR--the Esposizione Universale di Roma--would become a staging area for German and then American armies.  But it wasn't only the war.  An arch on the scale imagined, up to 600 meters wide and 240 meters high, proved an enormous technological challenge.

Virtual reconstruction of the final plan for E42.
Had it been built, it would have been sited in the southern portion of EUR, more or less where Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport (1960) now stands, Some argue that the arch would have been just to the south of Nervi's stadium, but in models it appears it would have been closer to the EUR lake, in front of, or perhaps in the middle of, the space now occupied by Nervi's building.

Ortensi/Pascoletti, et. al. design in steel, set against
model of St. Peter's
The idea for a grand arch of spectacular dimensions (600 x 240 meters, dwarfing St. Peter's) first emerged in 1937.  At that time, two groups offered elaborate plans and specifications for a proposed arch.  One group, led by engineers Dagoberto Ortensi, Cesare Pascoletti, Adelchi Cirella and Covre, offered an arch made of steel--a "spectacular metal arch," according to the plans.

Libera/di Berardino design in cement, 1938
Another group, led by Libera and di Berardino, offered an arch in concrete, inspired by a contest-winning painting of an arch by Ludivico Quaroni, soon to become a well-known poster.

Materials made a difference.  One issue that seems a trifle silly now, but was then of considerable importance, was whether the materials for the arch were "autarchic"--that is, able to be produced within Italy, rather than imported.  The Libera/di Berardino group's first proposal, in 1937, envisioning an arch in non-reinforced concrete, had appeal because Italy produced concrete.  The group also presented a proposal for an arch in reinforced concrete, somewhat less autarchic, perhaps. Nervi argued later that both arches--in reinforced and non-reinforced concrete--were feasible and could be built with Italian materials.  Steel, the favored material of the Ortensi/Pascoletti group, would have to be imported.

As it happened, steel and concrete were both thrown under the bus in April 1939, when E42 President Vittorio Cini announced that the arch would be built in "Italian aluminum''--that is,
Vittorio Cini, gesturing center right, picture of
arch behind and, in the model, at right
"absolute autarchy."  Cini asked that bygones be bygones, and that the two groups come together to jointly solve whatever problems might arise.  And they did, though Nervi would argue that the aluminum was less than fully autarchic because of the ancillary materials required in its production.  In any event, once aluminum was chosen, the arch's dimensions were reduced.  The "final" specifications called for an arch with a 330 meter span and about 200 meters high--smaller than once imagined, but still quite something.  Even with the reduced dimensions, the arch envisioned was to have a system of carriages inside, conveying groups of people to a restaurant/recreation area at the top.  Some even imagined a platform for parachuting to the ground.

Ad campaign idea from the Mussolini regime.  Ship
owners nixed it as unsafe.  
Mussolini was infatuated with the E42 project and, especially, with the arch.  The Duce scribbled: "Arch=E42 and vice-versa."  For a time it looked as if it might happen.  In the late 1930s and early 1940s the arch became a feature of many advertising campaigns--one envisioned ocean liners and commercial ships sporting large on-deck arches; and E42 and its iconic arch were widely promoted at the 1939/40 New York World's Fair.

Ludovico Quaroni's 1937 poster for
E42.  Saarinen's St. Louis design (1948)
was- for some - uncomfortably similar.
The technical problems were not solved by the time the war came to Italy and Rome.  In the 1950s, the idea was set aside for other building priorities, and decisions that one scholar describes as "A pity, not least because there was very little ideologically to be attributed to the Arch," which was, he
argues, even then all about peace and solidarity with other countries.  Not so.  From the beginning, the Arch was deeply identified with Italian Fascism and with Fascist ideology: the drive to the sea, the desire for territorial expansion.  From the beginning, it was understood as "The Arch of the Empire." That's why Mussolini so desperately wanted it built.

St. Louis Arch, under construction, c. 1965
Today, there is renewed interest in building an arch in EUR.  In 2007, the Rome City Council approved a small amount of money, some 30,000 Euros, for very preliminary plans and discussions for a project that was estimated then at 70 million Euros--an extraordinary amount for a city that can't afford to fix potholes.  Some are suggesting an international competition for an arch to "symbolize universal peace," an idea apparently broached by Piacentini in 1937.

It's not hard to imagine that an arch would be an attractive complement to EUR and perhaps draw tourists to the area.  Unfortunately, it's been done.  It seems likely that architect Eero Saarinen got the idea from posters and designs and publicity for E42.  Regardless, he built the arch, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, in St. Louis, almost 50 years ago.  The horse is out of the barn, as they say.

For photos and commentary on the E42 arch--past and present configurations--see L'Arco dell'E42, Supplement to C.E.S.A.R, March-April 2009, a softcover large-format book available in Rome at the Casa dell' Architettura bookshop in the  l'Aquario building, near the Termini station.  On the relationship between the arch intended for E42 and Saarinen's St. Louis Arch, see William Graebner, "Gateway to Empire: An Interpretation of Eero Saarinen's 1948 Design for the St. Louis Arch," Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, 18 (1993): 367-399, reprinted in Italian in Ventesimo Secolo (May-December, 1994). 


Design for "Arch of Peace" with a new square, 2009.

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