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palazzo delle poste di agrigento, sicily 1932-34.

architect: angiolo mazzoni, 1894-1979.

 

we went to palermo for its medieval architecture but true to our meandering travels, we were sidetracked during a detour as we passed by mazzoni's post office in agrigento on a daytrip to see the valley of temples.

 

old agrigento sits on a hilltop with the new town below. mazzoni placed his cylindrical post office right on the edge between the two, the house appearing as a one storey building to the old town and a four storey building to the new with an exterior and an interior staircase offering connections. the exterior staircase is particularly good as it cuts into the building which itself cuts into the hillside. google maps shows it well, even if the circular geometry of the plan is distorted in the collage of satellite images.

 

despite its formal purity, the building is effectively tied into the local topography - not romantically, not continuing the landscape by other means or treading lightly; rather, it takes charge, orders and resolves in the spirit of roman architecture. the luxurious and somewhat overwhelming pink marble cladding is also roman at heart and even if the lack of ornament makes it appear loosian, we mustn't forget that the ideology was something different from the critical stance of karl kraus' best friend.

 

ideology aside, I haven't been entirely fair to mazzoni (here and here). he did excellent work outside palermo. his buildings fluctuate between overblown fascist rhetoric and some much finer work in that strange, pared down classicism often identified with the school of metaphysical painters in italy.

 

while the post office in agrigento falls under the latter category, mazzoni himself no doubt fell under the first. he was that rare thing, an unapologetic, unremitting fascist and left for south america when the war was lost to continue his career in bogota. at least you knew where you had him. I have always felt uncomfortable about the way fascism seemed to evaporate from europe in 1945. did everyone really change their mind at once?

 

mazzoni was closely connected with the government and his many train stations and post offices around italy were at the heart of mussolini's program to modernize and unify the young state, effectively making them the official architecture of fascist italy. as such, it is interesting to find that the post office in agrigento also acts as a memorial to the dead in the first world war. when you think about it, it is only the second, symbolic function which fully justifies the shape of the building - the cylindrical tomb being a stable of roman burial architecture.

 

it is more difficult to find the connection between the two functions, unless we see them as two central aspects of fascist myth: one is part of the whole "trains-on-time" story which you still hear about mussolini: he made the infrastructure of the country work - and judging by the building activity, he more or less created the infrastructure, so there could be something to it - the other is about defining what happened in italy 1915-1918.

 

what did happen was a self-inflicted tragedy of unbelievable proportions. the italian government had joined england and france in 1915 in order to win habsburg territory and "honour" for their country. they could have stayed out of the war but saw it as an opportunity.

 

as it turned out, they had neither the leadership nor the equipment to wage war. what they did have was a supply of young italian men who were massacred by the hundreds of thousands, not so much by the austro-hungarian army as by their own generals who sent them on suicide missions and even ordered the decimation of own troops on failure to win. and there was plenty of failure.

 

in the end, italy had lost more men in proportion to its population than england. the country was traumatized, a generation of men were dead, finances were in ruins and political chaos ensued. the stage was set for the fascists. to a nation in need of coming to terms with the biggest catastrophe of its brief history, they offered sweet denial. victims became heroes and sense was made of the senseless. the world would pay for their lies.

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Taken on November 23, 2009