Giuseppe Terragni, Novocomum (1928-1929)
Commissioned in 1927, Novocomum is a residential building designed by the architect Giuseppe Terragni and erected (1929-1930) outside the city centre of Como. Thanks to its geometric appearance, based on joint volumes matching together, it is considered the first example of the architectural Rationalism. Five floors high and built on a trapezoidal parcel (section of land), it hosted offices and apartments in a modern structure of reinforced concrete, glass and iron. In order to highlight the linear identity of the building, Terragni decided to use different shades: hazel and yellow for the facades, orange for the recesses of the structure and the windows and blue for the balcony railings, while the supporting parts were left in concrete. The building was immediately popular, and its plaster scale model was exhibited in Rome in 1928 and 1930 at the Esposizione Italiana dell’Architettura Razionale. It was not universally popular, however, and there were those who sought who discredit the building, nicknaming it 'transatlantico' (transatlantic) on account of its unusual ocean liner look. After WWII, Novocomum was restored by Luigi Zuccoli who completely transformed it, substituting its coloured surfaces with mosaic tiles. A more recent restoration intervention attempted to give the building back its original shades.
A New Theorization of the Relationship Between Subjectivity and Objectivity
The Rationalization of Aesthetics: the Straight Line
While Muzio’s Ca’ Brutta can be considered a manifesto of the architectural Novecento, Novocomum (1928-1929), designed by Giuseppe Terragni, is the symbol of Rationalism. The first was erected in the centre of Milan, the second in a peripheral area of Como, not far from the Cosia River and Lake Como. Together, these two residential buildings represent a huge architectural and aesthetic change: they are two focal points of modern, urban architecture within the same region. Built over the course of two years, Novocomum was a controversial structure from the outset: criticised and glorified at the same time, it has become a symbol of modernity. The architect Giuseppe Pagano, as one of Terragni’s strongest supporters, sustained that he was able to design the ‘house of the future’.
Externally, Novocomum is a modern composition of geometric shapes intersecting each other: it is a parallelepiped of reinforced concrete lightened by full and empty spaces that jutting out and drawing back from the facades. The glass cylinders embedded at the corners, where Terragni placed the staircases, soften the building’s connection between inside and outside, and between the facade and the sides. Dominated by contrasting spaces and lighting, colour and materials play a significant role too. The external innovation, though, contrasts with the interior, which is shaped according to a conventional ‘intensive housing’ outline: hinged along a central axis (a long corridor that goes through the entire length of the building), all the apartment units differ from each other, having thus different light, space and view conditions.
Ultimately, the building is a contradictory combination of a futuristic perspective and a traditional residential structure. It is the embodiment of the aesthetic principles that will become so common in Terragni’s following works, being a volumetric composition where the geometric pattern is the basic module of the entire planning. But while Casa del Fascio and Danteum were politically representative public places, ‘houses’ for power, Novocomum is the first design which addresses a private sphere that was particularly significant during the Fascist era: that of the family. This model can be thus considered a milestone in the architect’s career, as it was to be remembered, repeated and then amplified on a major scale within the planning of the neighbourhood of Rebbio. As the first and iconic sample of a ‘new architecture’, representative of the regime, Novocomum is a complex building, the context of which is now more difficult to understand because of its restoration and the subsequent urbanisation of the area of Como in which it is located. There is, however, a motif connecting its presence over the years, giving the building a striking ‘authority’: an impressive predominant linearity that goes from the flat roof to the metallic profiles of the balconies, from the triangular flights of stairs to the series of windows. A combination of circles, triangles and lines that ultimately represents multiple key moments: it is the official beginning of the Italian Rationalism, a new architectural chapter wholly detached from Liberty and all the other revivals; it was the first step in Terragni’s career and, from another point of view, it represents the political appropriation of an aesthetic code.
Ciucci, Giorgio (ed.). 1996. Giuseppe Terragni 1904-1943. Milan: Electa.
Marcianò, Ada Francesca. 2008. Giuseppe Terragni. Opera completa 1925-1943. Rome: Officina edizioni.