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Dissertation Medal Winner 1999

Giovanni Michelucci and the Chiesa dell'Autostrada in Context

Part 1 Dissertation 1999
James Taylor
University of Bath | UK
Giovanni Michelucci was seventy-three years of age when his design for a church, the "Chiesa dell'Autostrada", as it has become known, was completed in 1964. Located at a motorway junction on the outskirts of Florence, it is arguably his most famous work.

Given the vast amount of information on Michelucci, I chose to focus on one aspect that had not been covered before. I aimed to explore, through Michelucci's architecture and writings, the transition he made from the period of fascism of the 1930s (when such buildings as the Florence station were completed) to the beginning of the 1960s when the Chiesa dell'Autostrada was built. In particular to explore apparent radical changes after the Second World War (that were to give rise to the Chiesa dell'Autostrada) through the re-examination of a text that I discovered in the British Library, entitled the "Happiness of an Architect". It was a letter written in 1948 upon Michelucci's resignation from the chair of the Florentine Architectural Faculty, and was an enunciation of his own principles concerning the architect's craft, and how he saw his own role as an architect in society. In attempting to understand Michelucci's development from a pre-war to a post-war approach to architecture it provided a useful focus for the essay.
Michelucci was already fifty-seven when he wrote the "Happiness of an architect" with an established career behind him. A keen advocate of modernism, from his early encounters with the futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, he later become intimately involved with some of the most important Italian Fascist projects from 1932 to 1940. But within the polemical climate of the 1930s, Michelucci managed to maintain an unconstrained position, a balancing act between Rationalist culture and the Academic and authoritarian culture of Marcello Piacentini (the chief architect of the Fascist state). So it was from Piacentini's shadow, more than anyone else's, that Michelucci emerged after the collapse of the regime allowing him to return once again, to the aspirations of his youth: of a modern architecture from within which "tradition" could find new means of expression.
The design of the Chiesa dell'Autostrada itself, Michelucci said, "came out at a time in which I had taken the liberty to sing a song, which I had improvised", and as a result is often classified as the work of an eclectic. However I maintain that with the church, Michelucci attempted to force an architectural logic of distorted forms, the outcome of a continued protest waged against the formal imperative since the days of Rationalism. In this sense it was a revolutionary building, but at the same time the most resolved of his buildings: a resolution of the choices he had made and designs he had tried during the previous decade, while remaining true to the poetics he had described in the "The Happiness of an Architect" in 1948.

James Taylor

Giovanni Michelucci and the Chiesa dell'Autostrada in Context.

This is a thoroughly researched study which refers to little known documentation that exists only in the Italian language (James Taylor translated documents into English himself), and sometimes in obscure publications. It is an original piece of work that presents new connections between Michelucci's theory and practice, and adds to our understanding of Michelucci's approach, which has otherwise been categorised - and wrongly so - as idiosyncratic. The dissertation is fluently written and expertly compiled - it is a joy to read!

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