The first half of the 20th century in Europe has been shaped by totalitarianism and fascism. The authoritarian regimes of Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany shaped not only the life of the inhabitants in the respective countries but had an impact on the entire continent. Manifold are the traces left by these regimes. Some of the most striking traces are the enormous building projects pursued by all regimes. Whether the Arco de la Victoria in Madrid, Hitlers megalomaniac projects for Berlin or the construction of the urban quarter Esposizione Universale di Roma in Rome, all undertakings give evidence of the hubris of their builders. Particularly Mussolini’s and Hitler’s plans aimed at something bigger than just architectural taste: Not only did they want to impose their ideology on the citizens but cement it for eternity by shaping entire cities to their liking.
The Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) means World’s Fair of Rome. It was constructed to host the name giving event but was from the start on concepted as an extension of the city. In the 19th century and the the first half of the 20th century the World’s Fairs were popular events and an ideal occasion for nations to showcase their power and capabilities. While Italian interest and participation in World’s Fairs was originally low compared to the other great nations“ of Europe (England, France and Germany), it gradually increased after the Italian unification and attained its hight of popularity around 1900. This lead to the fairs in Milan (1906) and Turin (1911). In October 1922 the ‘March on Rome’ took place and the fascists under Benito Mussolini took power.
The EUR was not only planned as the, olympic games of the cultures“, but also to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the ‘March on Rome’ and the beginning of the fascist era. For this reason the World’s Fair, that was originally scheduled for 1941, was postponed for one year. The agency, responsible for the planning and construction, was created in 1936 and the plans were presented in 1938. As already stated the EUR should not only host the World’s Fair but should, in contrast to former venues which were deconstructed after the fair, be an permanent extension of the city. This is clearly stated in a quote of Mussolini engraved over the arcades of the Palazzo degli Uffici: “The Third Rome will expand upon other hills along the banks of the sacred river until the Tyrrhenian shore.“ Rome should, in the vision of the fascist, be once again the capital of an empire and should not remain in its historic boundaries but stretch down to the shores and incorporate the ancient port city of Ostia.
The imperial ambitions of the fascist regime were also visible in the layout of the building area and the buildings themselves. The whole compound followed the rules of ancient Roman urban planning and was concepted around two main streets, the cardo and the decumanus maximus, effectively dividing the EUR into quarters. The architecture was a mixture of neo-classicism and rationalism styles, invoking a certain aura of grandeur and recalling motives of the Roman Empire (it was even used as a setting for the 1999 movie adaption of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus). The most obvious example being a huge marble relief showing Mussolini clad in uniform and sitting on the back of a horse, partially imitating a statue of the emperor Augustus. The belligerent imagery and the sober functionality of the building are examples of the quintessential fascist style and reflect the contemporary climate of war and aggression. Not only is this climate reflected in style and architecture but it also had quite practical implications: The second basement of the Palazzo degli Uffici was made out of reinforced concrete and possessed huge metal doors, making it to gas-proof bomb shelter, said to be intended for Mussolini himself.
The Esposizione Universale di Roma had three goals: Hosting the Word’s Fair and with this projecting the power of fascist Italia, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the march on Rome and the regimes time in power, and enlarging the city of Rome, thereby forming the, “3rd Rome” which, after the completion of the EUR, would have a been a suitable capital for the regime. The war impeded the completion of the project. Construction was halted at the outbreak of the war, the World’s Fairs 1942 was cancelled and the the building process was only completed in the 1960s. At this time it was not used to showcase power or to host an exhibition, but became a business quarter. But still: The buildings of the EUR are a splendid examples of the architecture of the Italian fascist regime, equaled perhaps only by the plans for the colonial city in Addis Ababa, and do impressively show the parallels between architecture in different totalitarian regimes.