Obituary: Alberto Sartoris

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The Independent Online
THE ARCHITECT Alberto Sartoris believed that modernist architecture must be based on a renunciation of useless and superfluous elements, a respect for true tradition, an harmonious distribution of line and colour, a rhythmical mastery of contrast and assonance, and the investigation of a specific style.

Sartoris's own drawings explore this abstract language of colours, planes, transparencies, and volumetric interplays of solid and void, all at the pure state and represented as aggressively Cubist buildings that float in a void, divorced from any context, using a graphic technique - the axonometric projection - to depict everything at true size without the distortions of perspective and creating the impression of weightless objects suspended in space.

Even when reproduced upside down by mistake, these celebrated axonometrics are among the most enduring images in the history of architecture.

Because of his aristocratic aloofness Sartoris was to build very little. His real vocation was as the ideologue and publicist for the idea of an assertive and uncompromising modernity, and his drawings are a polemic which reserve the right of a deliberately arcane architecture not to endanger itself by courting an easy acceptance.

The value of maintaining this critical, confrontational stance (completely misunderstood by some of today's ersatz modernists) came from his mentor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, and was shared by contemporaries and friends such as Le Corbusier.

Born in Turin and uprooted to Switzerland when only six years old, Sartoris experienced the condition of exile more intensely than most. His Swiss technical education gave him natural affinities with Le Corbusier whilst nostalgie d'Italie led him to seek out Marinetti in Paris and to return to his native Turin as soon as he had grown up; but it was too late, he had acquired a world-view that made it impossible to fit in.

The lavish private theatre he designed for the rich art patron Riccardo Gualino in Turin in 1923-25 was never credited to him because, as he knew, Gualino's bossy wife did not care for his "excessive" independence and even though for 20 years he remained a major figure wherever the new architecture manifested itself - in Italy, France, Switzerland, South America - he was never fully accepted into any of its movements. Even today some historians are still trying to fit him in somewhere, unable to perceive that what really matters is his marginality.

Forced malgre soi to be independent, Sartoris was able to see beyond the internecine factionalism of the Italian modern movement, travelling widely and cultivating an international network of friendships.

In 1931 he published his widely influential Gli Elementi dell'Architettura Funzionale - a compilation of examples that showed the new style active everywhere from Romania to Argentina. His inclusion of Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre - barely completed - made that unlikely Parisian decorateur into a lasting cult figure of the international Modern Movement and some time afterwards the Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson appropriated the contents of his book, repackaging it as their own invention: "The International Style".

For Sartoris the exile, the prime purpose of modernism must be to rediscover and purify ancient, universal principles of beauty. The architect is a sorcerer who celebrates arcane rituals; using mysterious procedures he conjures up lines, planes, solids, and spaces wherein meanings, and relationships between meanings, are evoked and given form.

The total abstraction of Mondrian and Rietveld corresponded to something in this uprooted, heimatlos condition and from the early 1920s he was exchanging letters with Theo Van Doesburg, leader of the Dutch De Stijl movement; speaking in French and restlessly seeking friends everywhere, neither a Swiss nor an Italian. Sartoris was the first truly European modernist.

His initiation into Futurism took place in 1928 and in that year his drawings had pride of place in the first Exhibition of Futurist Architecture. The closeness to Marinetti gave him the Futurist aggressiveness that fired him up whilst at the same time, unable to belong exclusively even to that powerful cultural movement, he was also a member of MIAR (Movimento Italiano per l'Architettura Razionale).

After Mussolini's introduction of the nefarious race laws, Sartoris with his friend Giuseppe Terragni never really recovered from some awkward attempts to defend modernist architecture from accusations of being a "decadent Jewish" phenomenon. After the Second World War he left Turin and returned to live quietly in Lausanne. His contribution, which still remains to be understood, marks him out as one of the most decisive influences of modernism.

Alberto Sartoris, architect, critic, journalist and draughtsman: born Turin 2 February 1901; married 1922 Zoe Gionanna (marriage dissolved 1929), 1943 Carla Prina; died Pompaples (Vaud), Switzerland 8 March 1998.

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