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BOOK

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REVIEW - Emilio Ambasz: A Technological Arcadia By Fulvio Irace.Thames & Hudson, 2005.288pp. £39.95

Architecture has few prodigies, but when Rizzoli published the first monograph on his work in 1988, Emilio Ambasz looked like one. Born in Argentina in 1943, Ambasz completed both the BA and MA courses in architecture at Princeton in two years and soon after was appointed director of design for New York's MoMA, for which he curated the acclaimed Luis Barragán show.

Most of the work in that first book was still on paper but, as this new volume reminds us, what had migrated into materials was also promising, driven by the now fashionable trope of narrative - as in the 'Casa de Retiro Espiritual' near Seville, a fusion of the traditional Andalusian house with the formalist procedures of Minimalism, Land Art and John Hejduk.

In the largest, and arguably still most persuasive, of Ambasz's built works, the Lucille Halsell Conservatory near San Antonio, Texas (1982), the organisational strategy is the same - spaces freely arranged around an arcaded, sunken patio that straddles a central axis. But whereas the house was presented as an outpost of civilisation in a seemingly pristine landscape, here the vision is of a virtual Arcadia in which the architecture has succumbed to a literal and metaphorical greening.

Ambasz is a magic realist of ecological design, his images and models, with their model railway greens, are intended to render his visions slightly surreal - a feeling that here carries over into the photographs of the finished work. 'I opted to be a fabulist rather than an ideologist, ' he says, 'because fables retain the ring of immutability long after ideologies have wilted.' This new monograph is handsomely presented, with a shiny cover that feels slightly squishy and 288 pages dominated by high-gloss colour illustrations. The introductory text by Fulvio Irace is in that polysyllabic Latin style that can annoy Anglophone readers. It is less readable than the afterword by Paolo Portoghesi.

The projects are grouped thematically - The Green Mountain, The Earth as Garden, etc - and are elaborations of the ecological themes established in the 1980s.

Both Irace and Portoghesi praise Amsbasz's constancy amid bewildering flux but I cannot help feeling his early promise is unfulfilled. Clarity and delicacy have given way to overstatement, even outright bombast. Where axiality and asymmetry were once held in subtle tension, as in a garden by William Kent, in projects such as the Prefectural International Hall in Fukuoka, a one-sided ziggurat of a 'Green Mountain', the formality is overbearing.

And finally there is the parody of Egyptian temple architecture that is the 'Barbie Knoll', a garden dedicated 'to the memory of the eternally feminine'. Goodness knows why this piece of silliness was included, because it points to a weakness that threatens to undermine Ambasz's entire enterprise: a pervasive feeling of unreality, not of a magically sustainable alternative to quotidian realities.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University.

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