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Dazzling and disturbing

review - The Terragni Atlas: Built Architecture By Attilio Terragni, Daniel Libeskind and Paolo Rosselli. Skira, 2004. 276pp. £48

In the 16-year period between the ages of 23 and his early death at 39, Giuseppe Terragni was to see 16 buildings completed.

This book sets out to document them in three ways: firstly, in two contemporary essays by no less than Daniel Libeskind and Terragni's descendant, Attilio; secondly, in photographs; and, finally, in original texts written by Terragni. This is described here as 'contemporaneity, simultaneity and historical documentation' and such wording sets the tone for a good dose of syntactic indigestion.

Libeskind's presence is evident in all the new material and, whether written or photographed, it dances in reflections, shadows and oblique descriptions such as, 'our participation in the work of memory by way of the mirror may both decimate the work of the machine and attempt to put it all back together'.

Now Libeskind is a great architect, and when he speaks like this it is poetry, but written down (just four pages transcribed from a conference) it is as fractured as some of his amazing buildings. Libeskind's passion for Terragni, a devoted Fascist (there are some chilling photos of him here in full blackshirt uniform and jackboots), is explained by: 'Terragni believed in architecture, in the power of architecture and what it can do.' In what seems like a wonderful act of reconciliation and forgiveness, Libeskind only sees the work of the man. Art conquers all.

The book contains a series of Terragni's writings, mainly reports submitted with the various projects, so at last there is the exciting prospect of an insight into his mind.

Yet this proves to be rather disappointing:

flowery prose, with a high-handed tone - no glimpse here of the man behind the work.

There are some interesting texts on the joy of 'new' materials such as glass, marble and linoleum.

In many ways, his writings confirm a blind faith in Fascism: 'To the new Italian, dazzled by the creative empire of Il Duce, corresponds in the field of the arts and in particular architecture, the special art par excellence, a new plastic world.'Was Terragni so flattered to receive the patronage of the new regime, and so engaged in the opportunities to build a new world, that he was simply myopic? There are even photographs here taken on his journey to the Russian front, where he commanded a battery raining down on Stalingrad, while his letters home pleaded for paper and coloured crayons to sketch the countryside.

But the book sets out to document the built architecture of Terragni and it does this with photographs - some fantastic archive images interleaved with new ones, but no plans or drawings. The black-and-white original images are wonderful: the Sant'Elia school full of uniformed children sitting beneath the twin oppressions of crucifix and portraits of Mussolini sets a context that ends with some snapshots of Terragni looking like a young Elvis. The new photographs study the building as if through a microscope, and seem absorbed by fragments and reflections (again the Libeskind effect), but do catch some beautiful and original scenes in the buildings (the Casa del Fascio's assembly space as a hall of mirrors, or the sky framed by the canopies on the roof of the Villa Bianca).

The old and new photographs paint a picture of genius that ends with the most astounding double-page photograph I have seen of the Casa, with the blank plane of the facade becoming a screen that displays a projected image of Terragni himself. The book leaves the mystery of how Terragni's architectural intelligence can be squared with his life and beliefs; it is a flawed life and this is a flawed book, but a must-have for the Terragni admirer.

John Pardey is an architect in Hampshire

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