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Power to the people

New Italian Architecture: Italian Landscapes between Architecture and Photography Edited by Pippo Ciorra and Marco d'Annuntis. Skira, 2000. 183pp. £12.95. (Distributed by Thames & Hudson)

This is the catalogue of an exhibition held last year in Rome on how contemporary architecture (through the work of 10 selected practices) is exploring the possibilities of creating a new city landscape - one that does not attempt to rework historical models of Classical urban space as the Rationalists, the Fascists, and Aldo Rossi did.

The Italians have a long memory of these things and, in his introduction, Pippo Ciorra makes it clear that, in his view, the historicising approach has failed. It is time to seek different, less pre-ordained urban models for the city: perhaps the residual spaces that ordinary people perceive in non-academic ways - influenced by television, film, photography, advertising, industrial design and the internet far more than by the Classical architectural tradition.

Ciorra illustrates his contention using the work of contemporary photographers who depict an Italy that owes a good deal more to neo-realist cinema, the architecture of the 1950s, and the visions of Pier Paolo Pasolini than to the cappuccino-and-ciabatta fantasies of the ingenuous British. Ciorra shows the real city as most Italians experience it: a fragmented place of broken peripheries where urban space consists not of composed squares, elegant streets, palaces, gardens or courtyards but trashed furniture abandoned on pavements, families marooned in apartment blocks, and dinner in front of the TV.

Francesco Jodice's vast panorama showing two newly-weds on a balcony overlooking the steel mills of Naples is full of tenderness, making Ciorra's point in this one eloquent image: the chaotic junkyard of the contemporary urban landscape is not as depressing as conventionally-trained architects may think and offers all kinds of possibilities they ought to consider.

These possibilities are explored in projects and drawings which - as Ciorra notes - seem to mark a return to the time of postwar reconstruction, with its internal migrations from agrarian south to industrial north, new mobility offered by car ownership, and INA-Casa housing projects by Ridolfi, Michelucci, Libera, and others. Some Italian architects are striving to reactivate that antiClassical, post-rationalist tradition of urban design which in the 1950s came up from the ordinary people and remains full of promise.

This symbiosis between architecture and society is palpable in Italy, where the political role of the architect is explicit. Take the recent acrimonious departure of Massimiliano Fuksas from directing the Venice Biennale. That cloaked a deeper concern that, back from a successful career in France, this new Machiavelli of architecture is tending to manipulate things to his own advantage, stifling debate and monopolising the attention of politicians.

A bitter power struggle is now raging in which Ciorra, as commentator, has been playing a major role. It is against this background that his book needs to be evaluated.

Architecture in Italy is a vitally urgent war of ideas - a struggle to influence the decisions made about urban regeneration and thereby about people's lives.

Thomas Muirhead is an architect in London

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