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The Architecture of Modern Italy: Vol One The Change of Tradition 1750-1900, Vol Two Visions of Utopia 1900-Present By Terry Kirk.Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. £25 each

The publisher of this book makes false claims for it in the blurb. The Architecture of Modern Italy isn't 'authoritative' or 'groundbreaking' or 'the first in any language'. It has other virtues: at his best Terry Kirk gives clear, flexible and lively accounts of an architect's career or a moment in urban history.

Most of the high spots come in the 20th century, though the four pages on the 19th-century Torinese architect Alessandro Antonelli form one of the most interesting treatments.

Four pages is more than most architects, however important, are lucky enough to get. The book comes in two hefty volumes but still contains much in a thumbnail mode.

Dividing it in two may have come late in the process: the same introduction is repeated twice and clearly wasn't written with this in mind. It is impossible to learn anything about the author from the book and he isn't well served by the format, which stretches out the text by printing too little on each page and emphasising subheads within chapters with extra blank space until at times the whole seems a collection of short articles. Although there's lots of empty space on the page, the format isn't large; hence the illustrations sometimes work better as reminders for those who already know their subjects than as first encounters.

In the Nolli map of Rome, which appears early on, individual streets and buildings are not distinguishable.

Kirk seems less comfortable in the 18th century than in later periods. It is almost as if another person is writing this part, who talks about 'gardens as an integral element in the experience of Bourbon selfimagery', or says that Fuga 'left behind in Naples a modus operandi of a high level of professionalism'. I cannot see what these earlier parts contribute to those that follow.

In fact, the whole book is unusually un-comprehensive, in the sense of not referring back to its own earlier stages.

This may be a result of the way it was written, in bits (and this is just speculation), or maybe it is a sign of something deeper, a view of history as being inherently fragmented.

For that is how it comes out here - individuals like Carlo Scarpa burst onto the scene and onto the page without warning and without much assimilation to a narrative. The Scarpa section is particularly strong, but strongest on what he is not and on how he does not fit.

Strangely enough, Kirk, who is very good at placing people by picking out details from their background and experience, sometimes does not convey a clear idea when describing a building. Perhaps he jumps too quickly to what he thinks the building means before the reader has got the basic idea of it. No one will come to this book for constructional detail;

it does not move at that level.

But clear descriptions of important spaces are hard to come by here, and plans are almost never included among the illustrations.

Perhaps I haven't read enough architectural history written by Italians to know if Kirk is echoing his sources here, but it seems possible, because in a few places I found him picking up the tone and even the vocabulary of the currently favoured writer on the subject - Foucault was detectable on institutions for example.

In a book where space is in short supply it is surprising to meet so much non-architectural material. Near the beginning, there is much on archaeology (spelled 'archeology' mimicking Italian, but where does 'brusk' for 'brusque' come from? ) not particularly angled toward architecture and bearing, for good measure, the incorrect claim that archaeology did not greatly influence architects.

Among the best things in the book are the summaries of Fiat's installation at Lingotto, and the building history - meaning not construction but politics - of the railway stations in Florence and Rome.

I particularly enjoyed Kirk's diatribe about the scandalous negligence and venality of Roman bureaucrats in the 1960s. The last 30 pages are weak because the author can't place architects as confidently and therefore hedges his bets with shorter sections on more numerous figures. Renzo Piano is given disproportionate space at the end, but unevenness is not always a bad thing. This book is most attractive when according a subject more space than is strictly its due.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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