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Challenging conventions

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Claudio Silvestrin with texts by Claudio Silvestrin and Franco Bertoni. Birkhauser, 1999. 240pp. £54 I have a great deal of admiration for the architecture of Claudio Silvestrin. This Birkhauser monograph is a beautiful tribute to his work, but it is not an easy book to read, or find one's way around. The continuous changes in the orientation and justification of both the typesetting and photographs make for elegant graphic setpieces, but overall tend to get in the way.

The first part is taken up with photographs of various unidentified projects (many are grainy enlargements of other images in the book), combined with aphorisms such as 'Task: to reveal unlimited nature in a limited fragment' and 'Beauty is like love - it is timeless'. This section is open and tantalising, if a little self-conscious, culminating in 17 longer aphorisms which are both an insight into Silvestrin's thinking and an indication that he may take himself a little too seriously when writing.

The next big section is 'Works 1989-1998', which combines short descriptive texts with photographs and very simplified axonometrics or plans without an identified scale. The work is beautiful and rigorous. The photographs are sharp and small, with a lot of clear white space, leaving you with the pleasant feeling of wanting more. Franco Bertoni's essay and the other passages of text are also interspersed with the projects.

The monograph concludes with a short section of 'Writings', most of which are previously published pieces or lecture transcripts by Silvestrin; and an elegant 'Addendum' by Massimo Vignelli. There is also an appendix with CV, chronology of projects, press, lectures, television and radio.

The book was designed by AGFronzoni, Silvestrin's mentor in Milan before he studied at the Architectural Association - and unfortunately it is the design, not the architecture, that dominates.

The virtuosity of the graphic game being played tends to undermine what is meant to be a serious book about a serious architect.

In a direct way, this challenging of graphic conventions is analogous to Silvestrin's own challenging of contemporary architectural orthodoxy. Although my sympathy lies with the intention, the graphic result is less successful than the architecture.

For an architect who wants above all to be essential, clear and fundamental, the obtuse staccato presentation and content of the text is also disappointing. There is no main text as such, but a number of short passages, aphorisms and essays on various topics (such as 'Mental Opening' and 'Abstraction of Function'), interspersed with the project descriptions. Some of these titled passages, and the project descriptions themselves, seem to have been written by Silvestrin, others by Bertoni.

Bertoni's essay contributes to this confusion.

The index identifies it specifically, unlike any of the other writings, but - as with many passages in the book - it is unclear whether it was written earlier or especially for this monograph. It also contains so many long quotations (often from Silvestrin) that it is easy to lose track of the author's voice.

Silvestrin is an important and talented architect. Since 1988 his practice has completed wonderful projects with single- minded intensity.

They exemplify a quality of conception and resolution that is extremely difficult to achieve.

Notwithstanding my comments about the obfuscating design and editing, I recommend this book because the quality of the architecture does shine through.

So far most of Silvestrin's work has been either residential or interior refurbishment. I look forward with excitement to the larger projects coming up, such as the Donnelly Gallery in Ireland and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin.

Renato Benedetti is an architect in London

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