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Mediocrity and beauty

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Gabriele Basilico: Cityscapes Thames & Hudson, 2000. 400pp. £24 Nicholas Faure: Autoland - Pictures from Switzerland Scalo, 1999. 240pp. £27.50. (Distributed by Thames & Hudson)

Over the last two decades or so a certain species of photography has become more pervasive. Architects, planners and urban designers are its natural audience because it looks at the built world with sometimes disconcerting clarity. Early exponents in America were the 'New Topographics' photographers, such as Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal, who portrayed the impact of (often crass) development upon the landscape. In Europe, as an exhibition last year at the Architectural Association confirmed, German photographers have made a speciality of this approach.

Take, for instance, the urban images of Thomas Struth (aj 18.5.94). Sites that might be commended in a guide book are strictly avoided; streets are empty of people. One's first impulse is to ask: what is the subject of this picture, why has he taken it? The answer, it seems, is to expose what lies latent in everyday scenes. Struth's photographs gradually yield up a host of unremarkable details. Whether or not there is a conscious polemical intention behind them, they offer a precise critique of the environment we have made.

Both of these excellent new books - by the Italian photographer, Gabriele Basilico, and the Swiss, Nicolas Faure - belong to this loose tradition of dispassionate scrutiny. Basilico's Cityscapes presents around 350 landscape- format black-and-white photographs, all taken in Europe during the last 15 years, apart from a series showing the aftermath of civil war in Beirut. Those photographs foreground one kind of injury that cities undergo, with even relatively recent architecture looking readier for archaeologists than inhabitants. Appearing early in the book as they do, they prime the eye for other disfigurements in the following pages.

The Beirut images form a self-contained episode but Basilico usually sequences his photographs so that locations appear briefly and then recur later: we flit from Porto to Milan to Barcelona and back to Porto again, as if these places were almost interchangeable, just aspects of one generic city. In an interview included at the end of the book, Basilico speaks of 'affinities' between them: 'a part of Rome is found in Paris and perhaps in Madrid.'

Beside reminders of antiquity, such as the Colosseum, appear buildings by contemporary architects - Rossi, Siza, Stirling, Foster, Hollein and Gehry. We see high-rise housing blocks, industrial complexes, glitzy mirror- glass offices; but also a row of quirky nineteenth century houses, each individualised, on the north-west coast of France. Pictured dramatically at night (a time when Basilico obviously likes to work), the port of Genoa is ablaze with light.

The book seems truly comprehensive in its contents, in its refusal to make cities seem simpler, or tidier, than they are. And Basilico is particularly fond of the spaces between buildings - left-over areas and voids, improvised car parks, intersections with their multitude of signs or wirescape inscribed on the sky.

'I live the experience of urban civilisation as it is, with its mediocrity and beauty,' says Basilico. Allied to a sophisticated eye, his technical proficiency is such that mediocrity and beauty have equal immediacy in these images. In this respect his method differs from that of many architectural photographers; he uses the resources of his medium to reveal and make viewers pay attention, not to glamorise.

Like Basilico, but working in colour, Nicolas Faure questions cliches about place - in his case not a city but a country, Switzerland. The images that any mention of that name evokes aren't likely to be those in Autoland. Faure's subjects are the motorways which, as the book's end-papers show, now entirely criss-cross his country. Any snow-covered Alps here are very distant (and usually obscured by bad weather); in the foreground, rolling pastures are swallowed up by concrete and tarmacadam, or are still in the turmoil of construction. This is anti-romanticism with a vengeance; and the Swiss landscape seems very vulnerable.

Neither book is, of course, so objective as it appears; each holds up a partial mirror. But, in so sharply probing the larger context in which buildings take their place, they say more about the built world than mostarchitectural magazines.

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