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Taking an Italian lesson Compasso d'Oro: Italian Architecture and Design 1954-1998 At the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until October 30

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In the 1960s, denouncing the rationality of the school of Ulm, Italian design returned to the intuitive, the emotional, and the seductive. The consumer of today has a relationship with the object that is no longer technical but filled with affection, symbolism, nostalgia, and romance. As Andrea Branzi has suggested, the metropolis is a jungle in which our attention may be captured by an object as by a single flower or an insect.

These desire/identification mechanisms are now much more powerful than architecture in metropolitan life. For that reason, says Branzi, architects should take far more interest in this 'plankton' of products, technologies, information and signifiers - an artificial world in which we are deeply submerged.

This riba show is a retrospective that traces the history of contemporary man's mythological invol-vement with the object. It analyses the role of the industrial designer as mediator between the fulfilment of desires (real or imaginary) and an industrial culture whose role is to sustain the cycle of production.

The Compasso d'Oro is the most important design prize in the world, initiated by Gio Ponti in 1954 at the start of Italy's post-war miracolo economico - the time of the Vespa and the Fiat 500. It is awarded by adi, an association that brings together some 750 manufacturers, architects and designers. The evocative, seductive objects on show are displayed here not as titillation, but as projects whose conceptualisation, design and manufacture (requiring synergies between philosophy, creativity, and industrial culture) can be inspected with a professional architect's eye.

Although some important manufacturers are missing (like Brionvega) the exhibition is a rare opportunity for British architects to see beyond the object as desire and get an insight instead into the background processes of design, manufacture, and marketing - matters which architects should pay attention to as professionals, not as end-users. The fact that the show is installed at the riba has a particular significance. It may come as a surprise to the average riba member to learn that, in civilised Italy, every architecture student is required to study urbanism and industrial design; or, to put it another way, if you want to study industrial design or urbanism, you must go to architecture school and study architecture as well. In Italy, world leader of industrial design, there are no design schools, and architects are industrial designers whose range of activity goes dal cucchiaio alla citta - 'from the tablespoon to the city'. Perhaps one day the uk may achieve something similar.

The exhibition begins in the first year of the Compasso d'Oro in 1955, with Carlo de Carli's Model 683 chair for Cassina, exhibited alongside his brilliant, brutal church of St Ildefonso in Milan. Antonio Citterio's up- to-date translucent plastic cupboard and drawer system (1997) is accompanied by photographs of his office building in Hamburg for Edel, while Marcello Nizzoli's classic Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter (1954) is shown with a picture of his housing for Olivetti employees. Norman Foster's table for Tecno is shown against the backdrop of his Law Faculty building in Cambridge, and Vico Magistretti's serenely elegant 1979 Atollo lamp for O Luce (suggesting both the form of a tropical jellyfish and an atomic explosion) is shown with his Biology building for Milan Polytechnic (1978).

The key factor for success of Italian design is the direct link between architects and a cultured industrial class that the UK probably cannot imagine. From the point of view of the producer firms who make up the backbone of adi, there could be no more appropriate place for an exhibition of their best work in Britain than the riba. Hopefully some architects may interpret this as a discreet invitation to get involved with them.

Thomas Muirhead is an architect in London. The exhibition is one of many events in this autumn's Italian Festival (Details 0171 400 1787)

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