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10 february 2017

Diane Ghirardo's Italy is part of a series called Modern Architectures in History, and it lives up to that expansive rubric and then some.

The scope of Italy runs from the 1890s, not long after the unification of modern Italy, to the early 2010s. Politically, we see the development of the nation from the Savoy monarchy to Silvio Berlusconi. Artistically we go from Beaux-Arts traditions through the range of modernist and postmodernist styles; socially, from the rise of the upper middle class and the descent of the aristocracy, through Fascism, to an uneasy contemporary Italy, in which (as Ghirardo paints it) a veneer of tourist idyll lies over a problematic, corrupt semi-democracy.

An important theme in Italy seems paradoxical to a 21st-century reader. During the Fascist regime between the wars, architecture flourished in both artistic and socially-conscious terms. This is emphatically not to invoke nostalgia for Mussolini. Totalitarian Italy was a police state and a nationalist nightmare for its minorities. But architects were set to work building physically livable communities, and sometimes creating aesthetic masterpieces in the process. The problem was not the material fabric, but the repressive state that watched over it.

By contrast (for Ghirardo) postwar Italy was a newly free, burgeoning democracy that made Modernist design schemes realities – and in the process built enormous amounts of theory-driven, unlivable spaces. To be fair, this trend was not confined to Italy. Across the Americas and Western Europe, great modernist blocks of apartments rose after the second world war, uneasily connected to life on the streets below, and then fitfully maintained in the style to which their architects had destined them. The postwar West differed often only nominally from the Stalinist East in this respect, and sometimes not at all.

We think of Italian architecture in terms of the grandeur that was Rome, and then of the opulence of the Renaissance, and then of the stylish postmodernism of superstars like Renzo Piano. On the ground, of course, all these styles coexist in the present, and were built somewhat haphazardly cheek-by-jowl. Much of classical and medieval Italy was lost in the various waves of modern building enthusiasm that followed reunification. Ghirardo starts with the Typewriter, the nickname for the chunk of faux-classical hideousness that dominates the center of today's Rome: the 1911 royal tribute to King Victor Emmanuel II that necessitated the clearing of a historic district at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The Typewriter commands prospects from several boulevards at the city center, cold and unapproachable, forever a parvenu. Unlike some big projects initially considered ugly but later seen with fondness, it has never been warmed to. The monument strikes Ghirardo's keynote of eclecticism and unforeseen consequences.

And then there are structures that should seem hideous but command respect. In 1938, architect Giovanni Greppi's war memorial at Redipuglia was completed, a masterwork of "mute elegance" as Ghirardo puts it (96). Overtly nationalist, commissioned by a militarist authoritarian government to commemorate the gains of one world war on the brink of a second, Greppi's memorial is stunning in its simplicity. It has affinities with Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial in Washington, being essentially a massing of space for the inscription of the names of the fallen. Greppi designed a long, gentle succession of steps leading pretty much nowhere. The government may have approved the design for its sheer power, its imposition of so many tons of stone on so many acres of ground. But if they were hoping for a statement of might, they seem to have lucked into a statement of awe – not awe of Italy but awe of mortality.

Fascist-era Italian architecture is, for Ghirardo, remarkably diverse in its approaches. The period is sometimes viewed as incoherent by scholars; as Ghirardo notes, "this argument ends in criticizing a totalitarian state for failing to be sufficiently totalitarian" (73). Ghirardo praises designs by Giuseppe Terragni, including the fascist headquarters building he designed in Como and a nursery school for the same city, as striking applications of geometrical modernism to the construction of everyday spaces. Ghirardo describes Terragni as "deeply committed to fascism" (76), and he may well have been a noxious human being. But unlike verbal propaganda or sculpture or monumental architecture, office buildings and nursery schools bear little enduring trace of the ideologies that go into their design.

By contrast, the designs of postwar antifascists "ultimately produced housing developments that often amounted to little more than warehouses" (151). Under the pervasive influence of Le Corbusier, group after group turned empty spaces into tall free-form sweeps of concrete surrounded by greensward. The trouble was that markets and services were usually far away, and the new developments isolated by their own attractive lawns from the life of their cities. "Most modernist projects … are anti-urban," says Ghirardo (147), whatever their intentions of bringing avant-garde design to the masses.

But design may matter less than economic equality. Time and again Ghirardo stresses the point that poverty, not architectural detail, leads to squalor. Lack of funding for services and maintenance doomed even the best-designed housing projects to become, well, "projects" in the pejorative American sense. Here and there a modernist development like the Olivetti complex near Ivrea became a site for gracious living – but that was as much due to the prosperity of its corporate sponsor as to the elegance of its fabric.

Of course, Americans may look on some of the more anti-urban creations of Italian modernism with approval. "A casual workday tour of Gibellina [in Sicily] finds a visitor greeted by vacant piazzas, empty (but wide and hospitable to cars …) streets – a sense of emptiness and desolation" (218). Welcome to North Central Texas.

Hypermodernist buildings, with their weird angles and curves, are hard to clean. They age badly (217, 287-88). Is there anything good in present-day architecture? Ghirardo does praise Aldo Rossi's design for Venice's La Fenice opera house. She admires some initially obtrusive postmodern towers in Milan that have become pop landmarks (the Professional Centre and the Torre Velasca). She is very approving of low-key, sustainable designs by Franco Minissi. But many of the biggest contemporary stars design from globalized playbooks that take little account of local traditions and surroundings. While praising Renzo Piano's evident skill and distinctiveness, Ghirardo notes that his buildings look the same the world over (including North Central Texas), and are often (given all those expanses of clear glass) ecologically at odds with their surroundings.

Italy is the rare book about a single discipline that manages to be truly and unobtrusively interdisciplinary. It would not be a bad place to start reading about Italian history in general, not just the history of the nation's architecture.

Ghirardo, Diane. Italy. London: Reaktion, 2013. [Modern Architectures in History]