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Framing Modernism: Architecture & Photography in Italy 1926–1965

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Framing Modernism: Architecture & Photography in Italy 1926–1965 will be on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from April 29 to June 21, 2009.

Comprising over 100 vintage photographs drawn from the RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection, the exhibition investigates how the development of Italian Modernist architecture was recorded and shaped by photography.

Ever since its inception, photography has profoundly influenced the practice and study of architecture. This was especially true with the advent of Modernism in the 1920s which brought architecture and photography into closer alliance than ever before. Modernism’s celebration of the man-made rather than the natural world not only gave new prominence to contemporary architectural and engineering feats but also greatly enhanced their status as subjects suitable for photography.

The so-called ‘New Vision’ engendered a more dynamic mode of photography that encouraged the use of unconventional viewpoints such as worm’s and bird’s-eye views, sudden changes in scale, dramatic tonal contrasts, radical cropping and a predilection for geometrical abstraction.

In addition, Modernist architects’ greater and more inventive use of materials such as steel and concrete and reflective surfaces, among them glass and chromium, afforded the photographer more possibilities for dramatic expression. As a result, architectural photography was revitalized and played a key role in the dissemination of Modernist architecture.

Despite recent studies, the history of architectural photography remains in its infancy. In particular, little work has been done on the photography of Italian Modernism and this examination is intended to complement recent case studies on the Czech Republic and Hungary as well as those more general surveys. This will in turn paint a clearer picture of the often shifting but symbiotic relationship between the two disciplines.

As well as displaying original prints, the exhibition looks at the part played by photography in books and magazines such as Domus and Casabella in fostering this striking visual exploration of Modernist architecture.

The projects featured will encompass a disparate range of building types and among those exhibited will be Enrico del Debbio’s Foro Mussolini, Rome (1929); the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1935) by Giovanni Michelucci and the Gruppo Toscano; Pier Luigi Nervi’s groundbreaking aircraft hangars such as that at Orbetello (1940); and BBPR’s Torre Velasca, Milan (1957).

Alongside these major projects will be significant but lesser known ones such as Nicola Mosso’s gem of a station at Cossato (1932) and Gherardo Bosio’s Ugolino Golf Club near Florence (1934).

Work by a wide range of photographers will be on display from indigenous, specialist practitioners such as Ferdinando and Gino Barsotti and Giorgio Casali, who were commissioned by architects and magazines, to visiting foreign photographers such as G. E. Kidder Smith whose book Italy Builds (1955) was instrumental in encouraging a wider appreciation of Italian architecture abroad.

The show also includes work by Hubert de Cronin Hastings who highlighted the virtues of Italian townscape as a model for British architects in his characteristically idiosyncratic Italian Townscape (1963).

The selection of over 100 period photographs is almost entirely from the Photographs Collection of the British Architectural Library at the Royal Institute of British Architects. These will be an amalgam of vintage large prints drawn from major exhibitions held at the RIBA and others from the archive of the Architectural Press, publisher of the influential Architectural Review, which is now held by the Collection. Together these will also illustrate how Italian architecture was received in Britain.

Supplementing these will be magazines and books from the British Architectural Library demonstrating how typography and inventive page layouts contributed to enhancing the seductive appeal of the photographs and communicating the architecture to both a professional and lay audience.

The exhibition is curated by Robert Elwall, Assistant Director, Photographs, Imaging & Digital Development, at the British Architectural Library, and Valeria Carullo, Assistant Curator in the Photographs Collection of the British Architectural Library. Elwall is one of the leading writers and experts on the interrelationship between photography and architecture, and Carullo is a qualified Italian architect who has extensive experience in the fields of architecture and photography.

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1