BY Owen Hatherley in Reviews | 11 JUN 09

Fascism in Ruins

At Fermynwoods, Northamptonshire, a catalogue of overgrown, dilapidated or incongruously re-used holiday camps for the Italian equivalents of the Hitler Youth 

BY Owen Hatherley in Reviews | 11 JUN 09

Ruins have recently become an almost over-discussed aesthetic meme, perhaps because of the possibly combustible combination of economic collapse and environmental destruction or even the possibility of the odd plague or two sending us the same way as the Roman Empire. We ponder the world without us, we design buildings with overgrown vegetation pre-programmed in, we watch our cities endlessly destroyed on screen.

Fascist Italy always had pretensions towards reviving the Roman Empire, something fulfilled more through brutality and architectural symbolism than actual global hegemony. Their Rome, unlike Hitler's Berlin, would be as modern as it was atavistic. Italian Modernism under Mussolini was a richly contradictory aesthetic, and is, on occasion, rather well preserved (as with the chilly rationalism of Giuseppe Terragni in Como or the equally icy stripped classical De Chirico landscape of the Esposizione Universale Roma). Historian Patrick Duerden and photographer Dan Dubowitz's 'Fascism in Ruins', presented in the beautifully inappropriate setting of Fermynwoods, a gallery situated in a water tower in rural Northamptonshire, is a catalogue of those buildings which have been lost to history, either overgrown, dilapidated or incongruously re-used – and all of them are of 'Colonia', holiday camps for the Italian equivalents of the Hitler Youth.

Dubowitz, Colonia marina Costanzo Ciano del Comune di Varese, Milano marittima 2 (2008) 

Set in appropriately cold aluminium lightboxes and taken over the last few years, the blown-up photographs of rotting concrete volumes surround a brightly-coloured placard, made by the exhibitors, proclaiming the Fascist Youth's catechisms: 'the fascist must never believe in perpetual peace'; 'Punishments are always deserved'; 'You were not given arms so that they could fall into disuse, but to train you for war'; 'Mussolini is always right'. At first, a leap has to be made to connect this with the photographs. Unlike the grandiosity of Albert Speer or the EUR (or indeed contemporary work in democracies, such as London's Senate House), these aren't buildings-as-tombs. They're weirder than that: a collision of classicism and futurism that perfectly encapsulates the contradictory nature of Italian Fascism.

So the Colonia Marina XXVIII in the town of Cattolica, designed in 1932, is striking for its curvaceous dormitories, an architecture of perpetual motion rather than solidity. Equally striking is the Colonia Marina della Federazione Fascista di Novara (pictured top), in Rimini, a long, ribbon-windowed battleship of a building, seemingly almost totally gutted. It breaks the rules of 'proper' Modernism by organising itself into axial symmetry, with a stair tower modelled on the Fasces, the bundle of weapons that became the symbol of Fascism – itself pulled apart so that its political symbolism is now unreadable. Its architect, Giuseppe Peverelli, was appointed Minister of Communications in Mussolini's notorious Nazi puppet state, the Salò Republic, a reminder of how tight architecture and politics had become.

Dubowitz, Centro servizi del Calambrone (2008) 

While some of these places are crumbling, collapsing or otherwise giving way to nature, others are patched up or being converted into hotels. It seems that the rationale behind these photographs is, first, to show the architecture of youth and classicized futurism being caught up by history, and, second, to concentrate on those places where the marks of history were most severe, where the buildings cannot be slotted back into 'heritage'. This heritage is now being claimed by the Italian government. The ruling party, the 'Freedom People', consists largely of the National Alliance, who can trace their lineage directly to Mussolini's National Fascist Party. The new mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, was greeted on election by Nazi salutes. It might seem unlikely to imagine the proudly crass Silvio Berlusconi favouring the sophisticated aesthetic of Rationalist architecture, or the racist thugs of the Lega Nord favouring Futurist holiday camps – but when Fascism itself is being made into an accepted, uncontroversial part of Italian history, to leave its buildings as shameful, abandoned shells is a better political statement than any restoration.

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books, most recently The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016), The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016) and Landscapes of Communism (Penguin, 2015).