Mussolini's monsters: Should the Modernist holiday camps of Fascist Italy be saved?

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They are some of the weirdest monsters the Modernist century left behind: a pencil-thin tower with long balconies sticking out like tongues from every floor, giving it the look of a diving apparatus for the suicidal; a white concrete complex, solid and technocratic like a government ministry but dumped in virgin Alpine countryside; white concrete centipedes crawling over a beach on the Adriatic coast; ruinous structures of crumbling cement and smashed glass, graffiti and refuse, spouting broken water pipes which still bring to mind locomotives or battleships or submarines, just as they must have done for the children who came here for "holidays" 70 and 80 years ago.

For these are the "colonie", the holiday camps built by Italy's Fascist regime between the wars to give the nation's young people, and particularly those from deprived parts of the cities or the backward, swampy, malarial countryside, a character-forming taste of something completely different from home – a taste of the Fascist future for which the regime was striving. And it was those young people who were destined to become the regime's labourers and foot soldiers.

"Having come from poor or very modest homes," explains a contemporary magazine article about the colonie, "the majority of these boys and girls will feel disposed here, for the first time, to accept the influence of taste; they will be stimulated, for the first time, to appreciate architectural form..."

In the event, of course, Mussolini's dreams of a new Italian empire that would out-colonise and out-massacre its ancient Roman inspiration were shot to pieces in Greece, buried alive in Libya's desert sands. They were betrayed by a fatal disconnection between vainglorious rhetoric on the one hand, and banal industrial and economic reality on the other.

Under Il Duce – and even before, in the paintings of the Futurists and the rhapsodic prose of Gabriele D'Annunzio – Italy found soaring imagery to exalt the mechanical brutality of the modern age; but unlike Germany, it never had the stolid patience to bring the project to fruition. So the young graduates of the colonie turned into the cannon fodder of the war and then the radically disillusioned citizens of the occupied and defeated nation in the war's aftermath. And the buildings where they had learnt to march, wrestle, box, shoot and swim have been left to moulder and fall to pieces ever since, like mad, ancient relatives, forgotten and abandoned.

Not everything built to Mussolini's orders suffered such a fate. Post-war Italians have been understandably reluctant to admit the fact, given the nightmarish manner in which the era ended, but in many ways the Mussolini years were a golden age for Italian architecture.

In any period, architecture needs strong patronage and Mussolini, passionately committed to remaking his nation and transforming its image, was quite some patron. Unlike both Stalin and Hitler, who suppressed Modernism in favour of kitsch pseudo-period styles, Mussolini had sufficient taste to see the beauty of the modern style, and he gave his chosen architects colossal challenges. "In five years," he declared in 1930, for example, "Rome must appear as vast, ordered, powerful as it was at the time of the first empire of Augustus." That goal may have eluded them, but they drastically remodelled the centre of the capital, and their work has stood the test of time.

"The Fascist government was indeed the most prolific Western state in its support of modern architecture," writes Terry Kirk in The Architecture of Modern Italy. "In sharp contrast to Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, Modernism in Fascist Italy was never perceived as unsuitable as an architectural idiom." Nor did Mussolini impose the straitjacket of a single style. Under his fierce stare, the playful picturesque of Garbatella, Italy's first garden suburb in southern Rome, coexisted with the Rationalism of Florence's magnificent railway station and the Pantheon- and Colosseum-inspired masterpieces of EUR. This was the area south of the capital chosen for a great expo planned for Fascism's 20th anniversary in 1942, but cancelled on account of the war. Little changed since their completion; all of them are still in use today.

The colonie, most of them scattered around the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts, were not so lucky: once the Opera Nazionale Balilla, the Fascist boy scouts and the other organisations that used them were dissolved, they lost their function. So entirely have many of these institutions been forgotten that it has taken photographer Dan Dubowitz and architect Patrick Duerden years to track them all down for their book Fascismo Abbandonato.

A few have found new uses: the Colonia Elioterapica, or Sun Therapy colony, near the town of Vercelli, between Turin and Milan, for example, is now used as an archery and gymnastics club, and some of the centipedes of Colonia Marina 'XXVIII Ottobre' at Cattolica on the Adriatic, where Italo-Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi remembers enjoying wonderful holidays and which at ground level look like friendly three-eyed trains, have been turned into aquariums. Many others, however, though still owned by their local authorities and occupying strategic seaside sites potentially worth millions of euros, are merely disintegrating. No one can summon the political will either to tear them down or to rehabilitate them.

The most extraordinary of them all, in the view of Duerden and Dubowitz, is also the one clinging most precariously to life. The vast Colonia Costanza in Milano Marittima, a resort on the Adriatic coast, is the last, delirious expression of Fascist formalism, its enormous concrete frame holding intersecting ramps whose only purpose was for synchronised exhibitions of marching. Completed in 1939, it was only used for a single season before the war made it redundant; in 1945 it was blown up – in disgust, one imagines – by the Nazis as they retreated up the peninsula.

In 2005, when Duerden and Dubowitz explored it, "homeless people were living in the lower parts of the building," they report, "whilst on the flat roofs, orchids and other wild flowers were in bloom. The building is in a state of collapse; while we were there a section of the floor caved in without warning... the folly of the Fascist utopia revealed by the intervention of reality, time, dereliction and decay."

'Fascismo Abbandonato' by Dan Dubowitz, Patrick Duerden and Penny Lewis is published by Dewi Lewis, priced £35

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