Cities to have nightmares about

Charles Darwent meets Giacomo Costa, the young Italian `cyber- realist'
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Giacomo Costa's arrival in London has obviously been something of an anticlimax. On his only previous visit, the plane in which the young photographer was flying crashed. "We came in to land too hard, so the wheel broke and the wing hit the ground," says Costa, eyes gleaming at the thrill of it all. "It was really scary." His disappointment at the second landing is palpable.

People get their kicks in different ways, and Costa - in London for the opening of "Architectures", a show of his work - seems to be turned on by disaster. When airlines do not obligingly provide it as part of their in-flight service, the 28-year-old Florentine goes out looking for it. His first career was not as a photographer, but as part of a rescue team bringing dead and dying alpinists down Mont Blanc. He later worked as an ambulance man.

Why? Let us call it a taste for the sublime. "It is like climbing mountains," says Costa, dragging heavily on another cigarette. "It's terrifying, but terror is part of our existence. Working in an ambulance eight hours a day is lonely, but it gives me an experience of the human condition. I have a show, I fly to London, there's an opening, I'm interviewed by journalists - it's easy to lose touch with reality. My photography is about reality."

So: shots of dismembered climbers? Plane crashes? Cardiac arrest victims? Not quite. Although Costa admits to admiring the work of Andres Serrano (particularly - no surprises here - the Spaniard's "Morgue" series), his own photographs do not concentrate on mutilated humanity. In fact, they do not concentrate on humanity at all: something of a coup, given that the works in "Architectures" are portraits of Italian cities.

These are not Milan and Florence as you will have seen them before. Costa deals in cibachromes, which is to say, digitalised photo-montages put together from snippets of architectural photography and manipulated on a computer. "At first I used the computer to help enhance my work," says the young "cyber-realist" (this is the title given him to by Italian critics). "Then, in 1995, I realised it was not just an aid but actually a different instrument, something that allows you to paint in a photographic way."

This last observation is not as fanciful as it sounds. There is something painterly about Costa's pictures, and not just painterly but actively Florentine. His Visione Rotonda No 6 is a good, old-fashioned Renaissance tondo, its computer-generated buildings arranged around a central cross; Arco No 1, with its demi-lune form and hill-shaped agglomeration of architectural bits and pieces, could be one of those quattrocento paintings of the Ideal City. It would not look out of place hanging in the Duomo.

Costa receives all this with one of those but-of-course Italian shrugs. "I am a Florentine," he puffs. "I didn't study art. It just came from the things I saw around me." There is one slight difference, though. His cities are ideal only in the sense in which Frankenstein's monster was the ideal man. In pictures such as Agglomerato No 1 or Paesaggio No 17, their architecture looks less man-made than man-eating. Other cities stand in deserts or lower under thunderstorms: none of them, apparently, has a human population. The buildings are real enough - those with a taste for ferro-concrete may spot Milan's hideous Torre Velasca in several of Costa's agglomerations - but they are the kind of Italian architecture tourists only see if they take the wrong exit off the autostrada: stained blocks of post-Mussolini council housing. The fact that many of the images seem studiedly amateurish merely adds a comic horror to la citta Costa.

Clearly, all this has something to do with a vision of urbanism out of control, a satirical take on what the Ideal City of the Italian Renaissance mind has actually turned out to be. Right? Wrong. "People are always saying this kind of thing, but I don't see it," says Costa, eyes widening in sorrow. "I just don't see all this millennial destruction in my work. Solitude, maybe, but solitude is a positive energy. I'm a positive person. I don't like tragedy - I like to eat, I like the sun." And ambulances, of course.

Giacomo Costa, Architectures: Photology, WC2 (0171 836 8600), to 20 March.