The Italian-born architect Enrico Taglietti, who died in May aged 93, has left an enduring legacy in Canberra

Canberra has never been known, in particular, for its 70s-style architecture. And yet, it was a small suburban school in northern Canberra that caught the eye of the design world in 1976.

Built from plain grey concrete and rising out of the suburban landscape, Giralang Primary School had deep-shaded eves, soaring roofs and cathedral ceilings, open-plan study spaces and playful nooks and alcoves.

It was, at the time, considered cutting edge for Australia, although similar types of open-plan school designs were emerging in parts of America and England.

"It is like an adventure playground turned to educational use," declared the European architectural magazine Architectural Review in 1978 of the recently opened school.

Two years earlier, upon the school's grand opening, the territory's chief education officer had been equally impressed.

"It is a school modelled for children, full of interest, unusual corners and nooks, and yet with an... overarching majestic quality in its total architecture," he said.

The school had every reason to be proud of their new building; it had been designed by none other than Enrico Taglietti, the Italian-born architect who had arrived in Canberra and made it his home in the mid-1950s.

Taglietti died earlier in May at the age of 93, leaving behind a profound and extensive legacy that demonstrated his faith in Canberra as a forward-thinking city.

Giralang was one of a series of schools he designed, in which he used space and form to create visual interest and a sense of adventure to what were otherwise quite abstract-looking structures.

These, and many of his other Canberra buildings, are still seen as innovative today.

Giralang principal Belinda Love says the school's wide and soaring central spaces are particularly conducive to contemporary approaches to education.

Enrico Taglietti outside one of his works, Flynn Primary School. Picture: Karleen Minney

Enrico Taglietti outside one of his works, Flynn Primary School. Picture: Karleen Minney

When it was first built, more than 40 years ago, Australia was still mired in traditional teaching styles.

"Desks were still to be in rows, it was that really traditional paradigm of chalk and talk, the teacher up the front, delivering lessons and filling the empty vessel, which is the student," she says.

"That is not how we work today. Today we are cultivating creative and critical thinkers, problem solvers, and they need to find space in their environment that suits them to learn, so it might not be sitting at a table, it might be sitting over on some soft furnishings, it might be in some of the little alcoves that Enrico designed."

Even more remarkable, she says, is how well-suited the surroundings are to the school's high proportion of students with diagnosed disabilities, included several on the autism spectrum.

"People, when they first walk in, say 'Oh, this will be way too over-stimulating because it's so open', and we've added colour to the walls and furnishings," she says.

He has left a legacy of houses, schools, churches, commercial and public buildings throughout Canberra, the city he was drawn to almost from the moment he first laid eyes on its unfinished streets and treeless new suburbs in the 1950s.

"But the magic of Enrico's design is that children, particularly on the spectrum, find their little safe spaces where they can go and de-escalate or regulate their emotions or how they're feeling."

She says despite the additions, over the years, of coloured walls and bright, modern furniture, Taglietti's work is a constant presence throughout the building. And for many years, the man himself was a regular presence, too.

Enrico Taglietti in 2012, amid the cathedral-like ceilings of Giralang Primary School. Picture: Jeffrey Chan

Enrico Taglietti in 2012, amid the cathedral-like ceilings of Giralang Primary School. Picture: Jeffrey Chan

Whenever he paid a visit to the school, to observe, from afar, how his spaces had come to life, he would place his hat on the bronze bust of himself the school kept in its foyer, "to let the kids know that he was in the building".

"He used to love to come and see what we had done to the school, but not with a critical eye," Love says.

"He fully understood that school buildings are living, breathing organisms, almost, that move with the time and should be able to shape and adapt with what is needed at that time.

"He said to me once, 'If you needed that purple wall, great, I'm pleased that I was able to provide the wall to be purple for you'."

The schools were just one part of Taglietti's large body of work, as a leading practitioner of the late 20th century organic style of architecture.

His work drew on Italian free-form construction and post-war Japanese architecture, a beguiling combination for a burgeoning city like Canberra.

He has left a legacy of houses, schools, churches, commercial and public buildings throughout Canberra, the city he was drawn to almost from the moment he first laid eyes on its unfinished streets and treeless new suburbs in the 1950s.

Children at Giralang Primary School, shortly after the Enrico Taglietti building was opened. Picture: supplied

Children at Giralang Primary School, shortly after the Enrico Taglietti building was opened. Picture: supplied

When Taglietti first arrived in Canberra as a young architect in the mid-1950s, he saw something other European newcomers didn't - an enticing blank slate, filled with possibilities.

Instead of bland, empty spaces - the ones people sometimes still complain about today - he saw what he would later call an ''invisible city'', yet to be spoiled by urban spaces that belonged elsewhere.

It was a place he could see being filled with a dream city.

In an interview with The Canberra Times in 2010, he said that five decades on, Canberra was still partly inhabiting that yet-to-be-fulfilled dream state, although he wondered about the many odd planning decisions that had led to some of the empty spaces being filled.

At the time, he was lamenting the city's trajectory, from a place of endless potential to the architectural hodge-podge it had become. But his critique came from the heart of a staunch Canberra devotee. He still saw beauty and potential in the place, even as the urban landscape was quickly filling up.

Born in Milan in 1926, Taglietti first came to Australia in 1955 as an architecture graduate, ostensibly to supervise exhibits for an Italian promotional art and trade show.

He and his wife had intended to stay just six weeks, but ended up staying longer at the request of the Italian ambassador.

They returned to Italy but eventually came back and made their way to Canberra, where Taglietti would later be commissioned to design the Italian Embassy.

It was one of his greatest and most drawn-out works, taking 20 years, leading to inevitable quips about how long Rome took to build.

But, he said, the saga gave him time to ease into Canberra life and start a firm here, at a time when most other prestigious firms were being established in the larger cities.

He recalled the sense of space in Canberra in the 1950s - the antithesis of the cluttered Europe of his upbringing and early adulthood - a clean slate in which he could be free to design from the inside out, to build something into a landscape, rather than be dictated by confined spaces.

He could be dynamic and open in his designs, rather than symmetrical and ostensibly grand.

Former commonwealth government architect Roger Pegrum well remembers his own early years as a graduate architect in 1960s Canberra.

"The most exciting new building in town in those days was Taglietti's Noah's restaurant in Civic, a wonderful timber ark-like structure on Northbourne Avenue near the old police station," he says.

Architect Enrico Taglietti with some work from others referencing his own work. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Architect Enrico Taglietti with some work from others referencing his own work. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"All the young architects loved it, and it put Canberra on the architectural map."

He says while Taglietti is today perhaps best known for his primary schools in Belconnen and Tuggeranong, it was the Dickson Library that stood out as one of the finest examples of his work in the public realm.

"I think the library is the most elegant and sensitive of his public buildings - simple open planning and lovely internal nooks where you can relax and read in the sunlight, with special areas for children," he says.

"It is a great shame that later alterations have cruelly damaged the lovely internal spaces and courtyards of the library."

In 1995, Pegrum chaired the jury for the inaugural 25-Year Award for buildings that had stood the test of time; the library won the honour, alongside University House at the Australian National University.

Canberra planning specialist Jane Goffman, who convenes the Dickson Residents' Group, says the library - a low, grey building surrounded by a bustling shopping precinct - has "nourished community spirit" since it opened 50 years ago.

"As a place to visit and a sanctuary, it welcomes and inspires, it stimulates curiosity, it shelters and reveals," she says.

"The more carefully you look, the more amazing you realise this building and its setting is. Its bold sculptural forms, artistic courtyards, light-filled atrium, clever clerestory windows, were all designed to focus on the central importance of the child and create a sense of poetry and music and joy that's increasingly rare these days, and each of us, no matter our age, has an inner child that responds."

She says it's a privilege to be able to spend hours in a building that was designed so carefully to foster families and a love of reading.

"Urban design involves a complex interplay between the outer shells of buildings and what we as planners like to call the public realm, which is where the life of the city is acted out," she says.

"Enrico understood the power of place to serve as theatre and stage, and dedicated himself to crafting that vision from a void.

"Here in Dickson, we've been privileged to inherit such a wonderful dynamic expression of postwar optimism and modernism."

Taglietti's work, which also includes the grand Apolstolic Nunciature in Red Hill, won him numerous architecture awards; in 2007, he was awarded the Royal Institute of Architects Gold Medal for Architecture, Australia's top industry prize.

These were great and deserved accolades; his works are integral to the history of Canberra. But the man himself would have been just as proud to see a condolence book in his memory, in the Dickson Library entrance, which will be in place until the end of May.