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Giancarlo de Carlo (1919-2005)

Britt Eversole looks back at a key figure in the discourse on participation in architecture and founder of Team X

While recently it seems that Giancarlo De Carlo’s contribution to architecture has been distilled into a single idea − participation − his reputation derives as much from his approach to practice as from his commitment to teaching, his optimistic, yet blunt critical writing (directed equally at friend and foe alike), and the way he lived his life.

De Carlo’s generation entered architecture amid Italy’s fledgling, postwar democracy. During the occupation, he had served in the Resistance with former Casabella editor Giuseppe Pagano, training Partisan fighters and sabotaging Germany’s war machine. He hid in the homes of sympathisers and befriended intellectuals such as Elio Vittorini, Italo Calvino and Carlo Bo, who would later support his career. They discussed politics, architecture and the 19th-century anarchist and socialist philosophy that would form his worldview.

His office opened in 1950, but garnered few commissions. Instead, articles and exhibitions cemented his status. His Spontaneous Architecture exhibition at the 9th Triennale was well received; however, the Urbanism Exhibition at the 10th Triennale, curated with Vittorini, Ludovico Quaroni and others was more controversial. Encouraging the public to be urbanism’s ‘protagonists’ rather than its objects, the show reframed planning as a civic process, not the pursuit of ideal or functional forms, and called for ‘self-realising plans’ that emerge like ‘chain reactions’. Bruno Zevi called it the work of ‘anarchists’.

De Carlo burnished his writing skills as co-editor of Casabella Continuità from 1953 to ‘56 where he wrote brutal critiques of Modernist formalism and rebuked students for returning to historicist imagery. After three years, however, he resigned in protest at his boss’s promotion of ‘continuity’ as dogma. Nonetheless, De Carlo’s essays over five decades always wrapped a positive statement of hope and a principled realism around condemnations of every ideology or style. As Giovanni Klaus Koenig described him, ‘he possesses a rare gift for an Italian: … he knows how to play the executioner’.

However, charges of naive traditionalism dogged De Carlo on the international stage. During the 1950s, he built working-class housing, most significantly in the isolated, southern town of Matera (1957). Like the period’s other sociological methods for introducing peasants into modernity, De Carlo attempted an architecture legible to an uncultured, impoverished populace through the exhibition of their craft knowledge. The rustic structure featured an arcade and hipped roof in raw concrete and masonry built by local craftsmen, which reflected what he called Italian architects’ ‘re-acquisition of historical consciousness’.

Internationally, the design was pilloried. When he presented it at the 1959 Otterlo conference, the young Turks of Team 10 ‘hammered [him] into the ground’, according to Alison Smithson. Their excoriating of ‘Uncle Rogers’s’ medieval Torre Velasca office building tarred De Carlo, somewhat unfairly, with being part of Italy’s regression from modernity. Nonetheless, his ‘Talk on the Situation of Contemporary Architecture’ encapsulated Team 10’s attacks on CIAM. The assumed success of doctrinaire Modernism − a project of ‘form in a pure state’ without ‘contaminations of purpose and use’ − derived from false assumptions regarding its global consistency. Modern architecture showed surprising regional diversity, and suggested a more local approach instead of universal solutions and fetishes for technique or stylistic revivalism. It was time to move out from under Le Corbusier’s shadow. Internationalism was dead.

Thanks partly to his place in Team 10, De Carlo’s work in the 1960s received international acclaim, especially his designs for the University of Urbino. Here he worked for decades, constructing housing, classroom and administration buildings for the rector, his friend Carlo Bo. Radiating outward along the hill town’s slopes and embedded into the landscape, the refined concrete and masonry structures were concerned less with form than the movement of people through public spaces. The global reception of De Carlo’s work at Urbino cannot be overstated, and, notwithstanding perennial romanticisms for the hill-town picturesque, Urbino today serves as an anti-Bilbao model − a genteel Modernism, woven into the existing fabric and landscape, that quietly revitalised an entire town.

De Carlo’s anti-heroic practice of design ‘by other means’ offers a different model for achieving a lasting reputation in architecture − not using others to get it

However, his true legacy is the 2,000 students he taught over half a century, primarily at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia and the Politecnico di Milano, and internationally at Yale and MIT. From 1976 until 2003, he also ran the International Laboratory of Architecture & Urban Design. Every summer, a roster of international critics, many of whom were Team 10 members, convened students from multiple countries to study human problems common to architecture everywhere. But his calls for pedagogical reforms (most clearly expressed in the Overturned Pyramid), his experimental studios and the democratic ethos he introduced into teaching, endeared him to students half his age.

Just before the first student occupations in the early 1960s, he began structuring his studios as laboratories − students and assistants worked together and debated the evolution of the course, the topics of research and even the modes of grading. Famously, he publicly identified with the demands of protesting architecture students, shuttering the 1968 Triennale that he himself had organised. Yet it was also in his teaching where urbanism, architecture and political awareness came together. He often assigned educational buildings as design problems, because to design places for learning made students consider the role spaces play in education, and also forced them to reflect on architectural education itself. Moreover, he argued, if the most important aspect of education is ‘experience’, then the architecture of the university becomes a microcosm of the city itself, preparing students for the social conflicts that play out in democracy’s spaces.

De Carlo’s participatory practices certainly have limits. As a reaction against authorities who employ violence, they fall short when confronting soft power, where popular values are translated into deceptively banal forms of control. However, his most important lesson regarded architects’ responsibility. He often used the phrase pagare di persona − to personally pay the price. He learned it from Pagano, who attributed the term to Carlo Cattaneo and Carlo Pisacane, respectively, the 19th-century fathers of Italian democracy and anarchism. In a democracy, architects have a civic duty to publicly question flawed practices, to resist authoritarian tendencies to impose designs, and to suffer the inevitable consequences of standing up to power brokers. It also means refusing what De Carlo called intellectual surrogacy − asking others, especially students, to follow you and carry on your ‘project’.

Architectural projects are easy, and even easier to teach because they generate results and discourse. They canonise great men and schools of thought, but they ask few questions and solve no problems. De Carlo’s anti-heroic practice of design ‘by other means’ offers a different model for achieving a lasting reputation in architecture, not using others to get it.

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