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Space and society (2 of 2)

Digging deep

When you come down via S Girolamo, the building's north-east corner greets you with the elemental shapes of brick wall, a drum at its angle, a high circular window. A few metres further, a small door opens to the bright foyer where students mingle, others looking and calling down from the floor above. Ahead, a glazed door leads to a little garden; to its left that drum is now seen as the top-lit spiral stair taking us up to the cafe, revealing itself as a beautifully cool quiet terrace under the eaves.

Here the space is horizontal - focused on the horizon. The distant landscape to the south is squeezed between the grassed terrace outside, not much lower than eye height, and the sweeping semicircular brim of the flat cap overhead.

This indoor bar-restaurant terrace, with an exotic bird (painted by the architect's daughter) gracing the in-situ concrete screen at the far end, has a window-wall deeply carved into almost circular bays, wrapped with a convivial continuous seat between which steps rise to the outdoor terrace.

Back down to the small foyer, turning left, through the door and up a few steps, we are in a particular, shaped external place: a pentagonal garden on the building's southeast corner, with tall walls behind trees to the north, the countryside over the parapets to the south.

From here we also see the varied roof terraces on at least three levels above the aula magna. We can sense - for it is only visible from the air - how the rest of the building is covered. Aerial views suggest the carved-out well of the slightly misshapen cylinder, while the submerged church's roof is just visible above a sea of green in which most of the site appears engulfed, filled up to the enclosing rooftop. Quite differently, over the aula, the external experience of this apparently straightforward plan is complex and not easily grasped. Visitors can disperse quickly, exploring these half-hidden external links.

Inhabitants can find a quiet corner in which to talk or read.

From this garden, we descend a narrow path along the southern escarpment to find ourselves entering the secret garden over the hub. Further on, we reach yet another small garden from which a stair twists us up two storeys to the cafe terrace. This is no manicured lawn, but pleasantly rough, like a village common, edged by the great curving parapet which incorporates a gently convex seat built in along its length.Over this edge is the cascade of glass which covers the great hall below.

Though large, simple semicircles on plan, the hall forms into an extremely complex three-dimensional section. Four floors under this rooflight all radiate from a semicircular lecture point deep at the bottom, where 1,500 people, on stalls and gallery, can focus. The galleries can be separated into four separate lecture rooms, the bottom hall divided in two. Further up there are more radiating lecture rooms and an extraordinary one (in which I have lectured, suspended as in a goldfish bowl) over the central platform.

The lower spaces are divided by sliding folding partitions, their manipulation by staff being part of the goal to keep the building under direct human, rather than smart sys.The higher spaces are glazed, thus offering unusual views and reflections:

up from the bottom hall to distant structure and glazing, across facetted curving reflections, and from deep within one lecture gallery across the space to another opposite.

At the top, the fan-shaped rooflight is cut to take access bridges, while over the outer segments it folds back down or flat, rising through two storeys only in the centre.

De Carlo digs deep - the aula floor is 16m below the pre-existing garden. Both his other university faculties nearby burrow down and protrude with skylights among which we walk.At the Business School he has even managed to lift precious Roman remains a few metres to make room for his sunken aula. But here, the one spatial experience, da fondo al cielo, is quite different, with its Piranesian vertiginous glimpses as well as a wonderful sense of excitement when completely full.

The three-dimensional planning for this flexibility must have been great fun, but how realistic is it? The acoustic quality, when different didactic spaces are simultaneously used, cannot be brilliant, and the solar gain, under the vast south-facing greenhouse roof, can be seriously uncomfortable during the warmer months of the university year. After its first scorching summers, blue horizontal blinds, shaped between the radiating beams, cut off the greenhouse's worst rays and curtains shaded the upper lecture rooms.

But why this aula magna anyway? Such extreme focus on the didactic lecture, the 'ex cathedra' pronouncement, might seem to embody a very old-fashioned view of education, particularly to the education of future educators. De Carlo does not disagree, although he notes that Italian education remains much less interactive and discussion-based than a Briton might expect.

'But the aula magna had wider, powerful purposes, ' he argues. 'First, it would celebrate the unique freedom of this university, and assert the role of the small university. Second, it would also celebrate the bond between the town and the university. Its specification was agreed between university and civic authority with the aim that it would be used for all town celebrations.' The aula magna certainly is at its best on such a celebratory occasion, filled and buzzing. It is the major palace within this city of a building.

City and palace In 1528, Castiglione wrote that Duke Federico's palazzo in Urbino ('in the opinion of many the most beautiful in all of Italy') appeared 'not so much a palace as a city in itself '.

Such reciprocity is central to Il Magistero. It does remember its own past: there is a sense of what was here - the former south-east terraced gardens, enclosed by building to north and west, now is the centre of light - and the focus is as before, except that the view is now internal.

But, rather more, it remembers the form of the town. Here, the cylinder and the larger, focused semi-cylinder are as buildings in its town, the space between becoming an urban landscape, simply lit by seemingly casual 'streetlighting'; the small entrance a city gate opening to the freedom within.

There are no corridors. The ramp, its stepped section similar to the steep town streets, also echoes that other social hinge nearby, Francesco di Giorgio's rampa, which links the upper and lower town of Urbino.

Yet, amid the 'urban' palette of materials - in-situ concrete structure and circulation, spray plastered walls - the 'forms' within the structural carapace of the (urban) perimeter are paradoxically hollow. The great glazed half-cylinder is a focused light space rather than a dark solid. The cylinder, round which professors' rooms cluster as houses, may consciously echo the central cylindrical building in the famous Ideal City painting (poorly attributed to Piero), which stands in the Ducal Palace nearby - but in negative.

For De Carlo, the university is both urban microcosm and part of the larger city. Having spent much of his career in university planning, from schemes for Dublin to Pavia, Siena and today in Catania, he is opposed to the idea of a campus, always aiming for permeability between university and town.

'The university must be an active, open part of society, of the town, towards which it has both rights and duties, ' he says. 'Usually it takes its rights, but it is less concerned with its duties. Just as the university is using the city and its territory, in the same way the university should reciprocate, and be usable by the city and its territory. There are, obviously, parts which should be closed and private (though these are far fewer than might be imagined) but all the rest can be more public.

'In a university really worthy of the name, every citizen should be free to enter and listen to a lecture. You could say: well, what stops anyone from attending a lecture now? I believe the answer is the architecture itself.

Thresholds, for instance, are the expression of authority and institutionalisation. Can you really imagine a farmer or worker crossing all the thresholds of a university? When the fi150 hoursfl experiment didn't work, everybody simply concluded that workers didn't want to study, but I think otherwise: it was a question of thresholds, of architecture.'

Il Magistero, with its small, almost invisible entrance, certainly offers no promise of the space beyond. But De Carlo's subtle argument about permeability concerns not simply this kind of legibility. First, 'the most important barriers are those thresholds which you cannot touch. The issue of easing access should be much more important than simply concern for disabled entrances - in a way, we are all disabled when we cannot use a particular space. Thresholds built up in words are more powerful than physical thresholds.'

Then he offers a clue: 'When you think of churches, you first think of them as closedoff spaces, but in fact it is so easy to enter a church, it's open to all. The door of a church doesn't feel like a threshold, because once you are in, you feel free to move about, to watch, to wander up and down. Even the external door somehow unconsciously invites you to enter. By contrast, a university is a closed organisation, and therefore its spaces are dense with rhetoric, and its accesses are rejecting people. The elimination of language barriers were one of my first concerns in university designing.'

It is not the visual form of Il Magistero's discreet entrance which promises welcome, but the knowledge of shared space beyond, as in the church; that while you must enter as an individual and not a crowd, there is a certain sense of recognition of a public 'urban' realm within.

Gradual growth In planning, De Carlo neither worked from inside out, as with classic Modernism, nor did he simply infill within an existing crustacean carapace, as in classic Post-Modernism (ever since the 1960s film scene of four humble terrace houses, their front doors entered by each of the Beatles, whom we then see arriving in one vast interior space). Here we have a dynamic tension held between the skin in the city and the forms within this skin.

The figures upon his urban ground are clear and identifiable. The semicircle of the great hall obviously suggests a gathering place, a literal focus. From anywhere within the building, one can locate this by the transparency, direction of beams or shape of walls.

The cylinder, part revealed from the entrance foyer, clearly has little cells round it, the central tree providing depth and implying a private, quiet space. It feels intrusive looking across this court to the windows of the academics, screened by transoms and curtains.

The dynamic overall geometry does not settle simply. Stair, court and ramp almost align, but the architect's bold shapes imply a sense of piecemeal development, of slower growth held together by the interstices of street and square. Between the given envelope and the formal figures, space billows and tightens, often offering a range of unexpected spaces, corners, niches, in which students naturally gather to talk or study.

Windows are carefully placed, to frame a view (as the circle in the cafe wall to the church pediment beyond), or to link spaces and enhance their prospect (as in the tall, keyhole windows south of the court, which cut semicircles out of the upper floor).

It is paradoxical that, while Urbino and Catania universities have been and remain his major clients, De Carlo remains scathing of academe: 'My opinion of the university is very negative - but I really love self-contradiction. Life itself is contradictory.'

He remains disillusioned by Italy's general academic retreat from radical post-1968 intentions. With staff increasingly selfimportant, 'university buildings are mostly filled by rooms for tutors who are there for a few days every other week, leaving overcrowded lecture rooms, where students squeeze in, unable to watch and to listen.

Academic bureaucracy has imprisoned imagination.' The 'ex cathedra' formal expositions all too often become 'lectures from inattentive teachers to inattentive students.

We blame students for being lazy, unmotivated or too numerous, when the real problem is the teachers who generally have become bureaucratic functionaries.'

Throughout his career De Carlo has taught architecture remained keen to distance himself from the educational establishment. 'I never liked the academic community, seeing it as lazy, conservative, authoritarian, and with a mafioso tendency. Few personalities chance to float clear in that stagnant pool of mediocrity.'

Il Magistero, of course, is a pre-1968 design built slowly, in a little town far from the centres of rebellion with which De Carlo engaged. Such lively anger is rarely hinted at here, where the most confrontational reading of the place concerns the church.

Confronting the past In an extraordinary gesture, De Carlo inserts into the tiny church on Il Magistero's most prominent corner, two floors of library above a meeting room, while underneath he carves the experimental cinema already mentioned.

High up across the simple white church, with its minimal 18th-century plasterwork, are slung six white RSJs. One timber platform simply sits on exposed secondary RSJs across a third of this, while another lower one zigzags more than halfway across the space, this sitting on 'cantilevered' RSJs whose free ends are strap-hung in space from those above. Connecting both with the floor is an open spiral stair. All this is very dry - a completely transparent construction, bolted and screwed, metal and timber, in a language very different from the tall, vaulted, white plastered box; but also from the rest of the complex.

Here book storage and 40 study spaces float over the hall where that traditional, formal culmination of all Italian academic study, the defence of the thesis, takes place.

So, perhaps particularly here, De Carlo insists on confronting the past with such an unexpected spectacle (while also, in the basement, with the subversive rather than the usual saccharine film shows, a different unexpected spectacle is offered).

But it is neither gratuitous nor jarring;

rather, elegant and airy. The shapes of the platforms, which do not quite touch the back wall and extend apparently randomly into the space, are very carefully designed.

This almost transparent insertion veils, but in fact does not deny, the existing space, which remains recognisable although it is quite transformed.

Despite such obvious care, material preciousness is not De Carlo's interest. Before we entered the 'church', this story had not lovingly caressed detail nor marvelled at technical ingenuity. It is not that he does not enjoy detail; he loves virtuosic concrete detailing, with elements swinging through space and not quite touching others.We see the return corners in the court, set half-abay off the column rhythm so glazing can play at running round.

But the ingenuity here is always spatial - to make places.And therefore virtuosity in Il Magistero is almost all in board-marked reinforced concrete, a material which comes close to the body in 'urban' areas - the cafe and its curving outdoor seat, the stairs and ramps, at structural edges such as the windows to the court (whose internal external wall carefully retains a memory of the orders of column and beam).

Magistero and city The Urbino citizenry's response to its university is conditioned by the explosion in student numbers over the years when Il Magistero was being built. Pressures and rising prices have pushed many out from the historical centre, while many others have made money out of student tenants. (Student numbers jumped from 500 to 10,000 in the 1970s, and now the enrolment is 20,000, into an area housing 15,000, only 7,500 of them in the old town. ) It is a fragile equilibrium, yet the townsfolk clearly support the university and are proud of its buildings. De Carlo is only slightly exaggerating when he suggests that 'Urbino is one of the few cities in Italy where contemporary buildings are considered as part of the citizen's heritage. They recommend visitors to the Palazzo Ducale and Il Magistero, drawing no distinction between new and old.' It is certainly one of the few places in my experience where tourist postcard stalls show the new among the old, Il Magistero next to Raphael.

Each year, the trees, which offer some solar shielding in the hidden garden, turn from bright green to burning ochre in the autumn.

The low winter sun then shines through its bare branches, altering the space completely.

Roof-garden walls have gone round from soft green shapes of Virginia creeper to blood red and then to naked winter scratchings on sharply cut board-marked concrete, for 25 years. The tree in the court has been cut back by half and climbs up again.

The sisal carpeting is now receiving the renewal it needs, desperately so in places of most wear - by the telephones, by the windows where rain penetrates, by the ramp. The age of the great fanlight is showing in its weathering. But also, on my last visit, there was a grey sense of disrepair; WCs were vandalised, the building not lovingly maintained.

The dialogue between the building and its users has yet to be fully realised, it seems.

Its promise, its faith was in an optimism and a town-gown cooperation. But I have never yet been there when the door leading directly down to the cinema or that up to the cafe was unlocked. And I cheated in my description earlier - the cafe has never even been installed. That top space now is packed with students quietly poring over books, seemingly desperately short of places in which to study, while they can always move into the town for a coffee.

Of another of his Urbino buildings De Carlo said recently: 'There are places which are not discovered yet, but they will be. An architect must do what he believes is right, not just because it will be made real immediately - but you suffer. You ask, why are they not using it? Is it because they are lazy, do not have enough imagination?'

Perhaps here, despite the building's successful and heavy use for a quarter of a century, the communication has become threatened, and the architecture has not yet made its possibilities clear. 'People will always use it as they want, of course, ' says the architect, 'but the space suggests how to use it. Creating this space, this potential, is the essential of architecture.'

The architect of Il Magistero has always remained based in Milan, a considerable half day's journey from Urbino. 'Though, ' he adds wryly, 'in Milan, where I've lived since 1937, they've hardly even allowed me to build a dog's kennel.' Aged 83, he has recently completed a new building on the Venice Lido and is in the midst of a major programme of university building in Sicily. So, although he may know Urbino's body and soul better than anyone, De Carlo has been careful never to become her GP architect; he is more her psychotherapist than nanny.

In his most recent essay, from which I also quoted at the start, De Carlo states: 'If the purpose of restoration is to preserve an identity and make it significant for all - for the permanent inhabitants as well as the occasional ones - then we need to lever the valued events of the past out of the system of meanings they had originally, and insert them into new systems of meanings that correspond to their present contexts: to destructure and then restructure them, reinserting them with an active role in the circuit of contemporary activity.'

This is what Il Magistero aims to exemplify.

Footnotes

Colin St J Wilson, Master of the Resistance , The Architectural Review , No 1157,1993.

1 2De Carlo, Editorial to Spazio e Società 92,2001.

3De Carlo, in Oscar Newman (ed. ) CIAM '59 in Otterlo, London, Tiranti,1961, p80-91.

4 Carlo Bo died on 22 July 2001, the same day as Indro Montanelli, Italy's most illustrious (and even older) journalist.

5De Carlo, in Denys Lasdun (ed. ), Architecture in an Age of Scepticism , London, p54.

6see 'The new Faculty of Economics, Urbino', Domus 826,2000.

7The only 'free'university in Italy, Urbino neither belongs to the state not to a private foundation; set up by its own statutes (one of which more recently confirmed Bo as 'rector for life'), it works within state educational rules and is supported by state funds; yet it retains a unique freedom in the use of its funding, setting its own priorities and avoiding interminable bureaucratic delays.

8 By later editions of Team 10 Primer De Carlo had become accepted and was blended in retrospectively.

9Recent Smithson work in Germany, showing the influence of Peter's teaching with De Carlo every summer for the past 25 years, was featured in AJ 16/23.8.01.

10 De Carlo, interviewed in Benedict Zucchi Giancarlo De Carlo .London , Butterworth.1992, p167.

11 De Carlo, Urbino: The History of a City and Plans for its Redevelopment , Cambridge Mass, MIT Press, 1970, p104.

12 De Carlo quoted in Domus 826,2000.

13 Coming from the era of Archigram-made-real in Centre Pompidou, this building engaged with such debates.

14 Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano . 1528, Book I, Chapter II.

15 See John McKean, 'Unearthing the Future; De Carlo in Urbino'Building Design ,24 February,1984.

16 An Italian post-1968 law which gave every worker the right to 150 hours of higher education within their time at work.

For many years he held a chair in Venice and then one in Genova, while for more than 20 years he has run his own International Laboratory for Architecture and Urban Design (ILAUD).

CREDITS

ARCHITECT Giancarlo De Carlo DESIGN Valeria Fossati Bellani BUILDING Astolfo Sartori INTERIORS Susanne Wettstein STRUCTURAL Vittorio Korach MECHANICAL Giuseppe De Micheli ACOUSTIC Franco Marin QUANTITY SURVEYOR Lucio Seraghiti GRAPHICS Giovanni Galli BUILDER Impresa Giuseppe Montagna

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT Much information and all uncredited quotations from Giancarlo De Carlo come from long conversations he had in 1999 and 2000; with me (in English, taped but unpublished), and with Franco Buncuga, which are published in Italian as Architettura e Libertà , Conversazione con Giancarlo De Carlo (Milan, elèuthera).

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