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Courage under fire

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review - JONATHAN SERGISON Giancarlo De Carlo: Layered Places By John McKean. Edition Axel Menges, 2004. 208pp. £49

When studying this very handsome book, one photograph struck me more than any other. It is the image of an incident referred to as the 'Triennale confrontation', and was used by Stefano Boeri on the front cover of the first issue of Domus he edited (January 2004). This photograph describes a moment in history that seems utterly removed from the current, passive conduct of architects and students.

Here, Giancarlo De Carlo's slight figure is surrounded by a melee of angry opposition. He appears tense, compact, leaning forward in an assertive manner. His sense of dress is dapper, of its time and correct.

This incident occurred in 1968. Milanese artists and designers felt excluded from an exhibition curated by De Carlo showing ideas and processes rather than objects and concrete work - and not their work but that of Team 10, Archigram and others. Their reaction was uncompromising. They started to destroy the exhibition before it had opened.

The photograph shows the moment when De Carlo tries to make a case for his curatorial policy. He is unsuccessful and the destruction restarts. When later the police intervened, De Carlo resigned. I am trying to imagine a contemporary equivalent of such a situation.

How would Massimiliano Fuksas or Deyan Sudjic have acted in similar circumstances?

This incident helps us understand De Carlo in two ways. Firstly, he had the courage to defend his position against such clear hostility and, secondly, he resigned at the point that he felt compromised by the support of the agencies of the state.

Like his slightly younger contemporary, Aldo Rossi, De Carlo was politically committed, and critical of the tenets of international Modernism. Rossi questioned the canon of Modernism through his teaching and writing, as editor of Domus, and especially through his seminal books Architecture and the City (1966) and Scientific Autobiography (1981). Holding similar beliefs, De Carlo strongly argued for the revision of a prevailing mentality at the time: that the city should be constantly rebuilt to fit the needs of the modern age. But unlike Rossi, who promoted the study of type as the basis for urban addition, De Carlo proceeds in a subtler manner.

He seems more willing to work with the very fabric of the city; to add to the social, as well as physical, fabric.

In John McKean's book Giancarlo De Carlo: Layered Places, the architect's oeuvre is arranged chronologically. The act of layering referred to in the title also describes the method used by McKean to interpret De Carlo's production. Texts explaining the projects are interwoven with interpretative essays. The book gives space for photographs and drawings to be printed at a large scale, although there are instances when you feel that you are missing an image or two to fully understand a project.

Starting with the early projects with their strong social agenda, such as housing schemes and colonies, the book devotes a generous amount of space to De Carlo's impressive series of interventions in Urbino. These probably constitute the best-known moments in the architect's production and helped label him as a critical regionalist. I can think of few examples where a contemporary architect has had the opportunity to add to and restructure a place to this extent: Gion Caminada and his work in the Swiss village of Vrin comes to mind, but its scale is much smaller.

De Carlo's position is more involved with the difficult issue of reconciling the impulse to be 'modern' with a need to find a 'local' understanding in architecture. At its best, the work displays great rigour and it is a real pleasure to finally have a book that gives justice to its full range. Where I felt less satisfied with the book is where I feel less satisfied with the work of De Carlo generally, and that is in the later projects. There appears to be an impulse to be more playful and sculptural, which has the ultimate effect of detaching the work from its intellectual grounding - the same problem that I find with the work of the Smithsons in the last decade of their career.

Jonathan Sergison is an architect in London

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