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Giancarlo De Carlo, who died on 4 June, was one of the foremost architectural thinkers of his time - not an architect who played at being a theorist, but an intellectual whose medium was architecture.

One of the most memorable teachers of his generation, he always set himself outside the academy.

He was, as his close friend Aldo van Eyck said, a master of paradox. Yet his themes remained stoutly consistent and his rigorous socio-political position found expression in over half a century of coherent work: writing, teaching and publishing, design projects and planning studies, and, centrally, interventions in the built and inhabited fabric of our world.

By arguing that architecture cannot be dissociated from the social and moral conditions of its age, he restored to the architect an awareness of his mission among humanity. He taught that, if architecture were to be authentic, it could not be limited to a question of taste or style, but had to expand;

to become an active principle that took in all human activity.

While he was always building, writing essays and lecturing, De Carlo also made a quiet stir with his own independent platforms for debate. The magazine Spazio e Società and the International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design, meeting annually in Italy, were entirely De Carlo's babies. Buttressed by Team 10 and other colleagues from around the world, they calmly rode through tides of the 'tendenza' and Post-Modernism, of 'community architecture' and 'vernacularism', of HighTech and the signed artwork.

But this should not suggest that De Carlo's ideas or own expressive language stood still.

De Carlo's understanding of the heritage of the historic city, and the debate as to how it can be renewed, always avoided nostalgia. What his work teaches is the value of a deep reading of place; its specificity in formal fact, its material and social formation buried in civic memory, its present social inhabitation and aspirations and its links to possible, but unknown, futures.

His buildings are complex responses to particular sets of questions, and do not reveal themselves all at once. De Carlo did not feed any desire for an abstract artwork in the landscape. His drawings have little intrinsic value beyond their part in the more important production process.

Meaning is breathed into his spaces by their creative inhabitation. For him, the reality of a building consisted 'in creating a congenial condition in which a society, using that building, can make choices and mix together'.

He never dealt with a 'how?' question without considering the 'why?' This did not endear him to authorities (who resent being asked why their housing budget is so parsimonious) or to colleagues (who trim their sails to fit prevailing political winds).

By refusing to temporise and - uniquely in 20th-century Italy - by refusing to align himself with the essential channels of political patronage, De Carlo ensured that his output remained even smaller than most. In Milan, his home city, he said he had not even been asked to produce a dog-kennel.

De Carlo seemed better known abroad, being a regular visiting professor in the US, and recipient of the UK's Royal Gold Medal for Architecture.

The AJ100 poll in 2002 placed De Carlo eighth in a list of the most influential architects in the world alive today. Where might an Italian poll have ranked him? In Urbino, a city to which he devoted his life, he appeared Milanese; to Milan he was Anglophile (his studio always used to stop for tea at five o'clock in the afternoon);

while to the British and Americans, he remained very Italian. Perhaps, finally, he was happiest on the margins, always resisting the thoughtless flow.

By John McKean A full appreciation of Giancarlo De Carlo is available online at www. ajplus. co. uk

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