Thoroughly embedded in the small hilltop city of Urbino, Il Magistero - the School of Education designed by Giancarlo De Carlo - reflects his search for an architecture that evolves over time, becoming ever richer in meaning as a result Ifthere is one architect of the 20th century who can lead us, through his work, towards a grown-up discussion of how we might further our built heritage, it is Giancarlo De Carlo - whom Colin St John Wilson calls 'the most lucid of his generation of architectphilosophers-in-action'.
1Il Magistero, the School of Education which he built for Urbino University between 1968 and 1976, and which he recently used to represent his concept of renewal, is an ideal frame through which to engage with this issue.
What, after all, is architecture for? 'The essential purpose of architecture is to organise and shape space for use, to consign it to individual and collective experience, to expose it to the effects of time: so that it ages, becomes stratified, continues to be enriched with meanings, until at a certain point it begins to design and redesign itself, seemingly by its own volition, to endure and hand down the most eloquent records of human events.'
The more you read this statement, the more extraordinary appear its claims, farreaching its implications; and yet the more right it seems.
Here - buried in one of De Carlo's recent articles 2- the ever-active 83-year old author reaffirms his belief in the deeper dialectic between space and society; a subject which for more than half a century he has demonstrated in his works, since he first ruffled CIAM with his theoretical critique as well as his decidedly unfashionable (symmetrical, pitch-roofed) housing in 1959.
3Double life The physical shape of the Renaissance citystate appears miraculously still there, visible among the wonderful forms of the Marche hills.At one point, as the road snakes up from the Adriatic coastal plain, the town's silhouette becomes suddenly visible, ornamenting the skyline with spires, shapes and the tops of the unmistakable twin fairy-castle towers, the torricini of Urbino's Ducal Palace.
'This is the real Italy, ' said the young university rector to his new architect, Giancarlo De Carlo, as they paused here on their first visit together. Half a century later, Carlo Bo remained the rector until his death in summer 2001 4; De Carlo continues as his architect, with two university buildings newly completed in 2000, and a major civic project on site in Urbino.
The paradox of this tiny city is that, while wonderfully clear, it is always ambiguous, double-imaged; while wonderfully comprehensible, it is powerfully elusive. A binary, double town (its name deriving from urbs bina is a pseudo-antique joke), it is both invisible and revealed, cultured and popular, emblematic and direct, dramatic and nurturing hidden emotion. Both Italo Calvino and Aldo Van Eyck, as might be expected, loved it; both knew it as guests of De Carlo.
On the saddle between two hills, Urbino's topography is never simple or entirely comprehensible. It is always a surprise when an urban window looks out horizontally to a field, a surprise that, after the steep descent to the rampart edge of town, the view opens out to the market square and Valbona gate still far below. Built form (in unifying brick and tile) is as solid and continuous a fabric as the land, but the precise, unique genius loci of each interweaves unexpectedly. With landscape forms invading Urbino, and major buildings like the Renaissance San Bernardino escaping from it, 'inside' and 'outside' the town become difficult categories, despite the obvious clarity of gate and rampart.
No less paradoxical are 'indoors' and 'outside' within the town. High up in Duke Federico di Montefeltro's palace is a magical secret garden, a formal geometry of natural sights and smells; an open room whose window wall looks beyond the town to rough campagna, a hidden place which gives away no hint of its existence to the outside.
And even with Urbino's buildings, inside and out can seem to reverse: San Bernardino, a quiet woolly brick church on the outside, inside reveals Francesco di Giorgio Martini's formal Renaissance facades and space.
Climbing via Saffi, the spine of the town, we meet the strong, unfinished street-forming facades of the Ducal Palace; they give no clue to the precisely cut, Classical cortile hidden within. This great palace, as much as the town's other major buildings, faces into the town with a restrained, even domestic expression, while to the countryside it offers 'a magnificent and glorious lack of restraint'.
5Remembering all this, as we continue past the Ducal Palace to the crown of via Saffi, the spine suddenly descends, the narrow slit between masonry walls revealing distant hills. Descending the brick-paving of this timeless urban space, we first pass, to our right, the plain, freshly scrubbed medieval Palazzo Battiferri, recently completely reformed as the university's Business School 6.At the next - equally reticent, domesticscaled - block on the left, double doors up two steps from the street discreetly sign Il Magistero. We enter, and find ourselves in a place completely modern, unmistakably itself, and yet, in resonating to all our impressions of the city beyond, utterly right.
Town and gown How has this come about? In 1948, Bo became rector of a tiny, free university 7with no resources which, although a Renaissance foundation, by the 1930s had under 140 students and just one large building. Bo was soon hatching plans for renewal, determined radically to overhaul university teaching practices, but also persuaded that every change should involve corresponding transformations in the physical space.
'Otherwise, ' says De Carlo, 'all the amendments made to the teaching and to the research structure would not be visible. And if they were never seen, then new perspectives wouldn't be opened, nor the impetus for change regenerate.' That the university rector took his spaces as seriously as his people bonded him immediately with his architect.
De Carlo had first met Bo during those awful post-Mussolini, partisan times between the German invasion and allied liberation of Milan, where young De Carlo had become an important figure in the Resistance. A decade later, when Bo's university renovation was being badly botched, De Carlo, now an architect, was remembered, checked out and approached to take over.He restructured the university's crumbling headquarters, and began a lifetime's involvement with this most unusual client.
Bo, an important intellectual, Spanish scholar and first Italian translator of Lorca (an anti-fascist stance), was, not entirely flippantly, spoken of as the last duke of Urbino. If Bo did not reject the comparison with Federico da Montefeltro, famously Urbino's patron of Piero della Francesca and Francesco di Giorgio (and, perhaps, of Alberti), so De Carlo cannot avoid the parallel comparison with Federico's architect.
Certainly Francesco di Giorgio has become De Carlo's greatest influence, outstripping even Le Corbusier, whose genius he spent much energy rescuing from death by CIAM.
'Bo was a great man, ' muses De Carlo, 'but he was a man of the 18th century, really; a grand seigneur of the Enlightenment. So, how much did a man of the Enlightenment really want a democratic organisation? Not very much I believe. I don't believe that Montesquieu and those people were looking for a democratic organisation.'
Bo was certainly no new-style, democratising university head, like, say, his English contemporary Albert Sloman whose Reith Lectures in 1963 were on 'A University in the Making'. For the partisan architect it might appear unexpected patronage. 'It was a complete feudal power, ' he reflects. 'In Urbino I was supported by a power special to the university. But the fact that I profited from being close to the power, doesn't mean that I approve of that power, that organisation, ' he adds, with a laugh at how his buildings aim to subvert orthodox power hierarchies.
Urbino became a unique example in Italy of town and gown cooperation, sealed when De Carlo was asked to produce the town plan and thus become consultant to both powers.
Communist mayor and latter-day humanist rector, in the post-war years ruling the town between them, agreed to locate university faculties within the decaying historic centre, and student accommodation in new settlements around it. The university then began to restore many extremely valuable buildings in the historic centre, saving them from abandonment and destruction. But there have been only three complex restructurings, and all by De Carlo: the Law Faculty (completed in 1973), Il Magistero (1976) and the Business School (opened in 2000-1).
Place and programme Surrounded by distinguished, even older, buildings (many of them in poor repair), the site for Il Magistero, acquired by the university in the early 1960s, had been the 18th-century convent of Santa Maria della Bella. Steeply sloping towards the south, its land had been built up along the town spine to the west, in large domestic blocks running from the south round and up to their church in the north-west corner; there was some building along the northern edge and in the eastern corner, leaving the south-eastern area as terraced convent garden.
Having been an orphanage, much beaten about and then abandoned, the ruins piled up to the west, where street houses were still recognisable but only the church in restorable condition; the whole site as found was described as 'un ammasso di rottami'- a mass of rubble - and the university was initially tempted completely to demolish.
However, the great peripheral brick street walls still defined the spaces outside them, forming not only the spine of via Saffi but a court to another church at the north-east, and the tight urban streets along the contours to north and south.
The university's aim was to concentrate the activities of the Faculty of Education Sciences from various sites around town into one building. ('Il Magistero' is literally Teacher Training School, but the faculty was always wider, and in Urbino today they translate it as Faculty of Arts. ) The client was simply the 60-year-old university rector, who by then had worked closely with De Carlo for many years. The programme developed between them, with a very small group of other professors involved - a system far removed from university procurement as we know it today, but very much as happened at the new English universities of the 1960s.
De Carlo recalls Bo as a man of very few words. 'We had short meetings - not short in time but short in words. We'd sit together and every 10 minutes we'd have a sentence.
Communication.We were very close friends.
Intense communication, but short in words.'
There were to be the expected professors' rooms, library, teaching rooms for seminar and smallish (by Italian standards) lecture, and so forth - and one vast 'aula magna' (perhaps best translated as congress hall).
How there came also to be an experimental cinema, gives a clue to the process.Was this a university requirement?
'No, it came from me, ' says the architect.
'You know in Urbino I also had the fantastic freedom to invent the needs. So, within Il Magistero faculty there is a film institute which had a wonderful film library. So I said, shouldn't this be shared with the town? In Urbino the movie theatres are terrible! If we had this film theatre, the experience of showing films publicly might lead to organising other things with the citizens, perhaps even making movies. Bo understood immediately. He said: fiAll right, that's a very good idea. fl' (That this cinema was then excavated underneath the church offers a different clue to De Carlo's complex world as cultural palimpsest. ) The overall solution shows three main forms. First, the wall of domestically scaled spaces wrapping round from the south-west up to the church in the north-west corner.
Here are the smaller teaching rooms, with the library in the church. Second, a distorted cylindrical court, onto which face four storeys of professors' offices. And third, a large semicircle, which contains the major didactic spaces, all lit from above by a great fan of glass.
Nothing of the internal form can be grasped from adjoining streets; the great conical rooflight, the keyhole windows like shadows of torricini (the nearby Ducal Palace's turrets), are only seen from outside the city.
The complete territory contained within the street walls is constructed. The southern flank wall on the deserted via S Maria is broken only by escape doors from the aula; the northern flank, the immensely long edge to the more urban via S Girolamo, has only a few ambiguous slit windows (into storage spaces), and two street doors: one offering direct access to the cinema, the other to the foyer of the bar-cafeteria and roof garden.
Each of these areas can simply be used in isolation from the main Magistero building.
In the centre of the building towards the north is a great ramp linking all floors. Service spaces fill the poché up to the vast north retaining wall, while between these, the hollow drum and the great semicircle, foyer space billows and eddies.
Multiple layers Let us enter. Having crossed the threshold and moved through the thickness of the old house, we find the space opening ambiguously, formed not so much by its edges as by the defined shapes we meet within it. To our right is a bright hollow drum in which a tree clearly stands way below us, then ahead we see a much larger, solid drum, offering - as such convex curves always do - a sense of pregnant anticipation for what it encloses.
But as we penetrate the drum, we find ourselves on a narrow bridge looking down into a lecture room under our feet, which itself seems to hang within a vast hall vanishing way below - we are neither in nor outside this space - and then we are funnelled out among small trees onto a perfect secret garden. Behind is a great waterfall of inverted conical glass. Straight ahead, over the parapet, is San Bernardino and the extraordinary shapes of the Marche hills beyond.
But it is ridiculous to see this building on a horizontal slice - interestingly, few visitors even remember that this garden is on the same level as the main entrance. With attention, we might read the three-dimensionality from the plans, but with just that first short walk we have been guided to depths (the trees' branches at entrance level, the view down even further into the great hall) and heights (on the narrow bridge, and then onto a rooftop lookout, its edge detailed as the city walls).
De Carlo always delights in pushing the extremes of top and bottom. Ever thinking in section, he weaves multiple layers together; and at Il Magistero, with its seven levels, this is particularly virtuosic. There is a fascinating personal origin to this obsession.
'I lived on the fifth floor of a big building, ' says De Carlo. 'One day, I think I was just six years old, I was going up the stair, and on the last landing, suddenly, I met an animal. I thought it was a dog, but it had very long legs and the head of a cat, with long straight moustaches and greenish eyes. It could have been a lynx, a Siberian hare, or a very big felix serval (an African wild cat).
'Whichever - and I'm certain this actually happened, even though everyone always denied it - I am even more sure that, at one point, the animal in my path forced me to measure the surrounding space, to take in its dimensions around me, comprehend where I was, as I tried to find a way to escape. That was the first time I had the feeling of consciousness of height and width of a place, of the horizontal and inclined planes, of going forward and backward, up and down. From then on, the idea of stair was impressed in my mind and it still fills my dreams and my thinking.
'I am never so stimulated by flat places as by those on different levels. With that experience, confronting that fast and cunning lynx, I learned to measure a space, to comprehend it, and project my body into the space in all directions. To measure out an architectural event means to take its dimensions back to those of the body, to understand the space with your mind and with your senses. Only by this measure can you appreciate dimensions and qualities;
through measuring space we grasp the totality through the detail, and the detail through the totality.'
Reading the territory Back in the 1950s De Carlo, matured by the war beyond his years but inexperienced as an architect, was invited to join the Italian CIAM group - an organisation which was becoming increasingly arthritic. This inflexibility had set in as Modernism became identified with the International Style and was codified for CIAM by Sigfried Giedion.
De Carlo (who had already published praise for William Morris, Frank Lloyd Wright and rural peasant architecture) was scathing of those CIAM disciples who felt, for example, that, in building Ronchamp, Le Corbusier was betraying them.
De Carlo's story of the pomposity of Giedion and his cronies, leading directly to the birth of the oppositional Team 10, is hilarious, the young group asked to prepare the 10th CIAM congress, included Jacob Bakema, Ralph Erskine, and Shadrach Woods. Its moral scourges were the Smithsons. Peter Smithson's insults at the very last CIAM meeting (in Otterlo in 1959) included (of De Carlo) 'instead of inventing he merely chooses', and (to Erskine) 'you always find the need to exaggerate, which is the Mickey Mouse way'. Alison Smithson tried to censor membership, omitting De Carlo entirely from her Team 10 Primer and later, when De Carlo invited Jim Stirling to a Team 10 meeting in Urbino, refusing to attend herself.
Yet at Team 10's intellectual heart, with the Smithsons, were Aldo van Eyck and De Carlo.
The very last words in the documentation of that final CIAM meeting are Bakema's: 'The aim will be to develop architecture and town planning towards a language which can communicate about human behaviour.' This has remained at De Carlo's core.
That informal meeting of somewhat like minds is now ancient history, and many of them have left remarkably few works - while the insights of the Smithsons are, in Britain, astonishingly underrated and neglected.
9Though they were tough with each other, this group also offered among the first and strongest criticism of Modernist assumptions. To them, the take-over of the machine, and planning for existenz-minimum, led not just to negation of the user but to the loss of place, local character, and history.
On all these fronts, the most powerful critiques were De Carlo's, particularly his engagement with the traditional city, its preservation, and its reinterpretation according to the needs of life today, in his urging the need for a deep understanding of the place through a 'reading of the territory'.
Designing, for De Carlo, is always grounded in dialogue with what exists, from farming's marks on a landscape to the aspirations of tenants needing housing. Reading the history and the geography of a place is the same thing - the more layers of humanity accrued on to the topography, the more we call it history rather than nature. It is not a 'past' which we dam, but a stream we alter by stepping into.
'I believe a lot in the revelatory capacity of fireadingfl, ' says De Carlo. 'If one is able to interpret the meaning of what has remained engraved, not only does one come to understand when this mark was made and what the motivation behind it was, but one also becomes conscious of how the various events that have left their mark have become layered, how they relate to one another and how, through time, they have set off other events and have woven together our history.'
However, as he said in his first town plan for Urbino, shortly before designing Il Magistero, 'the pattern of urban activities has progressively slipped out of its original morphological mould, dissolving people's originally sharp awareness that urban forms are where they are because they clearly fulfil a given role.'
So Il Magistero's design had to take into account the actual territory offered: the fabric of the city and its ways of being; the local and recent life stories; the relationship of citizens to the university and to this corner of town, and how these might be steered forward. For the architecture of the new Magistero to become embodied and accepted, it has to be embedded and layered with the existing stories; allude to and reverberate with them - not excluding those of the transitory young students, often from a different culture, perhaps having left home in southern Italy for the first time.
Il Magistero does not 'reconstruct' a past at all, but it refers to the city's many transformations, from the 15th century, when Renaissance geometries were overlaid on the medieval town, to the 20th, when Catholic churches were replaced by more contemporary centres of urban culture.
De Carlo calls his iterative process reading, tentative designing and feedback; it is as aptly named conversation as conservation.
This relationship with the place is as subject to contingencies as a human relationship; it needs effort of will to keep it alive, to hold it together. If the architecture is misunderstood, then, as in a human relationship, the communication is threatened. Conversations do not need repeating - that is deathly.
Recognition, understanding moves it forward, through continuity and difference.
Thus, as in my opening quotation, the forms themselves become essential participants in this dialogue, this ongoing reading, open and in touch. The concern is always: how far can things be changed without losing this balance, without rupturing the thread of continuity? - given that traditional avant-garde theory has gleefully repeated such ruptures ad nauseam, through the 20th century.
In a world of text messages and sound bites, the notion of conversation must seem stubbornly old-fashioned. Paradoxically, it acts to open real awareness today. For De Carlo, 'it is impossible to imagine that an architectural or urban configuration might have just one codified message to which everybody has to refer.We live in a society of conflict and not of spontaneous consensus.
And therefore what represents these realities has to be polyhedral, many sided, manifold.'