Giancarlo De Carlo

Architect, planner, and writer, Italy
Architect and planner, educator and editor, writer and speaker, thinker and innovator,
Giancarlo De Carlo is well known in his native Italy and abroad as a founder of Team X
and as a pioneer in participatory architecture. Born in Genoa, the son of a naval engineer,
he studied structural engineering at Milan Polytechnic from 1939 to 1943. On graduation,
he was called for naval service to Greece. In Milan from 1943 to 1945, De Carlo was
active in the Resistance movement and in anti-Fascist circles together with Giuseppi
Pagano, Franco Albini, and other members of the Movimento di Unità Proletaria. At the
same time, his interest in architecture was stimulated by Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre complete and Alfred
Roth’s Die Neue Architektur. Following the end of World War II, De Carlo published critical works on Le
Corbusier and William Morris. From 1948 to 1949, De Carlo studied at the Venice
School of Architecture and collaborated with Albini on the development plan for Reggio
Emilia.
De Carlo’s career in both architecture and city planning was launched in the 1950s,
together with his expanding intellectual circles, the latter including Carlo Doglio, Delfino
Insolera, and Italo Calvino. In addition, he was briefly a member of the editorial board of
Entries A–F 653
Cas abella. A participant in CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), De Carlo
became known as a modernist who honored the heritage of the past.
Few architects who emerged in the generation following World War II have been as
prescient in perceiving the problems and possible solutions in contemporary architecture
and urbanism. Both part of and counter to the mainstream, De Carlo has succeeded
because of his deeply embedded historical consciousness and his total immersion in the
problems of contemporary society. A master craftsman, De Carlo harbors enormous
respect for technological inventions and the design principles of modernism, including its
Utopian goals. Nonetheless, he has protested against the rigidity of the Modern
movement and the International Style. In his multifaceted career, however, his name will
inevitably be linked with Urbino, the hill town in the Marches, where Renaissance
architecture reached its summit in Federigo da Montefelto’s Ducal Palace. His work in
Urbino is ongoing, beginning with his master plan and now clearly visible in his
buildings for the University of Urbino.
When international modernism was at its zenith, De Carlo condemned the
preoccupation with style divorced from the social realities of the day.
While remaining open to the enriched possibilities of Postmodernism, he
decried its superficiality, even frivolity. In fact, he believed that
architecture was too important to be limited to the narrow domain of
architects. Rather, it is the architect’s “responsibility” to humanity that
constitutes the basis of their life and work. Evidence of this creed is found
in De Carlo’s housing complexes, where he encourages participation
between architect and users, a type of collaborative planning fully
cognizant of the needs of inhabitants. Mindful of the inhumanity—and
severe lack—of postwar housing, with its disregard for scale, social
realities, and historical circumstances, he challenged the idea of
“minimum living standard” as set forth at the CIAM conference in
Frankfort (1929). Instead, De Carlo advocated an architecture based on
current problems, one that considered the urban context as the primary
force.
Still, a paradigm for architect/client collaboration is the Village Matteotti (1969–74) in
the industrial town of Terni, 60 miles northeast of Rome. Meetings with the steelworkers
and their families led to a continuous partnership in planning with the architect, who
assumed the role of educator as well as designer and builder. Here, every phase of the
project was considered in conjunction with the users, who were directly involved in all
phases of construction. When completed, the Village Matteotti raised the standard for
workers’ housing. Unlike Terni, the housing at Mazzorbo, begun in 1950 on an island in
the Venetian lagoon, focused primarily on morphological considerations. Because of the
distinct identity of Mazzorbo’s residents, De Carlo emphasized the unique setting and a
strong vernacular tradition in his effort to design new forms that evoke the past by
articulating it and enriching it with the use of local color and variety in building types and
plans.
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Beginning with his town plan (1958–64), De Carlo’s work in Urbino continues to this
day. It was the Collegio del Colle, the dormitories for the University of Urbino (1962–
66), that initiated the dialogue between the old city and its surroundings. Additions to the
college from 1973 created patterns that conform to the topography of the landscape,
always simulating the memory of earlier times and fostering a greater sense of
community among the students.
Many of De Carlo’s proposals have since come to fruition: restoring the Mercatale,
reviving the old approach from Rome, and providing access to students and tourists along
Francesco di Giorgio’s 15th-century ramp (discovered while restoring the 19th-century
theater) leading to the Ducal Palace. Abandoned buildings have been rehabilitated and
converted to modern facilities. Brilliant insertions in the town fabric are demonstrated by
the glass-enclosed hemicycle of the School of Education, which seems to be carved from
the surrounding walls, and the courtyard of the Law School, its domes illuminating the
spaces below. Contradictions between inside and outside contribute to the continuity
between old and new.
Aside from appointments as visiting professor at Yale University, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and the University of California at Berkeley,
De Carlo was professor in the schools of architecture at the Universities of Venice and
Genoa. In 1976 he founded the ILAUD (International Laboratory for Architecture and
Urban Design). This forum of international students meets annually in an Italian city,
such as Urbino or Siena, to develop projects for the adaptive reuse of old buildings, such
as the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, the renewal of industrial areas in
Genoa, or new interventions in the Arsenal in Venice. In addition to these pursuits, De
Carlo, always a prolific writer, founded Space and Society, an Italian/English quarterly journal that
addresses global architectural topics.
Since 1995 De Carlo has entered competitions for the School of Architecture in
Venice and for the redesign of three piazzas in Trieste. Recent projects include university
facilities, civic works, and conversions in Pavia, Siena, Catania, the Republic of San
Marino, Lastre a Signe, Pistoia, Venice Lido, and Urbino. The latter includes the “Data of
Francesco di Giorgio,” and the restoration and transformation of a city observatory into a
multimedia center. It is little wonder that De Carlo has been made an honorary citizen of
Urbino and that, on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1999, he was given the key to the
city of Venice.
A CIAM delegate from 1952 to 1959, a member of Team X, and an honorary member
of the American Institute of Architects from 1975, the American Academy for Arts and
Sciences from 1978, and the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1981, De Carlo
has been the recipient of prestigious awards, including the Patrick Abercrombie Prize
(1963), the Wolf Prize (1988), the Gold Medal of the City of Milan (1995), and the
Grand Prix “A/mbiente” in Buenos Aires (1999). In addition, De Carlo has been awarded
the doctor honoris caus a from the Oslo School of Architecture, the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, the
Université Catholique-Louvain, the Université de Genève, the Buenos Aires School of
Architecture, and the Faculty of Humanities in Catania. On the occasion of receiving the
Royal Gold Medal of the RIBA (1993), De Carlo spoke of “promising signs …emerging
from our present state of confusion.” Proving to be both realist and idealist, he hopes that
“perhaps organizing and giving form to the three-dimensional physical space will become
architecture’s raison d’être once more.”
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