The Spirit of Architecture

Giancarlo de Carlo, Team 10, and Urbino

Luca Molinari

In the autumn of 1966, issue 16 of Zodiac carried an enthusiastic and illuminating article by Aldo van Eyck on the new student residences designed by Giancarlo De Carlo for Urbino. This was one of the very rare occasions when Van Eyck wrote about a colleague; but the Urbino project seems to have provided an opportunity for reflecting on certain themes that deeply mattered to the Team 10 debate. Essentially, van Eyck's text concentrated on three factors: the relationship between history and modern architectural design; the relationship between new architecture and the public; and architecture as an urban structure.

The design of the student residences in Urbino provides an excellent key to understanding De Carlo's development and that of other members of Team 10. The case of Urbino helps explaining the various directions of the group's discourse in the 1960s, as well as the directions taken by the debate within Italian architectural culture. Van Eyck had visited the residences shortly before he wrote the text. This was at the Team 10 meeting organized by De Carlo for Urbino in September 1966, when he showed the group his newly finished project. De Carlo had begun to work for the Libera Università of Urbino in 1951, when Carlo Bo, Rector of the university, commissioned him to carry out a complex plan to reorganize the university premises and create a true campus for the students. This was the beginning of a unique undertaking: for at least five decades, a client would enable his architect to develop a long-term plan and exert a far-reaching influence on the original urban setting and its surrounding territory. This was a real challenge, and at the same time one that required the architect to tackle the problem of the relationship between the historic setting, a fifteenth-century ducal city of quite outstanding quality, and modern architecture. 

Team 10's visit came at a very delicate point in De Carlo's career as an architect. After a long phase of study and the completion of the first phase of construction work on the university's core premises (1952-60) and the housing of its employees (1955), De Carlo had just presented his master-plan for the city and its extra-urban territory (1958-64). His methodology for the latter was embodied in a book written in 1966 entitled “Urbino, la storia di una città e il piano della sua evoluzione urbanistica”. In the same year, the cluster of residences called the Collegi del Colle was completed. It formed the core of what, in the years ahead, would grow into the true university campus. At the same time, construction was about to start on the Law School in the heart of Urbino: this project was a mature expression of De Carlo's philosophy of how to build within the historic fabric of the old town. 

In his article, van Eyck takes up the controversy regarding the housing project in Matera from a few years back and shows how this casts light on De Carlo's work for another historic city: Urbino. 

Instead of getting caught up in a useless polemic on style and form, he sought to explore a different avenue, declaring that “old images, whether Urbino or Matera, can still have real contemporary meaning if architects with insight and integrity respond to their message and interpret them in built form for the benefit of the people of today.  […]  What they reveal, Urbino and Di Giorgio in conjunction, like De Carlo’s student accommodation 400 years later, is that unity and diversity are ambivalent.”1 

Therefore, the problem is not history and the need to create a stylistic relationship with the context. Rather, the architect has to understand a complex system of physical and spatial phenomena in which people have lived harmoniously. Van Eyck focused on the problem of history and ordinary people because they were at the heart of a question that had fuelled much discussion within the Modern Movement. But Van Eyck takes the same topic further, stating: “It seems to me that past, present and future must be active in the mind as a continuum." 2 To strengthen his thesis, Van Eyck cited a statement made by De Carlo himself about the architect's attitude to history: “What I consider history is the acquisition of an exact knowledge of the problems we, as architects, touch on, so that our solutions and our choices are tied to continuous reality and are progressive. History does not concern itself with the past but with the present, and it gives direction to the future.”3 

In such a strongly Modernist group, van Eyck and De Carlo represented an innovative interpretation of history and its relevance to modern architectural design that eventually proved a fertile influence on the members’ thinking and projects. Moreover, De Carlo's way of seeing history as an active reality that could generate future prospects was distilled from an important part of Italian Modernist architectural thinking in the twentieth century. This was a thread that linked figures like Giuseppe Pagano and Ernesto Nathan Rogers; they interpreted history as an active factor of continuity, which the modern architect could apply with a conscious methodological and cultural approach. Seen in these terms, history entails a necessary relationship with the still active energies of the great architecture of the past and, also, a vital relationship between society and reality, expressed in architecture and the spaces of tradition.

De Carlo was affected by Italian architecture and, at the same time, he tried to build his own vocabulary looking at a larger European Modernist environment. This can be seen in the group of student residences of the Collegi del Colle, where the vocabulary seems to have been progressively purified of the influence of Franco Albini and Ignazio Gardella as he turned to the achievements of his younger contemporaries, James Stirling with his flats on Ham Common (1958) and O. M. Ungers’ of the Cologne housing project (1958). The dramatic handling of light and shade in the distributive galleries of reinforced concrete, the strongly tactile and brutal quality of the relationship between the brick infills and the concrete structure, clearly reveal the influence of the Maison Jaoul and, more generally, the later works of Le Corbusier.

But on the horizon of the project, for De Carlo there remained his profound reflection on Urbino as an organic system of architecture and landscape, as well as the sphere of action of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, court architect to the Duke of Montefeltro and the designer (with Francesco Laurana) of the Ducal Palace. His projects and theoretical writings seem to have had an interesting impact not only on De Carlo but also on Aldo van Eyck and the Smithsons.

So just what was it about Francesco di Giorgio that interested the group? Van Eyck described him as “of all Italian architects the most humanistic and functionally imaginative”;4 but it was Peter Smithson who, in a brief illustrated essay, “Three generations” (1981), suggested a direct symbolic relationship between the late humanist generation and the third generation of the Modern Movement, to which the Smithsons and the other members of Team 10 belonged, and avowed the group's historic role following the definitive closure of an experience of renewal. “And from the beginning, my generation think of ourselves as being a third generation; like Francesco di Giorgio; another third generation.” The value and potential of Francesco di Giorgio’s work lies in its ability to adapt to reality, putting its theoretical postulates behind it. De Carlo saw Urbino as a “special case”, containing methodological and theoretical principles that could be applied to other urban settings. His analysis of the city's urban fabric in his book on Urbino only serves to develop an urban design, where he could emphasize the value of the poetry of reality against the Rationalist claim to control forms.

Many members of Team 10 felt a strong interest in this approach to architecture, and this influence appeared in their interpretation of the city as a fluid organism, a place with complex physical and mental hierarchies, in which the architect should intervene “case by case”. And in this respect Baldassar Castiglione's image of the Ducal Palace of Urbino as a “palace in the form of a city” proved useful in Team 10's discussions.  “What makes this building so house- and city-like (hence successful)? […] It is at once both places; way of access and communication; both open and closed; both inside and outside; both large and small; and has, above all, both individual and collective meaning. It belongs to the ‘building’ as much as it belongs to the ‘site’, in fact through it the building is the site, the site the building.”5

The student residences are conceived as a sophisticated complex of relationships between the spaces and their inhabitants, between the new buildings and the landscape, between the inhabitants and their experience of the environment. The circulation of flows, places, and human relationships looms significantly larger in Team 10’s thinking about design. It was one of their central topics at the meeting in Urbino in 1966, where the subject of traffic and the relationship between the city and mobility acquired special significance in the discussions.  Team 10 did not treat this as a technical issue; they saw it as a strong, value-filled part of the complex and profound relationship between man and the contemporary city. The elementary rigidity of the Modernists' functionalist schemes, already dealt a severe blow by the extraordinary embodiment of complexity in Kahn’s plan for Philadelphia, took a further step forward in Team 10's discussions, with a concern for the humanity of the city and the relationship between the individual, masses of individuals, their needs and the design of contemporary space. 

The value of participation and collective discussion, openly signified at all these meetings, remained one of the significant constants in De Carlo’s cultural and political activities. The way he saw Team 10 as an informal group – open, not orthodox in its structure and objectives – explains his long-term decisions. The experience of the “young”, locked out at La Sarraz in 1955, acquired a strongly symbolic significance and was raised to a system with the creation of ILAUD in 1976 which became the most important open, international workshop after the end of the CIAM.

ILAUD (International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design) lasted from 1976 till 2003, and Urbino became the first seat until 1981, before Siena, San Marino, and Venice. The spirit of Team 10 was the cultural core of the Laboratory mixing some of the main members like the Smithsons and Aldo van Eyck with emerging architects such as Sverre Fehn, Renzo Piano, and Enric Miralles and the founding international universities.

New communities, history and modern language, multiplicity, contemporary infrastructures and open dialogue became the conceptual skeleton of ILAUD, where the idea of a long seminar in residence shaped the imaginary and the design methodology of two generations of architects coming from all over the world. Giancarlo De Carlo remained the key actor, founder, and trailbreaker, with the laboratory and Urbino the place which fed his poetry and vision on architecture as a living place where people and a generous vision of life meet.

1 Aldo van Eyck, University College in Urbino by Giancarlo De Carlo, in, “Zodiac”, 16, 1966, page 17
2 Ibid., p. 17
3 Ibid., p. 17
4 Ibid. p.17
5 Ibid. p. 17