The centenary of the birth of Carlo De Carli (1910-1999) provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at his work as an architect and designer, as well as at the role he played in his other fields of endeavour: the School of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Milan; the Milan Triennale; furniture production, both industrial and artisanal.
De Carli was a “global” architect, like all those whose reach extends beyond the confines of their own professional practices, carrying on university-level educational activities thus maintaining contact with its attendant framework for elaborating ideas about theory, methodology, historical criticism and design in order to promote architecture down to the very core of its construction and usability. In DeCarli’s case, he achieved this mainly through cultural channels, both professional and scholastic as well as from the world of production, and users: ranging from the Triennial, with whom he collaborated from 1940 until 1973, (from 1957 to 1960 he headed “Il
Mobile italiano” (Italian Furniture), while between 1967 and 1971 he was the director of “Interni”), to the many initiatives he undertook in the name of renewing the field of furniture production. Professor of Interior Design, Furniture Design, and Decoration and director of its Institute from 1965 to 1968, he was dean of the School of Architecture where he taught until 1986. De Carli’s entire career unfolded through a series of recurring theoretical principles, such as: the continuity between architecture and nature; the unity of architecture; and primary space.
Continuity between architecture and nature
From his earliest writings, Carlo De Carli’s thoughts about design tended to relate his works of architecture and industrial products in a single, overarching creative design of the cosmos. The artificial forms of speed and fast animals — whose lean, taught bodies touch the ground ever so slightly — give his furniture a sense of poetic depth. Cases in point are the two chairs produced by Cassina in ’54 and in ’59, respectively mod. 683 (winner of the Compasso d’Oro) and mod. 693.
His architecture rejects the rationalist, “drawer-like” system of volumetric composition, sliding them in and out along an orthogonal grid. Maintaining contact with the ground, spaces are manoeuvred by shifting them and introducing inclined surfaces allowing continuous spaces to be developed, not only functionally but also visually: “houses are not simply objects placed on the ground, but everything around it is the continuation” (1944). This idea is the basis of two buildings built around 1950: the Casa Galli in Cirimido (Como) and the Guest mines Monteponi (Cagliari). The idea of the continuity of pure shapes and essential, for which every element is well defined in itself living, rhythmic, structurally necessary and in harmony with others, concerns not only the relationship with nature (the big sycamore tree embraced by the polygonal outline of the house in Via dei Giardini 16, 1953; the “furrows in the land,” of the proposed extension to the Cemetery of Chiari, 1973), but also with the forms of other eras, that is, with history, without any need for historicist revivalism.
The vital core that generates living space naturally results in a “singular unit” of architecture conceived “like a tree in a physical forest”, complete and able to be placed alongside other units. From the houses in the “La Caletta” holiday village with their small gardens (Nuoro, 1951); the sequence of multiple-bed rooms, alternating with open loggias, which are inserted diagonally across the raised walkway of the Retirement Home of Negrar (Verona, 1955-1962); the three aerial structures of the “Opera Don Calabria” vocational school in Cimiano (Milan), separated by interior/exterior spatial joints, or the single rooms, connected by a common loggia, seen in the first home for the elderly in the same complex (1952-1966) to apartment of the unbuilt project for elderly housing in Soresina (Cremona, 1964-1975) the architecture of the entire building or settlement is made up of smaller parts, self-contained but in relation to one another. De Carli transferred this idea of “units” interacting with each other from inhabited space to the building elements themselves as seen, for example, in smoothing off the corners of re-enforced concrete pilasters so they relate to their surroundings, — a recurring element present in many of his architectural works — or in the double-strip in rosewood milled with a V-shaped groove for dynamic lighting, a technique used in a series of furniture produced for the Exhibition in Florence about “The inhabited home” (1965). In addition to living spaces and structural components, the idea of units also involved furniture, both in its entirety and as spatial modules, designed in a variety of sizes for various functions, located within selfstanding, independent structures.
Carlo De Carli’s theoretical thinking harks back to the origin of the first architectural phenomenon, where space is “making space”, that is, shaping a harmonious and welcoming place for settlements in which human life unfolds and into which it is projected into it and recognise it. His writings, which have demonstrated the groundlessness of any separation between outside and inside, between large and small, do not call to attention space or objects as such, but rather a “process of formation” of space and objects, and their mutual relationship, in which many factors come into play, with interests in conflict, requiring a solution able to both solve and transcends them. A few professional opportunities inspired De Carli’s central idea about theory and pedagogy, “primary space”, which is posited as a genetic principle for an entire conception of architecture.
For example: the unbuilt project for the Vocational School in Montevecchio (Sassari, 1951), with its “geometry of motion” made of walls that are freely-faceted around spatial fulcrums of intersubjective relationships, both internal and external; the small Sant’Erasmo Theatre (Milan, 1951-1953), with its central stage carved out of an irregularly-shaped basement by the array of seating, and its faceted, double-pitched ceiling that concealed the spotlights, conceived in relationship to the role of the actor as “a projection of the same motion that animates the actors” who, through the sole strength of their movements and their inner transfiguration, “manage to draw the viewer into the performance with the effectiveness of direct participation”; the Church of Sant’Ildefonso (Milan, 1955-1956), the expression of a community-supported faith, open to transcendence and to other people, with a spatial fulcrum in the form of an hexagonal castle built from columns and beams that diffuse the roof lantern’s white light over and around the altar, and then forms two aisles that embrace the churchyard outside. Defined as “space of the main inner tensions” but also as “gestural space” and as “relational space”, primary space comes into being at the moment in which the id looks beyond itself towards the world at large in an act of openness to others and human solidarity: me and you, me and you, here and now, whatever the occasion: this too. It is not simply the physical atmosphere in which we are all immersed nor the air we breathe, but an endowment or a “gift of meaning” to this encounter and, consequently, to the place where it occurs or may occur. Primary space does not have, at first, either physical properties or shape or other formal determination and is completely contained within the attention to the “preciousness” of human beings, in a strict relationship between architecture and ethics, and between architecture and politics, which goes beyond simple functional utility to interpret its meaning and translate it into built work to the point of “colouring” performances laden with existential moments, “a physical image of spiritual revelations”. Indeed, it “is born steeped in the experiences of a life lived fully”.