Urbino letter XX from Michele

(November 18, 2018) -- We have only one more planned field trip, a visit to a family owned engineering and fabrication firm that produces complex curtain wall systems for very special construction projects. The visit should be of mutual interest to our proto-engineers and architecture students, but we’ll get to that in about a week. Now we are returning to a semblance of routine. Back into our borrowed studios to work, and back to living in the middle of lovely little Urbino.

While we are within shouting distance of the diminutive Piazza Della Republica, the literal crossroads of Urbino, at the intersection of streets that follow the imprint of the Roman Cardo and Decumanus from the original town, our working lives are lived at Giancarlo DeCarlo’s hillside campus, carefully concealed behind a rise so that it does not intrude on views from Urbino’s historic center. It’s typical of the quiet and self-effacing work of this architect and planner; I’m fonder of his work every time I look at it. To inhabit it is a rare privilege.

In the 1960s and 70s DeCarlo broke with the prevailing self-congratulatory mood of post-war architects and theorists and had the temerity to suggest that designers should listen to, and actively involve, the users of built environments in the creation of new communities.

He was an idealist and found a sympathetic patron in Carlo Bo, a famous critic and polymath who became the Rector, or President of the University of Urbino. Bo was also a Senator for Life, a highly honored title here, and so much the object of affection in Urbino that the University’s name is now conjoined with his, officially it is the University of Urbino-Carlo Bo.

When both men were working together to plan new buildings and to renovate scores of derelict historic structures within the city’s walls, the institution was still an “independent” university, meaning it was not dependent on State aid. Since its founding, in 1506, it has emphasized study in the humanities, literature, and law.

The law faculty, to me at least, is one of DeCarlo’s triumphs. It is an entirely new building, built of the local hand-moulded brick, and virtually impossible to detect among its ancient neighbors within Urbino’s core. It doesn’t try to copy or simulate historic details, it doesn’t have to. The buildings that surround it are almost cubist in their simplicity, abstract planes of brick punched by windows and forming a complete street wall that is always continuous.

Inside, the law school is a marvel of sky-lit lecture halls and open circulation that invites spontaneous discussion, one of the designer’s hallmarks.

Our wonderful workspaces have huge north-facing windows that provide unimpeded views of the seductively beautiful Marche countryside. Out our windows are rolling hills dotted with farmsteads and villas, and blanketed with poplar forests and cypress lined gravel roads.

Our row of studios crowns a terrace on top of the Colle addition library. This is principally the residential addition to the University that DeCarlo designed and saw constructed in the 1970s and 80s. Its red brick and concrete buildings, for the most part with very low profiles, hug the contours of the hillsides below a historic monastery, all facing away, and well concealed from, the historic center of Urbino. About 1500 dormitory rooms make up this modernist hill town, with some classroom space, a very large Mensa or dining hall, and the library building we’re inhabiting. This is almost counterintuitively at the lowest point in the campus setting. What would be the obtrusive monument to some starchitect’s signature style on an American campus, is here the end of a breathtaking walk along views into the valley below, and close to the dormitory buildings that are more loft-like than the bed-in-a-box we’re more familiar with. Each loft has tall windows facing the view and solid planes of walls on the walkway side, penetrated only by entry doors. There is more privacy and quiet than most of the inhabitants have ever experienced at home, and are unlikely to experience in life after graduation. I wish I could stay in one.

The students are busy working in teams on projects, but occasionally take a breath of fresh air, and take in the stunning scenery, by stepping out on the common rooftop terrace we all share. The library below us is two levels of brightly day-lit space with a ribbon of high windows perfectly framing a view of the poplar forest on our hillside. As beautiful a space as this is, it is virtually unused. It is labeled as a “reading room,” not a library and its collections are in locked glass-fronted cabinets. Check out a book if you dare.

This probably has more to do with the way Italian universities really function. Students spend most of their time in individual colleges in buildings scattered throughout the town. If they don’t have a college library on the premises, then there is one in a former palazzo nearby. There is rarely anything resembling the central library most of us are familiar with.

Still, there is something forlorn about the hillside campus. Its buildings are crying for maintenance, and it is largely abandoned during the day while its residents hike into the city center for their classes. We are the reverse commuters in this picture, we’re in the studio during the day when the Italian students have forsaken the place.

The common ground is the Mensa, it’s spacious and in tiers like a theater, stepping up to windows with views of the valleys below. It’s full of daylight from its perimeter and from skylights that seem to be everywhere. It shares space with lecture halls and generous circulation spaces that contain cascades of steps, meant to have been used for spontaneous meetings, presentations, and rabble rousing. The revolutionary fervor of the 60s and 70s is long gone, as is the idealism that generated these remarkable buildings.

The fact that the University is no longer independent may be affecting its evolution. While it was once viewed as a beacon of liberal arts, I’m told the largest enrollment is now in its relatively new school of Kinesiology. A Liberal Arts school may be a luxury the state can no longer afford.

Evening descends early now, sunset is at 4:30. By the time I return to my accommodations it will be cold and dark, probably drizzling a little too.

I’ve been relishing the walk out from town though. Much of it is on a cantilevered footpath jutting into the tree canopy above the abrupt drop into the valley floor below the old city.

I pass students either talking to each other in pairs, or plugged into their electronic devices wandering along alone. There is an anomalous interruption in the view from the walkway, the towers of the Ducal Palace are above, but below, on the floor of the valley, is the brightly lit plateau which is the roof of the Benelli gun factory. The scholars above are going home to dinner, books, and bed. The shotgun makers below are starting extra shifts.

— Michael Guarino (Michele)