Giancarlo De Carlo: How to Keep Educational Architecture Human or Creative Anti-Institutionalism

De Carlo and Students
De Carlo (centre) at the planned opening of the 1968 Milan Triennale.

Giancarlo De Carlo (1919-2005) was an Italian architect keenly interested in education, designing many universities and schools from the 1950s into the 2000s. Known for his interests in anarchism, involving people in the design process and a refusal to separate politics and values from architecture, De Carlo’s work de-emphasises buildings per se and helps us to think more critically about our relationship with space and particularly the spaces of social, educational institutions.

This talk focuses on his work in relation to education, educational buildings and his critiques of institutionalism – the tendency to take for granted and so stop thinking about the political and social implications of built space. It’s a talk I gave last week at “Radical Pedagogies, Anarchy, Education & Architecture” hosted by the Bartlett’s Spatial Engagement Network and chaired by Sol Pérez Martínez (Bartlett, UCL and Critical Urban Pedagogy) with other speakers Dr David Knight (Royal College of Art and the architecture practice DK-CM, on Colin Ward) and Professor Judith Suissa (Institute of Education, UCL, on histories of anarchist education).

Giancarlo De Carlo: How to Keep Educational Architecture Human or Creative Anti-Institutionalism

I want to talk about the architect Giancarlo De Carlo’s views on institutions and how they might help us become more aware of how institutional space is used and why. I’ll draw on his writings, some photos of his work at the University of Catania and a secondary school he designed in San Miniato, and a 4 minute clip I subtitled from a film he made for the 1954 Milan Triennale.

The talk focuses on just one theme related to anarchism and education – institutions and institutionalism or the tendency for social, spatial life to be automatized (in the sense that we take it for granted and so lose the opportunity for considering it more carefully). For a broad approach to Giancarlo De Carlo and anarchism I’d suggest Francesco Samassa’s excellent essay “A Building is not a Building in not a Building”. The Anarchitecture of Giancarlo De Carlo in the 2004, bilingual Italian-English book Samassa edited Giancarlo De Carlo: Percorsi. I’ve listed references at the end of this post but I should point out here that I am late to discovering John McKean’s key work on De Carlo Layered Places. Two sources have been particularly helpful. First, De Carlo and Bunčuga’s 2014 Conversazioni su Architettura e Libertà [Conversations on Architecture and Freedom, currently in Italian only but a translation by McKean is on the horizon. I’ve written notes on the book here). Second is De Carlo’s extraordinary essay Why/How to Build School Buildings in a 1969 Special Issue of the Harvard Educational Review on “Architecture and Education”.

A focus on institutions and institutionalism will help to explain De Carlo’s interests in education which I think are integral to his work – his is a broad take on education that extends throughout all of the ways in which humans learn with and from each other, formally and informally, in buildings and outside. This vast range of educational experience hopefully comes across in the following slide:

Giancarlo De Carlo - interests in education

Note: the underlined projects in the bottom two boxes are ones that got built.

To pick up on 2 points. First, De Carlo frequently expresses his interest in talk. The shared experience of working through ideas with others face-to-face is central to his work and life: discussing, disagreeing, learning from and with others. These “others” may be architects but just as often they’re not – architecture exceeds ownership by architects just as education does not need to happen in purpose-designed institutions. How education gets shaped (and reduced) when it is, is something I’ll return to.

Second is the idea of De Carlo as a kind of political/architectural translator in a literal and metaphorical sense. De Carlo facilitates the moving and exchanging of ideas: he translated works by Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes into Italian for the first time, edited one of the first Italian collections on Le Corbusier and wrote a book on William Morris. He also had editing roles in (and wrote for) Domus and Casabella magazines and took over the journal Spazio e Società – Space and Society, which he then edited for 20+ years. His partner Giuliana Baracco was the first to translate Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architecture and Democracy into Italian.

In 1968, students occupying the Faculty of Architecture in Milan commissioned him to research the organization and curriculums of architectural education in Italian universities which became a book La Piramide Rovesciata [The Overturned Pyramid]. He also set up ILAUD (International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design, a sort of moving summer school involving students and teachers from a wide range of institutions in each session) and the list of the these educational interventions continues. So already his work is about the limitations of institutional boundaries and the possibilities for moving beyond – he’s practising and enabling the sharing of ideas across different groups of people, translating concepts into built form and building connections between different modes of understanding the same core issue – “what it means to be human in physical and social space” (De Carlo and Bunčuga, 2014:252).

Giancarlo De Carlo La Piramide Rovesciata
La Piramide Rovesciata [The Overturned Pyramid] – Giancarlo De Carlo’s report on architectural education in Italy in 1968, commissioned by students then occupying the Faculty of Education, Milan.
I think seeing De Carlo as a kind of translator helps to understand his skeptical position towards formal educational institutions and the interesting conundrum which De Carlo explores: the impossibility of containing educational experience whilst having, in some way, to realize places for education (especially as school attendance and universities expanded hugely in the second half of the 20th century).

This excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities, 1970 [1938] that De Carlo translated in a Domus special edition on school architecture in 1947 is helpful here:

While the school has become a universal institution, and the main symbol of the educational process, the instruments of modern education are continuous with life itself: no mere building can fully house them… (p.472)

And something else that helped me think of what De Carlo is doing (and why) comes from a quotation Colin Ward makes in his 1966 book Anarchism as a Theory of Organization (OA). (Note, Ward and De Carlo were friends, sharing some similar ideas on space, architecture and education. More below ¹):

“The state” said the German anarchist Gustav Landauer, “is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.”

I doubt De Carlo was interested in destroying the state but he did want to build a different kind of state and he was certainly unhappy – having fought in the resistance against the Nazis – at the stultification of political and social life that he saw developing in post-war Italy, particularly the pursuit of power by both left and right to secure their own positions rather than devolve it. So it’s this idea of “contracting other relationships” and of “behaving differently” i.e. outside and beyond the formal structures of the state and making those relationships count that I think are key to what De Carlo was interested in and what he thought valuable. Education and educational institutions are central to this problem:

Institutions are organizational structures constituted for the attainment of pre-established goals: they cannot permit and encourage all kinds of experiences because they can permit and encourage only those experiences which serve the attainment of their goals. Institutions limit both contacts and education. They institutionalize education so that it will be useful to the institutions, first for their consolidation, then for their defense. (De Carlo, 1969: 13)

The connection with Mumford’s point, above, should be clear. If education cannot be limited to the physical building, we have a responsibility to resist reducing education to those institutions that promote it. Later in the same piece he flags up the tension between this impossibility of educational containment (and damaging effects of trying to do so anyway) on the one hand and the need for more physical infrastructure on the other:

The least suitable place in which to carry out educational activity is the school building, because, by incapsulating teaching and learning in a unitary, isolated, and closed off space, it tends to cut off contacts with the complex context of society. On the other hand, it seems that the necessity of mass education makes the rapid proliferation of educational structures necessary. Therefore, we must reconcile the two opposing requirements which deny or confirm the utility of schools, which advise their elimination or multiplication. The solution can only be the disintegration of the school building as a specific place, intended exclusively for a specific function. It is a question of identifying its essential “nucleus,” which must be maintained intact and multiplied, and its non-essential “orbit” – non-essential except in relation to the unacceptable desire for autonomy and exclusion—which can be broken up and dispersed. (ibid:26)

I don’t have such a negative position towards institutions and I’ll critique De Carlo’s position later. However, he presents an interesting argument about the stultification and codification of experience and the risks for worsening that through school buildings whose walls can be used to shut out the world (and often are in the attempt to make it an easier world to manage).

Una lezione d’urbanistica [A Lesson in Urbanism]

At this point I showed a 4 minute clip I subtitled from Una lezione d’urbanistica [A Lesson in Urbanism] a film made by De Carlo with others for the 10th Milan Triennale in 1954. It is ahead of its time and raises many points that De Carlo returns to later in his work. It’s an interesting film, a surreal, mock gothic horror of the dangers of extreme positivist urbanism based on the fictional character Professor C. The whole film is here (without subtitles).

The institutionalization of positivist thinking in urbanism and its practices pre-supposing the absolute legibility of human behaviour get a fairly good kicking here by De Carlo and co.

Photograph of Le Corbusier and Modulor
Le Corbusier and Modulor

The clip shows some of the key issues that De Carlo writes about elsewhere (particularly in Conversazioni). For example: the reductiveness of “turn[ing] problems into numbers” so preventing their exploration in a more open-ended manner; science producing “the ideal space of man” via the reification of data “The statistics will speak. And they will speak for you” and how the outcomes of these operations feed back and are used normatively: “No! The calculations can’t be wrong. If anything, what’s wrong is…the man!”.

There’s probably also a dig at the reductive formulas of Le Corbusier’s Modulor – that architect’s effort to provide a human-based form of measurement that (in use) would become another example of the standardization and authority that De Carlo was trying to undermine creatively.

These ways of codifying, institutionalizing and assigning power to (quantitative) knowledge as the best or only form of knowledge are critiqued by De Carlo throughout much of his later work and he seeks to provide alternatives too. Ideas similar to these are discussed by Henri Lefebvre (and the connection isn’t accidental, 20 years later a De Carlo-edited Spazio e Società journal will develop out of an earlier Italian translation of Espaces et Sociétés directed by Lefebvre – see here for a discussion in Italian of the genesis of De Carlo’s journal). Still, the playful and sarcastic treatment that urbanism gets at this point in the 1950s seems extremely prescient.

Institutions and Institutionalism

The notes on the slide below come from a chapter Ronald Jepperson wrote 30 years ago (reference at the end) but have found really helpful nonetheless:

Institutions and Institutionalization

Schools become particularly interesting when looked at through Jepperson’s points here, especially the idea of increasing institutionalization through embeddedness, closeness to the centre of a network of institutions and the time they’re there: schools being so integral (now) to all kinds of ancillary institutions from parenting to particular holidays and the travel industry, urban organization, university entrance and so on that it becomes hard to over-emphasise the work schools do in shoring up and playing off other institutions and their stability. This is a discussion for another time and I’m going to write more about it soon but I think it’s interesting because it shapes the possibilities with which we might think about changing schools and so also the role of architecture in articulating or supporting new educational ideas and forms. Most relevant to this discussion is Jepperson’s characterization of institutions as enabling structures (as well as limiting) in calling them “vehicles for activity within constraints”. De Carlo tends to play down the enabling side of institutions, and it’s to the anti-institutionalism in his work that I turn now.

Six Anti-Institutional Themes in De Carlo’s Writings and Design

De Carlo would probably have hated this list or at least its reductiveness so it’s worth saying that I don’t think these are real divisions in his work – they’re themes I’ve imposed to try and point up what I think is most interesting about his work and so how the “the organization and form of physical space” (his recurring definition of architecture, taken here from De Carlo and Bunčuga, 2014:125) might limit as well as support education too.

1) For thinking – against institutions, their reductive stultification and self-serving-ness

It’s clear across De Carlo’s work that life isn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t be) necessarily easy. It takes work: hard, awkward thinking and real engagement with what’s going on, who’s making things go on and what has gone on before. In making life simpler, institutions obscure what it is to be alive by recycling and protecting ideas and people rather than exposing them to difference and change. The following points break this down and give examples.

2) For complexity – against facile heuristics: labels, typologies, codifications, norms, laws

De Carlo thinks holistically. So, even in the case of laws, he’s thinking about how they apply in both a minute, local context and more globally. For example, in a conversation about the increase in norms and regulations to do with architecture and access, he argues, sarcastically “When we’ve made everything accessible with ramps, we’ll be happier because we won’t be obliged to think any further about disabled people and the difficulties of their existence.” (De Carlo and Bunčuga, 2014:200). Instead, we should recognise that when it comes to using space, “we are all, in a way disabled” (ibid:201). De Carlo isn’t anti-ramp (there’s plenty in many of his buildings) but he is against the tendency both to sub-contract thinking to a law or regulation and the tendency this has to “specialize” life into sections so that what “access” might really mean is now treated as if it has been resolved by an architectural solution. Again, De Carlo is challenging the autonomy of architecture, as if space, social life and politics could be separated.

This critique plays out in relation to the later CIAM where De Carlo voices his concern over certain CIAM-members’ search for generic solutions: “In architecture, the quality of your methodology or approach doesn’t lie in its universal applicability but in its capacity to adapt to a diversity of situations – something it loses if it’s too rigid and so becomes a type or even a stereotype. If that happens, you get typologies, standards, apparatuses that then tend to be put together in the same, undifferentiated way and without critique.” (ibid:96).

3) For breadth – against specialization

I’ve alluded to this immediately above but it comes out directly in relation to what fellow architects in Team 10 were trying to do. Of Josic, Woods, Candilis and especially van Eyck he notes that “Ours was an attitude against specialization – of space just as of life. We considered it dangerous because of its flattening of individuals and the way in which it creates social disintegration” (ibid: 92). As elsewhere, this is not just about architecture or the professionalization of architecture but is political too. De Carlo led a troop of resistance fighters with Delfino Insolera and in the evenings whilst hiding out in abandoned farmhouses in the mountains above Lake Como, they would teach fellow partisans about modern architecture, and how the academic and fascist architecture had served as a tool of oppression (De Carlo) or art and science (Insolera), an important experience for his understanding of architecture and his own values as he explains here (in English, audio clip).

When the National Committee for Liberation (CLN – of which the communists and socialists had greater control with respect to his own anarchist section) told them to stop, that they were going off script, they refused, saying that the whole point was to renew the world but the “CLN, and foremost the communists, were insistent on this point: the partisans needed only to know how to fight the Germans and help the Soviets win the war. This was their [the communists’] only motivation; at the end of the day, they were specialists” (ibid:58).

The above two points in De Carlo’s work (resisting too rigid classifications and against specialization) can be seen in the University of Catania’s Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena which De Carlo worked on from the 1980s onwards to turn it into the new home for the university’s Humanities Faculty. More images below.

Giancarlo De Carlo Monastero dei Benedettini Catania
This wall reminded me of key arguments in Bowker and Star’s writings on classifications.  De Carlo seems to be showing off these study spaces as “living classifications”.

4) For history and/in the present – against superficial obsessions with the future

Just as De Carlo’s work can be read as an attempt to resist the tendency to close-off institutional spaces, so time too is something he wants to hold open. History should not be bracketed off and institutionalized but held close and available, as a resource: “What I consider as 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 gives direction to the future.” (De Carlo 1959, cited in McKean, 2004).

As I’ve written earlier, De Carlo often treats space and time together. Although architecture refers to the organization of space, it becomes – in use – part of more complex relations or “spatial events” that cut through times and particular spaces. John McKean, this time writing in the Architects’ Journal about the cinema De Carlo designed for the University of Urbino film school by excavating a space beneath a church and then opening the cinema to the public as a shared institutional-civic community resource notes how it illustrates a physical realization of “De Carlo’s complex world as cultural palimpsest” (2003:online Note, the AJ’s website seems to mess up text. For a clearer discussion on De Carlo’s “dialogue with historical forms” and excellent images and plans of Urbino, see McKean’s 2004 open access article in Places journal).

Another example of this, is the library deep inside the Humanities Faculty (University of Catania) with De Carlo’s 20th century suspended reading areas and walkways floating over the remains of a 2nd century BCE Roman villa, a later, 2nd century CE villa and road, and then structures from the 16 and 17th centuries:

Library in De Carlo's Benedictine Monastery of the University of Catania

There is a pedagogical sense to this bringing of spaces and times into connection though not in a simplistic didactic sense: De Carlo’s buildings do not offer lessons of themselves so much as provide the means that different places, stories and people might encounter one another. Here I think the anarchist spirit returns since buildings are seen (and designed) not as objects, but potentials for x, y, z… and in this sense they offer a distribution of power and to some extent purpose to their users which the following point explores more fully.

5) For involving people – against the institutionalization of architecture (& architects)

Three texts provide a much better account than I can and straight from the horse’s mouth too: a 1980 paper An Architecture of Participation ($) by De Carlo, De Carlo’s 1994 interview with Roemer van Toorn and Ole Bouman (OA) and his chapter “Architecture’s Public” in Architecture and Participation (2005) edited by Blundell Jones, Petrescu and Till.

The point is not that De Carlo is simply pro-participation i.e. involving people in planning should make for more suitable and better buildings nor even that participation is politically important by providing “voice” in the planning process and delegating some control to people about their spatial and institutional futures. There is that, it’s true, and is seen in pithy phrases such as “architecture has become too important to be left to architects” (De Carlo 2005, 11).

Roof Garden, Istituto Tecnico C. Cattaneo, San Minato

De Carlo’s roof garden for the Istituto Tecnico C. Cattaneo High School, San Miniato here planted with artichokes by the students and teachers.But it’s also something more than this. If we go back to his definition of architecture as the “organization and form of physical space” then it’s clear that architects can’t be the only ones responsible for that organization (unless buildings are never used, frozen as monuments and untouched.) So yes, there is a political, normative element to his focus on participation and certainly one about making design better by considering people’s needs more closely but it’s also an ontological standpoint: the organization of space carries on long after architects have left the scene.

Indeed, “organization” is a funny kind of word, a noun with verb-like elements. Organization happens and carries on happening through the actions, needs and values of others besides the original architect(s). It is never fixed. This comes out more clearly in his brilliant Why/How essay:

The most important thing is that structure and form leave the greatest space for future evolution, because the real and most important designer of the school should be the collectivity which uses it (De Carlo, 1969:32).

De Carlo’s conception of space therefore has spatial organizers (professionally recognized architects and non-) as inevitably existing in a necessary rather than merely contingent relationship. The conclusion cannot be “it’s good to practice participation by including people” but the opposite: “it is a conceptual error of spatial and professional abstraction to exclude people in the first place”.

Again, this can be read as a problem of institutionalization where De Carlo’s work is to resist the professionalization of architecture being taken for granted (i.e. to de-institutionalize architecture) and the false split in supposedly specialized roles: the priesthood of architects and the lay public, an artefact of social, professional and economic institutionalization rather than an inevitable division.

30 years later, this gets further emphasis:

I’m looking for an architecture that involves everyone because architecture itself is involved with everybody … I want it to return to being the first point of reference in what it means to be human in physical and social space, an architecture you can’t ignore because everyone’s involved with its creation, people can’t do anything but be part of its creation. (my emphasis, De Carlo and Bunčuga, 2014 [2000]:252)

This is a point I asked Herman Hertzberger about when I interviewed him last year because I thought something similar was happening i.e. Hertzberger (who’s not particularly renowned for participative design and is comfortable explaining why “in my opinion it’s a false idea to let people help you to design. They don’t necessarily have the tools”) still manages to orient his architecture towards people because his conception of space and what architecture is includes them in the first place.

This raises interesting questions not just about the “space” architects have in mind but the work they need to do to understand people’s behaviour and values, and to recognise and challenge their own. Ultimately, it is a question of social science and, as such, goes some way to explaining why the architecture De Carlo espouses is “in the field” rather than in the academy, especially if it risks getting further abstracted and incestuous there, either as a self-indulgent art (De Carlo’s problem with a good deal of postmodernism) or as a technocratic science, abstracted and abstracting in a different but just as damaging a way (as the film clip, above, argues).

6) For focus on means, process – against obsession with rigid aims, product, project management-ization

Two quite lengthy quotations here will explain this better than I can. They also illustrate De Carlo’s interest in education but in a different way from that indicated above – his keen interest in learning from people and from what today we might consider an eclectic range of sources… In the first quote, the question is posed by Bunčuga:

Did the meeting with anarchists in Carrara [the first post-war, national anarchist congress] influence your conception of architecture?

Maybe: in terms of how to approach a project – observing all of its characteristics from as many viewpoints as possible without establishing a priori that one perspective is better than another and so recognising that in this way the structure and order of things changes and any attempt to fix them in a hierarchy is nothing else but an affirmation of power; that what’s important is not the result but the journey that one undertakes in the attempt to get results and welcoming along the way all the support you meet so that you take an open and inclusive stance towards obstacles and upsets; that doubt is a key that can open various doors to the problem; that the process is the real aim and the object or product is valuable as a sort of tentative “proof” or trial. These are things I believe I’ve learned from anarchist thought and brought into my way of doing architecture. (De Carlo & Bunčuga, 2014:80-81)

Though a very different source of learning, the following brings up some similar ideas:

When I arrived in Milan I met the famous Ambrosiana-Inter footballer, the centre-forward Giuseppe Meazza. Meazza was a true “creative”: he never applied typical solutions but scored these wonderfully complex and spectacular goals through movements that were impossible to guess for defenders and for the public… Meeting him and others like him was hugely educational … [there was] a certain way of playing and using his own curiosity, a particular way of moving around a problem, of examining it from different positions without attempting to resolve it head on, immediately … An architectural problem should be observed first from a range of angles and nudged, teased, pushed to reveal its origins, its relations, its features. Only then can you attempt to confront it properly. (De Carlo, 2004:46)

My aim with the above 6 points was not to reduce De Carlo or his work to anti-institutionalism but to suggest one approach to understanding that work and its continued relevance for thinking about education and educational spaces today. In short, the points and challenges he throws up are productive: it is the anti-institutionalist nature of his work that digs space out of its tendency to be taken for granted.

Conclusions: how can Giancarlo De Carlo help us think about education/educational institutions/educational spaces today?

Piercing the Institution is Educational Work

Earlier I showed via Jepperson’s comments why I think De Carlo’s approach is a little too one-sided when it comes to institutions – I think he discounts the enabling work they facilitate (by omission rather than explicitly). But that simply isn’t his interest and it’s here that I think his work is most clearly educational. He’s interested in piercing the institution (not killing it), of letting some light in so that we can work out for ourselves how it works.

For Mary Douglas, institutions need either to acquire “self-validating truth” (1986:48) or die (or at least risk being transformed). Their passage into taken-for-granted-ness is therefore insurance against change. If people take an institution for granted, they are less likely to ask questions about it, to think why it is needed, to consider carefully the work it enables and constrains but also to think of alternatives (Jepperson, 1991:152). Why would you think of doing something differently or changing your environment if you are unaware of what it actually is, why it is like it is?

That’s a general conclusion of sorts – De Carlo as educator, not in the sense of teaching directly, but by providing the resources for perceiving of our environments in ways that make their construction more explicit so that the artifice involved may be more readily appreciated and, if desired, changed.

Two last points relate this to the work of schools and education today.

First, this is of relevance – educationally and architecturally in schools, today. Peter Blundell Jones writes clearly and eloquently of the forgotten work of space in schools:

The curriculum, the rule book, the headteacher’s policy, the staff hierarchy, the punishment regime and other socially prescribed matters may appear to exert a far stronger influence on the way a school works, but the spatial setting is nevertheless ever present and never neutral … We become blind to this once habituated in the use of a building, for it seems just to be there, and we have to make an imaginative leap to envisage how it might be otherwise (Blundell Jones, 2015:13).

But making “an imaginative leap” is so hard precisely because of the self-effacing ways in which institutions tend to work. Help in imagining a leap is therefore welcome, and that’s a creative act, a creative anti-institutionalism, and hence thinking with De Carlo.

Finally, this is relevant for the future of schools. It’s interesting that De Carlo’s Why/How essay came at a time when many ideas about the spatial and social enclosure of educational institutions and their appropriateness were being published. Illich’s Deschooling Society is perhaps the best known of these, although it wasn’t published until 1971, after Why/How. It seems to me that these questions of space are bubbling up again although oriented more towards efficiencies in educational provision rather than being pushed by discussions of values more broadly. These renewed spatial/educational quandaries are most explicit in relation to online education and online schools which are increasingly being offered not only as supplements to place-based schooling but replacements.

Clearly, there are constraints on how far this can go – many important functions of schools rely on their physical instantiation, not least the fact they keep young people safe and busy, freeing up their parents and carers to be economically productive (see here for a discussion.) This won’t change in the short term. More likely is that discourses around the architecture of schools and the purposes of school space/schools will increasingly be articulated in terms of how they can contribute to learning. RIBA’s 2016 report Better Spaces for Learning: #TopMarkSchools is interesting in this respect.

My belief is that if the organization of physical space (architecture) gets into a competition with the organization of online and/or digital space (platforms) over its ability to contribute to learning it will lose. Now, it maybe that no-one wants a competition between physical and online space over which can better provide education (or learning) since how we might work with them together would be more interesting to explore and certainly more helpful.

But this misses the point. There are powerful discourses framing what can and can’t count as effective contributions to learning. If the architectural industry or its professional representatives buy into this by framing its contribution to education in terms of how (and how much) it can increase learning, then it legitimizes and promotes the logic of such a competition. Most importantly, though, it makes a space of commensurability possible. Once comparison seems possible, it becomes much more likely and from there it is a relatively short step to an ordering (see Andrea Mubi Brighenti’s excellent paper on these issues.) Architecture will have to increasingly defend its learning maximising quotient in order to be seen as efficient in this game, a game it will ultimately lose.

In a “who can maximize learning the most: online or physical space?” competition, architecture will lose. It will lose because: a) acceptable definitions of learning and knowledge change to suit the dominant producer of knowledge at a given time b) so do the assessment and accountability regimes which recognize and report acceptable learning and knowledge. These wash back on the nature of learning and education, exerting pressures of standardization and “legibility” on education, especially public education (private education always has escape routes and ways to hide out in illegibility) c) physical space is more expensive than online space d) costs of physical buildings are lifetime costs and increase with time; costs of platforms decrease with age e) digital learning and assessment environments have capacities for automatic, continuous and quicker “post-occupancy evaluation” (of sorts). Improving physical environments is costly, more human-dependent and less automatized. Note: we can argue about what improvement means, the point is that definitions and recognitions of learning will change, pushed by changes in what digital learning and assessment systems can “see” and what they understand learning to be².

A way out of this bind is to challenge the reductiveness of education to learning (a battle about definitions), but perhaps most importantly in terms of this talk, to challenge the grounds on which equivalences between architecture and physical schools on the one hand and online learning systems on the other might be made³.

The latter suggests that the organization of physical school space be related a) to the desires, designs and values of its users (back to De Carlo’s Why we’re building schools before the How best to do that) and b) to what we think makes physical space special,  to what being physically and temporally co-located with others can do for education but also how this can be educational in and of itself. Ultimately, these are questions about the institutionalization of education and how architects have a role (albeit limited, given the arguments above) in solidifying those physical and institutional boundaries.

Is this too alarmist? I don’t think so. If we’re not talking about values and making them explicit (as De Carlo did) then we run the risk of frog-boiling i.e. performing a slow, incremental and therefore hard-to-perceive process whereby interesting and challenging shared spatial opportunities for education are quietly killed off.

Holes in Giancarlo De Carlo Istituto Tecnico C Cattaneo San Miniato

De Carlo’s Istituto Tecnico C. Cattaneo (High School), San Miniato. The windows and skylights throughout the building often provide unusual angles and framings. It feels internally connected but joined to the outside too.

Heating Plant Monastero Catania Giancarlo De Carlo

In- and Exterior shots of the heating plant designed by Giancarlo De Carlo at the Benedictine Monastero of San Nicolò l’Arena, now the Humanities Faculty, University of Catania

¹ Colin Ward, also an architect deeply interested in education and an anarchist, translated an essay De Carlo wrote, and published it as “The Housing Problem in Italy” in Freedom in 1949. Ward then invited De Carlo to give a lecture at the Architectural Association in London around that time and they subsequently became friends, meeting up in Venice and (I think) elsewhere. There are interesting links between Ward’s approach to education, the impossibility of containing it physically and the benefits of extending education out, into the city and beyond, so making the physical environment both means and object of study.

² I make lots of claims here. Some of them are based on my own experience working in assessment research and before that as a teacher. Others are drawn from articles such this; this; and I’ll keep adding useful ones to the list.

³ This is an approach I have lifted straight from Doreen Massey’s work on space:

[A]ttempts at the stabilization of meaning are constantly the site of social contest, battles over the power to label space-time, to impose the meaning to be attributed to a space, for however long or short a span of time. And there are two levels at which such contests may be joined: the first, and the most usual, is simply over the label/identity/boundary to be assigned; the second, the one being pressed here, is the insistence on pointing out – and thereby challenging – the nature of that debate itself (Massey, 1994:5).


Blundell Jones, P. (2015) ‘The Development of the School Building and the Articulation of Territory’, in Pamela Woolner (ed.) School Design Together. London: Routledge. pp. 11–31.

Bouman, O. & van Toorn, R. (1994) ‘Architecture is too Important to Leave to the Architects: A conversation with Giancarlo De Carlo’, in The Invisible in Architecture. London: Academy Editions. An Open Access version is here

Bowker, G. C. & Star, S. L. (2000) Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. New Ed edition. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

De Carlo, G. (1980) An Architecture of Participation. Perspecta. [Online] 1774–79. [online]. Available from:

De Carlo, G. (2005) ‘Architecture’s Public’, in Peter Blundell Jones et al. (eds.) Architecture and Participation. London: Spon Press.

De Carlo, G. (2004a) ‘Conclusion to the Harvard Lecture’, in F. Samassa (ed.) Giancarlo De Carlo: Percorsi. Padova: Il Poligrafo. pp. 439–445.

De Carlo, G. (2004b) Gli Spiriti di Milano. Domus. (876), 46.

De Carlo, G. (1968) La Piramide Rovesciata. Bari: De Donato Editore.

De Carlo, G. (1969) Why/How to Build School Buildings. Harvard Educational Review. 39 (4), 12–35. [online]. Available from:

De Carlo, G. & Bunčuga, F. (2014) Conversazioni su Architettura e Libertà. Milano: Elèuthera.

Douglas, M. (1987) How Institutions Think. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ford, D. R. . (2013) “Toward a theory of the educational encounter: Gert Biesta’s educational theory and the right to the city”. Critical Studies in Education. [Online] 54 (3), 299–310. Available from: I didn’t cite this as I’ve only just read it but it’s a very interesting paper bringing together Lefebvre with education in “the educational encounter” via Gert Biesta and some Herman Hertzberger. Lots of crossover with Giancarlo De Carlo and worth reading, it’s good food for thought.

Jepperson, R. L. (1991) ‘Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism’, in Walter W. Powell & Paul J. DiMaggio (eds.) The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 143–163.

Massey, D. (1994) Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McKean, J. (2004a) Giancarlo De Carlo: Layered Places. Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges.

McKean, J. (2004b) Il Magistero: De Carlo’s Dialogue with Historical Forms. Places. 16 (1), 54–63. [online]. Available from:

Samassa, F. (2004) ‘“Un edificio non è un edificio non è un edificio”. L’anarchitettura di Giancarlo De Carlo’, in Francesco Samassa (ed.) Giancarlo De Carlo: Percorsi. Padova: Il Poligrafo. pp. 125–161.

Zuddas, F. (2015) Pretentious Equivalence. De Carlo, Woods and Mat-building. Festival dell’Architettura Magazine. Research and projects on architecture and the city. [Online] (34). Available from:




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