The Pleasure of Honesty: Daniele Calabi

The exhibition dedicated to the life and work of architect Daniele Calabi, which opens May 30 at IUAV, where Calabi taught and in the building he restored for the school, is a labor of love.

Versione Italiana

“His main characteristic was simplicity”

The pleasure of honesty. This striking title has a lot to say about architect Daniele Calabi, the subject of the exhibition with that name which opens today at IUAV in Venice. Honesty may not be a word that we normally associate with architecture, yet honesty – about materials and their purpose, for example – was at the heart of Calabi’s work on several levels. The following description of his restoration work at the former Convento dei Tolentini, which became the new home of IUAV, is illustrative of his approach:

…the masonry of the internal façades of the cloister and the stairs of the former refectory and former chapter house, where the light vibrates and where the brick represents and declares the measure that relates man’s construction. It is about depicting the honesty of building and the pleasure – ethical and aesthetic – of adopting the figure of the materials for what they are and declaring it, without shying away from the comparison between what constitutes permanent architecture – the ancient structures – and what instead is life in time, made up of modifiable, transitory events and therefore of new materials and new construction techniques.*

It seems legitimate to wonder if this focus on permanent vs transitory architecture and leaving the juxtaposition between ancient structures and new life exposed might have been influenced by his forced exile from Italy after the racial laws were promulgated in 1938. In the 1930s Calabi had been working with intensity in Italy and France, working on large projects for cities and universities. It is difficult to imagine the sensation of living somewhere you love and finding that it has become illegal for you to work in your profession there because of your religion.

I imagine the long, lonely sea voyage to Brazil, the reflection on what was taken away, the uncertainly of what lay ahead. One of the few causes for solace Daniele Calabi must have had in that moment was the knowledge that other Italians had already preceded him there, including his cousin, who was waiting for him with a job.

“The builder who became an architect”

Calabi’s cousin owned a small construction company, where he worked building private homes and some industrial projects. Calabi married another Jewish refugee and had three children in Brazil before finally deciding to return to Italy in 1949. In Italy he resumed working as an architect, applying himself to a variety of practical projects that included housing and city planning. However, his work especially focused on health care facilities and hospitals.

…the decade 1951-1961 was a fruitful period for him in which he built single-family houses in Padua within the framework of the PRG of Luigi Piccinato with whom he became a friend, some condominiums, the Pediatric Clinic (in the atrium of which he had Gino Severini commission the large mosaic of Maternity) and healthcare buildings throughout the national territory (in Perugia, Gorizia, Catania, Udine, Ivrea, Vicenza, Lignano, Bologna, Milan, Ravenna, Ferrara, Verona, Trieste).

In February 1963, the President of the Ottolenghi Hospitals referred to Calabi as a “well-known architect and builder of hospital buildings” while entrusting him with oversight of a project.

This was another element of the honesty that Daniele Calabi showed in his work. He did not focus on style and luxury – his work was practical, useful, needed – and he was happy to live comfortably without chasing wealth. He saw building as a pleasure, and buildings as spaces that interact with their surroundings, with nature, and with their inhabitants. Calabi won awards for his Pediatric Units, which he designed with the (rather advanced for its time) idea that the spaces of healthcare facilities could themselves be therapeutic if designed to be so.

After being recruited to teach at IUAV in the late 1950s, the school was in need of a new location, and Calabi was chosen to restore the former Convento dei Tolentini. This project was a masterwork of flexible design in the context of the restoration of an ancient building, with multi-purpose rooms and portable dividers to reconfigure spaces, and a classic stepped classroom. Calabi’s original work has been modified, expanded, reworked over the years – much as he would have expected – but the legacy of his work on the building is timeless.

Homes, hospitals, clinics, schools. After an experience few of us, thankfully, will ever know – exile in a foreign country – Daniele Calabi was able to return to the country that he loved, but which had chased him out because of his religion, and set about the honest work of designing the kinds of buildings that people needed, for their health, their well-being, their education and their quality of life.

Casa Calabi, the marvelous home/studio overlooking the sea on Lido di Venezia, is a stunning testament to his ability to incorporate old and new designs and materials. The home is modern, yet Venetian, elegant and understated. Wood and windows dominate – light and how it enters the home are fundamental. Although I’m not an architecture critic I feel that it’s easy to see the passion, the pleasure that went into designing and building it, and I’ve only stood outside it.

Daniele Calabi has an impressive list of projects to his name: the marine colony of Padua “Principi di Piemonte”, built in 1935-1937 in Lido Alberoni – Venice; the Ideas Competition for the general master plan of the Municipality of Venice, 1956-1957; the Aretusa neighborhood in San Giuliano in Mestre Venice from 1956-1961; the competition for the design of the Barene di S. Giuliano in 1959; the Calabi home-studio on the Lido of Venice, 1961-1963; the national competition for the new hospital in Venice, 1963; the arrangement of the former Tolentini convent as the new headquarters of the University Institute of Architecture of Venice, 1960-1964, and finally his activity as a teacher at the I.U.A.V. in 1958-1964.

Casa Calabi, interior

Calabi was awarded numerous prizes: in 1960 he was awarded the Andrea Palladio International Architecture Prize for the retirement home in Gorizia, in 1961 the IN/ARCH Regional Prize for Veneto-Friuli for the pediatric clinic in Padua; in 1969 he was awarded in memoriam the IN/ARCH Regional Award for Sicily for the pediatric department and general services of the clinical hospital in Catania, as well as two national awards for the conservation and enhancement of architectural heritage relating to the restoration of Palazzo Connestabile in Perugia and the restoration of the former Tolentini convent in Venice, which is still home to the IUAV University of Venice today.

However, sixty years since his untimely death in 1964, today Daniele Calabi is receiving what is truly a rare and great tribute, and it is all the more so because it comes from within his family. The exhibitions of his work in Padua (which opened recently) and Venice (which opens today), spearheaded by his daughter Donatella Calabi (a well-known architect and urban historian herself), are clearly a labor of love. Replete with photographs, drawings and personal letters from her father’s early life, exile in Brazil, return to Italy and his ultimately coming to live and work in Venice, the exhibition provides extraordinary detail about “the builder who became an architect”. But it is more than that. It is a family’s tribute to a father who died too long ago – a transmission of memory.

The accompanying video for the exhibition was filmed by Daniele Calabi’s great-grandson Nicolò Folin, a Cannes-nominated film student, and scored by his brother Leo. Their expert and loving treatment of their great-grandfather’s story and his work is a moving tribute across the generations.

All in all, this exhibition, and Daniele Calabi’s work and life story are imbued with honesty, and that is a great pleasure to encounter.

*All citations are from the Exhibition catalog and materials

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The Pleasure of Honesty: Daniele Calabi ultima modifica: 2024-05-30T12:38:39+02:00 da PAUL ROSENBERG
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