Lauretta Vinciarelli has died, and her passing is a serious body blow to architecture. Not only have we lost one of our most rousing architectural draftsmen (sic) but also one of the rare visionaries of architectural space, Her exquisite watercolor paintings have presented to us new spaces of the almost-familiar, for example several series of what might be causeways or catacombs, that strike us as monuments of our time more convincing than the slick museums and corporate edifices that our most prominent architects favor. From a large body of work embracing many themes, it is these that I focus on here.

Vinciarelli, a daughter of Rome’s environs, never lost her belief in classical order and beauty, yet at the same time had the social conscience of Rome’s leftist perspectives, which elevated everyday life to a higher level of architecture and art. The largely hidden spaces she designed and painted so masterfully, often flooded with the water of uncontrolled or intentional flows, speak of unconscious worlds, devoid of people yet clearly intended for them, spaces we might guess for those who somehow sustain an unseen world beyond. They evoke the levels of emotion and thought that support a type of civil life founded on such precise and orderly infrastructure.

For all their calm and studied precision, Vinciarelli’s spaces are disquieting. The harmony and grace of their austere forms and composition speak of self-possession and control, but also of melancholy. These are utopias, we might fear, too perfect for us mere mortals to endure and are thus lonely places. In her paintings, we never step back to see an overall picture, but are always within, remaining free to hope that her world of beauty and harmonious order might, in different ways, extend beyond the limits of the frame to a wider constructed landscape. Vinciarelli gives us a spatial and, indeed, an ethical foundation for such a world. Hers is an architecture of insinuation and suggestion. The dark side of her vision is not in shadows and the like, but rather in the possibility, even the likelihood, that her ideals, and perhaps all ideals, will be thwarted by the enemies of beauty, or will simply remain unfulfilled. This brings us directly to the political issues raised by her work.

The spaces she has designed and rendered do not seem to be the work of a single architect, though they are. Instead, they have the character of collective constructions, the products of a culture, even an entire civilization. In them we cannot find the self-aggrandizing, egoistic insistence on a signature style that separates their architect from others, but rather a profound modesty such as we find in Medieval Italian towns built by anonymous craftsmen and artists. Or also, we might say, in a socialist dream of free collaboration between the most dedicated and gifted of architects and builders working unselfishly together. Whether Vinciarelli ever wrote or spoke about her work in these or similar terms, I cannot say. But the collective character of her designs is nevertheless one of their most striking features.

This is not so with the watercolor paintings themselves—they are only hers. Like all great draftsmen (sic again, because I reject neutered terms like ‘draftspersons’ or, even more, ‘draftswomen,’ because it separates her from the great history of architectural drawing that has been made, like it or not, mostly by men) Vinciarelli invented her own techniques. This is important to recognize and consider because the way she draws is inseparable from what she draws. The texture and reflectivity of surfaces, the nuanced chiaroscuro, and especially the color that animates the spaces were painstakingly achieved by applying gossamer layers of pigment until the desired densities and luminosity were achieved. Though this technique was used by the ‘old masters,’ her application of it to watercolor painting is unique. There was no way to erase or undo what had been laid down before. She could only go forward, with absolute commitment to her vision. This is what she did in her architecture, her paintings, and her life.




The above images are taken from an excellent monograph on Lauretta Vinciarelli’s work.

We can only hope that more complete editions of her work will emerge in the future.

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