The last time I had the honor and the pleasure of being in the presence of Romaldo Giurgola was in 1989 when he showed me over the newly completed Australian Parliament in Canberra which he had the fortune to design in 1980 in association with the Australian architect Richard Thorp; it being an entry in a competition that was only open to Australian architects. Adhering the spread-eagled geometry of Walter Burley Griffin’s 1912 plan for Canberra, this design was rendered as an elaborate earthwork which was as much a landscape as it was a monumental embodiment of the Australian state.
Born in Rome in 1920 and serving in the military in the Second World War, Giurgola migrated to the US in 1949, the year that he graduated from the University of Rome. Receiving an M. Arch degree from Columbia University in 1954, Giurgola joined the architectural faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, and four years later he would establish the practice of Mitchell/Giurgola in Philadelphia, on the occasion of winning the design for the Wright Brothers Memorial Visitors Center at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1958; a work which was already as much a landscape as it was a building.
While teaching at Penn, Giurgola became closely affiliated with Louis Kahn, co-authoring with J. Mehta a detailed appraisal of his work in 1975. Thereafter, along with Robert Venturi, George Qualls, Tim Vreeland, Robert Geddes, and Kahn himself, Giurgola would become part of the so-called Philadelphia School, cultivating in so doing an empirically modern brick-faced architecture, suspended between the geometrical monumentality of Kahn and the more liberative, organic brick-clad humanism of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. I first met Giurgola in 1966, a few months after he had become chairman of the department of architecture at Columbia University, when he made an unsuccessful attempt to make a slot for me on the faculty, which I would eventually join after he had stepped down as chairman.
After inaugurating a New York branch of the Mitchell/Giurgola practice in 1966, Giurgola would enter upon an exceptionally prolific period when he will design and realise some twenty major works of various genres and scales, prior to his winning the Canberra parliament competition in 1982. This last will prompt his immediate migration to Australia in order to oversee the project and establish the Sydney practice of Mitchell/Giurgola and Thorp. In 1982, he will be awarded the AIA Gold Medal and six years later, on the completion of the parliament, he would be the recipient of the RAIA Gold Medal of the Australian Institute of Architects. Apart from the parliament, Giurgola’s prodigious career in Australia was crowned by two distinguished ecclesiastical structures: the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Canberra of 1989 and St. Patrick’s Parramatta Cathedral of 2004.
Giurgola was a charming man, a superb draughtsman and colorist, and a genial studio instructor. His criticism was never disparaging nor ironic at the student’s expense. While steeped in the Renaissance his own work was unequivocally modern. His everyday demeanor was exceptionally modest, and he entered every conversation with a disarmingly soft Italian accent.
He was to have a powerful impact on me personally by virtue of his work for the Swedish car manufacturer AB Volvo for whom he not only designed a headquarters in Gothenburg (1984) but also a production plant in the States. Giurgola’s initial contact with the young chairman of Volvo, Pehr Gyllenhammar, soon after Gyllenhammar’s appointment in 1971, prompted him to invite Gyllenhammar to speak to me at Columbia, which he duly did about the newly installed quality feed-back control production system at the Volvo Kalmar plant, expressly designed to overcome the soul-destroying division of labor in Taylorised production. Given my William Morris affinities, this address encouraged me to take a trip to Kalmar and later to write an article analyzing the pros and cons of this culturally liberative mode of industrial fabrication. For the ramifications that this modus operandi may yet have on the future of the building industry, I shall remain in a somewhat indirect way indebted to Giurgola for the rest of my life.