The word “incandescence” came to my linguistic orbit in 1999, when I was given the gift of Not Architecture But Evidence That It Exists. Published by Princeton Architectural Press in connection with an exhibition at Harvard Graduate School of Design, the book contains watercolors by Lauretta Vinciarelli, an architect who died at her home-studio on August 3, hours after her 68th birthday. Both an affirmation and a complex disclaimer, Not Architecture But… is the only book of her work.
The daughter of a musician and trained at La Sapienza in Rome, Vinciarelli, a teacher at Pratt, Columbia and City College, spent her life in and between two Romes: the Rome of her birth, and the one of another empire, which she made her own. With the first noted solo exhibition (Projects 1973–1978, Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, New York, 1978); by the addresses of her collectors (The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The National Gallery, Washington D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; among others); and with her posthumous exhibit planned at the City College of New York for next Spring, she summons all the ingredients of a successful émigré story. But, also, or more than anything else, she puts forth an ambiguous diary of an introspective flaneuse, whose unbearably light modes of seeing were focused on infrastructure—be it physical or psychical—a work-ethic, and an emotional stance, lovingly rendered by Joan Ockman as “a meticulous ritual in a distracted age”.
Ever quiet when it came to words by which to qualify her work, Vinciarelli—Lauretta, as I knew her—was most precise with titles, offering a helpful yet restrained hand to those lost in the mazes, which she knew how to produce, and to induce, so well. This, an architecture? This, an art? This, a painting? This, a drawing? This, a pained relationship between architecture, beauty, and any notion of a “cutting edge?" This, a tiresome discourse? If pressed, she might have given a “si,” as an answer to all. The glossary of her valued terms and dilemmas was entirely different.
She never wrote about a glossary, so there is a question left in mid-air. Might we be able to reconstruct one in retrospect? In an age in which architects lend their own assertive voices as a guarantee of their status in posterity, why would we care about her silence, however eloquent it might be?
Here is where the incandescence comes in, defined by the dictionary as “the state in which a heated body, naturally incapable of emitting light, becomes luminous…”
We will never know the origins of the “body” conjured by Vinciarelli’s watercolors, though attempts have been made to situate them between two concrete sites—central Italy and Southwest Texas; between the bounded-ness of a classical heritage and boundaries she has imposed on spaces found at later points in her life. Yet, for those willing to study the one published document given us to contemplate, the body itself is disappearing. What was to be remembered about the “Texas” of 1988—a sun-flooded serenity and abundance of deprivation arising from its surfaces—ceases to be a topic. Instead, incandescence, the name Vinciarelli first firmly gave in 1998 as the title of her exhibit at SFMOMA, speaks of the turn away from the conventional (architectural) bodily substance in which walls, enclosures, deliberately seductive symmetries have any purchase at all. Her solitary brush gradually retreats to ponder the dark plane, or rather a luminous one, where the “under” disquietly meets the “on” and the “above.” Most spectacularly, it is the horizon that changes in that shift of attention, its presence becoming less reliant on a Renaissance memory and more alerted, maybe, to the flatness of our own “now.”
From those closer to her, I’ve learned that, some months before she died, Lauretta made sketches evoking what she might have understood to be an infrastructure of who we are, as humans. While this may well have been a personal conversation with one’s impending end—an effect of the fact that, today, we can be “imaged” to know how we look inside—it may also have carried an additional, incandescent message: when we are lowered to our finality, the classical and the organic become one and the same.