Art that becomes a way of life: An Italian's practical approach has earned him the top architecture prize. Jonathan Glancey reports

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THE ITALIAN architect Professor Giancarlo de Carlo has won the 1993 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. The medal, approved by the Queen and presented by the Royal Institute of British Architects, remains the most prestigious international architectural award even though the number of prizes offering huge sums of money to the world's greatest architects has blossomed in the past five years.

These include the Pritzker, Carlsberg and Japan Art Foundation awards, none of which offers less than dollars 100,000 ( pounds 68,000) to the prize winner. Professor de Carlo will receive no money from the RIBA, but the medal is still the architectural profession's equivalent of a Nobel prize and awarded for a lifetime's achievement.

Professor de Carlo has not built in Britain; his best known work, carried out over the past 35 years, has been the development of the Italian hill town Urbino. Here the professor has been involved not only in the restoration of the Ducal Palace and other historic buildings, but also in designing a complex of university buildings on the fringe of the town, including his own school of architecture and urbanism.

These are designed in a modest, yet uncompromisingly Modern style and snuggle closely into the hills around Urbino.

They act as both a foil and extension to the town's grand Renaissance architecture that de Carlo admires and has done much to preserve.

Other well known work includes a new waterside public housing development at Mazzorbo, a short boat ride across the lagoon from Venice and an earlier concrete housing development at Terni, that has not proved the failure that so many of its British contemporaries have.

Professor De Carlo was born in Genoa in 1919; he studied structural engineering in Milan before training as an architect in Venice in the late Forties. He came to prominence as a critic of the International Style in architecture in the mid-Fifties; he believed firmly in Modernist ideas, but not in a purist style of architecture that could be put up anywhere in the world regardless of site, context and use.

To promulgate his ideas he has built convincingly in and around Urbino's Colle dei Cappuccini and edited the thoughtful architecture and planning magazine Spazio e Societa he launched in 1977.

Buildings currently under construction include the Mirano Hospital, near Venice, the Engineering Faculty for the University of Pavia and the Faculties of Medicine and Pharmacology for the University of Siena. His latest designs include the conversion of two large monastic complexes for the universities of Urbino and Catania and a sports complex at Siena.

Professor De Carlo is no fashion-monger and his buildings do not have an immediate appeal; they can even look rather dull in photographs. Yet when you walk through them or use them, the quiet intelligence that informs their responsible design shines through.

Architecture, he says, is 'a practical art that serves an end other than itself'. Its end is 'the way of life of the people who are to inhabit the building'.

'Giancarlo de Carlo,' says Richard MacCormac, president of the RIBA, 'does not build monuments, he builds communities.

'At a time when public policies aim to subsume the ethics of architecture into the marketplace, De Carlo stands as a testimony to the architecture of community and in particular to the community of Urbino whose servant he has been for a generation.'

(Photographs omitted)