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Carlo Scarpa

Tradition and individual expression
Text by
Cees Dam

Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) has almost never been literally emulated, and he left far fewer built works. His attitude and his buildings seem to be the exact opposite of a universal architecture: namely, expressions of particular circumstances, responses to local conditions, arising from a highly personal approach to  material and form in architecture. Many are additions to or extensions of pre-existing buildings, in which the new conforms to the given without becoming subordinate to it. Scarpa had little patience with the great collective ideas that dominated architectural design in the twentieth century. He kept his distance from his contemporaries and from official architecture, not only in the 1930s, but even in the years after the Second World War, when architecture in Italy (and throughout Europe) was part of the project of reconstruction, a thoroughly collective enterprise. This independent-mindedness, which he held onto throughout his architectural career, enabled him to design buildings based on his own unique sense of craftsmanship, which presented utterly new ideas yet were rooted in architectural history. His new architecture was interwoven with a traditional way of building and living rooted in a deep and intuitive understanding of the artisanal techniques, materials, colours, and light of the Veneto region, and that is precisely what makes Scarpa’s work a source of inspiration to this day. His work also shows us that relying on your personal background and your intuitive (sensed, half-conscious) knowledge can lead to a timeless and universal architecture.

Carlo Scarpa was born in Venice but spend much of his childhood in Vicenza. The influence of that time in his life should not be underestimated. Scarpa himself has said that it was probably the experience of playing in the arcades of the Basilica Palladiana that awakened his sense of architectural measure and scale at an early age.

Back in Venice, he studied architectural drafting at the art academy and, in the 1930s, became involved in setting up a new university architecture course. Scarpa remained a teacher at the university there until the end of his life (later becoming a tenured professor and a dean) and taught interior design to several generations of students, including Mario Botta.

From 1927 onward, the Mussolini regime tightened its grip on the university and the architectural discipline, leading Scarpa gradually to withdraw from  the field. He even physically retreated to the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon, becoming the artistic director of Venini, a famous producer of blown glass. Scarpa’s daily exposure to this centuries-old craft had a decisive influence on his approach when he began working as an architectural designer after the Second World War.

Scarpa’s only major architectural project before the war was a renovation of the palace Ca’Foscari for the new architecture faculty in Venice. Scarpa decided to have all later additions removed from the original Gothic palazzo. While showing his respect for the original medieval building, the architect also confronted it with dramatically modern elements (adopted from Le Corbusier), doing nothing to conceal the stark contrast between the old and the new. After the war, Scarpa was inspired mainly by abstract modern art – the work of Mondrian, Paul Klee, and later Mark Rothko – and not by the architectural movements of the time.

In 1956 – by which time he was fifty years old – Scarpa was asked to design an extension to a museum on the Venetian mainland, in the village of Possagno. This museum had an unusual history. Possagno is the birthplace of Antonio Canova (1757–1822), the celebrated neo-classicist sculptor. He lies buried in  the village church built on his initiative, which looms over the village like a  Pantheon. After Canova’s death, his childhood home was expanded to include  a large neoclassical hall and opened as a museum where the studies for his sculptures are exhibited. What we find there are sculptures in a fragile material, very white, but bristling with the pointing needles placed in plaster studies as aids to producing the final version in marble. The hall containing Canova’s work is modelled after a vaulted Roman hall with a semi-circular apse; this gives it a monumental, almost church-like atmosphere. So it is understandable that the room is usually referred to as a basilica, a colossal hall that commands silent submission.

Scarpa’s expansion is in every respect the opposite of the impressive neoclassical architecture of the original museum. The available space was a small, triangular plot of land between the south side of the hall and the main street of the village. There were also a few earlier buildings that had to be integrated into the new extension. Scarpa worked from within these constraints – not resisting them but inventively using them to investigate the relationships between form, light, material, and space and between the meaning of the sculptures and a completely abstract architecture.

To Scarpa, the fact that these were sculptures was essential. On the one hand, they literally need space; on the other hand, plaster is an amorphous, fragile material that cannot stand up to a great deal of light. That made it important for light to enter the space in a concentrated, controlled manner, given that it was essential to Scarpa for the sculptures to be naturally illuminated. To his mind, nothing was better than sunlight, which changes in colour and intensity, forming a magnificent contrast with the timelessness of Canova’s sculptures.

The design of the new wing – almost literally in the shape of a wing – is  nothing less than a theatrical presentation of the sculptures through the use  of space. The walls that contain this space were placed on the limited plot  available and follow the arrangement of the sculptures. Along the edge of the pre-existing basilica we find a long, narrow hall that grows ever narrower.

In walking the length of this hallway, you descend two steps; the narrowest part is the most elevated. This creates enough distance for one of the most important works in the collection, the plaster study for the renowned Three Graces. We see this sculpture in a wonderfully diffuse light from behind, against a backdrop of thick foliage at the end of a small pond that looks like a continuation  of the floor at the lowest level. The boundary between the closed-off museum space and a piece of the outside world appears completely ambiguous. And the narrowing perspective creates an illusion, or maybe a vague recollection, of an infinite horizontal landscape, despite all the constraints of the space.

Perpendicular to this gallery is a tower room in which sculptures are on  display like treasures. The space here feels very enclosed and inward-looking, but the visitor is invited to glance upwards. The walls are a distinct presence, with their white polished stucco (marmorino, a traditional Venetian stucco technique) beneath which a light-blue, veined texture can be discerned. They form a subtle contrast to the snow-white sculptures and also interact in a marvellous way with the small steel-blue pointing needles that cover the skins of  the sculptures like a grid.

The choice of a white background in a museum filled entirely with white sculptures is unusual. Scarpa reflected deeply on this issue, and it was ultimately his deep understanding of the possibilities afforded by traditional Venetian stucco that led to this surprising choice. The contrast between the objects and the background is created by nuances of colour, but especially by the way the surfaces absorb light, and it is in the management of light, almost like a theatrical director, that Scarpa shows his mastery in Possagno. The range of types and qualities of light in the Gipsoteca is almost endless: diffusely scattered, raking along the walls, or direct and unbroken. Light pours in to the galleries in many forms, but never so intensely as to overpower the art. And the light enters in the most surprising ways and places: through milky, translucent panes of glass and thin slits in the ceiling, through a large window that admits reflected sunlight from the side of the old basilica, and through the corner windows in the tower room. Scarpa remarked, on this subject, that he would have liked ‘to cut out the blue of the sky’, and this detail makes it look as if he literally did so.

Although Carlo Scarpa rarely wrote about his work, he did comment at length on his design for the cemetery in San Vito and the Brion-Vega tombs there. Here are his own words:

‘A man died, in Italy, and his family wanted a reminder of the life of a man who had very simply gone his way in the streets or, perhaps more accurately, from the shop floor. A man who had become important thanks to his own labour … One hundred square metres would have been enough for me, but instead I had twenty-two hundred square metres. That calls for a barrier … and that is what you can see. Then there was the tomb or sarcophagus: a place in the full sun with a panoramic view. The deceased had asked to be near the earth, because this was his birthplace. I decided to make a small arch, which I call the sun arch (arcosolium), a term used by the earliest Christians. In the catacombs, important people or martyrs were buried in arcosolia, which were no more than simple arches above them, like the ones in San Vito.

‘I am touched by the fact that two people united by bonds of affection during their lifetime now bow to each other there, in death. I could not make an upright monument; that is the soldier’s stance. So it had to be an arch – but a bridge, a bridge of reinforced concrete, or a concrete arch, would always have remained a bridge. To sever the association with a bridge, I had to decorate the arch, to paint its inner surface. Instead of paint I used a mosaic, in the Venetian tradition, which I used in my own way – which is to say, in an alternative way.

‘The lane of cypresses that leads to the cemetery is in keeping with an Italian tradition, indicating that a journey is involved. To make the enormous space comprehensible, and to emphasize the nature of the cemetery, I felt it would be a good idea to build a small temple. It turned out too large anyway, so we elevated the site to provide an overall view. So that’s everything: a tomb, family members, relatives, a small temple, an altar … and a lane that leads to a pavilion in the water, the only structure that no one can reach. That’s the whole thing, in brief.’

That was the whole thing, but of course there was more to it: in his cemetery in San Vito, Scarpa also demonstrated his profound familiarity with the Veneto landscape and his truly remarkable ability to turn the region’s craft traditions to his own ends. If we wished, we could identify all sorts of allusions to the work of other architects from whom Scarpa drew inspiration, such as Josef Hoffmann in Vienna and Charles Mackintosh in Glasgow, and to the anonymous architecture of cemeteries and monuments.

The arrangement of the tombs relative to one another seems to have been borrowed from compositions of buildings in the Greek temple complexes that Konstantinos Doxiadis studied in depth. I took inspiration from this in the arrangement of pavilions for a psychiatric hospital in Capelle aan den IJssel. But in the mind of the architect, these allusions are transformed into something utterly different, in the same way that, in Scarpa’s work, tradition and knowledge of architectural history never lead to a reconstruction or a neatly executed pastiche.

History and tradition, as Scarpa understood them, were not the final word but the start of something new. His relationship to the historical is not without its ambiguities, but he shows a thoroughly unique combination of aversion, mild humour, and serious respect. In his designs for historic buildings, Scarpa handles them with care yet changes their appearance completely, bringing them forward into his own period and adding his signature style. Tradition and individual expression are interrelated and interdependent.

Construction Muziektheater, Amsterdam.
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