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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Carlo Scarpa in Venice

I have been procrastinating. I've been meaning to write about architect Carlo Scarpa for a long time now, but I’ve been finding him an especially challenging subject. Austere yet ornate, ancient yet modern, whimsical yet serious, his architecture is more than just form and structure: it possesses an intangible primal quality that, to me, harks back to Roman antiquity.  

A lyrical modernist, Scarpa’s approach is “rooted in sensuous material imagination.” Throughout his career, he maintained a reverence for craft—working alongside artisans to incorporate traditional glass, ceramics, stone and metalwork into his projects. 

There are several examples of his work in his hometown of Venice. Topping the list is the Olivetti showroom, completed in 1958, just off the Piazza San Marco.

Recently restored by Italy’s National Trust, the showroom is an ascetic jewel box (if there is such a thing) with severe stone walls, an imperious (and gorgeous) floating staircase (Scarpa had a real flair when it came to staircases—how ironic he should die from a fall down a flight of stairs—but maybe not when you consider the beautiful, but perilous set in Verona’s Castelvecchio Museum) and his trademark rustic mosaic floors with their irregular, widely-spaced glass tiles. White at the front of the shop, towards the back there are sections where they are red, then blue and then pale yellow. These bright primary colors are unexpected and yet exactly right, ruffling through the overall gravitas like a breath of fresh air. I also wonder if the lemon color might be intended to reference sunlight hitting the floor, a welcome addition in the dark interior of the showroom.

The space is animated by a series of dynamic planes formed by the interplay of varying ceiling heights and intersecting walls rendered in different materials. At the center, the space opens up two levels. Above, bridges on either side of the shop lead back to the front of the building. Here, two eye-shaped windows overlook the Procuratie Vecchie Arcade. These are fronted by wooden grilles that can slide back and forth to adjust the light. Scarpa revels in alternating back and forth between stone, cement and wood, dashes of color and touches of gold.

The Fondazione Querini Stampalia has a stunning Scarpa-designed ground floor and garden. The day I visited the “aqua alta” was particularly alta and the woman at the admissions desk told me the area was closed. Lucky for me, I managed to latch onto a special tour group and was able to see it.

Scarpa's design for the entrance allows water to flow inside the building (a practical solution in flood-prone Venice). He creates a water gate that is actually a series of different sized steps and a raised walkway. On the day I visited, the water was so high it went over Scarpa's dam and into the hall.

The Querini Stampalia interior boasts more interesting stairs. Here, Scarpa has “carpeted” the original 15th century ones with an overlay of stone steps and risers to protect them. It also creates a wonderful amalgam of old and new.

Scarpa is all about transitions and joinings and uses all sorts of interesting means to accomplish them. I admired the Tetras-like pieces that fit together smoothly on the articulated surface of the radiator cover, a brass plate on the partition and the travertine door that shuts elegantly so it’s completely flush with the surrounding wall.

The courtyard is a lovely, tranquil refuge. While the interior feels Roman, the garden feels Japanese. Scarpa used a concrete wall at one end to define the space. It is embellished with a simple line of mosaic—gold, silver, black and white glass tiles whose sleekness contrasts nicely to the rough cement. A receptacle in the wall collects rainwater. 

There are a number of other water elements in the garden: a small square pool with lily pads by the wall, and a fountain with water splashing into a stone basin carved so that the liquid follows a circuitous route before it spills into a lily pad covered-trough. It flows through this, past a reclining stone lion, into a scupper at the far end that deposits the water into a circular receptacle that recalls a similar fountain at the Olivetti Showroom. In addition to the lion, Scarpa augments his design with other ancient statuary that all seem perfectly at home with his design.

I continued my Scarpa survey at Ca’ Foscari. While I loved seeing the palazzo, I didn’t really get Scarpa’s glass addition to the Great Hall. A peculiar conservatory-like structure within the space it was constructed to form an antechamber of sorts. Scarpa also added a Boiserie covering to the original window. I did like the wall lights and handsome tapering demi-lune columns on the dais. They’re stand-alone pieces now, but back in 1936 they were used to display busts of Vittorio Emanuele II and Mussolini.

The next day, I made my way to the IUAV Main Gate at the Tolentini convent. The gate certainly provides an arresting contrast to its surroundings. It appears to date to 1985 and so is a posthumous construction. The only information I could find about it was that it was “acquired by gratuitous transfer in 1979, was transformed according to the project by Carlo Scarpa.”

I was planning a trip to the Castelvecchio in Verona, but couldn’t disengage myself from Venice. Next time. And someday I hope to visit the Brion tomb in San Vito d'Altivole, Scarpa’s masterpiece. He’s interred there standing upright and wrapped in a linen shroud as knights in the Middle Ages were reputedly buried.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Sven-Harrys (Konstmuseum)

Stockholm's Sven-Harrys (Konstmuseum) is one of the most inventive art venues around. Completed in 2011, the multi-use structure is the brainchild of successful building contractor Sven-Harry Karlsson. Designed by Wingårdh Architects, the golden six-storied box overlooks a lovely park and houses an art gallery, museum, restaurant, residential flats and commercial offices.

Administered by a foundation, Sven-Harrys presents a revolving schedule of exhibitions on its lower floors. When I visited it was very much a family affair with photographs by the renowned Stig T. Karlsson, Sven-Harry's brother, and gorgeous and sophisticated abstract quilts made by his niece, Lisa Karlsson. The foundation also provides grants for important works within the arts or related areas.

Recreated on the top floor of the building are the floor plan and furnishings of Sven-Harry’s former home, the 18th-century manor house Ekholmsnäs on Lidingö. It's completely unexpected in this contemporary structure, but somehow it works. For those interested in interior design the rooms provide a wonderful example of an elegant domestic interior. Beautifully appointed, they showcase Sven-Harry's eclectic collection of paintings (August Strndberg, Carl Fredrik Hill, Dan Wolger) and furniture (Georg Haupt, Gio Ponti), including spectacular rugs by Marta Maas Fjetterström. I have to digress here and speak about Swedish rugs. There was one in a conference room before you entered the apartment that was just splendid. It and others I saw at the auction house, Bukowski's, were a revelation to me. Rich colors and patterns that seemed almost Navajo, certainly tribal that must hark back to the Vikings. Why had I never heard about them before? 

I particularly admired Sven-Harry's library with its pale green walls, red lampshades, shelves of books and comfortable seating. It seemed to combine both coolness and warmth—a fittingly Nordic place to curl up with a book. In the dining room, I saw that the charming, 18th century chandelier was not electrified and was struck, as I had been numerous times on my trip, with the Swedes' appreciation for light. Deprived of it during the winter months, they have become connoisseurs of it, using candles whenever possible. I had an epiphany right then and there and decided how silly it is to electrify chandeliers in dining rooms.

Apparently, Sven-Harry has an apartment elsewhere in the building, but I suspect he spends a good deal of time, when the museum is closed, hanging out in his old digs. I noticed in the expansive kitchen a bag of coffee by the espresso machine and though immaculate, the kitchen looked like it was used. It struck me as the best of both worlds, a more practical flat to live in and then your country estate, complete with wrap around deck and stunning views, just an elevator ride away.

Monday, January 7, 2013


The Japanese Biennale exhibit, Architecture. Possible here? Home-for-all was very moving. The walls of the exhibition space featured blown up before and after photographs of the tsunami ravaged landscape of Sendai taken by Naoya Hatakeyama who lost his mother in the disaster.

Architect Toyo Ito designed his “Home-for-all,” in reaction to the devastation of the 2011 Tsunami. A sanctuary of sorts, the “Home-for-all,” which was a collaborative effort between Ito and local residents, is intended to be a place where people can come together, share meals, derive support and thus begin rebuilding their community. The first "Home-for-all," a small traditional structure made from timber was erected in Sendai last year.

Arranged about the room were numerous "Home-for-all" models, along with current research being conducted by architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata who are developing the project's second stage in Rikuzentakata, Japan. Resembling fragile Origami, these structures, which appeared to be made from scavenged, or at least readily available indigenous items: plants, wood, debris, looked both ancient and modern, eminently suited to the landscape in which they are intended to reside.

I was not surprised to read that the Japan Pavilion received the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation. Ito shared the prize with all those affected by the 2011 Tsunami.

i-land/Strolkovo i-city

If I had to award a prize for best exhibit at the Biennale of Architecture, it would go to the Russians whose i-land/Strolkovo i-city was spare, interesting and elegant. Curated by Sergei Tchoban. The exhibit, designed by SPEECH Techoban/Kuznetsov (Sergei Tchoban, Sergey Kuznetsov, Marina Kuznetskaya, Agniya Sterligova), is divided into two separate minimalist black and white sections. In each, light plays a major role. 

The lower level, i-land, features black walls perforated with hundreds of points of light which turn out to be glass peepholes. For some reason, I thought of Argus and his hundred eyes and began to feel both an observer and the observed, and wondered given the context if this was intentional. Looking through the peepholes you see images of the secret scientific towns that once existed throughout the Soviet Union. There were over 60 of these. As the wall panel explained: "they were everywhere and yet didn't exist. The people who worked within were isolated from society and were sometimes, for the sake of secrecy, given new names and surnames. These cities and their inhabitants were invisible except to the watchful eyes of the secret service." 

Upstairs, the walls and domed ceiling are composed of light and pattern. Even the floors are incised with the curious motif. It doesn't take long to recognize them as a series of QR codes and suddenly understand why the woman at the entrance had pressed an iPad on you. Scanning the lighted codes gets you information about Strolkovo i-city (a proposed "new city of science that will include a university and homes for more than 500 [international] firms...working in five distinct fields of science—biomedical research, nuclear research, energy and space technology" to be located near Moscow). I tried doing this without success, but didn’t really mind as I was enjoying the overall effect of the glowing “Moorish” tiles. This dual ode to past and present approaches to science-focused communities was simply stunning.

Giardini della Biennale

New to me too was the delightful Giardini della Biennale a public garden created by Napoleon who drained an area of marshland on the banks of the Bacino di San Marco. Aside from the welcome experience of open space, trees and grass—a rarity in this wonderful city, the gardens, which have been the site of the Biennale since 1895 (the Biennale of Art; this is the 13th architecture biennale), also boast, in addition to a central building, 29 permanent pavilions built by various countries to house their ongoing Biennale exhibitions.

These wonderful follies range from the Russian's stucco confection to the primeval modernism of Carlo Scarpa's Venezuelan pavilion, to the rustic blue Aalto-designed Finnish wooden bungalow and everything in between. Some, like the Russian and Finnish examples are folkloric representations of the country. 

The Hungarian contribution has a distinct middle European quality, featuring elaborate tile work on its curved roof and a wide band of iridescent tiles adorning the entrance arch. I was drawn to these and then realized they reminded me of the two ceramic apples designed by Eva Zeisel that she gave me when I worked for her in the late 1980s. I recalled her telling me that in order to study ceramics as a young woman in Hungary she had to become a member of the tilemakers' guild (the first female to do so). It was a nice moment connecting the dots and thinking of her.  

The American pavilion continues the nationalistic trend, a Jefferson knock-off in brick; it looks a bit like a rest stop off 95, or perhaps a funeral home somewhere in Virginia. The elegant Beaux Arts French building had a blown up photograph of a French housing project affixed to its façade as part of its Biennale exhibition providing a thought-provoking juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots.

Trust the Swedes, to come up with a daring eco-friendly design. Their sleek modern pavilion was built around four tall trees. Nature has been emphatically brought inside and we have the wonderful contrast of rough bark and smooth travertine and glass to feast our eyes on.

I liked both the Japanese and Israeli modernist buildings. The Belgian and Dutch are vaguely art deco, veering into Fascist, but I still liked them. I guess I’m just a sucker for small scale.

The almond shaped ticket booth is the best thing there. Designed by Scarpa, it is a perfect little gem.

As for the actual exhibitions: there were plenty of plans and models on view at the Arsenale that I’m sure an architect would pore over, but they were far too esoteric for me. At the Giardini, what struck me most of all was how much like art installations everything was. Many of the entries consisted of arrangements of works on paper: ink drawings, (nothing to do with architectural drawings), pastels, maps, photographs, etc. When models appeared they were most often in so many multiples that it was impossible to see the trees, just the whole forest. It seemed to me as if there was very little architecture at all except when used as reference point. One exception was one of the Spanish contingents which produced a Green housing development/village that resembled an Easter bonnet one might wear to PeeWee's Playhouse. It was actually quite ugly, but I admired the humor, audacity and considerable effort that went into it.

Arsenale Lions

At the 2012 Biennale of Architecture I was delighted to discover the Arsenale, something that had eluded me on previous visits to Venice. A cluster of armories and shipyards housed within formidable walls, the Arsenale is where the extensive array of Venetian naval and merchant ships were built and serviced. Quite by accident, I stumbled on the Porta Magna “main gate” (c. 1460). It’s a magnificent structure, but what I loved most about it were the graduated unsymmetrical archaic sitting and reclining lions (four in all). I read subsequently that two are from Greece. One, known as the Piraeus Lion, boasts runic symbols on it carved by Scandinavian mercenaries who invaded Venice in the 11th century.  

Inside is the recently restored boat “garage” for the Doges’ barges. It reminded me of the scull boathouse at college. On steroids. I passed by it on the way to the Casa Scaffali (house of shelves) situated within a lovely garden. Here I found the Tod Williams Billie Tsien exhibition Wunderkammer, which I had come to Venice to see. The two invited 35 esteemed colleagues to select objects that spoke to them and the work they do, place them in a gray painted wood box provided by Tsien and Williams and ship them to Venice. Originating from Williams and Tsien’s New York office the boxes were sent out across the globe collecting each architect’s contribution. In Venice, the boxes and objects became a collection, representing the commonalities and differences all the individual architects share. This collection of architectural DNA played directly into Curator David Chipperfield’s notion of Common Ground.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Vilhelm Hammershøi

I have before me a postcard of a Vilhelm Hammershøi self-portrait. I love everything about it: the placement of the figure slightly off to the side, the ochres, blues and browns, the suggested body beneath a bulky wool jacket, the loose collar at the neck.

Mostly, I admire the restraint. Here you have this technically brilliant portrait that is largely obscured by shadow. Too often artists are unable to sacrifice showboating for the end result. But not Hammershøi.

All the clues to the sitter’s character are there: piercing dark eyes—the left one still visible despite the gloom—the hint of a lip and furrow in a broad brow. With these few suggestions we have the sum of the man: he’s soulful, intense, intelligent.   

Hammershøi specialized in interior scenes depicted with a quiet poetry reminiscent of Vemeer. When you see these luminous studies in grays with their spare, unconventionally arranged compositions and minimalist palette, you think immediately of Whistler. Comparing the two artists it’s clear that Hammershøi’s work is more abstract and less romantic with a haunting psychological leitmotif. Hammershøi’s wife is present in most of these paintings, though most often her back is toward the viewer. (One can’t imagine Whistler carrying on in this fashion for long—he never could quite divest himself of a pretty face).

Thirty years Whistler’s junior, Hammershøi (1864-1916) is celebrated in his native Denmark, but with the exception of a show at London’s Royal Academy in 2008, is not all that well known outside his own country.