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.