Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa, explored the expressive potential of light to magnificent effect. Even his earliest projects show his distinctive artistic language: a complex system of shapes, colors and materials, with a focus on ornamentation and the natural world, finds landscape designer, Elizabeth Tyler.
BY ELIZABETH TYLER | MARCH 2023
Carlo Scarpa, more than most architects, was steeped in, and a product of, one place: Venice and the Veneto. To fully understand Scarpa, the masterful Italian designer born at the turn of the 20th century, one must first understand the inexorable pull of Venice.
I first visited Venice as a student at Cambridge University, on an Art History trip led by the renowned architectural historian, Deborah Howard. This initial taste of so rich a city sparked a long-standing fascination with Venice for me, but it was not until a later visit that I encountered the work of Carlo Scarpa - anachronistic modernist and revolutionary restorer - and fell further, deeper, in love.
Many words have been written about the wonders of Venice, its venerable history and globally important art and architecture, but we don’t often think of Venice as a city that changes. For many, its attraction is that it stays the same. But for Scarpa, adaptation, restoration and expansion of the historical spaces and buildings of his beloved city was essential, and it was his life’s work to envisage new ways of doing so.
It's a sad irony that one of the reasons Scarpa is less well known than his contemporaries, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, is because his work consisted more of interventions within pre-existing buildings, rather than whole new structures. In an era where designers and architects need to restore and adapt as an environmental necessity, perhaps there is even more we can learn from Carlo Scarpa.
Myriad influences - from the bold symmetry of Palladio, to the modern weightlessness of Frank Lloyd Wright, the craftsmen of Murano and the gardens of Japan - were worked through Scarpa’s designs, creating an approach and aesthetic that was distinctively his own. His broad-reaching work would encompass not only the architectural structures, but the interiors, furniture and - importantly for me - the gardens of his projects.
His appreciation of the existing fabric of a site, whether the history, walls, or water flowing through it, was key. “When the context is fixed, perhaps it makes the work easier,” he once said. This is something that, as a landscape designer, I can never get away from, but which in many ways makes the work so exciting.
Two of his projects stand out for me: the Brion Cemetary near Treviso, built 1970-77, and the renovations at Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, built 1961-1963.
At the Querini Stampalia, Scarpa worked within the fabric of a 16th-century palazzo, home to the Fondazione and its library and art collection. Scarpa’s renovation of the ground floor - previously unusable due to periodic flooding - and the garden was at odds with the existing idea of ‘restoration’ at the time. By going against the grain of received wisdom, as any true modernist should, he produced an entirely new approach that was sensitive to the historical fabric and created spaces that felt unseen and original.
Scarpa's use of materials is captivating, with Venetian plaster, glass tesserae, marble and bronze used to offset one another, and create interior spaces that flow out to the canal on one side and the garden on the other. The garden is small and perfect, with flowing water, geometric marble detailing and nods to the Byzantine heights of Venice.
Brion cemetery, commissioned by a wife for a husband, is a monumental addition to an existing cemetery. Designed as a family tomb and funerary space the complex includes a meditation pavilion set in a large square pool, and an arched double tomb with two sarcophagi inclined towards each other. Board-poured concrete is punctuated by bands of coloured tiles and brass detailing. Scarpa’s ‘leit motif’ of the versica piscis - two overlapping discs - is used notably in a brass lined opening and the design is full of spiritual symbolism.
I especially love the way in which nature and time are allowed for. In his elevations of the design, Scarpa drew in plants dripping from roofs and concrete slabs laid in such a way that there would be gaps for plants to exploit, while the central pool has bays for its resident water lilies. Here we see Scarpa’s appreciation of the concept of Wabi Sabi and the ways in which nature immediately crowds in on pristine new buildings, to sublime effect.
Fondazione Querini Stampalia © Antonio Monfreda
While these projects are the most closely linked to the outside, and so perhaps the ones I think of first, there is something inspiring to be taken from every site Scarpa worked on, from the simple - his entrance kiosk for the Venice Biennale in the early '50s - to hugely ambitious - the Villa Palazzetto at Monselice, which he could not finish in his lifetime and was later finished by his son, Tobia Scarpa.
Scarpa’s emphasis on understanding the history and culture of a place as a route to creating good architecture, his relentless eye for detail, and openness to disciplines beyond his own, are all to be admired. Most importantly for me was the attention he gave to the world around him, and the way that is reflected in his work. As Louis Kahn said of his friend and contemporary: “The detail is the adoration of Nature.”
One of Italy's most exciting and enduring architects, Carlo Scarpa died during a visit to Japan in 1978. His body was brought back to Italy and is buried in an unassuming corner of the cemetery he built for the Brions.
- - - - - - - - - -
CABANA ISSUE 19
Carlo Scarpa's architectural mastery is further explored in Cabana Issue 19, with words by Marco Mansi and unseen images by Antonio Monfreda.