Architecture, Book review
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Carlo Scarpa

In Robert McCarter’s Carlo Scarpa monograph, Austrian architect Peter Noever tells an astonishing tale. In 1974, he and Scarpa toured the Adolf Loos made American Bar in Vienna. The moment they entered Scarpa started evaluating the space. He ordered champagne for the ladies……

who were present and a measuring tape for himself. Scarpa then continued to measure everything down to the exact millimeter. When completed he announced the space to be of “singular spiritual and emotional quality.”

This is precisely how I envision McCarter analyze the work of the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa—measuring tape in hand.  In this substantial volume, McCarter leads us by the hand through Scarpa’s achievements. He gives us a survey that is both vast, and in the spirit of Scarpa, meticulously detailed.

Olivetti Showroom, Piazza San Marco, Venice, 1957-1958, western facade

Carlo Scarpa is a mystery. He has never achieved the iconic status in this country reserved for Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, or Louis Kahn, yet Scarpa was revered by all of them. McCarter’s comprehensive tome has the capacity to change this. With over 350 drawings, photos and plans the monograph is an illuminating roadmap to Scarpa’s originality. McCarter, himself an architect and the Ruth and Norman Moore Professor of Architecture at Washington University, not only discusses Scarpa’s built work in solemn detail, he also delves in the unbuilt, exhibitions and Scarpa’s relationships with other craftsmen, architects and artists. The book is a historical breakthrough, not only for the extent of projects covered and the intricacy in which they are explained but for McCarter’s own acute observations like Scarpa’s floor pattern in the Torrisino Church in Padova. McCarter discovered a Scarpa anomaly, a mosaic floor, unlike all his others, that actually repeats.

McCarter considers Scarpa a master craftsman, yet chose only to include the innovative glasswork that Scarpa designed at the beginning of his career. It would have been instructive to include other objects Scarpa designed, the furniture for Simon (now owned by Cassina) and his work in sterling silver for Cleto Munari. The functional items that Scarpa produced were extensions of his explorations in craft and material and in the context of his architecture become more coherent.

Born in Venice in 1906, at age two Scarpa’s family moved to Vicenza. His childhood was spent playing amongst the Palladian porticos. After the death of his fashion designer mother when he was 13 his family moved back to Venice. Scarpa considered himself  “A man of Byzantium who came to Venice by way of Greece.” It is Venice where he studied, taught, rediscovered traditional Venetian crafts, restored, and built. Even when working in other places, such as Verona and Bologna, the qualities of Venice permeated his architecture. At 14, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Art and while there shifted from the study of art to architectural drawing. He graduated at age 20 with a degree to teach architectural drawing but not practice architecture. His refusal to become an officially licensed architect plagued him for years, but after successfully defending himself in a lawsuit (at the same time he was restoring the Manlio Capitolo courtroom where he was on trial) the issue became immaterial. The irony is permanent.

Glass Designs, Murano, 1926-47, Vaso Transparente, 1926, globe-shaped clear vase with blue truncated cone base, M.V.M Cappellin & C

Scarpa was dedicated to the process of discovery, to the artisan crafts of Venice, and to the “relentless analysis of detail.”  A man who immersed himself in culture, history and art, his personal library contained 4,052 volumes. At the beginning of his career, Scarpa worked on Murano, initially at MVM Cappellin and then at Venini, exploring and expanding the vocabulary of Venetian glass.  These “marks of torn color” as Scarpa referred to his glass creations, were the result of both a deep respect and fascination with the alchemy of glass. The first material to be subjected to Scarpa’s brilliant mind, he invented startling new textures and opacities that were exhibited in the Venice Art Biennale.

Glass blowing, metalworking, plaster, mosaics, terrazzo, wood working – the artisan crafts of Venice were all resurrected by Scarpa. He found the divine in the precious details of construction. Once Scarpa started building, he created glazing solutions that had never been used before.  He framed windows independent of the original stone apertures in restorations, and he was the first to create windows that turned the corner from the wall to the ceiling. Glass was used for reflective color in modern mosaics and in terrazzo floors. McCarter admits to the sensuous nature of materials chosen by Scarpa, but he doesn’t afford the same adjective to the man. I’m not sure they can be separated

For the 24th Venice Biennale, Scarpa designed an exhibit of works by Paul Klee. The process of creating the installation allowed Scarpa intimate access to the paintings. McCarter delves into the philosophies of Paul Klee and Scarpa, drawing the parallels that informed their work. Both men believed in the act of drawing to understand the world before them. Scarpa considered his drawings  (done with both hands, often simultaneously) only completed when construction was complete. McCarter feels that their mutual theories about material, emotion, time and symbolism had the strongest influence on Scarpa, more than Klee’s visual patterns. And yet, the terrazzo floor in the Olivetti showroom, which Scarpa designed in 1956, uses a grid pattern that mirrors the brushstrokes in Klee’s 1932 Emacht painting.  Had I not witnessed the Klee painting and the Scarpa floor in the same monograph, I would never have understood this correlation.

Fondazione Querini Stampalia renovations, Venice, 1961-63, view across water entry room from entrance hall, with the water gates (l) and radiator enclosure and glass wall (r)

McCarter presents 15 projects in reverential detail. Roaming through the predominantly interior spaces (ordered somewhat chronologically and by poetic themes), we begin to understand Scarpa’s philosophies: his conviction that building museums was more rewarding than skyscrapers, it was easier to work with fixed limitations, art was best viewed in natural light, layers of history were not be demolished but revealed, material transitions were to be celebrated and Verum Ipsum Factum – we only know what we make.  Beams, joints, apertures, seams, edges, the functional should be beautiful.In 1978, Scarpa was visiting Japan and fell down a flight of stairs. He died 11 days later.  People have claimed he tripped because he was studying an architectural detail.

Scarpa said the “path of the eyes differs from the path of the body,” and this may have been the most tragic example.

There is more to the myth of Scarpa not included in McCarter’s book. How Scarpa wrote backward on his drawings, how he refused to ask for payment for fear he’d have to do what the client asked, how he astonished friends with absurd pranks… how he took 6 years to design a fork because he would be using it to eat his beloved Venetian cuisine.  Even if these are stories that can’t really be measured, they remain the lexicon of Scarpa legends.

Banca Popolare, Verona, 1973-8, detail of the square brass joint in the inner corner of the violet-coloured upper wall

McCarter explains repeatedly that the only way to truly understand the work of Scarpa is through “experiential engagement.” This monograph is the catalyst to get us to go.  Maybe when in Italy, being seduced by the saturated jewel colors of the Venetian plaster at Banca Popolare, or perhaps standing on the first floor of Querini Stampalia surrounded by an interior moat of splashing water during aqua alta, or sensing the intimate love between husband and wife as their sarcophagi incline together at the Brion Cemetery, we will feel what Scarpa saw.

Images Courtesy: Phaidon

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