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CARLO SCARPA : MAKING ARCHITECTURE SPEAK

Carlo Scarpa cannot be easily defined. An oscillation between the poet, the

craftsman, the historian and the architect occurs that serves to blend any direct definition

into an elusive amalgam. Having not technically qualified as an architect, the formal

distinction, and perhaps restriction, of such a title left Scarpa as an outsider of sorts. Such

a position produced in Scarpa the rigour and intensity of the self-educated and the

inclination toward the regional. Being outside of the International modernist milieu as

such, resulted ultimately in an isolation from the social and economical aspects of

functionalist modernism. However, the formal aspects of modernist theory still

influenced Scarpa. Subsequently, of the two aspects of the architectural phenomena,

namely it’s social aspect and it’s specific poetry, Scarpa inclined toward the second.1. As

Crippa continues, the link he kept to the first is what defines Scarpa’s genius. Scarpa

himself, in speaking at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice of 1963-64,

voiced his dilemma;

“I have a reputation as a formalist, a creator of hedonistic beauty. I would rather

build a council house.”2.

Such limitations on his sphere of influence, while not inhibiting his developing a modern

sense for the quality of form, restricted Scarpa to small works for private clients, along

with museum and exhibition work. Nevertheless, time has revealed that Scarpa’s various

interventions into historical settings, with their inherent regionalism, have provided

valuable social results through appreciation, contributing to the cultural quality within a

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specific individuality. This quality was recognized as important in the late seventies’

international modern movement.3.

Regionalism and intervention in establishing a narrative define the works to be

discussed. Carlo Scarpa was born in 1906 in Vicenza and rarely wandered too far from

the Veneto region. Having completed a degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in

1926, Scarpa worked designing for the Murano glassworks in Venice, producing

renowned works and establishing a rapport and method with the craftsman. Venice

formed an indelible imprint onto his mind. It was essential to his roots and the

Byzantinism that gave him a taste for a ‘relentless analysis of detail.’4. Such passion for

his region and its history was coupled with an intense interest in the visual arts of the

moderns such as Cezanne, Modigliani, the pointillists, futurists, and cubists. The formal

values of architecture and art developed, further driven by a fascination with the Japanese

obsession with visual formality and contrast. Architecturally, a modern sensibility came

through the influence of Le Corbusier’s economy and ‘contour’, Aalto’s use of natural

materials and most prominently Wright’s organic method for integral ornament.

Venice cannot be denied as the greatest influence on Scarpa. It’s history and

character provokes Scarpa’s extremely sensitive sense of place. Due to its isolation,

industrialization has not impeded upon Venice. It remains a city of artisan craft, of

walking, of vistas and alleyways, and of course the inescapable tension of the water. For

Scarpa the water is sacred, not only for its capacity to reflect and fragment light, but also

for its temporal qualities and the incessant wearing effect it has on materials, creating

layer upon layer of stucco. The flood in Venice creates a nervous tension and everyone is

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aware of the looming spill over. With the ebb and flow come the tiny increments of

measure, discernable in the stratification of the walls or the filling of emergency drainage

points. Detail and measure are a part of the Venetian life. Stucco is applied and re-

applied, suggestive of the constant decay and renewal.5., the layering of history and

impossibility of a complete restoration. Scarpa carried very seriously the attitude of the

Italian processes of ‘restoro’ and ‘intervento’. Restoro is to restore and make anew, while

interevento is considered surgical-to make well.6. Ruskin’s thoughts on the ‘inalienable

link between the built fabric and the society that produced it’7. also resonated within

Scarpa’s attitude to intervention;

“They order you to imitate the style of ancient windows, forgetting that those

windows were produced in different times by a different way of life with ‘windows’ made

of other materials in other styles and with a different way of making windows. Anyway

stupid imitations of that sort always look mean. Buildings that imitate look like humbugs,

and that’s just what they are.”8.

Problems with authorities to this end followed Scarpa because his primary interest

in his intervention projects was not the concept of restoration, but more with historical

clarity, making history visible by the co-existence of overlaying fragments of

construction.9. Such an approach necessarily requires a knowledge of history, or at least

the correct amount of enthusiasm and passion to research each aspect of a project.

Determination to include and welcome the various ‘conversations’ surrounding a project,

such as the historical precedent and the artisans involved, indicate Scarpa’s method for a

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total immersion into the work. He contained an obsession with the mark of the hand on

the work and the process. The drawings bear this out as well, reflecting a constant

drawing and re-drawing, distilling and searching for the final form up to the construction

stage. In the same way that the formal and material joints in the built work suggest

something more or achieve the clarity of the parts in the whole, so the many drawings

enable an understanding of the architects intentions.10. Scarpa’s drawings for the works

are constantly evolving and being modified, an approach made possible through emphasis

on detail before a general plan, to maintain flexibility through the avoidance of the

restrictions of a unitary idea.11. The details come first in Scarpa’s method with the

expectation that from these details a whole will be formed, with each detail an integral

part of this whole. Here, we can speak of the pre-eminence of the joint for meaning in

Scarpa’s architecture. As Frascari says, the details tell the story of their making, placing

and dimensioning12., they tell the tale, they make architecture speak as such. Details, or

joints, can be both formal and/or material and in both instances joints are pre-texts for

generating new texts.13. These then have the capacity to impose order on the whole. In

Scarpa’s work the primacy of these joints work in such a way as to demonstrate the

attributes of materials, design decisions, to articulate relationships between part and

whole (spatially/formally and materially), and between new and old. The process, or the

making, becomes described both in craft construction (material joints) and historical

layering (formal joints), not to mention existing in the drawings themselves. An example

of this in a material sense is the use of the trademark 270 degree circle motif in metal

detailing which indicates the line up point in the cutting process. Formally, paths and
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views are construed to narrate meaning. More of these will be raised further along.

Frampton speaks of the importance of the joint as the place where ‘presencing’ takes

place.14. Scarpa’s technique of oscillation and transition between elements, most notable

in his zig-zag motif, produces such presencing by delineating space through providing the

joint in the divergence of elements, resulting in an awareness of the transition. Such

oscillation between here and there permeates the work, constantly reminding one of their

place. The message is evoked through these joints.

To illustrate these concepts discussed, those of intervention, regionalism and

speaking through the joint, we can analyse various work produced by Scarpa. The

Querini Stampalia Foundation intervention was carried out from 1961-63. This was the

rearrangement of the ground floor and garden of the existing sixteenth century Palazzo.

The result is as much about Venice as anything else, utilizing formal devices to reinterpret

and explain the city and its phenomenal location on the water. To achieve these ends,

Scarpa weaved the new into the old and used water in ways that communicates not only

through the beauty of its manipulation with light, but also of the inseparable presence

water has to the people of Venice. For example, in recognition of the aqua alta, the flood,

design includes provision for the movement of water inside the building. Following

Scarpa’s method of inserting the new into the void of the old by expressing the border

between the two with a sunken edge or channel, here also acts in recognition of the flood.

Thus, it serves to help protect the higher, new level and symbolizes the Venetian

‘dominance’ of the water.15. These moats presume the task of drainage or controlled

infiltration. Indeed, in the Watergate area, which faces the canal, the gates of grilled steel

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‘welcome’ the water into a sunken area catchment. The patterning of the gate throws

silhouette onto the water, its simplicity of horizontal and vertical bars allowing a reversal

of shadow effect between day and night. Scarpa uses many consistent motifs, such as the

notch, the zig-zag pattern and the ladder stair. Here, the ladder stair from the canal level

to the new level, signifies the intervention, the transition. An additional function, due to

its alternating arrangement of treads is as a water mark, to measure the rise and fall of the

tides. Immediately the place, the here, is evoked. Stepped transitions in his work are a

consistent theme. The surface of the new is always clean, orthogonal and planar, while

the old remains in its original rough, organic state. All of the intervention work has this

transition, the joint between the new and old which serves to then speak of both.

Formally or spatially, the joint is evoked through changes in level as a transformation or

modulation in space, delivering an awareness of presence through the physical sensation

of ascent and descent.16. Again such a device is consistent in Scarpa’s work, manifested in

various ways but serving to sharpen and clarify through distinctive separation. At Querini

Stampalia, apart from the steps to differing levels, the entrance bridge serves the same

purpose, leading up before returning down to the entrance door and thereby achieving a

sensation of transition and presence.

As mentioned earlier, the joint can be both formal and material. Both exist together

to complete the wholeness of parts. Indeed Scarpa was so convinced that each particular

detail be legible in itself that he would visit his sites at night with a torch. Focussed light

from the beam would blur at the edges, much as the eye sees, and thereby test the clarity

of each part.

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Coherence, legibility and presencing through the detail continues through the

expression or accessibility of a materials true nature. Acknowledging the true nature of

each material was achieved by his notching technique to express the depth of each

material, be it tectonic, monolithic, planar or solid. A separation of structure and function

furthers such communication. Handrails for instance, consist of steel uprights, jointed at

the transition to a more tactile handrail. If brass plate is used at joints and ends it is

notched as a planar material. Accessible materials such as off-form concrete speak of its

making. Various grades of aggregate are exposed in the Foundation garden wall, the

stages of the pour are pronounced and the roughness contrasted with inlaid glass tiles,

hinting at the Venetian characteristic of surface encrustation.17. Use of mosaic tiling in

square patterning has two sources, one being the sensitivity Scarpa has toward Venetian

artisan craft and the other his allegiance to the neo-plastic artists and modernist

architectural influences Scarpa carried such as Hoffman and Wright. Neo-plastic form, a

form that can be viewed from every point, a form that produces a rhythmic effect and

destroys enclosure18. was used to great effect by Scarpa. Use of colour and light within

open spatial relationships serve to make visible the gravitational and polarizational

qualities, to open up the viewers capacity of interpretation.19. Instead of symmetrical

order there exists asymmetrical multivalence. Colour, light, space and water are used for

the multivalent variations they garner, and achieve sensations that can produce, according

to Agostino, ‘treasures of numberless images gathered from any kind of perceived

object’.20. The notching is explained this way too, the new interventions standing clear of

the old, or the fragmentation of form by light. At Querini Stampalia, the garden shows
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Islamic and Japanese influences. Water ebbing and flowing through the mazelike

alabaster ‘source of the waters’ suggests again connections to the Venetian tension of

water spill. A secretive space, the water speaks with its trickle and separates the lawn, the

joint, inviting contemplation.

Renovation of the Castelvecchio in Verona into a museum follow the same precepts,

most visible in the arrangement of space, purposefully and tightly controlled by Scarpa’s

designated route to ‘engage the visitors perceptions by stimulating the processes of

selection, integration, memory, imagination and allusion.21. Most prominent is the

handling of the placement of the Congrande statue. Scarpa raised the statue high onto a

horizontal concrete corbel, leaving it outside and visible from varying viewpoints. The

statues placement occurs at the junction between two areas built in different eras. Placing

it here reinforces the joint between the two and the statue thus forms a fulcrum around the

dynamic rhythms and colours Scarpa has set up through his use of light and fragmented

objects. Often he uses such a controlling device. At the ground floor gallery we can see

his use of the modulated asymmetrical floor. Scarpa always laid the flooring

perpendicular to the direction of travel to obtain a rhythmic sense. In considering the

ceiling, various problems arose concerning beam depths and the possible necessity of a

column in the middle of the room. Instead, Scarpa used a steel beam, which ran between

the existing walls of the five gallery rooms. Even though the beam did not continue

through the wall at each transition, the notching of the beam and the existing wall at the

junction is a complete acknowledgement and elaboration of the joint, connecting the

rhythms of the whole.

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Returning to the Congrande statue, we can observe Scarpa’s use of the joint to layer

history and clarify each intervention. Staggered levels and material transition, most

prominently at the roof level, suggest evidence of demolition. This delaminates from

terracotta to copper, and finally leads to the void between it and the adjacent wall. New

roof construction members are lifted free of the existing double ridge beam which

continues through to remain bearing upon the opposite wall, reaching out to join the two.

Sitting in the middle of this formal joint between the two periods of construction is the

statue, ‘grafted onto modern spatial coordinates’22. and releasing the potential for new

interpretations.

Finally, in an analysis of the work at the Brion Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole of

1970, we can further extrapolate upon Scarpa’s concerns for concentrating on the beauty

in ornament, across the ages. Most revealing in this respect is the use of the zig-zag

motif. Scarpa uses this in plan and section as a formal device that serves to accentuate the

material effects in play, while also creating a metaphorical allusion or spiritual resonance

through its association to historical ziggurat religious forms. Water is used once more for

its many qualities with light and directional potential through flow. The experience of

Venice again appears, not only with the water, but also the creation of pathways and

vistas. Scarpa restricts sightlines and directs vistas to foster an impression of limitless

space.23. However, by manipulating the edges of form with the zig-zag motif the space

does not become inconceivable. These edges, contours, lead the eye to the joint and

deliver the viewer back to the divergence of elements. By graduating the space through

the zig-zag transition, the material is offered greater depth and complexity through its

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varied light and shadow aspects. Use in the waterway gives depth and modulation,

something the Venetian would be very much aware of. Scarpa’s method of ‘presencing’

extends to techniques such as constructing steps of varying thickness for acoustic

variation. The entry steps are positioned slightly to the left to suggest the route to be

traveled. Overlapping circles, another Scarpa motif, as a symbol of union, draw in light

that reflects from the walls onto the treads. Again, as at Querini, the garden and lawn is

raised and retained, something to look upon, containing the objects. The cemetery is

planned in an L-shape with the tombs, the chapel and a water pavilion forming the three

elements in each corner, joined by water. The curved form and encrusted mosaic

underside of the tombs have early Christian precedents; craft and history are discernable.

Mention has been made of lights role in evoking infinite variation. In the chapel an

ascending zig-zag ceiling vault seems to drag the light upward and out through the apex.

Scarpa’s concern in all of his work was with including the past, with attempting to

be inside a tradition by making his architecture speak by being present through the joint.

His architecture converses through an oscillation from the abstract to the concrete, from

an evocation of suggesting what is missing by constantly reminding us of what is present,

while maintaining a closeness and intimacy between the two.