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Carlo Scarpa

Venice, Italy
1 of 7

Carlo Scarpa (June 2nd, 1906 - November 28th, 1978) was an Italian architect and designer heavily influenced by the history of Venetian culture, materials and landscape. in 1926 obtained his diploma of Professor in Architectural Drawing at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Venice. He then began his career at the Royal Superior Institute of Architecture of Venice (successively Architectural Institute of Venice University) as assistant to Prof. G. Cirilli. He possessed an exceptional understanding of raw materials, and from 1933 to 1947, was artistic director of Venini - one of the most prominent producers of Venetian glass before he began the pursuit of his career as an architect. During the years 1954-64 he gave annual lessons to Fulbright scholarship holders in Rome. In 1956 he won the National Olivetti Award for Architecture and in 1962 the IN-ARCH National Award for Architecture for the Castelvecchio Museum of Verona. In 1972 he became the Director of the Architectural Institute of Venice University.

Relation to time

Scarpa's architecture manages to respect the old and historic while simultaneously introducing new and modern design details. In this respect his work is deeply sensitive to the changes of time, all taking shape in a careful selection and combination of materials.

In mounting his 'attack' on the outward signs of architectural habit, Scarpa ending up by designing works meant to elude time, favouring the vivid colours of the past above the dull grey of the future. He achieved the maturity of this approach after a lengthy apprenticeship, working slowly and cautiously. His true youth, for this reason, was irremediably belated.

Scarpa's projects constitute so many experiments. In them, architectural thinking combines with the acquisition of increasingly refined techniques and distills the secrets of form into design. It is this mixture that is responsible for the fragmentary nature of his achievements, which cannot be fully identified with any of his works, with the exception of the monumental Brion-Vega Cemetery for the Brion family in the cemetery of San Vito d'Altivole (from 1969 on). Scarpa's designs are, in fact, mostly provisional arrangements and the involuntary memory that emerges in his drawings points continually back to the past. The incompleteness that is the typical mode of his research reveals his concept of the work in relation to time. It thus becomes possible to see the architectural fragment as the favoured embodiment of Scarpa's work and the coherent expression of his rejection of habit.

Scarpa's design

Right from the start, when Scarpa preferred to "study" with the master glass workers of Murano rather than bow to the restrictions of academic culture, one finds him using drawing and execution as part of the development of experience. The work he achieved up to the start of the '50s reveals the role of visual memory in Scarpa's work. Another comment on Proust could also be revealing here: "For the author who remembers, the main part is not played by what he has seen," affirms Walter Benjamin, "but by the work of remembering, by the Penelope's web of his memory." The results of this tension provide the framework of Scarpa's fragments, which even before being formal events are acts of momentary fixation of experience.

We can imagine the art of seeing which Scarpa came to possess by the end of his apprenticeship, as the result of the intellectual vagabondage that characterized his education. He whiled away the time in gazing, portraying himself through drawing the objectivity of that which he observed. His peculiar formal culture derived from the eye, and by observation he mastered technique. For instance, when he was designing his glass objects in the '30s, he was also observing contemporary figurative works.

This attitude is confirmed by other characteristic features of Scarpa's culture and so by further articulations of his achievement in design. For instance, when he devoted himself to the study of the various techniques of construction - whether in glassware or museum design, in the use of materials or those involved in essential building skills - what seems to have first seized his attention was the creative limitations implicit in them. Hence, in his effort to break through a norm by introducing distortions and even flat contradictions into technical details and constructional solutions, one finds tangible evidence of his rejection of habits and the empty values of utility whose premise they are.

This rejection underlies the special kind of culture of materials Scarpa refined on over the years. His tormented love for the hidden qualities of matter in his buildings developed parallel with attacks on the limitations technical banalization places on use. His desire to question these constraints appears clearly all through his oeuvre, revealing its full coherency in a wide range of achievements. It is articulated in successive phases, in the definition of which the art of seeing develops its own continuous critical commentary on reality. Comment expressed in the language of architectural forms is, indeed, one of the fundamental aims of Scarpa's designs.

Visual comments, going beyond the works exhibited-this is what we find, for instance, in Scarpa's most successful designs of exhibitions. They range from the temporary installations for the exhibitions of Klee (Venice, 1948), Mondrian (Rome, 1956), the room devoted to Antonello da Messina in the exhibition of 15th century Sicilian art (Messina, 1953), down to the museum layouts for the Accademia and the Correr Museum in Venice (1952-56), the Possagno Plastercast Gallery (1956-57), and the Castelvecchio in Verona (1958-64). Scarpa's museums declare even more explicitly than his exhibition mountings the effort he put into shaping materials, light, spatial arrangements and colours as a visual commentary structured around the work of art.

Scarpa's compositions consist of rifts and contrasts - his misgivings over the norm necessarily lead to difference. And difference is the hallmark of a Scarpian fragment. In the detail, deviation takes shape: the viewer's attention focuses on it. The fragment compels a nearer view, it brings the object closer up. This focal reduction appears in the drawings Scarpa scattered over sheets of paper, circling, dismantling and so analyzing the problem he intended to resolve. The horror vacui we find in his papers is the result of a rigid analytical discipline, the only appropriate way to penetrate the subtle form of the fragment.

The Scarpian detail eludes the completeness of any ordering or systematic arrangement. It requires elasticity in composition and excludes general stylistic rules. With regard to the latter question, we need only note Sergio Bettini's observation: Scarpa's "events" speak far more clearly of an absence than of any return to some kind of order. This increases the distance between his works and most of the achievements of modern design.

The withering of standards based on classical rules of composition has given rise to much nostalgia in con-temporary architecture. The uncertainties springing from this seem to be settled when use and function, technology and consumption, reproduction and mass methods, come to be seen as the basic principles for a new system and crystallize into an order of values.

Scarpa displays a substantive indifference towards the 'new" scale of values. The roots of his work pass through the emergent strata of the tradition without being affected by them. He was little involved in the mythologies that determined this tradition. For in-stance, with technology he came to set up what was actually an ironical relationship, when he felt its limits most deeply. Scarpa preferred to play the card of artifice, of the detail, of difference, of the fragment. He saw the norm as an arrest of learning, a manifestation of the laziness of the eye.

Natural elements

Natural elements seen by Scarpa as materials of composition. It should also be noticed that the use of water in Scarpa's gardens is coupled with labyrinthine forms and rare stone materials. The slender watercourse that wends its way through the garden of the Querini- Stampalia Foundation, for instance, spills over a block of white marble chased with a geometrical pattern.. The combination of water and stone seems to revive one of the most important symbolical associations in Buddhist gardens, where these elements are linked in evoking the mystery of life.

Concept of "decoration"

The concept of "decoration" can be associated with a very different order of significance from those commonly ascribed to it by modern formal vocabulary. What has happened is that the tradition's valid principle that nothing is useful unless it is honest ("measured") has been gradually replaced by the conviction thatnothing is honest unless it is useful. This inversion has produced a misunderstanding of the value of ornament. To modern culture and design, decoration and ornament appear as not necessary components of matter revealed, delivered from the indeterminacy of unmeasured quantity. Since "matter" is merely the "material" of a product, the value of ornament is determined by technology, which sees its presence as a system tending to conceal its own intrinsic qualities. The significance of ornament emerges when matter is no longer considered merely as a means, hence a product. The reduction of material to a means is the end result of the "out-reaching hand" of modern technology, in its relation to things and action.

Brion-Vega Cemetery

With the creation of the Brion-Vega Cemetery, Scarpa's struggle against the habits of time completely sheds its makeshift character. The entire project was conceived as an endless work, intended to interpret only the time of maturation of the alchemy, the experiments, the expedients by which the language of its own composition is nurtured. It was no accident that Scarpa desired to be buried here, in this cemetery, near to his own works: only the death of its artificer could have put an end to the building of this autobiographical narrative, treated as a place of enchantments, celebrating in unrepeatable fashion the primacy of the instant, which is the quest of Scarpian composition.


Scarpa's work was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Josef Hoffmann. He executes a "minimalist" aesthetic within historic buildings which allows the existing context to exist within the new work without being disturbed. The extraordinary care in the execution of handrails, floor patterns, benches, door pulls, and the like set Carlo Scarpa's work apart from others of his generation. Scarpa was concerned, with the manipulation of materials in relation to the human body. Scarpa's architecture is expressed through precision detail, a delicate combination of modernism, historicism and craftsmanship.

His work greatly influenced that of other Italian interior designers, most notably Franco Albini. While most of his built work is located in the Veneto region of Italy, he made designs for landscapes, gardens, and buildings in other regions of Italy as well as Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France and Switzerland. One of his last projects, left incomplete at the time of his death, was recently altered (October 2006) by his son Tobia: the Villa Palazzetto in Monselice. This project is one of Scarpa's most ambitious landscape and garden projects.

During his life Scarpa developed a fascination with Japanese art and culture. Although Venice always remained the centre of his activities, starting from the 1950s he undertook several journeys to the Far East. He died in Sendai in the north of Japan on his last journey there in 1978.

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Venice, Italy
archibald, August 14th, 2020
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