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‘Scarpa, more than any other Italian architect, has brought back decoration into architecture’

In 1973 the Heinz Gallery continued their policy of showing the work of 20th-century designers with an exhibition of Carlo Scarpa’s architecture

First published in the AR in December 1973

So far we have only had Eileen Gray, but the Festival of Britain, Maxwell Fry, Wells Coates, Denys Lasdun, James Stirling and others are promised. The Scarpa exhibition (8 January – 29 March 1974) will enable English architects to become better acquainted with the work of an architect whose influence has been considerable, but who has too readily been dismissed by some as an anachronism because of his love for architecture as an art.

Born in Venice in 1906, Scarpa studied there at the Academy of Fine Arts and has lived and worked in and around the city all his life. He is a Venetian to the core, cultivates the local dialect in his speech and reveals in his work that feeling for materials and textures which, as Adrian Stokes has so brilliantly observed (Venice, an aspect of art), is a marked characteristic of Venetian building. To this sensitivity must be added a strong urge to create memorable forms and spaces in which the various elements are often combined to produce patterns reminiscent of Mondrian, whose exhibition in Rome Scarpa so sympathetically designed (1956). If people today are disillusioned with new buildings because they fail to provide the breakdown in scale through the use of ornamental features which can become objects of popular affection, then Scarpa’s work merits careful study, for he more than any other Italian architect has brought back decoration into architecture.

As a man dedicated to the craft of building, Scarpa understandably admires the great figures of the last craft age, the Art Nouveau and the Viennese secession, especially Mackintosh and Olbrich. After the last war he rediscovered, through Bruno Zevi’s first two numbers of Metron, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Its influence at the time was profound, affecting even his way of drawing, though he did not actually see any of the buildings until 1967 when his appointment as designer of the Italian pavilion for Expo at Montreal took him across the Atlantic. In the late ’40s Scarpa, who was teaching at the Faculty of Architecture in Venice and whose work was included, willy-nilly, within Zevi’s broad definition of organic architecture, suddenly found himself at the centre of events. The new principal, Giuseppe Samona, determined to create the best school in Italy, summoned a wealth of talent which included Zevi, Albini, Belgiojoso, Piccinato, Gardella and, later, De Carlo. (It was, no doubt, the experience of this motley crowd which prompted Scarpa’s ironic comment at a conference on architectural education, that for the perfect school one would need Wright for design, Le Corbusier for town-planning, Aalto for interior design, Mies for construction and materials and, of course, Samona for principal.)

‘For the perfect school, one would need Wright for design, Le Corbusier for town-planning, Aalto for interior design, Mies for construction’

In 1951, Wright visited Italy - first Florence where an exhibition of his work had been assembled, then Venice where he received an honorary degree and met Scarpa and his colleagues. The following year three of Scarpa’s former students, Bruno Morassutti, Gino Valle and Angelo Masieri, visited Wright in America to persuade him to design a hostel for architectural students on the Grand Canal. But Masieri was killed in a car accident and it was left to Scarpa, who had collaborated with Masieri on several projects, to obtain from Wright the design for what became the Masieri Memorial fiasco. Although Scarpa had designed a number of exhibitions and been involved in a good many projects, his first major job coincides, as it happens, with the end of the Wright saga. This was the new display of the Museo Abatellis in Palermo (1953-54) and it was followed by a whole series of museum renovations which included the Museo Correr and the Accademia in Venice, the Castelvecchio in Verona and, with Michelucci and Gardella, the Uffizzi in Florence. At Possagno he had the challenging task of extending a monumental Neo-Classical structure – the Canova Museum, formerly the sculptor’s studio. London has seen two of his exhibitions, the Florentine Frescoes and the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, both designed in collaboration with Stefan Buzas and Alan Irvine whose own work reveals strong sympathies (influence is too strong a word when one recalls that Buzas was educated in Vienna).

Besides the Castelvecchio at Verona, Scarpa’s best museum conversion, two other works are illustrated: the Querini Stampalia, a modest palace on the Campo S Maria Formosa in Venice, and the famous industrialist G. Brion’s memorial and tomb at S Vito near Asolo, Scarpa’s most recent work. Like the Castelvecchio, the Querini Stampalia (the ground floor and garden conversion of a library and institute) shows Scarpa’s way of wedding new work to old, but on a smaller scale, lacking the dramatic qualities of the museum, yet richer in detail. In English eyes the memorial, in its wholehearted celebration of death, will seem strange and irrelevant. It is a series of built forms wrapped around two sides of the village cemetery which includes the main tomb (standing at 45 degrees and occupying the centre of the composition), a family vault, a chapel, a cloister and a platform for meditation over a pool of water. The enclosing wall is low enough to allow views of the village church and for the maize of the surrounding fields to show its flower when fully grown. Irrelevant or not, the memorial reveals Scarpa in his most luxuriant mood, masterly in his handling of forms and lovingly attentive to texture and detail.

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