Inspiring Architects: Carlo Scarpa

Monday, August 17, 2015

Carlo Scarpa was a tireless innovator who mastered traditional materials and crafts so that he could reinvent them in designs that perfectly harmonised period and contemporary architecture. What’s more, he achieved this in midcentury Venice, a building environment so conservative and controlled that it makes central London look anarchic in comparison.

He was well loved by local artisans and would spend days in their workshops experimenting with their materials and machines with childlike enthusiasm. Combine this with his superhuman ambidextrous ability to draw two designs at once and you have a man who was a consummate factory for ideas, from metalwork and glass blowing to furniture design and mosaics.

While his portfolio boasts many stunning new builds, I want to focus on his renovations which have been a source of inspiration throughout my career.

Scarpa was commissioned to restore prestigious and historical sites in Venice and beyond by modern art loving Italian elites who trusted his tastes and talents. Instead of attempting to recreate the styles of the past, he would strip away non-essential details until only the most evocative remained, then place alongside them contemporary architecture that reinterpreted the historical qualities of the site – equally evocative but from a brand new perspective.

The buildings Scarpa renovated lived through hundreds of years of changes in owners, uses and styles. Instead of only working with what he was presented, he would peel back layers of plaster and brick to reveal materials and designs from times long lost. By exposing its states through history, Scarpa would transform a building from a structure stuck in its time into a living document of its ever evolving form.

Take the Querini Stampalia Palace, pictured at the top of the page and below, where Scarpa renovated the ground floor and garden to become a gallery.

Polished marble cladding typical of classical Venetian architecture sits alongside rough textured concrete and the original brick, blending together the old and the new, the luxury and the basic. Scarpa believed materials didn’t have inherent value, instead we give them value through how they were deployed and presented. Concrete and steel could be made as beautiful as marble and glass if treated with the same respect.

Scarpa also looked to the East for inspiration, something he considered essential to the Venetian spirit from its Byzantine roots to its golden age of trading power. You can see his fondness for Japanese design in the grated door opening into the canal, which lets water – the most essential and inescapable factor in Venetian architecture – flow directly into the lobby, greeted by gently twisting geometric steps.

Out in the garden, the channels of water and cherry trees evoke a Japanese water garden while the columns and shutters are typically Venetian. Exposed and eroding pieces of the original structure are dotted around the garden like ornaments. Isolated amongst the smooth, pale concrete and modern structures their historic charm can be truly appreciated.

I intended to talk about a few of his projects but he packed so much genius into the Querini Stampalia Palace that it’s taken up the whole post (and I still only scratched the surface). Such is the density of Scarpa’s detail and the intelligence of his designs. I may revisit him in a future post but if you’re curious about his other renovations, search for the Cestelveccio Museum and Olivetti Showroom or, even better, plan a trip.

Scarpa’s approach to renovation is an inspiration. How we see the world and how we live has fundamentally changed since Victorian and Edwardian times and that should be reflected in our creations. Even the most faithful restoration is still a selective reinterpretation; we can never entirely recreate the past, no matter how hard we try, but we can find new ways to celebrate it.

By John Dyer-Grimes