Carlo Scarpa Essays > Brion Monumental Tomb
By Philip Smith
In the small village of San Vito d'Altivole (north of Venice), one of the world's most remarkable works of landscape design stands in tribute to the northern Italian industrialist, Giuseppe Brion, and his wife, Onorina. The monumental tomb of the Brion family is located on an L-shaped plot, which wraps around two sides of the town cemetery of San Vito d'Altivole (situated a small walk outside the village). Built late in his career, this project represents the work of an architect in his maturity, whose philosophy and methodology were well-formed. Fittingly, it is the site where Scarpa was laid to rest (according to his own wishes), following his tragic death in Sendai, Japan, in 1978.
The Brion Monumental Tomb has been exhaustively studied and documented, and I do not wish herein to attempt to provide an authoritative synopsis of this work. No-one can describe it better than Carlo Scarpa himself, who delivered an address on it (of a poetic nature) in Vienna in the mid-1970s. The purpose of this essay is purely to relay my personal response to the site.
A note on circulation
We respond to places in ways which are both conscious and unconscious. In my opinion, the highest order of landscape design is that which acts upon us in an unconscious, visceral manner. Scarpa achieved this at Brion Monumental Tomb through his manipulation of a natural dimension; movement.
A fundamental aspect of designed spaces is circulation; meaning the manner in which one moves through an area. This may be manifested in a direct or indirect manner.
An alley with neither side exits nor outward views is an example of an especially direct form of circulation; basically, one has only one choice on how to experience that space. The overall shape and line of paths may also be considered to be 'direct' variables in the design of circulation, as they define in a relatively clear manner how one should move through an area.
In contrast, indirect methods of treating circulation imply (rather than define) how one should move through a space. This may be achieved through the patterns used within paving, or by the size and module of pavers. Another indirect method of shaping circulation may be through the opening and closing of walls adjacent to a path or space; the offer of an external view may alter or halt one's movement.
Circulation is often determined by a combination of both direct and indirect variables. The latter add resonance to the overall scheme of Brion Monumental Tomb, by altering the tempo at which one experiences the cemetery and providing a subtle sub-text within the design.
Poetry in motion
Within his Vienna address, Scarpa was asked to consider the question, "Can Architecture be Poetry ?". At Brion Monumental Tomb, he designed a sophisticated arrangement of spaces, in which the circulation and visual grammar that he employed can be said to be poetic.
The photographs above show the side entrance to the Monumental Tomb1; an area which may be used to illustrate Scarpa's manipulation of circulation, through the paving patterns and the detailing of junctures. I consider this to be the finest paving design that I have ever seen. The bar-shaped paving sections establish a rhythmic pattern, whilst the points at which a change in direction occurs are handled in three different ways, all with a different effect on how one experiences the walkway.
Firstly, there is a wide bar which separates the small path that adjoins the street from the main approach path (see the photograph above on the right). This has the effect that the small entry path is dissociated from the main approach, and forms a space akin to an antechamber in front of the gate. After just two metres, one has already left the outside world behind.
The second device is demonstrated in the photograph to the right. At the end of the main approach path, the bar-shaped paving sections are re-oriented, so that each quarter of paving is perpendicular to the adjoining quarters. This achieves the dual effect of turning the corner towards the chapel, whilst establishing a relatively still, centralised space. Accordingly, this area may function not only as a thoroughfare, but as a gathering space.
The third device is, in my opinion, the most ingenious aspect of the area. As can also be seen in the photo on the right, a wide bar forms an axis which points to the entry space to the chapel. This wide axis is indented slightly by a smaller axis which continues an axis begun at the entry, creating a dynamic, multi-layered transition point.
Other aspects of this progression of paving also merit comment. The very shallow, sloping steps that mark the threshold from the street create an ascent into the Monumental Tomb (a technique that Scarpa used to a different end at Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona). Although minimal in magnitude, it registers as a significant shift to the mind2. The surrounding walls also play a significant role in how one experiences moving through the area, such as in the opening of the large perimeter wall at a point opposite the chapel entry space. This halts or slows the visitor's movement, and connects the Monumental Tomb closely with the town cemetery on the other side of the perimeter wall.
Over a relatively small distance, Scarpa formulated a cohesive paving scheme in which the tempo shifts in a fluid manner. He utilised his own system of language, and gave it resonance; thereby creating poetry in architecture.
The paving scheme described above is just one example of the complex 'form grammar' that Scarpa adapted to Brion Monumental Tomb. The most notable example of this grammar is the pseudo-classical stepped relief detailing that is used in a large variety of ways within the design. The same kind of detailing was used by Scarpa in another project, also realised late in his career - Banca Popolare di Verona.
The stepped motif can be seen in the photo below on the side of the arcosolium (an arch-like structure which shelters the tombs of Giuseppe and Onorina Brion). Scarpa used it on walls, the arcosolium, the chapel, and a variety of other features. It provides not only cohesion, but is adapted in a specific manner to each application (in a way which often compliments or exposes the function or nature of the respective object or juncture). A precedent for this motif lies not just in Antiquity (from which it is quite obviously inspired), but also in works of Frank Lloyd Wright (whom Scarpa admired immensely), and the work of one of Wright's colleagues, Walter Burley Griffin3.
One of the most outstanding features of the design exhibits a different, yet equally formal, grammar to the stepped motif that dominates the site. In the corners which face on to the maize field that stands between the Monumental Tomb and the centre of the village, Scarpa designed perforated honeycomb-like structures (whose appearance is perhaps best described as resembling one quarter of a pyramid).
They are an elegant solution to the problem of resolving the corner of the sloping perimeter walls. Rather than attempting to connect the walls at the corner, Scarpa separated the walls from each other. This permits the walls to achieve their full dramatic effect, and defuses what could have been an overly muscular juncture. The separation of the corner structures from the walls is emphasised even further through the specification of beautiful bronze fittings, that make them appear to hover on the corners. An additional virtue of these perforated forms is that they strengthen the connection of the Monumental Tomb to the village, as one's view passes through them.
Circles are a recurring form throughout the Monumental Tomb. This is not suprising, considering the symbolic allusions of circles. Although there is clearly symbolic significance to their use (for example, the two main tombs of Giuseppe and Onorina Brion are enclosed within a circular hollow), their meaning within each position is open to interpretation. Circles may represent eternity, recycling, or the enigma of death.
Their aesthetic role, on the other hand, may be commented upon more clearly4. Circles (or almost circular forms5) are present at the end of several axes, in which position they act as 'nodes' within the design. The placement of these 'nodes' seems to me to give the design a vitality. They act in a similar way to the biological sense of a node, through the swelling of a transition point, from which a certain energy is redirected or renewed.
One of the first images that one takes in, upon entering from the old town cemetery, is that of two intersecting circles (adorned with red and blue mosaics) which Scarpa referred to as 'eyes'6. These stand in contrast to the rectilinear form of the propylaeum (see footnote 1) and the tombs within the main town cemetery, and draw one through to the garden that Scarpa designed for the Brion family's tomb.
A garden for the living
The words written above attempt to convey some of the insights that I took from studying Brion Monumental Tomb in person. I have endeavoured to describe my own interpretation of aspects of how Scarpa achieved such a beautiful and resonant project in San Vito d'Altivole. Much more could be written (and indeed has been by others).
However, regardless of all design talk, the most important recommendation that one can give of any space is to simply say (without offering analysis) whether it is an enjoyable or moving space to be in. Brion Monumental Tomb is both. Scarpa stated within his Vienna address that he wanted to create a space "where children could play"; a place where "you enjoy being there"7. It is a garden for the living, as much as a memorial to the dead. With respect to this, it is perhaps fitting to finish this essay with Scarpa's own words, in stating what he wished to contribute through this work.
"I wanted to show some ways in which you could approach death in a social and civic way; and further what meaning there is in death, in the ephemerality of life - other than these shoe-boxes."
- The main entry is through Scarpa's 'propylaeum' within the main town cemetery (shown in the photograph to the right). 'Propylaeum' is a term of Greek origins, which originally referred to the entrance to a temple. The most famous example of a propylaeum is the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. It literally translates to mean 'the space before a gate', but is used to denote a monumental gateway.
- Upon viewing this, I could not help but wonder that if one proposed it nowadays, it may be rejected upon the basis of it presenting a potential tripping hazard (in the manner in which we handicap so much design, on the assumption that we are not capable of exercising care in how we move through the world).
- The precedent of Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin is referred to in Vitale Zanchettin's book, 'Il Complesso Monumentale Brion' (Marsilio Editori; 2005). The work of Josef Hoffman, for whom Scarpa also avowed admiration, may also be noted as an influence, for his handling of linear detailing. These are by no means the only antecedents for Scarpa's formulation of this form grammar, but they represent strong architectural influences upon Scarpa's work (Griffin less so than Wright and Hoffman).
- It should be pointed out that this still represents personal opinion, and may not be true to the architect's intentions. Forms have meaning beyond symbolic significance, and the interpretation presented herein represents my response to the role of circles within the design.
- The two pools at the end of the main rill which leads from the entry are actually many sided polygons, which are almost circular.
- In his Vienna address, Scarpa recounted : "The first impression you get of the cemetery is by looking through these two "eyes". This piece of land was so large it became a lawn ......".
As translated and reproduced in ; The Other City, Peter Noever (Ed.), (1989), Ernst u. Sohn, Berlin.
- These excerpts are from the same translation as that in footnote 6.