Entrance to the Venice University Institute of Architecture

by Philip Smith

Scarpa’s work at the Venice architectural faculty is not just a design for an entrance; it is a design about ‘entrance’ (or, more specifically, the act of entering1). In his scheme for the small space that lies between the architectural faculty and the adjacent ‘campo’2, Scarpa created an original approach to the everyday ceremony of arriving. This was, in large part, achieved through his handling of ground levels, most notably with the large ramps that form the back of the perimeter walls. It is also conveyed by the design of the sliding gate, via which one moves through to Scarpa’s garden space, and the large concrete canopy that projects forth into the ‘campo’, as shelter at the threshold.

The genesis for the design lay in the discovery of an ancient door (of Istrian stone – pictured, below left), during restoration works at the faculty building1. Scarpa was asked to incorporate the door into the entrance scheme, but he did not take the obvious, historicist route of attempting to re-use the door for its original purpose. Instead, he placed it like a museum piece within the courtyard space that he designed, and formulated a design that takes its cues from the ancient door – lending greater resonance to the artefact. Two examples of the way in which Scarpa executed this are in the new sliding gate (consructed in Istrian stone – pictured, below right) that he designed for the outer threshold, and the extension of the stepped pseudo-classical detailing that is a prominent feature of the perimeter walls (and the basin that surrounds the ancient door).

Such an approach was a consistent aspect of Scarpa’s work – within which he sought to engage critically with tradition, rather than simply revering it from outside (and repairing it, as necessary). The latter, conservative, mode of dealing with history certainly occupies an important role, and indeed prevents the defacement of our cultural heritage by insensitive practitioners. However, the kind of work carried out by Scarpa at the Venice architectural faculty (and at other sites) shows the manner by which modern design can actively partake in a cultural continuum that does not require a distinction between modern and traditional. In this context, the epithet ‘modern’ becomes redundant, as it is just good design that contributes to, and engages with, that place.

As described above, this design looks into the experience of arriving. It is inherently transitional, although there is opportunity for people to stay and relax within the courtyard, on the raised grassed beds on either side of the main path (these can be seen in the image above). Scarpa created a heightened sense of passage on the main path, by raising the grassed areas above it (c. 300mm). Where the lawns approach the outer threshold, they change into brick ramps that serve simultaneously to reinforce the sense of passage, and dissociate the courtyard from the perimeter walls. One is no longer being merely lead along a path; one cuts through a man-made topography.

The stepped relief detailing on the perimeter walls contribute to the effect evoked by the ramps, by creating shallow voids that make the walls recede both inwards and downwards. The remarkable detailing that is a hallmark of much of Scarpa’s work is demonstrated in a fine scale on the outer gate, which moves via a simple system of exquisitely-crafted wheels. Rather than simply being accommodated as a functional necessity, the structural requirement of bracing the gate (especially important due to the weight of the slab of Istrian stone) is integrated as a dynamic feature of the gate’s design.

Giambattista Vico’s famous phrase, “Verum ipsum factum3, is engraved upon the surface of the stone slab. These words are a suitable point at which to end this essay, as their enigmatic meaning relates to the work of designers (and the place of our work within culture). Literally translating to “the truth itself is made”, it signifies that it is only through the act of making that one may truly know something (in contrast to knowledge gained through observation).

Taking this further, it means that man cannot truly know the essence of nature (for we did not make it). More importantly, however, it also denotes that truth4 does not emerge from an immutable, objective void, but rather from the context of that which we have collectively made (the sum of human existence). For me, this is an assertion that tradition matters; a principle that is evident throughout Scarpa’s work.


  1. As referred to or described in; Los, Sergio. (1994) Carlo Scarpa. Taschen, Köln.
  2. A term that is specifically applied in Venice to town squares/urban spaces of a varying sizes.
  3. From ‘De antiquissima Italorum sapientia‘ (‘On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians’), 1710.
  4. Of the kind that humanity can truly know.