The architecture of Carlo Scarpa

by Philip Smith

Modernism in art can be an insular affair. Its inception was concerned with the desire to break with traditional forms and manners of expression, through the discovery and appropriation of intrinsic artistic truths. At its best, it has delivered the basis for a new freedom to artists and designers. However, at its worst, it has sometimes taken the form of dispassionate reductionism. Context and tradition is deemed irrelevant or unimportant by many artists and designers, who take a heavily personal approach to the formation of what they make.

A notable proponent of a more enlightened brand of modernism was the Italian architect, Carlo Scarpa. To Scarpa, context and tradition were important to the development of a progressive architecture. Details were also of great importance to him, particularly in the design of junctions. The vernacular of the Veneto (the region in the northeast of Italy where Scarpa lived and worked) played an important role in his work, most noticeably in his use of materials and the elaboration of details.

Traditional regional forms, objects and materials were sometimes adapted, and at other times juxtaposed with strictly contemporary forms. One of his most recognised talents was in the handling of light within architecture, an ability that was particularly refined in his important work in the organisation of museum displays.

Scarpa was born in the capital of the Veneto, Venice, in 1906, and lived until 1978, when he died tragically in Japan. He studied and practised architecture from an early age, but his major works were not built until the 1950s. Scarpa’s career throughout the 1930s and ’40s involved lecturing at the Venice architectural faculty, in addition to his role as artistic director for the Venini glassworks on the island of Murano (adjacent to Venice), where he left a legacy of innovative glass work. Teaching continued to be an important part of Scarpa’s life (through which he influenced younger architects with whom he collaborated, such as Sergio Los and Guido Pietropoli), as Scarpa carried out his most important commissions from the 1950s until his death in Sendai, Japan.

Scarpa was not an orthodox architect. He was never officially registered as an architect. Ironically, the Venice Association of Architects took him to court over practising without sufficient credentials in the same year as he was awarded the Olivetti Prize for Architecture (he received many other awards and honours in his life). He was an artisan who valued the craft of the tradespeople who constructed his designs, and who perceived drawing as a way of seeing. This results in an instinctual, poetic manner of designing which is of great appeal to me.

Scarpa’s reference to the vernacular landscape and architecture of his region, and his attention to detail and the nature of materials, attracted me to his work soon after leaving university. As I had been unable to view any of his projects firsthand in my time working in Europe in 2001, I decided to spend a week in the Veneto following the 2006 Chelsea Flower Show, to study a range of Scarpa’s works. Fortunately for me, this coincided with the centenary of Scarpa’s birth, which was celebrated in the Veneto with several exhibitions, including an exhibition of Scarpa’s drawings for the Museo di Castelvecchio renovation. Over the years, we have posted several essays on individual projects that I visited in this trip – within a separate section within this website.