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Discover Carlo Scarpa’s Unique and Surreal Architecture

Influenced by a confluence of Japan and Venice, Carlo Scarpa created a distinct architectural and design style. Scarpa translated his interests in history, regionalism, invention, and the techniques of the artist and craftsman into ingenious glass and furniture design. Join me in discovering some of his most unique pieces, and how he created them. 

One of the most enigmatic and underappreciated architects of the 20th century, Carlo Scarpa (June 2, 1906 – November 28, 1978) is best known for his instinctive approach to materials, combining time-honored crafts with modern manufacturing processes. In a 1996 documentary directed by Murray Grigor, Egle Trincanato, the President of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia for whom Scarpa renovated a Venetian palace in 1963, described how “above all, he was exceptionally skillful in knowing how to combine a base material with a precious one.”

Scarpa’s attention to detail is almost unmatched among modern architects. His appreciation of craft often led him to revel in the smallest of details, for example the brass supports under the stairs at his Olivetti Showroom, or the “viewing device” at the Brion Tomb and Sanctuary, which focuses the user’s gaze in the direction of the town of San Vito d’Altivole by means of a small metal element embedded in a vertical slit in the concrete wall.


Carlo Scarpa’s Life and Career 

Scarpa was born in Venice. Much of his early childhood was spent in Vicenza, where his family relocated when he was 2 years old. After his mother’s death when he was 13, he moved with his father and brother back to Venice. Carlo attended the Academy of Fine Arts where he focused on architectural studies. Graduated from the Accademia in Venice, with the title of Professor of Architecture, he apprenticed with the architect Francesco Rinaldo. Scarpa married Rinaldo’s niece, Nini Lazzari (Onorina Lazzari). However, Scarpa refused to sit the pro forma professional exam administrated by the Italian Government after World War II. As a consequence, he was not permitted to practice architecture without associating with an architect. Hence, those who worked with him, his clients, associates, craftspersons, called him “Professor”, rather than “architect”.

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It was not until after World War II that Scarpa began to be recognized internationally for his architecture. This recognition led to a series of commissions in and around Venice—many of them involving the renovation of existing buildings, which became something of a trademark for Scarpa. Perhaps most famously, Scarpa’s renovation for the Museo Castelvecchio completed in 1964 carefully balanced new and old, revealing the history of the original building where appropriate. A revelation at the time, this approach has now become a common approach to renovation, perhaps most notably exhibited by David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum.

His architecture is deeply sensitive to the changes of time, from seasons to history, rooted in a sensuous material imagination. He was Mario Botta’s thesis adviser along with Giuseppe Mazzariol; the latter was the Director of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia when Scarpa completed his renovation and garden for that institution. Scarpa taught drawing and Interior Decoration at the “Istituto universitario di architettura di Venezia” from the late 1940s until his death. While most of his built work is located in the Veneto, he made designs of landscapes, gardens, and buildings, for other regions of Italy as well as Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France and Switzerland. His name has 11 letters and this is used repeatedly in his architecture.

One of his last projects, the Villa Palazzetto in Monselice, left incomplete at the time of his death, was altered in October 2006 by his son Tobia. This work is one of Scarpa’s most ambitious landscape and garden projects, the Brion Sanctuary notwithstanding. It was executed for Aldo Businaro, the representative for Cassina who is responsible for Scarpa’s first trip to Japan. Aldo Businaro died in August 2006, a few months before the completion of the new stair at the Villa Palazzetto, built to commemorate Scarpa’s centenary.

In 1978, while in Sendai, Japan, Scarpa died after falling down a flight of concrete stairs. He survived for ten days in a hospital before succumbing to the injuries of his fall. He is buried standing up and wrapped in linen sheets in the style of a medieval knight, in an isolated exterior corner of his L-shaped Brion Cemetery at San Vito d’Altivole in the Veneto.

In 1984, the Italian composer Luigi Nono dedicated to him the composition for orchestra in micro-intervals A Carlo Scarpa, Architetto, Ai suoi infiniti possibili.


Carlo Scarpa’s Approach to Design 

Scarpa’s architecture manages to respect the old and historic while simultaneously introducing new and modern design details. In this respect his work is deeply sensitive to the changes of time, all taking shape in a careful selection and combination of materials. In mounting his ‘attack’ on the outward signs of architectural habit, Scarpa ending up by designing works meant to elude time, favouring the vivid colours of the past above the dull grey of the future. He achieved the maturity of this approach after a lengthy apprenticeship, working slowly and cautiously. His true youth, for this reason, was irremediably belated.

Scarpa’s projects constitute so many experiments. In them, architectural thinking combines with the acquisition of increasingly refined techniques and distills the secrets of form into design. It is this mixture that is responsible for the fragmentary nature of his achievements, which cannot be fully identified with any of his works, with the exception of the monumental Brion-Vega Cemetery for the Brion family in the cemetery of San Vito d’Altivole (from 1969 on). Scarpa’s designs are, in fact, mostly provisional arrangements and the involuntary memory that emerges in his drawings points continually back to the past. The incompleteness that is the typical mode of his research reveals his concept of the work in relation to time. It thus becomes possible to see the architectural fragment as the favoured embodiment of Scarpa’s work and the coherent expression of his rejection of habit.

Scarpa’s compositions consist of rifts and contrasts – his misgivings over the norm necessarily lead to difference. And difference is the hallmark of a Scarpian fragment. In the detail, deviation takes shape: the viewer’s attention focuses on it. The fragment compels a nearer view, it brings the object closer up. This focal reduction appears in the drawings Scarpa scattered over sheets of paper, circling, dismantling and so analyzing the problem he intended to resolve. The horror vacui we find in his papers is the result of a rigid analytical discipline, the only appropriate way to penetrate the subtle form of the fragment.

Natural elements seen by Scarpa as materials of composition. It should also be noticed that the use of water in Scarpa’s gardens is coupled with labyrinthine forms and rare stone materials. The slender watercourse that wends its way through the garden of the Querini- Stampalia Foundation, for instance, spills over a block of white marble chased with a geometrical pattern.. The combination of water and stone seems to revive one of the most important symbolical associations in Buddhist gardens, where these elements are linked in evoking the mystery of life.

Scarpa’s work was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Josef Hoffmann. He executes a “minimalist” aesthetic within historic buildings which allows the existing context to exist within the new work without being disturbed. The extraordinary care in the execution of handrails, floor patterns, benches, door pulls, and the like set Carlo Scarpa’s work apart from others of his generation. Scarpa was concerned, with the manipulation of materials in relation to the human body. Scarpa’s architecture is expressed through precision detail, a delicate combination of modernism, historicism and craftsmanship.

His work greatly influenced that of other Italian interior designers, most notably Franco Albini. While most of his built work is located in the Veneto region of Italy, he made designs for landscapes, gardens, and buildings in other regions of Italy as well as Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France and Switzerland. One of his last projects, left incomplete at the time of his death, was recently altered (October 2006) by his son Tobia: the Villa Palazzetto in Monselice. This project is one of Scarpa’s most ambitious landscape and garden projects. During his life Scarpa developed a fascination with Japanese art and culture. Although Venice always remained the centre of his activities, starting from the 1950s he undertook several journeys to the Far East. 


Carlo Scarpa’s 10 Most Unique Designs 

1.Olivetti Showroom 

The Olivetti Showroom by Carlo Scarpa has recently come full circle. In the late 1950s Adriano Olivetti commissioned Scarpa to design a display space for his Olivetti products. The Olivetti Company was a typewriter manufacturer experimenting with producing early computers and calculator by the 1950s. The company had a strong and positive reputation for its attention to design. This appreciation for quality and design was visible in Olivetti products, as well as in its spatial design choices. When Scarpa was commissioned by Olivetti in 1957, it was understood that this showroom would be a space designed to show the products, as well as Scarpa’s talent as an architect.

Located on the northern edge of Piazza San Marco, Scarpa masterfully transforms a long, dark alley into a light, comfortable retail space. The brief was to spatially translate the company’s reputation for its attention to design in manufacturing typewriters and calculators. He used glass windows to improve transparencies and to blend the exterior with the interior. The stunning marble staircase, floating weightlessly, catches the eye with its bespoke artistic metal details. Changing colors and sizes of Venetian smalti mosaic used for flooring captures the spirit of the water’s iridescent surface. The thoughtful composition of the materials and textures’ juxtaposition makes up this Pop Minimalist interior. 


2. Fondazione Querini Stampalia

The historical residence of the noble Querini family underwent redevelopment as a cultural center with Carlo Scarpa working on the entrance and courtyard. He converted the burdening inflow of water from the canal at the entry into a design feature by using multilevel water basins made of copper and alabaster. The marble mosaic floor, randomly designed with different colors and a mix of shapes, added to the chaos of the ever-mutating intimate atmosphere. A cherry tree, magnolia, and pomegranate dot the unique courtyard at the back of the palazzo, attesting Scarpa’s love for Japan. 

In 1961 Giuseppe Mazzario, a friend and colleague of Carlo Scarpa’s University Institute of Architecture, as well as director of the Querini Stampalia Foundation, contacted him for the remodeling of the ground floor and the courtyard of the 16th century palace of the Querini Stampalia Foundation. The project was conditioned on the one hand by the very precise requirements of the Commission and on the other by the strong restrictions imposed by the site in particular. First, the Institute requested a new access to the building directly from the square, then make accessible the spaces on the ground floor that were regularly subjected to the phenomenon of “acqua alta” and, finally, the redesign of the small but valuable rear garden.

3. Venetian Glass 

Born in Venice, Scarpa studied architecture at the Accademia di Belle Arti there, graduating in 1926. His exploration of the medium of glass began while he worked at MVM Cappellin glassworks between 1926 and 1931. However, it was Scarpa’s next post at Venini where he redefined the parameters of glassblowing in terms of aesthetics and technical innovation.

In 1932, while in his mid-twenties, Scarpa was hired by Paolo Venini, the company’s founder, as an artistic consultant. Located on the Venetian island of Murano, where the glassblowing tradition reaches back hundreds of years, the Venini factory quickly became a center of innovation, with Scarpa leading the way. Until 1947, he worked closely with Venini master glassblowers and Mr. Venini himself to create over two dozen styles, in the process pioneering techniques, silhouettes, and colors that thoroughly modernized the ancient tradition of glassblowing. Their collaboration was put on display at important international showcases such as the Milan Triennale and Venice Biennale in Italy during the 1930s and 1940s.

Organized chronologically, the pieces in the exhibition will be divided into groups according to technique. Radical in nature, Scarpa’s glass designs went far beyond being perceived merely as decorative or utilitarian objects. They immediately attracted the attention of critics, one of whom wrote that “this production is really at the avant-garde of modernity.”


4. Museo di Castelvecchio

Carlos Scarpa restored this 14th-century fortress by designing a new approachable museography. The castle, an imposing complex marked by seven brick towers, was completed in 1356 as a defensive structure aimed to control the access to the city from the river Adige and converted into a museum in the 1920s. Scarpa’s project, which harmoniously combined contemporary building materials, such as bare concrete and steel, with the castle’s medieval architecture, is still widely considered among the best examples of the conversion of a historic building into a modern museum. He skillfully guides the visitor throughout the exhibition without a hitch via an ingenious succession of spaces. He excavated sections of the medieval structure, exposing its foundation, and designed concrete platforms to hold objects. Sensitized detailing of doorways, staircases, furnishings, and fixtures enhances the user experience. His contemporary layer of interventions keeps the history active and relevant in the present. 


5. Brion-Vega Cemetery

This tomb in San Vito d’Altivole near Treviso, Italy, is the burial ground of the Brion family. Touted as an ‘Architectural story,’ an example of ‘narrative architecture,’ Scarpa practices minimalist elegance in this 2000 sq.m project. The cemetery consists of two main buildings – the tomb and the meditation pavilion in a garden. He has attempted to create poetry in architecture, which is evident in the iconic double circle, two intertwined rings symbolizing love and encounter. The tomb is an evocative place, a garden where the water and the forms assumed by the combination of different materials such as concrete, metal, marble, glass, guide visitors toward a calm reflection on the transient nature of life.

The sanctuary is designed as a composition of concrete buildings with distinctive detailing set in gardens with water features. It has been described as “both a meditation on death and an evocation of a particular magical city, Venice”.Scarpa has been quoted as saying “I like water very much, perhaps because I am Venetian …”

Scarpa began designing this addition to the existing municipal cemetery of San Vito d’Altivole in 1968. Although he continued to consider changes to the project, it was completed before his accidental death in Japan in 1978. Several discrete elements comprise the family burial site: a sloped concrete enclosing wall, two distinct entrances, a small chapel, two covered burial areas (the arcosolium for Giuseppe and Onorina Brion, and one for other family members). The “viewing device” of the pavilion of meditation suggests a vesica piscis, a recurring motif in Scarpa’s architecture. Venetian influences such as the gold tiles familiar from Byzantine mosaics and Japanese influences such as the tea-room inspiration of the chapel are evident in the design. In the garden are a dense grove of cypresses, a prato (lawn), and a private meditation/viewing pavilion, separated from the main prato by a separate and locked entrance, and a heavily vegetated reflecting pool. 


6. Sculpture Garden, Castello

The garden of the Villa Medici at Castello is the prototype for sixteenth-century Italian gardens. Nicolò Tribolo developed an iconographic program honoring the illustrious dominion of Tuscany under the new government of Cosimo I de Medici. Highlights include the great fountain of Hercules and Antaeus (by Tribolo and Pierino da Vinci, surmounted by the bronze statue group by Ammannati) and Ammannati’s grotto which was once animated by spectacular waterworks. The garden designed for the Venice Biennale plays with light, shadow, and water. The canopy, supported by three massive elliptical columns, looks like a rectangular roof with three circles subtracted from it. The sensual geometry screams of Scarpa’s signature.

In 1952, through the suppression of three rooms in the north wing of the Italian Pavilion, connected to the main body, space was created for a small courtyard. The purpose of the intervention was to improve the ventilation of the Italian pavilion, while creating an exhibition space for sculptures and relaxation for the visitor. The roofs and dividing walls between the rooms are demolished, while the perimeter walls are deprived of the plaster, leaving the bricks exposed. Within the rectangular open-air space thus obtained, Scarpa inserts a trefoil canopy in reinforced concrete, supported by three steel spheres anchored on as many concrete pillars. The pillars have an almond-shaped section and are finished with “rough” and slightly pink plaster. The top of these pillars features a recess that functions as a planter.


7. Casa Tabarelli

Constructed on a foundation of five parallel concrete slabs embedded in the hill, 3000 sq. Ft house appears almost suspended. Asymmetrical roof mimicking the mountain peaks is a series of undulating, overlapping platforms. The exterior covered in thick, textured concrete to endure harsh alpine winters erases the distinctions between inside and out. It invades the interior with almost every room opening onto a private garden. The choppy, rough texture of the quartzite stone floor and the pastel rainbow of glossy stucco Veneziano in the ceiling is testimony to Scarpa’s mastery in materials and textures. This discreet house has a modest entrance, now hidden behind stone walls and lush vegetation, that opens into a generously proportioned interior. Each room varies in height—a concept similar to the earlier Raumplan approach of Viennese architect Adolf Loos and his pioneering modernist houses. The spacious living room is dominated by a fireplace and a colorful abstract ceiling. One can walk on a circular path through the entire interior of the house, in a continuous corridor that leads from room to room, from the study and the bedrooms to the kitchen. 

Scarpa’s masterful design is complemented by equally-iconic furnishing with pieces by Marcel Breuer, Josef Albers, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Of course, our eyes are naturally drawn to the dining room and the audio system placed there. The “stereo radiophonograph” RR126 was designed by celebrated Italian industrial designers Achille Castiglioni and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni in 1965 and manufactured by Brionvega, S.p.A. The RR126 is a high-fidelity stereo with a modular structure that allows you to “mould” it by either stacking the speakers to form a cube or aligning them into a long and narrow arrangement as seen in Casa Tabarelli. The cabinet and speakers are made by hand, so no two pieces were ever identical. Many of the masterful works within the house combine art and function, such as the yellow entrance gate made from orthogonal metal rods, the steel abstract kinetic sculpture, and the sliding wall with painted geometry and hinged panels. 


8. Casa Ottolenghi

Set in the hills of Valpolicella on the eastern edge of Lake Garda, the house takes shape from the natural terrain and the nine seemingly haphazard structural pillars built with cement, Prun, and Trani stone. These pillars support the habitable roof, shape the living spaces, and highlight height differences between living areas, kitchen, dining room, and bathroom.  “The house must not rest on the ground, but rest, it must come from the ground,” said Lloyd Wright, and these words must have echoed in Scarpa’s mind so much that he inspired Villa Ottolenghi. This 1974 building looks like an ancient ruin, which is born, “from the ground, itself a piece of land with its roof-terrace stretched out on the lake”. The morphological configuration of the area, bounded on the west by a steep slope, to the north and east by an embankment, has in fact suggested to the man to bury most of the house in the ground and to play with interesting design ideas. The most striking of them is the roof that becomes a habitable place, inspired by the farmyard of the Veneto farms, a brick surface with irregular pattern from which to admire the splendid surrounding landscape as if there were no borders, as if the real roof it was heaven. Pure poetry.

Everything in this building speaks of the beauty that coexists with ingenuity. Everything speaks, paraphrasing Scarpa’s words, of a conception of architecture as harmony, like a beautiful woman’s face, mysterious, difficult to understand and, at the same time, wonderful. The terms that make up this intricate language are the access of the villa, a split at the same level of the roof, from which light the underground rooms, to the floor organized in gradients that follow the slope; the surfaces of the windows reflecting the mirrors of water (typical compositional element of Scarpa’s architecture) multiply the walls of the house, as happens in the Venetian palaces. Villa Ottolenghi is a unique construction, a perfect example of how Scarpa is able to channel the relationship between natural, artificial and human life in his work.


9. Palazzo Attabelis

The palazzo, an example of Gothic-Catalan architecture, was designed in the 15th century by Matteo Carnelivari, at the time working in Palermo at the palazzo Aiutamicristo. In 1953, Carlo Scarpa went to Palermo, proceeded by the fame that procured him the year before the refined preparation of the Antonello exhibition in Messina. Scarpa, a new “Byzantine” master, was inebriated by the effluvia of the aromas and the spices that make the atmosphere heavy and dense with smells, by the sharp racket of the children and the rhythmical sing songs, by the riot of the sun and the colours rendered so intense by the violent light of the Mediterranean. Called to prepare the rooms of the new Gallery of Sicily in the Abatellis Palace, Scarpa found amongst the powerful ashlars, the ideal archetypes of his material voluptuousness, of his sensitive taste for form; he found the fabulous space of his imaginary figure, reconstructed the charm that these places recall. 

Scarpa refined his creative museography in this 15th-century noble building. He ordered the rooms in chronological succession and expertly arranged the works exhibited. The paintings, artifacts, sculptures, and statues displayed in innovative techniques create a dialogue. Scarpa’s architectonic “retouch” to the substantial refurbishment carried out after the war by the superintendents Mario Guiotto and Armando Dillon, limits itself to a few but significant interventions. The Venetian master couldn’t resist the charm of the warm stone of Aspra and he redid some missing parts of original ornaments in style, especially the external stairs with an orthogonal intertwined mesh. 


10. Orseolo Table

A modern table but, above all, an absolute masterpiece and unsurpassed model of formal beauty, inspired by the intuitive insight of Carlo Scarpa. An absolute masterpiece, this unparalleled model of formal beauty was the fruit of an epiphany on the part of Carlo Scarpa, the designer. The Orseolo table is constructed from sheets of MDF coated in a thick layer of mirror- shine or matte polyester lacquer; this is poured hot onto the wood surface and then brushed and polished using special machines. The linear panels are joined together with satin-finish cast aluminium fasteners, which serve a dual purpose. Both aesthetic and functional, they relieve the stress at the critical points of the table, and thus help preserve the beauty of the lacquer finish.

Scarpa was a master of fusing tradition with innovation, learning and immersing himself in ancient practices of craft and building practices, while introducing simple geometric lines and novel forms that play with the environment. He clearly had a reverence for old beauty, as well as a passion for innovation. His designs are remarkable, looking like something out of a sci-fi film from 2022. In everything from his glasswork to architecture, Scarpa played with the most minute details, bringing them to scale to create works of breathtaking beauty. 

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