Carlo Scarpa: Venice and the Dialogue With Water

A master without a licence, a virtuoso of proportions and details, Venetian craftsman and the last of Italy's modernists - the architect and designer Carlo Scarpa never received a full architectural education and was once sued for practising without a licence, however he was acquitted.

By Balthazar Malevolent

Carlo Scarpa: Venice and the Dialogue With Water

Carlo Scarpa's legacy is mostly concentrated in Venice. Scarpa's modernist inclusions are so organically woven into the precious Venetian architectural eclecticism: there is no doubt genius loci was behind the back of the architect of the XX century.

Architectural historians agree that Carlo Scarpa is characterised by a special, close relationship with water and glass, the amorphous structure of the latter gives this solid material truly mystical properties.

Carlo Scarpa used stained glass and mosaics almost as often as the early modernists but adhered to minimalism in proportions. His linear inclusions of stained glass in solid concrete were not just decoration, but masterfully placed accents.

Scarpa would often take into account the acqua alta - the seasonal rise of the water in Venice. This feature is most evident in the reconstruction of Palazzo Querini Stampalia. The 16th-century palace, given to the city by the owners as a museum, suffered from regular flooding. The museum director asked Carlo Scarpa to fix the problem. But the architect decided not to argue with the tide. He widened the arched openings and let the tide predictably flood the ground floor of the building.

Water flowed through the sluices via marble channels into the patio garden becoming the conduit of light and sound that filled the palazzo's interior space.

Water is sacred for Venetians. Scarpa used this visuality in his architectural design of Tomba Brion, a private memorial complex at the cemetery of Asolo in Treviso. The water in the flat concrete basins and aqueducts connects the individual structures of the complex - the tomb, the meditation pavilion and the chapel - into a coherent ensemble.

Scarpa was working on this project as if he was writing a poem, aiming to transform geometry into a collection of philosophical meanings. "The place for the dead is a garden. I wanted to show the meaning of death and the ephemerality of life," he said in an interview.

"To go in and out of the water" - many stairs, symbolising transition and rebirth, descend into the pools of Tomba Brion. This symbolism was prophetic for Scarpa himself. Without completing the complex, the architect died in 1978 in an accident. During a trip to Japan he fell down from the stairs and died a few days later in hospital. Carlo Scarpa was buried at the Cemetery of Asolo not far from his masterpiece Tomba Brion.

Carlo Scarpa's localism, his close relationship with the symbols and images of Italian culture and with local craftsmanship - something which made him almost invisible in an era of international trends - brings the name of the last modernist to the forefront today. Just as the alabaster steps at the Querini Stampalia are exposed only when the high water goes down.

Carlo Scarpa - Tomba Brion
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