Scarpa, The Venetian
Richard Murphy


St. Mark's Square, Venice. Flooded

©Richard Murphy

When I'm asked to give talks about Scarpa I tend to say that one really can't cover the whole subject matter of such a complex and fascinating figure. Indeed one of the many reasons why he's of such interest to architects today is that his work covers so many different interest groups. For example, since most of his work is work in existing buildings, we look at him now as the great authority in how we can intervene creatively with existing structures. Indeed I like to make the point that he is probably the first architect of any significance who has built what William Morris described in his marvellous manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In fact it is quite ironic of course that Morris' Society's first international case was attempting to stop the authorities from "restoring St. Mark's. Venice". So it's a lovely paradox that it' s the great 20th century Venetian architect Scarpa born in the city in 1906 who should now be teaching us in this country and elsewhere how to put into practice the principles that Morris outlined. So we can look at him in terms of working with existing buildings. Because frankly hitherto, in the history of architecture that sort of work was always considered secondary to the primary task of building new buildings. For example, one can hardly think of a project by Wright or Corbusier or Mies or any of the other great heroes of the 20th century which is to do with an existing building. The second reason we can look at Scarpa is because he was above all, a museum and exhibition designer, in particular a designer of permanent exhibitions. And obviously the Castelvecchio in Verona but also the Museo Correr in Venice and others are great examples of his work. And today of course museums are the cathedrals of our age. And how we go about arranging exhibitions is of great interest to many architects and Scarpa took a point of view which was in a way quite an extreme. It said that every object in a museum is unique and therefore needs to be considered for itself. With a unique pedestal for example in a unique background. How it should be considered against the light, how one should approach it, what relationship it had to other objects in the room or the space and above all, I think, how people who visit museums could become participants rather than just mute observers. And that, if you like, that point of view stands in contrast to the 19th century idea of the museum as a series of fairly neutral rooms lined with walls or objects and really a very un-theatrical way of displaying work. This point of view of Scarpa's was very much in tune with Italy after the war, which was trying to find what it called the democratic museum; in other words the museum that engaged the man in the street and educated him and thrilled him with work. In contrast with Mussolini's ideas of museums which were great kind of storehouses of state treasures in which people felt rather small. So he was a wonderful museum exhibition designer and we look at him from that point of view. We can also look at him from the point of view if you like, what architects call a composer of formal language of architecture. Because his language is entirely of the 20th century in a sense that we can obviously see relationships with Hoffman and Wright and De Stijl and Japan. It‘s tectonic and it‘s planar, it's orthogonal, it's about the development of space. It's highly 3~ dimensional, it's perhaps uniquely interested in surface texture which one doesn't associate particularly with architects of this century. But his language is incredibly rich and when one of the criticisms, if you like, of 20th century architecture has been this problem of the language of the architecture not developing into the detail, Scarpa of course can answer that criticism head on. Which brings me to the fourth reason that many people are interested in Scarpa. Where it is to do with detailing. Of course he is a jeweller of the small, of how one material meets another or how one element to the building meets another. Indeed Kahn - who was a great friend of Scarpa - described him as ornamenting the edges or the joints, the ornament of the joint. And indeed when people visit a building by Scarpa it's the first thing that hits them is this extraordinary beautiful craft-based idea of detailing. And the fifth reason I think for looking at Scarpa is that he left behind a remarkable number of drawings, of sketches. He worked in a very unusual way compared, for example, with an ordinary architect of today. He didn't have an office as we know them. He worked on site a lot of the time, he worked with just one or two assistants and he worked very much from the detail to the general; as opposed to the other way round, how most of us work. And so you find a lot of time he did hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of what are really working drawings of developing ideas, playing around with ideas and moving slowly and very logically. Investigating different issues. And he left all these behind and if we piece them together retrospectively we can see an incredible mind at work. I would maintain, in a more lucid fashion than any other architect's drawings I have ever inspected; in the sense that we can look at Corbusier's sketchbook or we can look at those wonderful Aalto 6B pencils or we can see well Wright actually very rarely left us any working drawings or work-up drawings. But with Scarpa we can see an incredible mind at work visualised through putting his drawings into a chronological sequence. So for the scholar or the architectural student I find that's a very interesting angle on his work. So any of these five reasons we could talk about with Scarpa. But I'm going to invent a sixth which I think is very interesting. And that is the theme of Scarpa the Venetian. Because again you could say that one of the criticisms of contemporary architecture is that it has become totally internationalised. Not only has the world economy taken over so we find in domestic work in Britain you'll find elements and materials being used from all over the world, and houses built in Caithness are the same as those built in Cornwall. That innate connection between the locale and its very special brand of architecture seems to have been broken forever. But on top of that, high architecture - if one can use that phrase - has also become an international dimension. Architects jet around the world depositing their buildings in various cities, and one does begin to wonder about the issue of rootedness or, as others have called it, the idea of regionality of architecture. It seems when we look at Scarpa that what he has done is a remarkable trick. Because he has observed or imbibed the unique city of Venice, the city of his birth and where he spent more than 50% of his life. Finishing it as the director of the architecture school at the Venice University. The whole city has got under his skin. And then he has kind of reproduced the language of architecture which at the same time as being totally connected to the 20th century also has within it complete understanding of the nature of Venice. So it's a contemporary reinterpretation of Venetian phenomena. In the first slide you see a flooded view of the Piazza San Marco. Of course Venice is the only city in modern day Italy which doesn't have any Roman antecedents because it was formed by refugees from the Barbarians attacking the Roman Empire and setting up their homes on the sandbanks in the Lagoon. And the fact that Venice is built at the water level and therefore, in a way, this extraordinary precious and civilised place is sitting so perilously close to potential disaster of inundation. I think Scarpa understands completely in his projects as I'll explain. Other phenomena of the city also, I think, work their way through in a contemporary way into his work. For example, when Ruskin describes Venetians as living in basic brick palaces; brick from the mud of the Brenta, and then they lined them with exotic marbles from their far flung maritime empire. When you look at Venice it's a city, if you like, in accelerated decay. Not only does it decays from the top down as all buildings do but it also particularly decays from the bottom up. And the response from Venetians with their poorer buildings is to constantly re-stucco. And everywhere where you look in Venice you see the lines of previous stuccos disintegrated against the rising damp and the washes of boats. And so this idea of thin constant re-layering the facades of buildings, whether it be humble houses in stucco or grand palaces with marble, again re-occurs with Scarpa, because we look at his buildings and we can see him laying thin layers of new materials on the original structures. Venetian Gothic is also a marvellously free-style composition, totally asymmetrical, and in that sense you could almost make a direct connection to the Arts & Crafts. Scarpa's architecture is also determinedly asymmetrical and free in its composition.


Venetian Pavilion, Italia '61, Turin

©Richard Murphy

Scarpa had the opportunity of encapsulating the idea of Venice in an exhibition he was asked to design in Turin in 1961. This exhibition stand of the Venice pavilion in the exhibition was called The Sense of Venice, the Sense of Colour and the Control of the Dominance of the waters. And a very memorable stand it was indeed that he designed because he placed first of all trays of water on the floor which are filled to the brim and are just about to overflow. And this is a theme we find in all his work, the idea of the potential disaster of overflowing water, the way the water almost overflows into the various “campi" and "piazza” of Venice. And above it arranged a marvellous glass chandelier made from Murano glass, and coloured glass also from the same source. And the exotic quality of Venice works its way also into Scarpa's work. We have to remember of course that historically Venice was the city that controlled all access between Europe and the East until the Portuguese found their way round the Cape of Good Hope. And it had, as a consequence, an incredible connection with the Islamic world and then with the Oriental world. And this works its way backwards with a kind of love and fascination with gold and precious stones and remarkable colours. Those colours can be captured in a special Venetian material called 'stucco lucido' or Venetian plaster work which Scarpa worked with the Di Luigi brothers in resuscitating really. And this plaster work applied in many layers has not only a remarkable ability of translucence but also captures incredibly intense colours. So the pavilion in Turin is, if you like, an abstraction of certain of these qualities of Venice.

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