Mention the name Carlo Scarpa among architects and you’ll likely be greeted with a reverential sigh and a somewhat knowing nod. Yet while he’s a relatively unknown name to many outside the architecture world there are fundamental ideas in his work regarding light, colour and material that are pretty much the basis of architecture itself. Add to that the level of complexity and detail in his buildings and the fact that he was inspired by a number of traditional crafts in Venice, (all but dying out before he revived them) and you'll begin to understand why Phaidon is proud to be publishing, in September, the first major monograph on him. We sat down with Tom Wright, the editor of the book, to learn more about it.
So, why is Phaidon publishing a book on Carlo Scarpa?
He falls within the pantheon of 20th century modern masters. He’s considered in the same breath of Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, but perhaps is less well known outside of the architecture world than any of them. However, I think he has the potential to be incredibly popular outside that world – he has a huge cult following. The other thing that’s important about Scarpa is that he was promoting ideas of environmentalism and craft way before they took on the status they have now. There’s an element to his work that is very relevant now – in a way that may not have been understood at the time.
What is the criteria Phaidon employs when plucking these slightly more left-field subjects and bringing them to a wider audience?
When we have a subject we’re passionate about, a key stage is then finding the correct writer and treatment. Scarpa, in particular, is quite a complex architect to write about and illustrate because his work is so finely layered and detailed. So it’s tricky to find an author who can really tackle that; make it accessible and unpick those layers. With Robert McCarter (professor of architecture at Washington University and a renowned author on architecture), an important element in his approach to writing about architecture is the inhabitant’s experience, which is what he did with this book and is also particularly apparent in his Understanding Architecture book which we published last year. He really takes you into a building with specific ‘walk throughs’, where the reader is led through the space room-by-room and detail-by-detail. I think this approach is really important when discussing Scarpa’s work.
Phaidon seems to excel at picking on the area or the subject no one else has really noticed yet? Could you explain that process?
I think as far as my job’s concerned it’s about finding architects that have, you could say, reached a point in their legacy where something new and worthwhile can be written about them – so either they’re being re-evaluated or they haven’t been written about enough; maybe they have the recognition within their industry and among serious scholars and students and maybe within their own country but they haven’t been published to a wider audience. Or perhaps their work has developed new meaning as the industry re-evaluates their ideas. And what we can then do is we can take an architect like Scarpa and work with his archives and work with someone like Robert McCarter – who’s been studying Scarpa all his life – and we can really push it in a way visually, and in the text, that hasn’t been done before. So it’s about that unique combination of architect and author plus an incredible archive of drawings and photography – that exists but perhaps hasn't been seen much before. In this case it helps that some of his buildings have been renovated in the past couple of years. So new photography has emerged on those projects.
What was it like seeing the archive for the first time?
I hadn’t seen a lot of his drawings before so that was an incredible experience. A lot of the reproductions of his drawings have, in the past, been small, black and white, maybe cropped; whereas we’ve been able to show full page reproductions, in full colour for almost all the projects that are covered in the book. Scarpa worked very uniquely - he didn’t really do final drawings, he just kept scribbling over and over and over again (in that way he was probably quite a pain for builders and contractors) So his drawings are partly a record of his design process and partly a record of what the building actually is. So it’s all about the layerings, and for me these become a work of art in themselves - the colour and the space builds up and up and up. And there are more of them in this book, reproduced in full colour, than I’ve seen anywhere else.
We particularly like the fall back spine - when you open it the cover literally steps back from the book itself - tell us about that
It was born out of the designer’s concept for the book, which was about using an element of Scarpa’s work – an element of architecture – in the design. Scarpa's design was often about constructed line and mass, created out of the stepping, carving and grooving into surfaces. He did this so that you could really understand the weight and the thickness – the heaviness – of the building, if its concrete, and the lightness of it if it’s glass. So, by having it fall back and reveal the book inside, you can really understand the book as a block, or as a building element. As Scarpa would say, Verum Ipsum Factum or ‘the truth is in the made’. And then within the book itself, the design features different text elements, so it starts to build up as blocks within blocks.
What else is special about the book?
The images. There was a real urge to try to find imagery of Scarpa's work that really illustrated all the key ideas. So we worked very closely with the existing archives of drawings and photography. But then we wanted to combine that with new photography as well so we approached a lot of different photographers and sources plus archive imagery. There are a lot of buildings, such as the Venezuelan Pavilion in the Giardini della Biennale in Venice, that are not in the best shape, they have perhaps been treated badly and a lot of the original features have been lost and almost destroyed – which is sad. So the way we’ve treated that in this book is to go back to how the building was originally designed. The ‘walk through’ treats the building as it was originally built, as Scarpa intended, and in these instances all the photography is archive rather than contemporary. We’ve really tried to ensure that photography and imagery of the buildings match exactly how Scarpa designed them because, in many cases, you can’t see them like that anymore.
What insight into his working practices do we get the book?
There are a lot of things that stand out for me and that Robert picked out and highlighted – new ideas about influences from the likes of Josef Albers and Paul Klee, hidden references to existing buildings in his renovations. But for me, and I think this will appeal to anyone with an interest in Venice and Italian art history, it was discovering the influence of Venice and the Veneto in the finest details of his work – even his work outside of the city and the region. The influence of water, light and levels; the control of space with light and shade, creating recesses and stepping within the floor plains he created, even for buildings that would never flood. I learnt that he liked to operate within formal constraints. That was born out of his original work in Venice where obviously an architect is very constrained by the location and physical planning factors. And it’s all about taking that concept that drew out a specific place and realising that it adds this layer of complexity to his building. His philosophy was to use external factors to inform a design. It was definitely born out of a very strong attraction and connection to where he’s from. That 'idea' of Venice was ingrained in him growing up. In a way, it’s a concept of localism that we see very prominently in a lot of architectural discussion today.
And finally what sort of understanding of him as a man does the book give the reader?
I think he was much more of a firebrand than I realised before I worked on the book. We know of his obsessive qualities: a love of detail, a connection to numerology, history and material. But throughout this, I think he struggled with acceptance. He never formally trained as an architect. He trained as a teacher of architectural drawing and then he began to get work through Cappellin, the Murano glass manufacturer. He worked as a glass designer for Cappellin and then Venini and remained lead designer for 20-plus years (in fact, you can still buy his glasswork today). Concurrently, he designed factories and administrative buildings and houses for the owners so his architecture career was, in a way, born of that. He never had formal qualifications and architects can get very snooty about formal qualifications. He actually got charged with practicing architecture without a licence at one point. I don’t think there was any case and he ended up designing a house for his lawyer! By strange coincidence, Scarpa was working on the designs for the Manilo Capitolo courtroom in Venice at the same time he was appearing in it as a defendant. Perhaps that gave him a bit of drive and an anti-establishment feeling.
He was also very involved in Venetian planning. The approach to construction in Venice can be very much a conservative environment, where everything is about remaking the past and holding on to a specific type. He was very pro a Frank Lloyd Wright design for the Masieri residence in Venice that was rejected and the Le Corbusier Venice Hospital project that was also rejected. Referring to the process of imitating architecture he said, “stupid imitations of that sort always look wretched. Buildings that imitate look like impostors, and that is just what they are.” Scarpa actually organised an exhibition that featured unbuilt Venetian projects for the biennale – one by Louis Kahn, one by Frank Lloyd Wright, one by Le Corbusier and one by Isamu Noguchi – all buildings that were never built but would have been fantastic if they were. Scarpa organised it with the intent that the planners might reconsider. So there was definitely a bit of fight in him.
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