by Roderick Conway Morris

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Choreographer of Light


By Roderick Conway Morris
VERONA, Italy 21 October 2000

 

When the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa said in 1972 that he would rather design museums than skyscrapers, he was ahead of his times, anticipating the situation today, when galleries have become absolutely prime prestige projects, and the design of a museum can attract more attention than its contents.

In other respects, Scarpa was a throwback to an earlier age. This ingenious, quizzical, quixotic figure's broad knowledge of literature, especially poetry; refined appreciation of art works of every kind; employment in architecture of the patterns of the constellations of the stars, combinations of numbers and other arcane symbols; old-fashioned working methods, and robust use of everyday language set him apart as a kind of rough-edged Renaissance man marooned in the 20th century, who was never going to fit comfortably into the architectural establishment of his day.

That Scarpa spent so much of his career in the world of museums and exhibitions -- for which he did some 60 designs between the end of World War II and 1978 -- was partly because it suited his inclinations and temperament. But it was also of necessity, given that his style was so individual, his institutional and political contacts limited, and most of his larger-scale commissions came to him only late in life.

The surroundings of his upbringing deeply immersed him in the art and architecture of Venice and the Veneto -- one of his earliest memories being of playing amid Palladian columns in Vicenza, where his family lived for several years when he was a child -- which left him with a lifelong love of antique art and artifacts.

But as an architect he was not in any obvious sense a traditionalist, though a closer examination of his work reveals that he did draw on the past in myriad subtle ways. He admired Frank Lloyd Wright and even Le Corbusier, and had a particular affinity for Japanese art, but the solution to each commission he undertook was always, in the end, very much his own. Indeed, it was his practice to produce a multitude of alternatives before finally choosing one of them, and he left behind tens of thousands of drawings in his own hand.

Budgets for public galleries and special shows in Scarpa's time were a fraction of what they can be now. But a telling pair of timely shows devoted to him -- "Carlo Scarpa: Exhibitions and Museums: 1944-1976," at the Museo del Castelvecchio in Verona, and "Houses and Landscapes: 1972-1978," at Palazzo Barbaran da Porto in Vicenza (both until Dec. 10) -- confirm that Scarpa was able to achieve remarkable results with very limited resources and that he still has a great deal to teach to contemporary designers.

The Castelvecchio museum was Scarpa's masterpiece of remolding, carried out in phases between the late 1950s and 1974. Although dating from the 14th century, the castle had been repeatedly altered and badly damaged over the centuries -- fortunately in this case, since it gave Scarpa a much freer hand than he would otherwise have had. The challenge was not only to consolidate and restore a crumbling edifice, but to find new means of presenting the city's considerable collection of medieval, Renaissance and later art.

Scarpa's scheme was daring in its opening up of additional sources of light and arresting new vistas from room to room, as well as creating more intimate spaces to show smaller exhibits. Equally striking was the compendium of devices Scarpa deployed to display different pieces of art -- from plinths and armatures, to easels and rods extending from floor to ceiling -- specifically designed for the purpose of bringing out each piece's special qualities. The overall result is a tour de force of design which is a pleasure in itself, and yet does not come between object and spectator.

Among a score of projects illustrated in the special show at the Castelvecchio, which include a number of Scarpa's designs for major exhibitions, is an extraordinary gem, his entirely new wing for the old museum of Antonio Canova's original models and casts at the artist's birthplace in the Veneto, Possagno. Here, like Borromini, Scarpa proved himself a genius at staging unexpected drama in a constrained space, creating box-like lantern windows and other apertures to cast broad, shifting shafts of natural light on his meticulously planned choreography of the sculptures within.

The architect's elusive cocktail of restraint and theatricality, of austerity illuminated by flashes of color contrast and artfully positioned ornament, is further unfolded at the Vicenza show, of the private houses, public buildings, piazzas and commemorative monuments he was commissioned to build during the last decade of his life. Several of these were not realized for various reasons, and others he did not, alas, live to execute: he died in an accident while visiting Japan in 1978.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016