The Master Architect Who Helped Shape Venice

SLIDESHOW: Details of the Negozio Olivetti, a concept space designed by Carlo Scarpa for avant-garde technological company Olivetti, 1957. (Photo credit: Matthieu Salvaing)

Last week 90 pieces of glass by legendary Italian architect Carlo Scarpa went on sale at Christie’s auction house, raising nearly US$2.5 million. The sale catapulted the Venetian-born architect into the spotlight once more.

“When the shape you draw bears a resemblance to anything, erase it!” said Italian designer and architect Carlo Scarpa (1906–78). This architect of architects and undisputed master put art and genius above all else. “I have a great passion for works of art… I wouldn’t know how to write, I couldn’t write a critique, but I strongly feel art’s values. And they excite me,” he explained in 1972.

Sensitive to art, fed on classical references, he was above all else an architect of culture. Throughout his entire career, his influence helped shape Venice. Scarpa lived for Venice. From the 1950s he was the architect of museums. We owe him the restoration of Palermo’s Palazzo Abatellis in 1953, Verona’s Museo Civico di Castelvecchio in 1956, and, the following year, of Venice’s Quadreria du Museo Correr. His understanding of art, in particular antique art, led him to rethink the museum space in a more modern way than his predecessors. He often put himself in the background when presenting art works. “Whether it is a sculpture or a painting, auscultating the qualities of an object can help you intuitively position it… When positioning works of art, the layout can be much more striking if the curator has a critical eye… Even in works that are perhaps not, in themselves, exceptional, one can always find something in them that can be recomposed as part of an ensemble.”

Scarpa was at once deeply embedded in the historical culture of Venice, and at the same time wove the most modern of spatial conceptions into its material fabric. At the very beginning of his career as an architect, the first traditional material Scarpa engaged with was glass, one of the most ambiguous, allusive and atmospheric materials employed in the making of architecture, according to a note from Christie’s. “In his work with Cappellin and Venini, starting in 1926, Scarpa explored the glass-making art, recovering ancient Roman techniques, as well as discovering new methods of transforming glass,” said the note.

Scarpa created a language of forms; paid careful attention to details; and assembled his materials with great talent. He stands apart because of his refinement; the expressiveness of his materials; his alternating chromatic nuances and juxtaposition of tactile properties (smooth or rough surfaces); and by the conceptual clarity between horizontal and vertical elements. His architecture is a reference and continues to inspire entire generations of architects. His language and stamp are unique, a legacy he left to the 20th century.

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SLIDESHOW: Details of the Negozio Olivetti, a concept space designed by Carlo Scarpa for avant-garde technological company Olivetti, 1957. (Photo credit: Matthieu Salvaing)