Who Was Carlo Scarpa?on February 18, 2020 at 3:26 pm
WHEN MARIA CAGNOLI, a 63-year-old rheumatologist from the Northern Italian town of Bergamo, stepped off the elevator onto the top floor of a converted 17th-century Venice palazzo for a satellite exhibition a week before the 2015 Biennale, she had no idea she was about to become a caretaker of history.
Even before she could survey the works on display, the apartment itself possessed her. One of a few dozen residences designed by Carlo Scarpa, the legendary Venetian architect known primarily for his reimagining of museums and other public spaces, it had been created in 1963 as an office and home for a lawyer named Luigi Scatturin. A well-connected art lover whose brother-in-law was Tancredi, the abstractionist known by his first name, Scatturin had long represented Scarpa. The attorney’s heirs had inherited the 2,700-square-foot residence after their father’s death in 2009 and were looking to sell it. They had agreed to host the show, hoping it would attract a buyer who might appreciate its extraordinary provenance and the unique — and consuming — challenges of owning an iconic property in a city that reveres Scarpa and cares deeply about preservation. As soon as Cagnoli, who had been searching unsuccessfully for a flat in Venice, entered the space, she knew she had found not merely a pied-à-terre but a calling.
Scarpa’s oeuvre had long been integral to Cagnoli’s aesthetic. She already owned two of his daring Modernist glass works, from the period earlier in his career when the Murano-based glass company, Venini, hired him to revamp the island’s fusty image, which he did by encouraging artisans to deviate from their traditional ornate chandeliers in order to create contemporary shapes and saturated colors. But in her veneration of the architect, Cagnoli was ahead of the times: In the decades after his death in 1978, Scarpa largely had come to be regarded as an ingenious but inessential roadside attraction on the superhighway of organic Modernism, eclipsed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn. That may have been because he produced so few original structures; most of his work consisted of interventions in pre-existing public buildings. It didn’t help that he worked largely in Venice, a city which, unlike Milan, has never been known for nurturing the new.
But in the past few years, as the idea of combining essentialist architectural geometry with handcrafted details has gained popularity worldwide, Scarpa has become something of a rediscovered obsession. Like the ’80s-era Milan-centered Memphis movement, with its Tinkertoy shapes and colors, which has been embraced as inspiration by designers searching for optimism and humor in a sobering age, Scarpa’s warm-blooded mix of the ancient and modern — buildings, objects and furniture laboriously handcrafted in stone, wood, forged metals, stucco and glass — has become newly relevant. In his time, his devotion to the mark of the hand separated him from the International Style that swept Europe and championed the machine-made and easily replaceable; today, his message — that true beauty endures, transcending global tumult and uncertainty — has never seemed more germane. His serene 1963 renovation of Venice’s Fondazione Querini Stampalia museum garden, in which water flows into a multileveled copper basin flanked by labyrinths of alabaster and Istrian stone, the Pop minimalism of his 1958 Olivetti showroom on Piazza San Marco, with Alberto Viani’s 1956 bronze sculpture “Nudo al Sole” in the entry set in a black Belgian marble basin, and his reimagining of the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, completed in 1975, in which he incorporated excavated layers of the medieval building and put the art on easels to make it more accessible to the viewer, all seem prescient. In Venice itself, he has in just the past few years become something of a brand, with reproductions — some very bad — of his luminous glass vessels, Shaker-simple chairs and geometric tabletop sculptures seemingly everywhere: During the 2019 Biennale in June, the decorative and fine art gallerist Giorgio Mastinu passed out stickers in his space near Palazzo Grassi, declaring it “100% Carlo Scarpa Free.”
BORN IN THE city in 1906 and raised largely in Vicenza, an hour away, Scarpa, who studied architecture at Venice’s Academy of Fine Arts but never became a licensed architect because he refused to take the government exam, idolized the work of the Vienna Secessionist Josef Hoffmann and Wright (who returned the admiration) and drew inspiration from abstract painters including Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko. He traveled extensively in Japan, which helped inform his appreciation of humble materials like reclaimed timber and rusted metal, as well as his obsession with tiny details like hardware and nails. But despite his wanderings, his loyalty ultimately lay with the artisans of Venice, which had been, until the late 18th century, an independent city-state; he considered the region itself his canvas. Unlike Wright, he had a stable marriage (to the niece of his mentor, the architect Francesco Rinaldo; their son, Tobia, 85, is an acclaimed industrial designer), never demanded the fealty of acolytes and was notoriously private.
It may be fitting, then, that despite his newfound mainstream popularity, a number of the architect’s most innovative structures remain off-limits to tourists. Highly personal and collaborative, private residences allowed Scarpa to experiment in the way a public building couldn’t. Only a few of the 30 or so he designed survive intact, down to the original furniture he selected or made. Their owners are their protectors, docents and, when the occasion calls, their caretakers.
Cagnoli understood that buying the apartment also meant she would become a curator and preserver of Scarpa’s legacy: The lawyer had left little choice in the matter. Scatturin knew he had commissioned a work of art, and in 1999, he registered the apartment as “vincolo” at the Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali, meaning it is regarded as a heritage work, with the same protections that apply to the Basilica of San Marco. She wouldn’t be able to replace a door handle without permission from the ministry. “It was very difficult,” she acknowledges. “Nothing could be touched. We had to use wireless electricity because we couldn’t break the walls.”
Her years of painstaking effort have restored the apartment to its 1960s luster. Scarpa understood firsthand how the lawyer’s work and life bled together, and the design reflects that knowledge. The space is divided into three interconnected zones: the law offices in the front, the social areas in the middle and the private quarters in the back. Scarpa’s touch is evident even before opening the front door. The apartment entrance walls are coral red and obsidian black, painted in the local style of stucco veneziano. This haptic, marble-smooth treatment was a favorite of the architect; he used it, in a similar palette, on the walls of the Castelvecchio Museum, a 1356 fortress he reinvented by exposing the foundation, filling gaping holes with glass panels and balancing an equestrian statue of Cangrande della Scala, a 14th-century ruler of Verona, on a concrete gangplank. His stucco expert was a Venetian named Eugenio De Luigi, who created the satiny finish by applying the plaster with tiny spatulas, not much bigger than a butter knife, a labor-intensive process that could take days to complete one wall.
Then there were the furnishings, which Scarpa used sparingly but with great precision. Amid the pear-wood walls that line the front professional area, beneath a dark green ceiling, stands a semicircular desk that the architect made from Italian and Brazilian walnut. Scarpa, who often designed deceptively simple wooden furniture, titled it “Signori Prego si Accomodino” (“Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Make Yourselves Comfortable”). It is constructed without a single nail; the designer preferred to hide or altogether exclude joints. The result is a desktop that appears to be floating in space.
In the roughly 400-square-foot central living room, light pours through casement windows, revealing another series of signature elements. Because the apartment is on the top floor and was originally inhabited by servants, the ceilings are only eight feet high. More conventional architects of the era might have tried to camouflage the lack of height with visual tricks, but Scarpa accentuated it. He had the ceiling slathered in a thick layer of cement, which is sponge-painted in shades of ocher, brick red and bluish-gray. Over the course of a single morning, the shifting light transforms it from a field of mustard to a meadow of lilac. At the back of the apartment, in the hallway that leads to the bedrooms, stands a Scarpa trademark: What initially seems to be a stack of wooden cabinets turns out to be a wardrobe that doubles as a vertiginous staircase to the rooftop terrace. “Start with your right foot,” Cagnoli instructs, “it’s much easier.” Above, the terrace offers a panoramic view of the city; the deck is oriented like an arrow, directing your gaze toward the Piazza San Marco, with its lead domes and spired campanile peeking from the terra-cotta tile rooftops, sea gulls’ nests all around.
SCARPA RARELY WORKED outside Italy, but he was lured beyond its borders a year after he completed Casa Scatturin, once again for an emotionally resonant residential commission. Savina Zentner was 27 when her husband, Angelo Masieri, one of Scarpa’s protégés, died in a car crash in Pennsylvania while they were in the United States to meet Wright in 1952. Savina then married a Swiss banker, G. René Zentner, and called upon Masieri’s mentor to build the family villa. Today, Zentner’s eldest son, Edoardo, a private money manager, is responsible for the house. A longtime student of Buddhism who helps restore temples in the Northern Indian state of Ladakh, he sees the preservation of his family’s house as close to a spiritual mission.
The 6,000-square-foot home is in a neighborhood overlooking Lake Zurich that was once a vineyard but is now arrayed with golf courses and polite villa-style mansions. “Zurich tends not to be a place for self-expression,” Edoardo says of the less-than-enthusiastic reception Scarpa initially received from the municipal building commission. Local regulations prevented him from drastically changing the overall proportions of the original two-story Italianate 1914 provincial house, but decades of transforming Renaissance buildings into minimalist enclaves had taught him how to work around and within existing structures, and today, almost no trace of the old rectangular structure remains in the striking geometric facade. The exterior is mostly covered in a soft pink-tinged stucco, with brass plating running along the edges to lend definition, while the top floor is clad in an African hardwood called afzelia. The concrete base is ribboned with Murano glass tiles in white, gold and green, and a strip of these tiles runs up the front of the concrete, ivy-covered elevator shaft that bisects the facade. With its calibrated contrast of materials, the house has a restrained, almost musical elegance. At the back, the base transforms into a Jenga-like formation, incorporating a cantilevered balcony and a second-floor overhang. Scarpa solved the regulation against substantially increasing the size of the house by stacking the upper floors in ever-smaller rectangles. From certain angles, the house resembles a ship.
The architect lavished the same attention on the floors of the Zentner’s living room as he did on the ceiling at Casa Scatturin. Planks of dark brown wenge and yellow West African mansonia are laid in an irregular pattern, and a gray stone molding around the perimeter makes the floor appear to float. The ceiling is covered in a beige stucco veneziano, and here and there, nipple-like sconces shine light directly onto art from Zentner’s collection, which includes a canvas by the Surrealist Max Ernst and a drawing of a woman by Balthus, hung near an assemblage of skeletal bronze Diego Giacometti furniture. Scarpa’s custom pieces — a long, low sofa upholstered in midnight blue hand-woven silk in the living room and a rectangular wood and marble marquetry dining-room table — remain in their original spots. Everywhere are small, subversive details: a floating step between the dining room and a storage nook; light fixtures that slide into deep wall recesses to lend a softer glow. “Scarpa was like Mozart,” says Edoardo, “in his hyper-intense use of simple devices or ideas to create art.”
IN 1968, SCARPA and his assistant Sergio Los broke ground on a residence outside Bolzano, in the South Tyrol province of Northern Italy, one of the few projects he was able to build from the ground up, and arguably his most avant-garde private work. Commissioned by Gianni and Laura Tabarelli, the owners of an eponymous Modern design showroom in Bolzano, the single-story house is situated on three staggered rectangular planes descending the hillside like stairs, and faces the Dolomites. Vineyards rake the valley below, and apple orchards zipper the hills above. Scarpa used these crop formations as the starting point for Casa Tabarelli. Constructed on a foundation of five parallel concrete slabs embedded in the hillside, the house appears almost suspended, mirroring the way grapes are trained to hang over the soil on wires. The asymmetrical roof is a series of undulating, overlapping platforms that mimic the mountain peaks.
The Tabarellis, who had transformed Gianni’s family business from a staid furniture operation to a beacon of the post-World War II Italian design scene, had long wanted Scarpa to build them a house. The pair lived there for more than 30 years, until Gianni’s death in 2000; Laura sold it in 2012 to Josef Dalle Nogare, a contemporary art collector who runs his family’s stone business in the area. Dalle Nogare had visited Casa Tabarelli as a child with his parents. “I didn’t know what to make of it back then,” he says of the ultra-Modernist villa. In his early adulthood, however, he began collecting Scarpa-designed Venini glass, and though he later sold the pieces to focus on contemporary art, the architect’s influence lingered; when he heard that the Tabarelli house was for sale, he didn’t hesitate.
The 3,400-square-foot home’s exterior, created to endure alpine winters, is covered in thick, textured concrete mixed in places with powdered brick for a deep salmon hue, or chalk for a bleach white. Typical of Scarpa, the outer concrete invades the interior, muting distinctions between inside and out; almost every room opens onto a private garden. Scarpa chose primary hues of blue, yellow, red and green for the driveway gate and front entrance; once inside, he let the palette explode. The ceiling is a pastel rainbow of glossy stucco veneziano. “The colors follow the path of the sun,” Dalle Nogare says, starting with a stripe of pale blue that spans the bedrooms, followed by an expanse of buttercup, Kelly green and crimson. Each segment responds to the sunlight, darkening and glowing through the day. Bare light bulbs hang intermittently from the ceiling by their cords, like the clustered grapes in the valley. Huge hunks of colored Venini glass glimmer in transom windows.
While the Tabarellis acceded most of the time to Scarpa’s desire for radical beauty over practicality, they drew the line at his plans for a vast wooden living-room floor. “Laura didn’t want to do the waxing,” says Dalle Nogare. They settled instead on quartzite. But Scarpa couldn’t produce a simple stone floor: Here, there is no joint or mortar between the tiles; rather, the stones are wedged together, creating a surface like a choppy sea. In counterpoint to that turbulent texture, the architect used gray slate commonly used for blackboards to fashion sets of steps to the level above. The interplay of smooth and rough makes climbing just a few stairs akin to hovering between distinct environments.
Dalle Nogare and Laura Tabarelli agreed she would leave many of the house’s original furnishings as a way to keep Scarpa’s vision intact. These include a 1965 Brionvega radio console, a gold velvet sofa by the Japanese industrial designer Kazuhide Takahama and a paper mobile by the Futurist artist and graphic designer Bruno Munari. Scarpa’s own works endure as well, from a cubic metal sculpture screwed into the concrete fireplace to the massive sliding gate between the office and master bedroom made of 70 rotating wooden squares that form a black-and-white abstraction. Dalle Nogare, who lives between Bolzano and Paris with his wife and son, has incorporated pieces from his own collection, including a papier-mâché sculpture by the late Austrian abstractionist Franz West, a display of vintage suitcases by the New York-based photographer and sculptor Zoe Leonard and a collage of pop-cultural detritus by the German-born sculptor Isa Genzken. He believes that the space, with its textured walls and extreme contours, is more suitable for three-dimensional works than as a place to hang contemporary painting.
Like the Zentner house, Casa Tabarelli is not governmentally protected — its life depends on its owner’s maintenance and stewardship. Dalle Nogare has considered opening it to the public as an exhibition space for his collection one day, but nothing is certain except his determination that the house will remain, its dignity intact. Similar to Cagnoli, who owns Casa Scatturin, and Edoardo Zentner, he has no interest in turning his Scarpa work into a shrine, like Wright’s Fallingwater, with its lines of tourists. There are plenty of ways to experience the public side of Scarpa these days, but the architect’s private commissions and their intimate histories are likely to remain largely unseen. While maintaining such structures takes a great deal of money, patience and the sublimation of ego in an era when residences are often designed as elaborate expressions of self, the owners of these homes consider themselves heirs to Scarpa’s own humility and veneration of the past. To each house, they have added something of their own personality, as Scarpa himself left behind his mark while allowing the ages and the natural world to shine through. What remains is a palimpsest of culture and history, as layered as a cross section of the earth itself. “I’m going to protect it,” says Dalle Nogare. “Absolutely.”