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Each week during the spring semester I teach for a day a week at Oxford Brookes University on the International Architectural Regeneration and Development (IARD) Diploma specialism. The course deals with issues of building re-use, conservation and new development within the inherited built environment. Last week we watched a great documentary about the work of Carlo Scarpa presented by architect Richard Murphy. After the documentary I summed up what I thought some of the lessons that could be learnt from the work of Scarpa and applied to the student’s work in the studio. I was also able to draw upon my experience of visiting a number of his buildings, including the Castelvechio, the Querini Stampalia Palace and Olivetti Showroom, on the field trip which I took 10 years ago when I was studying on the same course.

The list below is by no means exhaustive but hopefully begins to highlight some of the attributes that make the work of Scarpa, and inparticular his work with existing buildings, so interesting, unique and exciting.

1. To get the best results it is important to work with those who are involved the the construction of the building. Scarpa had a love of craft and the process of making, not just an interest in the finished product.

2. The designer should think carefully about the connection between different materials and how they join each other.

3. Scarpa made no pretense to design interventions ‘in keeping’ with the existing buildings which results in a lack of bogus reconstruction. He had a belief that contemporary interventions will become part of the history of a building.

4. There is a connection between art and architecture. Scarpa would take inspiration from the work of artists even though the art seemingly is unconnected to the building or place, for example Mondrian or Rothko. (Note: I found this interesting as this would go against how I would usually teach with a view that inspiration of this type should have a contextual connection to the project.)

5. It is important to observe the world around you. Everywhere you look there are ideas that can be reused and re-appropriated.

6. The designer needs to be aware of the importance of the ‘feel’ of materials and how they can help to lead a user through the building. The texture of materials that can be touched are particularly important.

7. There should be a clear reading of what is new and old. This can be acheived through material choices, the way the materials are manufactured, physical separation or combinations of these qualities.

8. The strict control of light heightens the experience of the building and its materials. Scarpa talked of windows “catching fragments of the sky”. The designer should think about the placement of windows and how they relate to what is around. Sometimes a controlled view says more than an expansive one.

9. The first idea is not always the best, some ideas emerge more slowly through investigation. This can lead to thousands of drawings and sketches.

10. It is important to have supportive clients… although of course it is not always possible to achieve this.

Do you agree or disagree with any of these points or have a missed out anything important? Please let me know by making a comment below.

This photo pool on Flickr has some good images of Scarpa projects – http://www.flickr.com/groups/scarpa-c/

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from Carlo Scarpa

  1. Great post Jonny, several of those points are easily applicable to any project and definitely worth being reminded of.

    Regarding point 1, I always question the role of the architect when writers champion craftsmanship of tradespeople, such as Ruskin or Morris. If anything surely the interference or direction of an architect will limit the knowledge, experience and flair of the craftsman that they seek to capture?

    But I think point 6 hints at the answer, Scarpa suggests the architect’s role is to see the bigger picture, coordinating the crafted surfaces to create an experiential delight of movement and sequence when they are observed as one.

    It makes me think of the conductor in an orchestra, perhaps not able to play each individual instrument to the same standard as the virtuosos that make up the ensemble, but the guiding hand that ensures they come together correctly to create something extraordinary.

  2. I worked with Richard Murphy for a few years between my degrees and after my part 2, and was lucky enough to go on trips to Verona and Venice with the office in that time, visiting several of the buildings mentioned in this documentary. Richard could – and, I’m sure, still CAN – recite every word of the film, and it’s easy to spot the influence of Scarpa in many of his buildings, particularly some of the smaller houses but also in the larger British High Commission project in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Also heavily influenced by Bawa). The most obvious common element between such projects would definitely seem to be the quality of craftsmen working on carefully considered detailing, and clients willing to pay for such care.

    In a world of PFI, Design & Build, and Revit, such attention to detail is certainly possible, but I suspect it’s also much, MUCH harder to achieve.

    Unrelated to the above, but also possibly related to the post: I just recently visited my first Peter Zumthor building in Cologne, the Museum Kolumba. Another project with several layers of history, it makes an interesting comparison with Scarpa’s Castelvecchio – the intersections between fabric of different eras are handled differently in each project, but the idea of expressing them honestly – almost in direct juxtaposition – is certainly there.

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