The paradox. His architecture is so legible yet he defies classification. His work is half a century old yet timeless. His influence is widespread although he wasn’t especially prolific. His oeuvre is so Italian but he still inspired a generation of Irish architects. His personal rhetoric has universal relevance. Born in 1906, Carlo Scarpa lived, studied and worked in and around Venice all his life. Two of his projects in Verona, though, demonstrate his true brilliance. One, an augmentation of a bank. The other, a reawakening of a castle museum. Both reveal his sensitivity towards materials and textures as well as his ability to create memorable forms and spaces. It’s time to place him in the pantheon.
Of Banca Popolare, Carlo’s 1970s block is contextual in massing if not design. Or at least not detail. He was clearly unafraid of decoration. At a 1973 lecture, Carlo argued, “Why gilding? Gilding is not done in order to waste or squander money. For that matter, we wear rings of gold, not iron. Gold shines also in the dark, even in pitch darkness, if there is the slightest ray of light… So you go for precious metal, for what is rightly called tinsel. But if the form is good, if the objective results are developed in such a way that there is nothing to object to critically, this works to the advantage of the end result.” The gilding on Banca Popolare is subtly applied to just the base and capitals of the clerestory columns.
Stepping back into Piazza Nogara, taking in the full breadth of the building, it becomes apparent that Carlo is really presenting a reinvention of the palazzo façade. Looking beyond the vitrine windows and Frank Lloyd Wright style oeils de boeuf, the elevational plane is classically divided into a base, middle and clerestory. The bold proportions and monumental scale may channel Charles Rennie Mackintosh but little wonder Anne Davey Orr, former Publisher and Editor of Ulster Architect, remarks, “I’m sure Carlo Scarpa was influenced by his 16th century Venetian predecessor Andrea Palladio.” Banca Popolare is both emphatic and empathetic. And more contextual than it would first seem.
One motif that Carlo made his own is what could be called a “strings course” – parallel stepped lines, when sectioned forming ziggurats. It pops up everywhere in a multiplicity of forms: coffer, cornice, cutaway, parapet, plinth, porch. At Banca, he employs the motif as a giant T shaped corbel, aesthetically, if not functionally, supporting the vitrine windows.
“Thus his first major project was the castle at Verona,” explains conservation architect John O’Connell who is busy working in Beijing, London, Paris and Ireland. “It was very badly bombed by the Allies! He applied his very severe and practical approach whereby ‘The past is the past and if it has disappeared can now be rebuilt’. All or most museums of the western world have been inspired by his work but in particular this project. Carlo was the master of the whole museum world post World War II. He’d a very rigorous approach towards presentation and conservation employing simple and very high quality interventions.” Carlo’s new building elements assimilated in the architecture of Castelvecchio may have mellowed with age, but they still represent a revolution in the perception and display of artworks. His use of polished concrete for interiors is a forerunner to the early 21st century popularity of this material.
King Vittorio Emanuele III opened the 14th century castle turned museum in 1926. But it wasn’t until half a century later that the building’s potential was truly realised. While other Modernists jettisoned the past, Carlo’s work from the postwar era to the late 1970s venerated and transformed it. And Castelvecchio was no exception. He maintained the structure’s original integrity whilst developing an unfolding sequence of spaces and voids and vistas and objects, ceaselessly theatrical, masterful, virtuosic, populated with asymmetric incident. There’s an endless play between past and present, architecture and art.
Historical and aesthetic clarity is achieved through the coexistence of overlaying fragments of construction, selective excavation and creative demolition. This approach reaches a climax in the setting of the statue of Cangrande I Delia Scala. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “destruction of the room as a box” is taken to its ultimate conclusion. Who else but Carlo Scarpa would envisage “construction of the void as a gallery”? Demolishing the end bay of the Napoleonic wing in the courtyard, he dissolves corners to position the statue on a cantilevered platform. This complex spatial organisation thrillingly delivers visibility above and below ramparts and across and around boardwalks. Such movement – there is nothing static about Cangrande on his horse. The outer Roman tiles on the roof above are pared back to expose an underlay of green copper. Implied delamination of existing solid form leads to a richly layered materiality throughout the building.
“Stones at the top of the building can continue upwards a little, and I would like them to vibrate in the light of the sky,” Carlo lectured. “Then the sky can enter in so many ways and I would almost obtain a ‘quivering of form’, like the Ancients. And so, with a sunset grey or red, whatever it will be, I will feel their light penetrating within. In this case, the reference is to Andrea Palladio who laid his stones at a distance of two and a half or three centimetres with gaps remaining. This is what I discovered one day and what caused me to explain, ‘Good Lord, how beautiful, how expressive it is, what meaning it gives!’” An exaggeration of this effect is the medieval butterfly parapet of Castelvecchio which carves the sunrise grey or blue over Verona.
John recalls, “He enjoyed a small but very high status practice and would have met all the ‘Stars’ from Le Corbusier to Louis Kahn.” Early on in his career John met Louis, describing him as charming, self effacing, very humble. “Carlo was Professor of Architecture in Venice. This role allowed him to think everything out first, to distil ideas through academia. There is a distinct geometry to his work. He was the successor to Josef Hoffmann.”
Pantheon placement continuing, “Carlo’s pupil Gae Aulenti was a superb architect. Her greatest work is the Quai D’Orsay in Paris. Some say she was appointed because her views on life were in line with the then President Mitterrand. It is excellent – well conceived and executed. The National Art Museum project in Barcelona is commanding but weak in parts. Not her fault as the building is a late 19th century bombastic structure and the collections are mixed or of varied quality! A must, and to be seen.”
How would John O’Connell sum up Carlo Scarpa? “He sought and I believe achieved a way of detailing and using modern materials so that they conveyed the value and spiritual quality one finds in Italy with the sense of craftmanship so vital and valued in the heroic architecture of Europe from Ancient Greek times to the pre industrial world.” International architect Alfred Cochrane, currently hot in demand from Beirut to Rome, is another admirer: “Carlo Scarpa! A genius! A god in the Seventies architecture firmament.” Pantheon placement complete.
Anne was born in Downpatrick and spent her early childhood in Killyleagh, County Down, a town dominated by a fairytale castle built in 1180 and strategically located overlooking Strangford Lough to defend the town against the Vikings. It was adapted in the 1850s by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon. The castle has a colourful history which includes murder, a contested inheritance and a Judgement of Solomon. It’s now inhabited by the Rowan Hamilton family and is marketed as a self catering destination. Anne remembers going with her mother to the castle’s market garden to buy vegetables.
While at Edinburgh she was elected President of the Sculpture and of the Drama Society whose former President was the playwright John Antrobus. She wrote and produced two plays one of which is now in the archive of the Traverse Theatre in the city. Anne’s interest in theatre stems from her association with the legendary Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Players Theatre Belfast, as a scene painter. In later years Anne was elected to chair the theatre’s board, setting in motion a review of its governance.
Anne took a sabbatical when her children Leon and Mary-Ann were born and moved to County Kilkenny with her husband the architect Harry Orr. There, she revived her art practice setting up Legan Castle Design Studio. She won an Irish Arts Council Travel Award to study traditional mosaic making in Ravenna’s Accademia di Belle Arti and exhibited during Kilkenny Arts Week. Her exhibition about The Troubles, titled Images of War, transferred to The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow through the sponsorship of the journalist Kay Hingerty and the encouragement of the late Jack White, Head of Programmes at RTE, who opened the exhibition.
When Plan magazine needed a Northern Correspondent, Anne was approached. That association led to the publication of a brochure for the Festival of Architecture in Belfast for the Royal Society of Ulster Architects which subsequently evolved into the Ulster Architect magazine of which Anne was the founding editor. In the 1980s she purchased the magazine and set up a company to ensure that it would continue in publication. As publisher and editor of an architectural magazine she covered all the main building projects in the UK and Ireland with an eye to the visual arts and heritage projects. She personally interviewed high profile people including Max Clendinning, Edward Cullinan and Richard Rogers as well as covering stories throughout the UK and in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Italy and Norway. Her company was selected to take part in an entrepreneurial programme between University of Ulster and Boston College. Anne spent six months in the media department of a large advertising agency, Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopolous.
My Favourite London Hotel… Because I live in London I don’t often stay in hotels in the city but I did stay in the Tower Hotel at Tower Bridge when my daughter was married in London. It’s in a spectacular location with magnificent views of the bridge and the River Thames. Quite a few years ago I found The Manhattan Hotel in Covent Garden almost by accident. Named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the opulently relaxed colonial interior, you could almost transport yourself to India as it was when he was the last Viceroy. It’s now part of the Edwardian Hotels group so has probably changed somewhat since then.
My Favourite London Restaurant… I always take advice from my brother Damien and his wife Imelda when they come to London. They are both great foodies who keep me on my toes gastronomically. They lived in London before moving to France about 20 years ago but still visit regularly. So I don’t really have a favourite but I have had really good experiences with them at Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly which is a slice of medium priced Paris in London, and Vinoteca, Beak Street, Soho. Great atmosphere in both and good value.
My Favourite Local Restaurant… My favourite food is Middle Eastern so I like Beyrouths in Streatham Hill which serves simple Lebanese food, great mint tea and delicious homemade lemonade. For French food I found three courses recently at Côte Brasserie on Battersea Rise faultless. The subdued interior in muted green is cleverly lit to soften the glow over the clientele and again good value.
My Favourite Weekend Destination… It used to be Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa in Melton Mowbray where I took my family one year for a total chillout divorced from the commercialism of Christmas. Now I think it is Kelly’s Hotel in Wexford, Ireland. Architecture as such has bypassed it in that it has grown like topsy over the years due to its popularity, particularly with families. Situated right on the beach on the Wexford coast, it has one of the best private art collections in Ireland, a selection from it hanging on the hotel’s walls: Hockney, Picasso, Miró, and good contemporary Irish art as well. Sculpture defines the surrounding gardens and the collection is catalogued in a book which can be purchased at reception. The labels of their own very good wine collection and the menus for their creative and wonderful food are designed by the artist Bill Corzier.
My Favourite Country House… While I am drawn to return to the Villa Saraceno, one of the mansions designed by Andrea Palladio near Vincenza in the Veneto in northeast Italy which inspires a deceptive sense of grandiose living, the less grandstanding Rathmullan House in County Donegal wins me over largely because of its location on a seemingly endless beach – blue flag and with spectacular views of the Fanad Peninsula. It was built in the 1760s and is a typical Georgian house of the period used as a bathing house by the Bishop of Derry. One of Ireland’s leading architects, Liam McCormick, designed a new pavilion extension in 1969 and the hotel has been extended several times since then. In spite of that it still feels like visiting someone’s home because many of the original features of the house have been retained and the staff are wonderfully friendly.
My Favourite Building… I have written about many buildings over the years for various publications so I have a number of favourites including Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and the buildings of the architect who most influenced him, Louis Henry Sullivan – an almost forgotten figure – known as the father of the skyscraper which he saw as very specific to America. Although seldom credited with it, he coined the phrase ‘form follows function’. Louis’ Transportation Building for the Chicago World Fair of 1893 is a wonderful expression of architecture on the cusp of change and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna in Minnesota of 1908 has been described as the most beautiful bank in the world. Tragically his life ended in poverty and alcoholism. My favourite building by a living architect is Ted Cullinan’s Downland Gridshell, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum of 2002. It’s a wonderful organic expression of contemporary design using traditional techniques. Ted is founder of Cullinan Studio. I sat beside him at a dinner at Queen’s University when he talked about admiring the traditional blue barns he observed on his way in from the airport. A puzzled look fell over the surrounding faces. Was this part of our architectural heritage we had missed? Was it not a case someone asked of whatever paint fell off the back of a lorry at the time they were being painted. Like the time I was suggesting programme ideas to the BBC in Belfast. I’d noticed all houses on the Shankill Road were painted dark reds, browns and ochres but houses on the Falls Road seemed to favour more pastel colours such as light grey, pale blue and yellow. Was this evidence of a significant cultural difference we should be looking at? Someone asked me had I never noticed what colours the ships in Belfast docks were painted. Aha – no expression of social significance involved at all.
My Favourite Opera…Mozart’s Magic Flute. I have loved Mozart since my school days when I did a study of Symphony No 41, better known as the Jupiter – his last. On a visit to Italy after the Venice Opera House had been burned down, a French opera troop presented a very modernistic version of The Flute in a specially constructed temporary theatre in Venice. Travelling by motor launch to this very French off-the-wall interpretation heightened the whole experience making it unforgettable. La Fenici was reconstructed “as it was, where it was,” as he said, to the designs of architect Aldo Rossi before he died.
My Favourite Artist… I have two: Peter Doig because he imbues his landscape paintings with a sense of ‘presence’. There is a feeling of ‘the hour before the dawn’, of menace and the unknown with an uncategorisable technique. My second favourite is the East German artist Anselm Kiefer. I went to his retrospective at the Royal Academy last year and was almost speechless at the breadth of his work. Mostly I admire him for how he stepped up to German history with all its connotations and for his continued experimentation with various forms of expression and media.
My Favourite Scent…Jo Malone at the moment but I have been a follower of Estée Lauder for years mainly because my mother used her fragrances.
My Favourite Fashion Designer… I like classic clothes and good tailoring so I have a soft spot for Jean Muir. I also like the simplicity of Armani. When I am in Donegal I call on Magee to have a look at their tweeds. My mother gave me a magnificent tailored coat in a beautiful mix of Donegal tweed which, unfortunately, I need to lose a few kilos to wear.
My Favourite Charity… I support The National Brain Appeal and was delighted that a watercolour I donated to an exhibition at the Oxo Tower last year sold in aid of the charity.
My Favourite Pastime… Definitely reading and – running almost neck and neck – drawing.