“I don’t like to dress alla moda,” said Gae Aulenti in 1971. “The moment it’s loudly announced that red is in fashion, I stop wearing red. I want to dress in green.” Gigi by Colette reads: “Everything depends on the attitude.” One of very few postwar Italian female architects, Gae had attitude. She died in 2012 aged 84. Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic for The Times, called her “the most important female architect since the beginning of time”. In 1986 she converted a Parisian railway station and hotel into a museum. Gae had form. She was a protégée of Carlo Scarpa – he singlehandedly reinvented museum conversions in the mid 20th century. A grand central aisle lit by the barrel vaulted glass ceiling of Victor Laloux’s original Beaux Arts design respects the original cavernous volume. Use of contemporary raw materials – wire mesh grid anyone? – emphasise her industrial designer roots and portray an honesty of expression learned from her master. And as for her insertions and interruptions and interventions? Such verve. Such vigour. So very self assured. She is post postmodern. But still, the architect managed to unify the diversity of spaces by using the same rough stone on walls and floors throughout. Gae had élan. “I do admire all of Gae’s work,” admits top architect John O’Connell, “and it weathers well too.” Musée d’Orsay, a museum of mostly French art from the 2nd Republic to the 2nd World War, is itself great art: building as artefact.
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.