Venice: Seeking Scarpa in the city of canals

Look hard enough amid the churches and palazzi and you’ll find temples to modern architecture designed by Venice native Carlo Scarpa.Thursday, 23 May 2019

It takes me several minutes, while standing in the Fondamenta dei Tolentini area, to clock the Università Iuav di Venezia (IUAV), a design-themed university whose entrance area was created by Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. At first, all I can see is a canal, a bridge and a bombastic neoclassical church. And then I see it. Next to the church is a low, ribbed concrete wall with a gap in the middle, above which a concrete slab is suspended in mid-air, looking as if it’s about to slam shut. A sliding panel of glass and marble forms the door. It’s a triumph of design, its simplicity belying the skill behind it.

Most of us love Venice for its lack of modernity — something Scarpa, who was born here in 1906, was well aware of. In response, he specialised in buildings that almost dare you to walk on past, and yet inspire wonder with their level of detail. Scarpa designed only the gateway and front garden of the IUAV (a former convent), in his signature style — lashings of concrete embellished with decorative features. It’s typical of his work in a city that simply had no room for new buildings, forcing him to adapt his style to what was already there, rather than start from scratch. 

Despite his international fame, Scarpa stayed close to home, and was rector at the IUAV from 1971-74. If you know where to look, his works can be found lurking throughout Venice: sparkling crystals of modernity amid the sumptuous baroque chandeliers.

In St Mark’s Square, turn your back on the Basilica and its huge Campanile, and you’ll see the Olivetti Showroom — a display space for typewriters, completed in 1958 — nestled inconspicuously at the back of the famous porticoes. 

Over on Murano is the Venini glass factory, where Scarpo served as artistic director from 1932 until 1947. In the smart showroom are Scarpa’s signature murrine romane (delicate, geometric-patterned vases that fizz with bright colours) and his murrine opache: porcelain-like opaque glassware from 1940. 

At Ca’ Foscari, Venice’s main university, Scarpa designed the Aula Baratto — a grand lecture theatre, almost as high as it is long, overlooking the Grand Canal from the Rialto to the Accademia Bridge. The view from the balcony — accessed via a set of Scarpa’s signature sliding doors — is one of the city’s most magnificent. The room is equally breathtaking, with its block-cut wood flooring, key-shaped chairs of ‘striped’ interlaced wood, and a series Y-shaped boiserie columns that divide the hall from the corridor. Scarpa was influenced by Japanese aesthetics, and it shows.

But it’s at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia — an art foundation and gallery — where his work is most Venetian. From 1949-63, he redesigned part of the ground floor and back garden to create a sublime interweaving of old and new. Travertine blocks are placed over crumbling brick walls, concrete slabs seem to hover on top of original stairs, and floors have been raised to make flood channels of the original paving. Scarpa, the story goes, was asked to design something to combat acqua alta (tidal flooding). But instead, he embraced it, creating a dreamscape where 18th-century gargoyles watch over chequered tiling, and baroque columns sit alongside art deco-style cladding. An iron grille opens onto the canal, the water sliding in with every passing gondola, and rising up and down with the tides. 

I visit on a day of acqua alta, just as the tide is retreating from the city, and it’s mesmerising. I find his steps down to the grille submerged by the lagoon, water pooling in the adjacent room, reflecting its brilliant travertine walls, and a pump funnelling out the water that’s flowed inside back to where it belongs. Except, Scarpa has said via this extraordinary work: right here, in these rooms and in this garden, is exactly where it belongs. 

Hotel Santa Chiara has doubles from €130 (£111), B&B. Kirker Holidays has three nights’ B&B at the same hotel, including flights from Gatwick, water taxi transfers and Doge’s Palace tickets, from £598 per person.   

Click here to see the 12 designs shaping modern Italy.

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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