Carlo Scarpa: The Architect at Work

A recent exhibition at the Cooper Union shed light onto the Italian architect's process of thinking, design, and material application, revealing a striking contemporariness to his work.

Very rarely do you have the chance to experience a truly original, honest and truthful architecture. If you've ever had the privilege of being in one of famed Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa's buildings, you know exactly what I'm referring to. Well-known for his distinct use of materials, landscape, and history, Scarpa approaches architecture through the experience of building materials and their sensory properties.

Through his phenomenological approach to design and building, Scarpa allows the individual to experience the building through subtleties of design decisions he carefully makes, choreographing a performance of such through both the material composition and the layout of design and surrounding landscape.

Scarpa's process of thinking, design, and material application was recently brought into focus in an exhibition titled Carlo Scarpa: The Architect at Work at Cooper Union's Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery in New York. Selected drawings from the architect's oeuvre, including designs and sketches for Villa Ottolenghi and Villa Il Palazzetto, were displayed alongside photographs of Villa Ottolenghi in 1978, prior to its completion, as well as photos of Scarpa's work at Villa Il Palazzetto. Despite being decades old, it is striking to see how Scarpa's built work possesses a contemporariness to it that many buildings constructed today seem to lack.
Top: <em>Carlo Scarpa: The Architect at Work</em> installation view at the Cooper Union. Above: Carlo Scarpa, Villa Il Palazzetto, General plan of the villa and grounds. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
Top: Carlo Scarpa: The Architect at Work installation view at the Cooper Union. Above: Carlo Scarpa, Villa Il Palazzetto, General plan of the villa and grounds. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
The exhibit, curated by Steven Hillyer, Guido Zuliani and Sara Jones, portrays Scarpa as a post-war architect whose many drawings and sketches take shape through the actual buildings themselves, which are seen only in photographic form. Although the gallery space itself — a small interior room — is somewhat limiting, the exhibit does a good job of displaying the detailed drawings of Scarpa's most well known completed works, Villa Ottolenghi (Bardolino, Verona 1974-79) and Villa Il Palazzetto (Monselice, Padua, 1969-1978), as well as engaging a larger public with the Italian architect's ideas, theories, and designs through his drawings. The two projects on view, designed at different stages of his career, demonstrate Scarpa's lifelong use of drawing as a fundamental cognitive tool that serves as both research and analysis for his building's design and functions.
Carlo Scarpa, Villa Ottolenghi, general site plan, including preliminary plan of the villa.  Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
Carlo Scarpa, Villa Ottolenghi, general site plan, including preliminary plan of the villa. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
Designed at the end of his career and realized after his death, Villa Ottolenghi is a pivotal work in Scarpa's career and one of his most celebrated works. Conceptualized in plan from actual building zone limitations — the village of Mure, near Bardolino, no longer permitted the building of houses fully above ground, which caused Scarpa to design a partly underground building, organized around nine columns that made-up the spatial layout of the interior space. Alternating between stone and concrete, these columns were fundamental to the development of the design and the realization of the house as it is today. Merging the volume of the building with the natural landscape of the surrounding environment of Lake Garda, Scarpa incorporates water as a key element in the design, used to express the relationship between inside/outside and artificial/natural. The drawings on view and the accompanying photographs tell the story of the building process, as well as the compositional parts which playfully fit into a cohesive whole.
Designed at the end of his career and realized after his death, Villa Ottolenghi is a pivotal work in Scarpa's career and one of his most celebrated works
Carlo Scarpa, Villa Ottolenghi, ground floor plan. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
Carlo Scarpa, Villa Ottolenghi, ground floor plan. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
Villa Il Palazzetto is another private villa commissioned by the Venetian master in which he was to again work on framing a familiar view — that of the Veneto landscape, which he famously used as both his subject and muse. As part of this renovation and reorganization of the grounds of this 17th century villa, Scarpa also designed for himself an apartment above the garage at the end of the property overlooking the mountaintop. The painterly way with which he rearranged the buildings and composed a connective landscape is another principle of design Scarpa employed in his process and actual buildings. While similar in program, and sharing the same process, these two projects differ heavily in conception and design.

Carlo Scarpa, Villa Ottolenghi, study for the entrance stair. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
Carlo Scarpa, Villa Ottolenghi, study for the entrance stair. Courtesy of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union
In total, the exhibition includes a selection of twenty-two original hand drawings of Villa Ottolenghi, eleven original drawings of Villa II Palazzetto, and reproductions of both villas from the Museo di Castelvecchio and the MAXXI . Through this series of design drawings, sketches, and photographs, the viewer is able to get a better understanding of Scarpa's work, mastery of craft, and of some of his most famous designs in post-war Europe. While you can never fully experience the work of such a master through drawings alone, the exhibition does its best in its limiting space and somewhat flat display to recreate the sense of being in one of Scarpa's buildings. The beautiful drawings of such intense work and scrutiny allow space for imagination, offering viewers a taste of the physicality of Scarpa's buildings, and making this master's work come alive.
<em>Carlo Scarpa: The Architect at Work</em> installation view at the Cooper Union
Carlo Scarpa: The Architect at Work installation view at the Cooper Union

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