Though Carlo Scarpa was never licensed to practice architecture and was repeatedly sued by representatives of the profession, he created a unique and enduring body of work, in his native Venice and its hinterland. He was revered as a teacher, excelled as a glass designer, and his mastery of detail is memorialized in the adjective “Scarparesque.” In contrast to Gio Ponti, who popularized modernism and had an international practice, Scarpa stayed close to home, working more as an artisan than as a formgiver.
Robert McCarter, a practitioner who heads the architecture school of Washington University, has immersed himself in Scarpa’s hermetic world. He establishes the context, illustrates the sumptuous Murano glass, and traces the influences from Frank Lloyd Wright (who picked Scarpa as guide on his first visit to Venice), to Mondrian and Klee. The latter seems especially relevant, for both the Venetian designer and Swiss artist worked on a small canvas, with a fanatic emphasis on tiny details, and both fused geometry and poetry. Scarpa may have preferred to work that way, but not entirely by choice–he was constrained by the reactionary and myopic Venetian authorities. “I have had nothing but trouble from planning rules in Venice and the bureaucrats who interpret them,” he expostulated. “Buildings that imitate look like imposters and that is just what they are. Of course, I have always been free in designing interiors.”
To appreciate Scarpa’s genius, you must linger in the museums he transformed and reinstalled, explore cemeteries for tombs, and drive out to the Gipsoteca Canoviana in Possagno and the extraordinary church at Borca di Cadore, near Cortina. Happily, his entry pavilion for the Venice Biennale has been reinstalled, and 16 pages are devoted to the newly restored Olivetti showroom, around the corner from San Marco.
In contrast to an earlier monograph, Carlo Scarpa: Architecture and Design (Rizzoli), which is principally a photo album with straightforward descriptions of 43 buildings and interiors, McCarter limits himself to 19 in ten thematic chapters, but explores them in greater depth, interspersing drawings and period images with the exemplary color photographs. Though his writing lacks verve, and the typography is perversely eccentric to the point of illegibility, this is a rich, enlightening account of the master’s oeuvre.