Carlo Scarpa: Mediating the Classical and Modern in Ornamentation


Project Description

According to Tom Beeby’s The Grammar of Ornament/ Ornament as Grammar, “ornamental manipulation and historical architecture were carried into the Modern Movement in veiled form”. Citing Le Corbusier, Frank Floyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe as examples, it is argued that modern interpretation of ornament mainly happens in three aspects: firstly, geometric construction in ornament is taken as a methodology for architectural scale operations; secondly, the integration with elements that have architectural meanings avoid the disassociation occasioned by eclecticism; finally, the ornamental resolution of the buildings aspires to achieve high level of mathematic accuracy resulting in a “perfect-fitting“ system.

Although the transformation is not lacking values, it also creates certain unsatisfactory as regard to the loss of original meanings of the classical ornamental system. For example, geometric operations in larger scale gradually surpasses human capacity of “immediate perception”; too tight integration with structural system may result in the loss of figural quality for the “phenomenal generator” and its accordant symbolic meanings; in addition, strict mathematical accuracy further absorbed the figural quality into a field of abstraction, leaving no space for the unexpected and “drama”.

These dichotomies between classical and modern versions of ornament found an ingenious solution in Carlo Scarpa’s work especially his master piece – “the Brion Cemetery”. The exquisite and robust detailing in his work speaks the similar spirit with classical ornamentation yet without losing the taste established by modern precedents. The research, through analysis of Scarpa’s details, summarizes three main characters of his work: “opposites”, “misalignment” and “doubling”. These compositional strategies are also reflected in the larger architectural arrangement. The continuity and integrity from smaller incidences to larger systems illustrates the value of Scarpa’s work: he both incorporates modern sensibility to ornament as a classical topic and resists “barren” modernity and “somber” rationality by insistence on the freedom of individual expression – the “unnecessary” and the mythical – the looseness and playfulness in his work nevertheless speaks a profound care for humanity.