PRINT November 2013

Carol Bove

Carlo Scarpa, Brion Tomb and Sanctuary, 1969–78, San Vito d’Altivole, Italy. Photo: Gianantonio Battistella. © CIS A- A. Palladio.

“DO WHAT THOU WILT SHALL BE THE WHOLE OF THE LAW.” I just figured out what British occultist Aleister Crowley meant by that: It’s a twentieth-century, Western definition of dharma. Crowley doesn’t mean “Do whatever you want”—he’s telling you to discover what he termed true will, a kind of purpose that transcends the ego and brings the individual into harmony with nature and the universe.

The discovery about Crowley and dharma eventually led me to wonder, What is the true will of an I beam? I found important clues in Guido Beltramini and Italo Zannier’s 2007 book Carlo Scarpa: Architecture and Design, where there’s an image of a Scarpa-designed apartment building in Vicenza, Italy, completed posthumously in 1979. The horizontal I beams running between the main volume of the building and the concrete pillars beneath are used as both decorative accents and structural elements. Of course, an I beam is strong, and strength is a property that Scarpa emphasizes. He also discloses the hidden forms of the I beam—welding some beams together flange-to-flange, cutting through them, capping them, situating them so that they form a compound construction that echoes the nesting motif visible in the concrete components of the building. The revealed forms are not simply what an I beam can be coaxed into doing. These forms already exist in the implicate order of I beams.

I beams and steel construction, late-nineteenth-century innovations, were too new to have accumulated significant stylistic or tectonic traditions by the time Scarpa began designing with them. That didn’t prejudice him against them (he cared about the past but wasn’t in thrall to it); it merely limited his handling of these structures to a shallow frame of reference: the roughly one hundred years from decadent Jugendstil to high International Style. He had a modern outlook that was retrospective at the same time.

Historical layering is one of the most obvious features of Scarpa’s renovations of historical buildings and of his exhibition designs, but such layering is visible in buildings he designed from scratch as well. Consider the bronze hardware he used for the Brion Tomb and Sanctuary, commissioned in 1969 for a cemetery in the hamlet of San Vito d’Altivole, Italy. Here as elsewhere, Scarpa’s application of materials is satisfying in its precision. The keyholes, the articulated frames around the open doorways, the window hinges, and the fittings for a small exquisite alabaster container, to name a few examples, beg for close inspection. Bronze has a certain color, texture, hardness, and workability, and you can sense his nuanced responsiveness to each of these qualities. His designs developed out of a dialogue with craftsmen who were recipients of knowledge passed down for centuries—his choices were informed by their practical experience.

The modernist ethos of “truth to materials” was a kind of aesthetic empiricism and a corollary of the scientific method. Scarpa’s attunement to the true will of glass, concrete, or metal was different. Venice, his childhood home, protected him from the illusion that any aesthetic or structure, no matter how innovative or progressive or functional, could be wholly determined by material alone or could extract itself from history: The past was too ever-present and the craft traditions were too deep. The mastery of procedural knowledge, the savoir faire that’s transmitted by every link in a chain of experts and apprentices stretching back through the Renaissance and into antiquity, is part of Scarpa’s bronze. There is no overt reference to the past, none of the lugubrious historicism that one might expect in a grand mausoleum. But at the same time, when you look at the Brion monument’s metallurgy, you understand that bronze has been in our hands for thousands of years and has developed innumerable sympathies: Design is the manifestation of ideology, and bronze has taken innumerable shapes over the millennia and has been invested with innumerable systems of belief.

As you make your way among the tomb’s pavilions and monuments, the details (fittings, trims, a wide range of inlays), many of them at the scale of jewelry, are so seductive, so freely available to the touch. When I visited, I was moved by the fact that the ceremony of passage into the monument is free of any interference from ticket takers or guards, or even signage—the transition takes place internally, as you psychologically adjust to the environment. Brion shocked me with its effulgence. It has so many motifs, many of them unique rather than repeated. Where are the refrains? Where is the restraint? I am wary of needless invention—yet here the effect was so intelligent. Brion said to me, so convincingly: To be disciplined does not necessarily mean to be parsimonious.

Carol Bove is an artist based in New York.