PRINT November 2013

Josiah McElheny

Carlo Scarpa, Gipsoteca, Museo Canova, 1955–57, Possagno, Italy. Photo: Peter Guthrie/Flickr.

IN 2011, a modest space in Venice designed by the celebrated architect Carlo Scarpa was designated a public monument and museum. It was an unlikely candidate for elevation to canonical status: A street-level commercial showroom on San Marco Square, commissioned by the Italian manufacturer Olivetti in 1957, the space was filled with typewriters displayed on an assortment of custom pedestals, stairs, cantilevers, shelves, niches, and floating planes. With its lyrical square window peeking out onto a side street and an elegant storefront, displaying just three perfectly curvilinear machines, the showroom is not centered around the organization of space but on the human-scale objects contained therein.

Few architects of the postwar period were interested in small-scale ideas; at most, they designed furniture as accents to their spaces. But from his extensive work with the Venini glass factory on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon to the intricate metalwork and joints of his canal bridge for the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, Scarpa was as passionate about the diminutive as he was about the spaces he created and the views they framed. His work with Venini, in particular, demonstrates his dedication to architectural ideas expressed in things: For over a decade he worked directly on the factory floor with the glassmakers and was paid only a day rate. The tabletop-size glass objects he made there comprise a diverse exploration of strange material effects and surprising historical borrowings. A number of his most famous vase forms are derived from antique Chinese porcelain, but because of the luminous effect of their batutto (“hammered”) surfaces—created through a laborious engraving technique that he largely pioneered—they seem utterly twentieth century. Scarpa’s ideas oscillated between the ancient and the futuristic, as in his somewhat disturbing granulare bowls, which look almost diseased—the result of his insistence on using two fundamentally incompatible glasses of very different hardness—or the corroso pieces, which have almost fleshlike, sculpted surfaces and are among the best of his works in any scale. These glass vases, bowls, and plates were typically produced in very small numbers and displayed on elaborate, architectural-sculptural constructions he made as showpieces for the factory to display at exhibitions such as the Milan Triennale; they were produced not so much to be sold as to demonstrate the capacity of the traditional factory culture to adapt to modernism.

Scarpa might, in fact, best be understood as a vitrine architect: He not only framed objects and interior vistas, but created works that are meditations on scale and the process of looking itself, as can be seen in the 1957 Gipsoteca, which functions as a kind of vitrine-within-a-vitrine, as part of the Museo Canova in Possagno, Italy. A tour de force of both architecture and exhibition design, the museum extension contains small plaster models of sculptures by Antonio Canova, as well as some of the artist’s life-size Neoclassical figures. The artworks are incorporated into a scheme of quasi-figurative display cases whose graphic framing, emphasis on dramatic reveals, and transparency are echoed in the design of the corners and windows of the building itself. In the Gipsoteca, as in many of Scarpa’s best spaces, a visitor is prompted to reconsider the scale of his or her body again and again, in this case through a nested series of frames: the building, the full-scale figures, the vitrines, and the scaled figures within.

Scarpa’s delicate articulation of the ways in which display can unfold our experience of objects proposes a more contingent and physical idea of architecture: contingent in that display is inherently impermanent (evinced in the current obsolescence of a typewriter showroom), and physical in its demonstration that while architecture can be scaled both up and down, the only real space is that which can be measured against our own bodies. While modernism often trafficked in the architecture of the imaginary, Scarpa’s architecture of the temporary and the material is the one in which we will always live.

Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.