PRINT November 2013

Ken Okiishi

Carlo Scarpa, restoration of Museo di Castelvecchio, 1958–75, Verona, Italy. Photo: Farrell Nilton/Flickr.

A STRANGE TECHNOLOGICAL RUPTURE occurs as one proceeds through the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona, Italy. In line with contemporary educational efforts, the museum has installed a computer screen that, prompted by an awkward touchscreen mounted below it, displays images of Carlo Scarpa’s ravishing, intensely overlaid drawings of the design for the building compound’s 1958–75 renovation and newly conceived and realized exhibition display. This, in itself, wouldn’t be particularly jarring, but the ad hoc placement of a surveillance monitor next to the first screen, showing deliriously oversaturated live feeds from throughout the museum, provokes a sudden sense of confusion as to why this ghastly thing has happened so visibly in one of the world’s most thoughtfully executed museum architectures, interrupting the invigoratingly complex flows through these buildings. A completely unexpected series of thoughts follows—it feels a bit like when an Internet signal suddenly appears and your phone beeps in the middle of a forest.

I’m guessing the awkward proximity of these two monitors has to do with the practicalities of minimizing the intrusion of network cables within the original building structure. But its effect on the viewer—here, marvelously sensitized to the interactions of color, form, weight, diagram, space, and artworks, all simultaneously suspended in multiple discursive and formal fields—is to throw the basic physical experience of walking and seeing into crisis.

Exiting the room after this screenal breach, I stood at the threshold of the outdoor passageway that connects the two main museum buildings. (By chance, I happened to visit during Verona’s Bacanal del Gnoco, when the entire city is thrown into a wildly trans­historical costumed frenzy. The sounds of reveling teenagers, who looked like a thousand different castings of a neorave Romeo and Juliet, ricocheted through the museum’s palimpsest of materials and surfaces.) Standing at that point, where the castle complex is punctured by the grand arch bridge (the longest in the world at the time of its completion in the 1350s, it was destroyed in World War II and reconstructed directly after), you are confronted with a literally folded space. As you descend through substructures of the bridge onto various stairways and landings, any sense of the horizon or street level in relation to the rest of the city is multiplied beyond recognition. Gazing out onto the equestrian statue of Cangrande I della Scala for the second time (the first having been from below), I was struck by how perfectly bizarre its placement seemed—horse and rider half looking away, hovering above garden courtyard, bridge, and other irrational concrete precipices. As the river started to become visible through the original castle archways, and as I glided across the suspended walkways amid more crisscrossing, floating walkways of inscrutable origin and destination, I realized how absolutely primitive digital screens can look when set in the same material field as Scarpa’s remarkably advanced display apparatuses and used, no less, as vehicles for his plans for these very structures.

Institutional buildings today (and I hesitate to use the term architecture here, since most of what we live with is not) could be said to present a similarly strange fission of materials and technological interfaces. As has been the case for the past twenty or so years, these structures are designed almost exclusively on computer screens—deemed more efficient platforms for the mediation of construction and code. But as this digitization has mixed with increasing financialization, “architecture” is now commonly seen as the whittled-down sum of grossly general components: the building’s “skin,” its atrium, and the general path of circulation dictated by its plan—nothing more. Beyond that framework, detailing is frequently outsourced, and spaces of use are often conceived according to a hierarchy of access to “views” and “naming opportunities.” Not surprisingly, the first question most “end users” ask upon entering any structure, public or private, is: “Do you have WiFi?”

The primary network for Scarpa—both as metaphor and as material—is water. As he would have said, in his peculiarly flat-footed and practical way, this is probably because he was Venetian. But thirty-five years after Scarpa’s death, the meaning of “being Venetian” in an era when increases in sea level carry apocalyptic portent pierces the core of urgent ideological and formal questions as to how we build in the world. Scarpa’s approach to water, if it can be generalized, was to open the built structure to the unpredictable forces of nature, and then to make that porosity into the basis of decoration—a kind of ornament that seems to emerge naturally, but also by surprise, like a barnacle. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, whom the Italian architect glossed in his own work and discussed in detail in idiosyncratic lectures to his students, Scarpa designed his structures not for the tops of waterfalls but for the bottoms of canals.

Statue of Cangrande I della Scala, ca. 1329, Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy, November 8, 2005. Photo: Stefan Buzas. © CISA- A. Palladio.

Scarpa sought to explore “the way” or “the path”—as in traditional Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, and specifically, given the Venetian architect’s particular fascinations, in the movement of the mind/body through Shinto temple shrine complexes—and invited such forces to invade the Cartesian space of Western architecture. In his complicated and often tortured relationship to traditional Japanese architecture, he fermented gaps of not-knowing into ornate and often cryptically irrational adornments and structural elements. It can sometimes be difficult, for example, to figure out how to open a door designed by Scarpa: The hinge is given so much manufactural intensity that the eye/hand misses the subdued, frequently recessed apparatus that actually opens the portal.

And this zany quality to Scarpa’s work always hits in the middle of a total bliss-out. The poetry that emerges in his built structures, like that of his drawings, cuts many ways at once. But now, in an age of flat buildings and overly pedagogical exhibition design, it is Scarpa’s wild sense of humor that speaks most critically. Architecture, in the twenty-first century—at a time when space in institutional buildings is overwhelmingly determined by xXxtreme branding opportunities and by the bodies that fill these structures as props for half-baked, neo-Taylorist ideas—is once again in an ideological and technological stranglehold (google “skip-stop elevator” if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Our hypercapitalist cathedrals of wanting produce even more coldness and cruelty than the state socialist architecture against which (however unwittingly) Scarpa’s vision emerged as a counterforce. And yet, in that special way in which architecture can skip across time, Scarpa’s forms and material processes have the potential to shatter all of this.

Ken Okiishi is an artist based in New York.

“Venetian Glass by Carlo Scarpa: The Venini Company, 1932–1947,” curated by Nicholas Cullinan, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from Nov. 4, 2013–March 2, 2014; the exhibition is an adaptation of “Carlo Scarpa: Venini 1932–1947,” curated by Marino Barovier for the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and Pentagram Stiftung, on view at Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice, last year.