Monday, May 28, 2018

My Pilgrimage to Tomba Brion

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This circular portal forms the entrance to the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley
While in Venice last week, I had to make an obligatory stop at the enigmatic Brion Cemetery, by Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa. Most people have never heard of this place, located outside a small village about an hour's drive (or train ride) north of Venice, near the city of Treviso. Most people have never heard of Carlo Scarpa, either, for that matter. But to most architects, Brion Cemetery has an almost mythical status as a pilgrimage site. 

Carlo Scarpa in 1954, studying renderings by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Carlo Scarpa is himself a bit of an enigma. He deeply admired Frank Lloyd Wright and some of Scarpa's work is very reflective of that admiration - especially in his rigorous use of geometric shapes and patterns in his designs. It appears that appreciation and influence may have been mutual, as the one commission that Wright had for a project in Venice is a bit of a departure from Wright's usual work, and almost appears like something Scarpa could have designed, as well. 

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Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Masieri Memorial House for some clients in Venice in 1953. It was never built, as it met strong resistance from the Venice city council and residents. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Scarpa refused to sit for the certification exams that became obligatory for architects in Italy after the war, and so therefore could not technically call himself an architect. But he was always a designer. He was a lead designer at the famed Murano glassworks, and eventually expanded into larger design and architecture projects, eventually designing interiors and buildings throughout the Veneto region, collaborating with other licensed architects. He also taught architectural drawing and design at the university in Venice for his entire adult life. And despite his refusal to sit for the exams, he has earned near universal admiration amongst architects for his work. He left a strong legacy, not just in his own work, but in his students, such as Mario Botta. He was clearly an architect's architect. 

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Church of San Giovanni Battista by Mario Botta. Carlo Scarpa was Botta's thesis advisor. You can clearly see Scarpa's influence in Botta's work. 

Considering his almost universal admiration amongst architects, one has to wonder why Scarpa is not more widely known. I'm guessing it has something to do with his hometown - Venice - which is hardly known as a bastion of Modernist architecture. And many of his projects remained unbuilt, as the conservative, historic city never embraced Modernism in the same way as some other Italian cities did (such as Milan and Como). Most of his projects were remodels of existing historic buildings - especially interiors like the Olivetti showroom at the Piazza San Marco.  

Olivetti showroom at the Piazza San Marco by Carlo Scarpa (1958). Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Tomba Brion, commissioned by Onorina Brion, is probably Scarpa's best known project. Onorina Brion was the widow of the founder of the Brionvega electronics company - at the time Italy's premier manufacturer of consumer electronics. 
The iconic “stereo radiophonograph” Brionvega RR126 was designed by architects
Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni in 1965.

Tomba Brion was meant as a private family cemetery, adjacent to a traditional cemetery in the tiny village of San Vito d'Altivole. Scarpa started designing this project in 1968, and it continued making changes and adding to the the design up until his own death in 1978 (he accidentally fell down a concrete staircase during a visit to Sendai, Japan). Scarpa is also buried at this cemetery, in a corner just outside the walls. 

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Scarpa's grave site. He was apparently buried standing up, wrapped in linen like a medieval knight. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Scarpa's seminal work is a master course in demonstrating the plasticity of board-formed concrete and the use of geometric shapes. It's a showcase for a variety of complicated techniques that cause architects to be giddy with delight, and for engineers and tradesmen to groan at the difficulty of execution. But more important than that, it's a beautiful example of narrative architecture, full of symbolism. The entire L-shaped plot of land is framed as a story, with various forms and spaces that create different feelings and emotions as one passes through the space. The over-arching themes are about love, and complementary duality. 
tomba brion plan
Scarpa's Tomba Brion is an an L-shaped plot of land adjacent to a traditional cemetery. The main entry is located at #1. 

The original entrance conceived by Scarpa was accessed from inside the main cemetery. He created a portal with a viseca pisces (literally, "fish bladder", but means intersecting circles). This symbol of duality has religious undertones in many religions, including Christianity. It's often found in cathedrals, and is the basis for the gothic arch. In this case, it is also meant to symbolize the unity of Onorina and Giuseppe Brion. It's a theme Scarpa used often in his work, and is found frequently here. 

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The entry portal from the main part of the cemetery. Photo ©Darren Bradley
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The narrow corridor is a classic example of compression and release, as well as the symbolism and contrasting materials so often present in Scarpa's work.
Photo ©Darren Bradley
From the entry portal, the corridors compress even further at a perpendicular, narrow corridor that forms a "T". At one end (on the right side), a locked glass door controls access to a path to a meditation pavilion floating in the middle of a reflecting pool - the only part of the site not openly accessible to the public. When unlocked, this door opens through a complicated pulley system. 

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Narrow corridor leading to the floating meditation pavilion. Note the glass door blocking access. Photo ©Darren Bradley

For reasons I don't quite understand, the meditation pavilion is closed to the public most of the time. The original wood structure had rotted and has been recently replaced with a new structure identical in design. 

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Meditation Pavilion. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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View from the garden of the Brion Cemetery, looking back through the viseca pisces to the entry and main cemetery. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The other end of the corridor opens to a grassy area with an open concrete barrel vault where Onorina and Giuseppe are entombed together, with stone sarcophaguses slanted towards each other. 

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Water feature leading to the sarcophagus of the Brion family patriarch and his wife. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Cantilevered barrel vault sheltering the tombs of Onorina and Giuseppe Brion. Photo @Darren Bradley

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Why do normal steps when you can do these? Photo ©Darren Bradley

Beyond that, around the bend on the L-shaped plot, is the covered shelter that houses other family members of the Brion clan. 

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A sort of stylized, cantilevered pyramid shelters the graves of other Brion family members. Photo @Darren Bradley
Finally, another narrow, covered corridor leads to the chapel, floating on another reflecting pond. This chapel is the highlight of the experience, full of intricate details. Another garden is accessed only through rear doors at the other end of the chapel. 
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Extended transitional space... a long corridor from the garden to the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Contemplating the space. Photo ©Darren Bradley
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Entrance to the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Interior portal/antechamber in the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley
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Chapel interior, with door leading to the rear garden. That garden can only be accessed through the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Chapel altar. Photo ©Darren Bradley
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View of the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley
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Rear garden, with view back towards the chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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View of chapel floating on reflecting pond. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Notwithstanding the symbolism, the interlocking geometric spaces and textures are fascinating and pleasing to the eye. Scarpa was a master at contrasting textures and materials in a way that brings out their best. In this case, the smooth white plaster, rough board-form concrete, and touches of brass, glass, and colorful tiles all work wonderfully together. 

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Detail view of chapel side entrance. Note how the concrete details continue underwater, as well. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I only experienced this space in dark, grey, flat light, unfortunately. But it's clear that the complicated forms were designed to create deep shadows and patterns in the bright sunlight, and change throughout the day. I look forward to returning for some more photography in better light conditions soon. 

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View of rear courtyard out to rear entrance, with chapel. Photo ©Darren Bradley


Peter Marquis-Kyle said...

Thank you, Darren, for this thoughtful and evocative account. I hope you do get a chance to go back when the light is more conducive. Around the time you were at the tomba I was in Verona, where the sky was overcast with sporadic showers, and parts of the Castelvecchio were closed and scaffolded. Still a wonderful experience and, like you, I'm keen to return. I'm sure I don't need to say you should see the Castelvecchio (and the Banca Popolare di Verona too).

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