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Architectural Driving Tour of Veneto

A path in the Tomba Brion cemetery, near Asolo.

Photo: Christian Kerber

Modern architecture has never been particularly welcome in Venice. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Kahn were all rebuffed in their efforts to add to the city’s historic fabric. Only after heated controversy did a soaring contemporary bridge by Santiago Calatrava open last year over the Grand Canal.

But one latter-day architect, Carlo Scarpa, did manage to put a subtle imprint on the archipelago city—his native town. Scarpa’s idiosyncratic approach veered outside the International Style of Modernism, the dominant mode during his lifetime, tapping sources as diverse as Wright, the Viennese Secession, and Japanese tradition. And in a career spanning five decades, until his death in 1978, Scarpa won a cult following among architects around the world.

He remains little known to the general public. But to tour his works today, almost all of them concentrated in Venice and the Veneto region, is to embark on a journey of aesthetic discovery. I’ve mapped the best route for taking in Scarpa’s unparalleled museums and impeccably detailed spaces, starting in the heart of the old city and then driving to the nearby towns and countryside.

Day 1: Venice and Verona

Soon after arriving in town, I follow the crowds making a beeline for the Piazza San Marco. But I don’t join them at the basilica or the Doge’s Palace, instead heading for a far newer landmark: the showroom Scarpa created for the Olivetti company in 1957. Diagonally across from the celebrated cathedral, it’s a jewel-like temple for secular objects. Scarpa transformed a long, narrow space underneath the arcade along the square’s northern flank into a dazzling, intimately scaled showcase for the display of Olivetti typewriters that, by the middle of the last century, had become coveted icons of modern design. As Scarpa was a Venetian, water played a key role in almost all of his projects. At the Olivetti showroom I find a carved black marble pool in the entryway, as if to echo the fonts of holy water at the basilica. Ahead is a floating staircase of marble slabs suspended from bronze rods, leading to an upper level with balconies along one side. The floors are intricately patterned in colorful Murano glass tiles. The space was until recently a cramped commercial art gallery, but the superb craftsmanship and pure geometry of Scarpa’s achievement shine through.

A five-minute walk from Piazza San Marco is Scarpa’s most important project in Venice, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, in the central Castello district, where the architect remodeled the ground floor and garden of a 16th-century palazzo that now houses an art museum and research library. Just outside, he created a delicate wooden footbridge across the narrow canal between the palazzo and its small piazza. It leads into a series of chambers on the palazzo’s lower level, long prone to periodic flooding; Scarpa’s solution was to leave a gateway open to the canal and add stone-lined channels that allow high waters to course through the building without covering the floors.

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