THE BRION TOMB
A garden for the dead
At the age of 59, shortly before the unveiling of his company’s iconic Black 201 Television Set, Guissepe Brion suddenly died. Born in the small town of San Vito d’altivole, Brion was one of post-war Italy’s great success stories. Working alongside his wife Onorina, he transformed a small business producing radio components into an electronics empire with a worldwide sales network. Brionvega went on to enlist Italy’s brightest creative minds, including the Castiglioni brothers, Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, to deliver the first all-italian television set, and foreshadow the digital age with compact, streamlined and modular designs. While Onorina continued to operate the company, her husband’s death required immediate attention. Summoning an architect worthy of the task, she set about commissioning a fitting memorial to Brion and his legacy. From that point on, the histories of architect and client would be forever intertwined. Described as “an endless work” 1, “a battlefield” 2, and “a vision of the future” 3, the Brion Tomb is widely considered to be Carlo Scarpa’s culminating masterpiece. Completed in 1978, the project remains a site of architectural pilgrimage.
San Vito D’altivole is a centuries-old town surrounded by flat, industrialised farmland at the foothills of the Dolomites. Though Brion had resettled in Milan, he was returned to his modest birthplace for burial. A plot of land adjoining the local cemetery, and equal in area to the entire cemetery grounds, was acquired for this purpose. This L-shaped, 2,200 square metre site was clearly far larger than necessary. Its sheer size testifying to wealth and status. We will never know precisely how the architect managed to persuade Onorina to mitigate the scale of the memorial and reserve most of the site as open space. Despite being one of most influential architects of his day, Scarpa spoke little of his work and left few records to posterity. In any case, rather than occupy the space with an imposing monument, Scarpa designed the memorial as a tranquil landscape and a place of collective contemplation. Linked by a linear pathway, the funerary complex incorporates a chapel, pools, two covered burial places, an expansive lawn and an island pavilion. In contrast to the old cemetery’s dense rows of headstones, the Brion Tomb luxuriates in space. So much space, in fact, that Onorina agreed to, or perhaps did not notice, her architect setting some aside for his own use. Between the private tomb and public cemetery, tucked out of sight, Scarpa created a small courtyard with a stand of Cypress trees. In 1978, with his project nearly complete, he tumbled down a flight of concrete steps while visiting Sendai, Japan. Scarpa died in hospital ten days later, aged 72, and his body was transported back to Italy. While his death was unexpected, the architect had drawn up detailed instructions in his will, including the precise location for his final resting place. He was buried standing upright, with a headstone designed by his son Tobia, in the little courtyard nested within his client’s site.
Born in Venice in 1906, Carlo Scarpa was a most unusual architect. In fact, during his lifetime he was never officially an architect at all, as he refused to sit Italy’s professional exam. Scarpa graduated from the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Art as Professor in Architectural Drawing at the tender age of 20. Rather than join an architectural practice, he began working with the glass masters of Murano on the design of decorative objects and chandeliers. So expert did Scarpa become at glasswork that he was appointed creative director of the Venini glass company in 1933, a position he held until 1947. Though he was responsible for a number of temporary exhibitions and interiors, and despite having taught architecture for many years, Scarpa only began producing permanent buildings himself while aged in his early fifties. The methods he employed in these projects were unorthodox, to say the least. Eschewing standard technical documentation, Scarpa approached drawing as a palimpsest of additions, tracings and erasures, never committing to a final blueprint. Resolution took place only on the construction site itself, where Scarpa worked in close collaboration with builders and craftsmen, inventing solutions on the spot. His projects, as a result, often developed over an extraordinarily long time— the Brion Tomb occupying the greater part of a decade.
At a time when homogenised Industrial Style architecture was conquering the world, all of Scarpa’s major commissions were located within or alongside historic structures. From the Canova Plaster Cast Gallery (1955-1957), to the Castelvecchio Museum (1956-1964), the Olivetti store (1957-1958) to the Foundation Querini Stampalia (1961-1963), Scarpa was forced to negotiate the idiosyncrasies of medieval and neoclassical remnants, maneuvering around columns and pediments, incorporating elaborate architraves or exposing hidden artefacts. The language he developed in these projects was appropriately episodic and contingent, creating architectural experience not through a single powerful gesture but through the accumulation of meticulously crafted and site-specific moments. Pushing architectural detailing to its limits, Scarpa devised impossibly complicated mechanisms and hinges, suspended heavy materials on improbably fine supports, and interlocked rough and smooth materials in ornate compositions. “Scarpa’s details are opposed to the banalization imposed on architectural inventiveness by usability,” writes Francesco Dal
4 Co. It would be simple to dismiss the architect’s attention to detail as excessive, his methods unrepeatable. But to focus solely on the intricacy of his work is to miss the wood for the trees. Whatever the project’s program or scale, Scarpa delighted in taking the occupant of his building on a journey, guided by the traces and memories of other spaces and times. He was a true master of architectural narrative.
It could be said that water, and not concrete, is the Brion Tomb’s primary material. Water flows in thin rivulets and collects in wide pools, reflects the sky, reveals shadowy depths, and supports vibrant clusters of waterlilies. The passage of water provides a metaphorical counterpart to the mourning process, ushering the visitor along a path and towards the sunken graves. An exotic presence within the surrounding terrain of cornfields and tilled earth, Scarpa’s water garden was surely inspired by the Venetian island of San Michele. When San Michele was converted into a cemetery by Napoleonic decree, the island was enlarged into a rectangle and enclosed with walls of uniform height. These transformations gave the island the appearance of a man-made artefact, uncannily floating above the surface of the lagoon. The platform of lawn at the heart of Scarpa’s burial complex is similarly raised above the waterline, its massed earth contained by walls that tilt outwards like a castle battlement.
Though water ripples and flows, clouds shift, plants bloom and wither, and materials gradually patinate and decay, time itself seems suspended within the Brion Tomb. For nearly 40 years, each visitor has walked a prescribed route, from chapel, to shrine, to final farewell, as if forever following the funeral procession. Beginning at the main road, a path lined in cypress trees crosses the fields, proceeds through the old cemetery, and arrives at the tomb’s main entrance. Within a shadowy portal draped in vines is a decorative screen of interlocking circles, and beyond a glimpse of grass, wall and sky. To the left is the way to the chapel. Formed from the same bare concrete as the outer walls, the chapel is square in plan and set on an angle, with a moat running around its edge. The moat is unexpectedly deep. Drifting just below the water’s surface, bright orange fish skim over concrete ziggurats that descend to the bottom, like the sunken ruins of an ancient civilisation. Elaborate ziggurat forms are also recessed into the chapel ceiling. Appearing in the absence of any overtly
religious iconography, the ziggurat is an ambiguous motif, perhaps indicating that the ground underfoot is only momentarily suspended, with flights of tiny stairs descending and ascending between earth and heavens, past and future.
A narrow pathway leads away from the chapel towards the raised datum of the lawn. Water runs in a trough towards the lawn’s centre, where a flattened concrete arch spans over a sunken platform. Guiseppe and Onorina Brion are interred side by side on this platform in identical sarcophagi, sheltered by the mosaic-lined canopy of the arch. The sarcophagi are spaced apart but, poignantly, lean towards each other in an eternal attempt at reunion. Importantly, no distinction is made between husband and wife, nor is the shrine itself obtrusive or ostentatious. The archway barely protrudes above the surrounding wall, its ends vanishing into the grass. There are no cenotaphs, obelisks, flags or spikes, no grand inscriptions or gilded statuary. It is a profoundly humble tribute to a powerful man, one that brings him literally down to earth and on the same level as his spouse. Recessed into the far wall is an even more utilitarian concrete structure with a pitched roof, beneath which other members of the Brion family are buried. In all, there is significantly more lawn than monument.
At the lawn’s edge is a larger pool carpeted in lilypads. In the centre of the pool is an island reserved for family members, with passage barred by a drawbridge and glass door. Suspended on thin steel struts, a timber canopy shelters the island and frames a single viewpoint that extends across water and lawn, over the arched shrine, beyond the wall, past the town and church spire and to the distant mountains beyond. Looking back along the path of approach, this view takes in the entire surroundings, a calm and detached vantage from a future beyond grief or loss.
“I consider this work, if you permit me, to be rather good and which will get better over time,” said Scarpa. “The place for the dead is a garden… I wanted to show some ways in which you could approach death in a social and civic way; and further what meaning there was in death, in the ephemerality of life— other than these shoe-boxes.” Any historical discussion of modern cemeteries
5 cannot avoid reference to Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz’s revolutionary design for Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery (1915-1940). Coinciding with profound changes to burial practice as cremation became commonplace, the Woodland Cemetery had an enormous impact on both funerary and landscape architecture. Asplund and Lewerentz relegated individual graves to the periphery, reserving the foreground for communal gathering. Long pathways conduct the mourner on a passage from grief to consolation, punctuated by comforting vistas of serene hills and silent forest. Prioritising green space over ‘shoe-boxes’, the design of the Woodland Cemetery anticipates the present- day re- emergence of natural burial practices, and perhaps previsions a future without any burial at all.
The Brion Tomb should be regarded as an equally visionary project. Tasked with designing a physical memorial, Scarpa instead created a space of virtual remembrance and reflection. In place of literal commemoration, he conceived of a meandering pathway through a cloistered garden, leading from past to hereafter, and enlivened by his own invented language of ornamentation. By trading burial space for landscape, Scarpa gave form to an expression of collective burial which could be used as a model for the future cemetery. Facing rapidly increasing populations and dwindling land reserves, most of the world’s cities are in desperate need of such models. With traditional burial costly and cremation energy-intensive, ecological burial seems the clear alternative. A new funerary architecture is therefore needed to create meaningful and humane sites of collective commemoration. Along with environmentally, economically and socially sustainable practices, contemporary rituals, digital epitaphs, inclusive symbols and consolatory landscapes must be imagined. Gone will be the need for displays of wealth and power, for segmented fields of granite headstones that permanently testify to the social and religious status of their occupants. Gone the forlorn site of a lonely grave, unseen and uncared for, slowly listing into the dirt. Instead we might imagine a garden, a social and civic space improved by the passage of time.