A gar­den for the dead

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By David Neustein

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.

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