Carlo Scarpa: The Master of Sculpture and Light

Natural light is one of the most critical elements in architecture. Although unbuilt and difficult to control, it plays a crucial part in defining how space is perceived in terms of scale, textures, materiality, and overall atmosphere. Natural light also impacts the emotions people feel in a space, whether lack of light makes us feel fear and anxiety or ample light makes us feel safe and ethereal. As much as light impacts architecture, architecture also impacts light. Through framing vistas, creating 3D massings that cast sculptural shadows, and carving voids from solids that create unique light projections, many architects have mastered design techniques that utilize light in a way that seamlessly integrates it within a building- and perhaps one of the best to do this was the Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa.

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Brion Vega Cemetery. Image © Mili Sánchez Azcona

Carlo Scarpa was one of the most mysterious architects of the 20th century. He was best known for his detailed approach to materials and his ability to reimagine museums and other public spaces in non-traditional ways, often stating that he had little interest in designing the modern, post-war steel buildings that were being constructed during his heyday. His designs were complex collages of simple geometries, often derived from a combination of Japanese and Venetian influences. His appreciation for details and dedication to his craft led him to design even the most intricate of designs including supports for staircases, picture-hanging mechanisms that hung art in his museums, and cut-outs in walls to allow just the right amount of light in.

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Brion Vega Cemetery. Image © Mili Sánchez Azcona

The Brion Vega Cemetery, located in Northern Italy, is one of Scarpa’s most expressive projects that perhaps best illustrates his manifest of geometry and the impact of light. Simple geometries made of concrete tell a narrative of the couple who is buried there (along with Scarpa after his death in 1974), and how they will be reunited in the afterlife. Upon entering the cemetery, visitors are greeted by the vescia piscis, the famous symbol of two rings interlocking, one covered in blue mosaic tile and the other in red, which frames the grassy lawn of the tomb. The vestibule from where this is viewed is dark, while the exterior light pours in and illuminates the two circles. A connecting corridor, lit by slits of light, guides visitors to the square-shaped chapel of the tomb, which, by contrast, is flooded with natural light. Walking through these connecting spaces provides narrow, framed views of the brightest and most light-filled part of the site, the crypts of the Brion family.

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Castelvecchio Museum. Image © Flickr User Andreaosti

Another one of Scarpa’s projects, the Castelvecchio Museum, is seen as one of his masterpieces. The renovation, which was constructed in many phases over the course of 20 years, reimagined new ways of displaying the city’s collection of medieval and renaissance art. The design brings in new sources of natural light while highlighting vistas as visitors move between gallery spaces or look outside to view other parts of the museum. Scarpa also designed each piece upon which the art would sit, including plinths, easels, rods, frames, and pedestals. The dramatic effects of the space are highlighted by the nuanced details and the pseudo-eclecticism of the overall design, all while creating unique windows that force natural light to shift upon the artwork and highlight it in ways it was likely not meant to be viewed.

It’s impossible to thoroughly analyze the ways in which Scarpa’s designs are truly unique. His attention to detail and ability to think of infinite ways to tell a story of a space through multiple vantage points is only overshadowed by his ability to transform and distort natural light.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Carlo Scarpa: The Master of Sculpture and Light" 28 Mar 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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