Tim Marlow: a design pilgrimage

Tim Marlow is the director and chief executive of London’s Design Museum and a writer and broadcaster. He was formerly the artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts and is an accomplished art historian. But what we really like about him is that he is one of life’s enthusiasts, and he is rarely as enthusiastic as when discussing his personal obsession with Italian designer and architect, Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978). No surprise, then, that his Secret Tip is Scarpa’s last and greatest work

My secret tip is a pilgrimage site to probably the most underrated architect of the 20th century. Carlo Scarpa’s work is renowned and revered by architects, but not widely known by the public, which is a great shame.

The Tomba Brion is difficult to get to on public transport. It’s about an hour’s drive from Venice, but it’s a real gem. It’s Scarpa’s last work, of which he said, with classic understatement: ‘I really think this work is quite good.’ ‘Utterly mesmerising’ is how I’d put it.

The Tomba Brion or Brion Memorial is a structure commissioned in 1969 by a widow, Onorina Tomasi Brion, who asked Scarpa to create it in memory of her late husband, Giuseppe Brion, who founded Brionvega, the Italian electronics company.

What makes the place so extraordinary is that even if you’ve done your research and looked at extensive photographs and think you think you know what you are going to see, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of something so simultaneously intimate and utterly monumental.

It’s situated in San Vito d’Altivole, near Treviso, and to reach it yougo through the municipal cemetery that is full of conventionally ornate headstones and family tombs. Scarpa said that he wanted death to be more than shoeboxes, and while the village cemetery is not quite full of “shoeboxes”, it is very traditional.

Then ahead, forming an L along two sides, is this extraordinary concrete vision. But Scarpa is not just about concrete, he’s all about materials; so you also find brass, bronze, mosaic and glass. There’s water here too – it is a place of both physical and metaphorical reflection – and even includes a Zen garden from which you have framed views of the Dolomites.

Apart from a handful of commissioned houses and the Venezuelan pavilion in Venice for the Biennale, most of Scarpa’s work is intervention and restoration, revealing the historical layering of existing buildings. The Tomba Brion is standalone, though it emanates from and is on the edge of a cemetery. But, importantly, although it is very much a family tomb – Brion’s wife Onorina is herself buried here, along with other family members – it does not come across as a necropolis. It really doesn’t feel maudlin for a cemetery; there is something very life-affirming about its range and scale, its walkways and waterways. 

And despite the monumental scale, there is real intimacy here. The tombs of husband and wife, for example, are visible under a concrete bridge, lined with mosaic tiles on its underside. They are raised above the ground and gently tilt towards each other. It’s really touching – in death, these two are reaching for each other.

Scarpa always said he wanted to bring poetic imagination into play, that his work should be the result of the emanation of some form of poetry. Poetic architecture usually produces something sentimental. But the Tomba Brion is more like concrete poetry, where form, rhythm and space mediate between the landscape and what’s underneath – the earth – and the lives that have been lived. 

Most great architects make their name in signature buildings and this is Scarpa’s: a coda to his great career, as well as being a monument to the Brion relationship. He must have liked it, because he asked permission to be buried here, too, and his little tomb is on the left, on the way in, an unobtrusive, gentle monument to himself (he is buried alongside his wife, and the headstone was designed by his son, Tobia, also a designer and architect). It’s a modest memorial, in some respects a Modernist version of what Christopher Wren has in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Like many of the great architects – Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier among them – Scarpa didn’t fully qualify as a practising architect. Some academics and architects had an issue with this, but clearly Scarpa’s clients didn’t. Perhaps what they saw was that there are few architects who can engage with Modernism with such sensitivity to the past. Modernism is often about glass and concrete, of imposed rational structures obliterating the past, while Post-Modernism, at its worst, is a slavish appropriation of what has gone before. Scarpa, on the other hand, has revered and revealed the past; he plays with it; he’s not nostalgic, but strips things back and reveals the structures, processes, materials, spaces and memories of architecture and place but in ways that feel entirely of the present. 

This is almost certainly a result of his Venetian background. Being from such an historical city and region, he could not ignore the past. His fascination with materials shows him absorbing the skills and techniques of history. He was the director of two great glass companies in Venice, and so we see glass and frequent reflection in his work. Alongside Venetian stucco polishing. And mosaics. All this he did in a very unwhimsical way.

Elements of this materialism and artisanship find their way into the Tomba Brion, too, where the entrance has a window on the Veneto made up of Scarpa’s signature interlocking circles, here lined with blue and red mosaic tiles and, of course, they harness the effects of light in a variety of ways – another Scarpa obsession.

Perhaps it is because Scarpa is so rooted in one place – in Venice and the Veneto – that he is slightly overlooked. Other 20th century architects do not have a similar localism. But this aspect of his life may explain the intensity of his spirit, and the way he can make even a concrete monument like the Tomba Brion feel utterly appropriate to its surroundings.

As a footnote, if you do decide to make the pilgrimage, then, as I discovered during mine, you can also stop off in Castelfranco Veneto, where in the cathedral there is a work by probably the most important but underrated painter in Western art: Giorgione. There are only about six works in existence definitively attributed to him, and this one, Madonna and Child Between St Francis and St Nicasius, from around 1504, is an undisputed masterpiece. Giorgione was born in Castelfranco Veneto, and though the cathedral dates from the 18th century, Giorgione’s altarpiece remains installed as intended in a pre-existing side chapel.

Then, after you’ve toured Scarpa’s Modernist masterpiece of almost five centuries later, why not head to the beautiful nearby town of Asolo? You are in Prosecco country, so order a glass and toast the great Mr Scarpa.

The Tomba Brion, Via Brioni, 31030 Altivole TV, Italy

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