Zen master: Carlo Scarpa and Japan’s guiding influence

Zen master: Carlo Scarpa and Japan’s guiding influence

In 1978, Carlo Scarpa was visiting Sendai, in the north of Japan. It was only the Venetian architect’s second visit to the country, and it would be his last. Though the reason for his trip is unknown, his tragic death – after falling down a flight of stairs – has been widely recorded, perhaps because of the emphatic connection that it would make between Scarpa and Japan.

There are very clear Japanese influences in Scarpa’s most iconic achievements: features such as the interlocking circles (representing male/female union) at the Brion Cemetery, Veneto – where Scarpa is buried – the latticed Shoji-esque doors of the Castelvecchio Museum; the stark minimalism in his Olivetti showroom; the profound sensitivity to details to create harmony with the seasons. Scarpa established himself using old techniques and looking at ancient craft, by renewing tradition with modern innovation – qualities at the core of architectural thinking in post-war Japan.

Yet the influence of not only Japanese architecture, but of its culture, design and even Zen spiritualism in Scarpa’s work in Italy has been investigated very little (a 1996 documentary on the architect and designer, for example, makes no mention of Japan). Scarpa first visited Japan in 1969, yet for years before that was exposed to Japonism – the western fetishisation of Japanese culture and aesthetics – in the work of artists and architects he admired such as Gustav Klimt and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Original drawing of the water pavilion at Brion Tomb, San Vito d’Altivole, by Carlo Scarpa, 1969–1978

As part of the MAXXI Foundation’s exhibition ’The Japanese House. Architecture & Life after 1945in Rome, the impact of Japan on his practice will be brought to light via Scarpa’s own personal documents, photographs and library, including the Japan Design House magazines he collected for a decade, as well as books on Japan by Fosco Maraini and Mario Gromo, used as travel guides and filled with Scarpa’s own reflections.

In an interview only a month before his final journey to the country in 1978, Scarpa said, ’Yes, I am very much influenced by Japan, and not just because I visited it, but because even before I went there, I admired their essentiality and above all their supreme good taste. What we call good taste is present everywhere in Japan.’

This rare exploration of Scarpa and Japan considers new ways for understanding one of the greatest architects of the 20th century and his legacy, and more widely, gives new insights into the history of significant cultural exchange between East and West in the last century.

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