Sunday, January 19, 2014


Carlo Scarpa (R) and Frank Lloyd Wright (L) (Photo: Phaidon Press)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright created an entirely new organic architecture informed by elements of Nature, geometry, the Japanese print, music, engineering, a love of landscape, a healthy disdain for historicism and his own expansive vision, to create an architecture that was distinctly his own and virtually unassailable to imitators. Apprentices and distant admirers tried in vain to emulate Wright’s work but invariably fell short.

An exception is the Italian architect, Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) who is the subject of a new book from Phaidon Press by Robert McCarter who wrote so enthusiastically about the Martin House (“…one of the greatest spaces ever built…”) in his Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect, in 1997.  In his various roles as scholar, architect, and Dean of the School of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, McCarter has had the opportunity to spend many summers in Italy’s Veneto exploring Scarpa’s work in depth.  Scarpa’s trajectory in architecture is quite unusual; following graduation from the University of Venice in 1926 he began working in the age-old Venetian glass industry, joining the Venini company in 1932 and worked for them until 1946. Scarpa’s relatively short architectural career mostly post-dates his work for Venini. Owing to the circumstances of World War II he never obtained an architectural license. Indeed, Wright never was licensed either.

The relationship of Scarpa’s work to that of Frank Lloyd Wright is visually apparent but not easily characterized. If Wright was a product of the rolling, sky-filled American prairie, Scarpa was indigenous to the labyrinthian urban waterways of Venice. Whereas Wright venerated the horizon as the “line of repose,” much of Scarpa’s work involved interventions into pre-existing ancient buildings and sites in an around his native city and the rest of the Veneto. Wright rejected history; Scarpa interacted with it, brilliantly.  Scarpa venerated Wright from a distance of space, and time, and vast cultural differences but the influence always manifests itself as a fresh and startling reinvention as the following  comparisons indicate:

Corner window at Wright's Sam and Harriet Freeman House, Los Angeles, 1923 

Corner window and skylight, Scarpa's Museo Canova, Possagno, 1955-57 (Photo: Gipsoteca)

Interior illuminated by Scarpa's combined corner window and skylight, Museo Canova (Photo: Gipsoteca)

Front door lock mechanism, Wright's Aline Barnsdall House,  Hollyhock,  Angeles, 1920

Logo, Olivetti Store, Venice (J. Quinan)

Wright traveled to Venice in 1951 to receive an honorary degree from the University of Venice.  According to McCarter Wright was greeted at the airport by a welcoming committee of architects from the University but Scarpa, not licensed to practice, was not included. Wright refused to acknowledge the committee and called out, “Which one of you is Scarpa?” and selected him to be one of a two-man escort around the city.
The only available image of Scarpa and Wright during Wright's 1951 visit to Venice
Coincident with McCarter’s book, Scarpa’s glass designs for the Venini Company in Venice are the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until March 2, 2014. 
Battuto glass for Venini ( Photo: Susanne DeChillo, The New York Times)

Green pulegoso glass, 1932

Not much of a glass enthusiast, my recollection of shops in Venice awash in tourist-oriented Murano glass made me somewhat ambivalent about attending the Scarpa exhibition at the Met a few weeks ago, but I was wrong. The scope and richness of the work is truly breath-taking.  The images above and below convey something of the work but not the scale, the gradations of color, the surface textures, nor the play of light on and through the surfaces. If only Scarpa and his Venini team were available today for the restoration of the living room fireplace of the Darwin D. Martin House.

From the Incisi series, 1940-42 (Photo: Metropolis Magazine's blog)

Corroso glass, Venini, Murano
Carlo Scarpa

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Vladimír Šlapeta and Susana Tejada, Curator of the Darwin D. Martin House (J. Quinan)

Fiercely determined to research the papers of the distinguished Czech engineer, Jaroslav J. Polivka in the UB Archives, and to see the Darwin Martin House, Vladimír Šlapeta traveled from New York’s upper West side to La Guardia airport at 5 a.m. Monday morning only to be rebuffed by weather conditions in Buffalo. The following day he tried again at 5 a.m. to no avail. Finally he arrived after delays of two and a half hours on Thursday morning and was sped to the archives for an abbreviated stay. Such is the life of a distinguished scholar and world-renowned historian of Czech and European architectural modernism.

Vladimír Šlapeta, Honorary Fellow of the AIA, was Head of the Architecture Collection of the National Museum of Technology in Prague from 1973-91, where he organized a series of exhibitions: The Brno Functionalists in Helsinki, 1983; Czech Functionalism 1918-1938 at the AA in London; and Czech Cubism at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York and the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 he became Dean of the Architecture Faculty in Prague from 1991–97 and from 2003-2006, and later in Brno from 2006-2010. He is a Fellow of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where he served as Deputy Director of the Architecture Department from 1997-2006. He is the author or co-author of more than 30 books on architecture.

Czechoslovak Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1939

Why the intense interest in Polivka, and why Buffalo?  Born in 1886, Polivka rose from humble beginnings to become one of the great modernist engineers in Europe. After serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I he opened an office in Prague and developed photo-elastic stress analysis, a way of studying the stresses in reinforced concrete structures through passing light through clear plastic building models.  This and other innovations led to Polivka’s selection as engineer of the Czechoslovakian pavilions at the Paris Exposition in 1937 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

With the Second World War looming he decided to remain in the United States where he first became a professor of engineering at U.C. Berkeley and later established a private office. An admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, Polivka offered to help Wright with the engineering of some of the architect’s most prominent late buildings and projects including the Guggenheim Museum, the research tower of the Johnson’s Wax Company, and the famous (or infamous) Mile High Illinois Building of 1956. Alas, Wright was painfully slow to  reward Polivka for his services.  

Wright (left) and J.J. Polivka (Photo: University Archives, State University of New York at Buffalo)
Research Tower, Johnson's Wax Company, Racine, WS 1937 (Photo: David Daniels)

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, N.Y., 1943-1959

Polivka kept extensive records of his dealings with Wright including letters, photographs, and sheets of calculations for the Guggenheim’s spiral structure. These documents came to the UB Archives when, in the 1980s, Katka Hammond, Polivka’s granddaughter, a resident of Buffalo, persuaded her mother and uncles to donate them to UB, thereby considerably enriching the University’s holdings of Frank Lloyd Wright documents.

Vladimír Šlapeta in the pergola of the Martin House (J. Quinan)

[Thanks to Katka Hammond and Max Wickert, Susana Tejada, and Barry Muskat]