Man of Bizantium

01 May 2014

On the 28th of November 1978, Carlo Scarpa died in Sendai in the north of Japan, following an accidental fall from a staircase.

“If there was an elegant way to die, it was his: he died in Japan, in the land he had loved most, after Veneto where he first saw the light. He was wrapped in a great kimono, an honour the people of that far-off land reserve for their greatest sons and laid in a wooden box, a bed, a cradle, as the poet Ungaretti called it – not a coffin – sealed with flowing white ribbons. For five years there was only earth over his body…”

The real purpose of Carlo Scarpa’s last journey to Japan, and why was he was so far from traditional places of interest, remains a mystery. But it’s possible he was following the itinerary of a journey undertaken in the 16th century by the great Japanese Haiku poet Basho. Haiku is a cursory, allusive poetry linked to Taoist symbolism and Zen-Buddhist paradox. Haiku is contemplative and fragmentary. Haiku’s small details are, like William Blake’s grains of sand, eternities. Basho’s journey to Hiraizumi was, as he put it, the Narrow road to the deep north – a vision of both eternity and finality that is a leitmotif in Scarpa’s work.

Since his death, a great deal has been written on Carlo Scarpa by acclaimed architects and critics such as Richard Murphy, Francesco Dal Co, Marco Frascari and Kenneth Frampton, yet each has failed to highlight the importance of Japanese culture in Scarpa’s work. It is somewhat remarkable now that during the 1980’s very few architects had ever heard of Carlo Scarpa. How apt that, with the notion of absence as a recurring theme in his work, that Scarpa should be finally acknowledged as one of the Masters of contemporary architecture only when he himself is absent.

Scarpa’s work is complex and difficult to interpret. The puzzle lies within the process of creativity in Scarpa, the questions of what is influencing what? We are compelled to seek precedents, to establish convergences and affinities. This paper focuses on references to traditional Japanese architecture – and in particular the Sukiya style – in the light of the philosophical concepts of Wabi-Sabi.