Brion Cemetery
Aaron Betsky Brion Cemetery

Making buildings through incisions, additions, and refinishing their surfaces seems to have been Carlo Scarpa’s fate. Only rarely did he have a chance to make a complete building or even a full façade. However, the clearest exception is the cemetery he designed for the Brion family near Treviso, Italy—and, if we can believe Adolf Loos, the only true architecture is a tomb you find in the middle of the woods or, in this case, the fields of the Po Valley. Given the way the discipline of architecture is going, which is away from its obsession with building ever bigger and, no matter how sustainable, wasteful buildings, Scarpa can stand as a pre-eminent example of how to make great architecture that is small.

I came to these thoughts after finally visiting the Brion Cemetery which, although free and open to the public, is tucked away in the small village of San Vito d’Altivole and difficult to reach except by car or though a series of public transport transfers. Every year, I visit the Venice Biennale, and every time I find myself making a pilgrimage to the small additions that Scarpa made to that city. Now I can compare them to the greatest monument to his talents.

Olivetti Showroom
Aaron Betsky Olivetti Showroom
Querini Stampalia
Aaron Betsky Querini Stampalia

In Venice, there is first the Olivetti showroom on San Marco Square (1957-58), which was renovated a few years ago as a museum to both Olivetti’s ambitions to bring design to the era of clickety-clack work on typewriters and to Scarpa’s ability to create a dense stage set of planes both horizontal and vertical, shifting and framing your view of the typewriters with fields of Venetian plaster and moments of highly polished brass connections.

Then there are the renovations he designed to the Fondazione Querini Stampalia (1949-59) and the Ca’ d’Oro (1972-73). The former is more prominent, especially on the ground floor, where a sequence of open-air porticos blends access from the water and the nearby square into a march past more floating planes and steps that levitated you off the watery plan and ever further into the solidity of the original medieval structure.

Then there are small moments like the courtyard in the corner of the central Exhibition Pavilion in the Giardini (1949), where the art and architecture biennales alternate every year. Its curving canopy swirls through the small space, giving you the sense that you are inhabiting the lily ponds that spread below you. (Scarpa also designed the Venezuelan Pavilion five years later.) Outside the Giardini’s entrance is Scarpa’s small monument to local female resistance fighters (1955), which is no more or less (other than the addition of a mediocre sculpture of grasping victims) than the sidewalk of the quay falling apart into the lagoon.

Carlo Scarpa's apartment for his lawyer
Aaron Betsky Carlo Scarpa's apartment for his lawyer

This year, I was also fortunate enough to see the apartment Scarpa designed for his lawyer, tucked away in a street behind the Palazzo Fortuny. You enter it up four flights of stairs, and its public part consists of a sequence of small chambers, each of whose openings and planes Scarpa framed with his usual care, and whose centerpiece is a desk that expresses its ability to slide away from issues and exert authority with one curve and many complex connections.

Scarpa’s achievements in Venice and in the various other nearby cities were acts of framing, focusing, and emphasizing connections; glorifying simple planes; and declaring the depth of construction by cutting its edges. It is architecture as an act of cutting, peeling, stitching, and then acting as a tattoo embedded in and giving meaning to the structure that hosts its parasitic embellishments.

Brion Cemetery
Aaron Betsky Brion Cemetery

Other than the fact that all of this is absurdly expensive and usually private, I can think of few more perfect ways of making architecture. I was long skeptical of Scarpa’s work because it seemed both so fragmentary and fetishistic. Then I realized that the glorifying of the incomplete nature of construction and its absolute, willful beauty is exactly what makes his work transcend professional concerns.

The metaphor for all of this is the Brion Cemetery. Its symbol is two interlocking circles, meant to express infinity and thus life after death, but the grandest statement of that belief is open, transparent, and occupiable. It is not a monument, but a way to draw together fragments and views into a sense of being there now.

Brion Cemetery
Aaron Betsky Brion Cemetery

What surprised me most about the cemetery was how it draws on and offers frames of its site. The photography I had seen was always of the slits and slots, the curves and the angles, and these do certainly catch your eye. But I never realized that some of those slots line up with a nearby church and that the two tombs—the concrete arch that shelters the remains of Guiseppe Brion and his wive Onorina Tomasi (who commissioned the project) and the angled but hollow mass hovering over their children—call out to the curved hills and angled ridges of the Dolomites that rise to the north. Even those intersecting circles end a long axis that was the original approach to the local cemetery, measured by pine trees, and which continued through center of the field containing the remains of simpler locals (the Brions became wealthy through their ownership of Brionvega consumer electronics).

Brion Cemetery
Aaron Betsky Brion Cemetery

Just as remarkable is how you move through the Brion site, which lies in an L-shape around the original cemetery. You enter on an axis towards a slit in concrete planes, but you shift, then shift again, in an almost Wrightian manner, setting the planes that rise around you in motion while they reaffirm your progress as they drive you on until an angled wall sends you into the chapel, which Scarpa turned at a 45-degree angle. You re-center yourself there, then move back and deeper, until the arch of the Brions’ tomb beckons you on at a similar angle. Once there, the original geometry returns in the form of a water course that leads you on to a lily pond that forms the end of the cemetery as well as your experience there.

Brion Cemetery
Aaron Betsky Brion Cemetery

Along the way, you encounter details too numerous and exquisite to enumerate, but always along the path. The thing that puzzled me most is that the way each concrete plane ends in steps now seems a way to evoke the sense of this place as both a ruin and a continual construction, a place that is emerging and gesturing towards order but always reaching beyond that to physical and mental landscapes beyond the confines of its battered walls.

Brion Cemetery
Aaron Betsky Brion Cemetery

If Carlo Scarpa was going to build a monument, it would have to be this, and he worked on it from 1968 to his own death 10 years later. It is a reminder not only of his skills, but also that architecture at its best is about defining, framing, fixing, and housing us in a way that goes beyond the everyday, and that moves us towards a shifting, unstable, and much larger world.