Design of the The Brion Tomb by Carlos Scarpa
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Published: Tue, 01 May 2018
In my study I intend to explain Carlo Scarpa’s thinking in his design of the Tomba brion vega, his most visited work and analyse the design of each element individually and as a whole. It is a site of elegance and poetry and epitomises Carlo Scarpa’s use of architecture to produce meaning and feeling. Carlo Scarpa himself describes the tomb as a pathway (Un’ora con Carlo Scarpa
The Brion Tomb is situated in the north of Italy in the village San Vito d’Altivole near Treviso. It was designed for the family Brion by Carlo Scarpa after the death of Giuseppe Brion. It was commissioned by the wife of Giuseppe, Onorina Brion; together they co-founded the electronics firm Brion-Vega.
Giuseppe was born in San Vito and the family owned a plot of land in the local cemetery as well as a funerary chapel which originally stood on the site. Scarpas original idea and his early work for the family was for a number of seperate tombs for different family members on the original cemetery plot. These early designs were to later incorporated in to the final design. in 1969 the family bought an L shaped plot of land wrapped around the northern and eastern sides of the existing cemetery. Acquiring this plot of land allowed Scarpa to incorporate all the family tombs into a single master plan for the Brion families resting place.
Not taking with the mainline trend that with money and power when death occurs a huge shrine or monument should be erected in memorial Scarpa went the opposite way. Scarpa states “I believe it is mistaken to consider the Brion Cemetery the product of a wealthy capitalist. Rather it is quite the opposite”. “Of course I could have just made a large statue and left the rest a lawn, but I enjoy making things” doing this he avoided the narrow dictates of rationalism, choosing rather to stress inner depth, dreams, and nostalgia. In this he creates a poetic resting place as much as a sculptural memorial in a green, calming garden.
In March 1970 the Plans for the site had reached their final form and planning permission was given for construction. The Cemetery was completed in 1978 and is regarded by many as Scarpas masterpiece.
Below is a quote from Scarpa on his design of the Brion Tomba.
“I consider this work, if you permit me, to be rather good and (something) which will get better over time. I have tried to put some poetic imagination into it, though not in order to create poetic architecture but to make a certain kind of architecture that could emanate a sense of formal poetry. I mean an expressed form that can become poetry, though, as I said before, you cannot intentionally make poetry.
The deceased has asked to be close to (the) Earth since he was born in this village – So I decided to build a small arch, which I will call Arcosolium. Arcosolium is a Latin term from the time of the early Christians in the Catacombs. Important persons or martyrs were buried in them.) I used a more costly version… I thought it (was) a good idea for two people who had loved each other to be put in such a way as to be able to greet one another, after death. Soldiers stand erect, movements are human. The Arcosolium became an arch, a bridge span, an arch of reinforced concrete and would still have looked like a bridge if I hadn’t had it illustrated, I mean decorated. But instead of painting we used mosaics, A Venetian tradition that I interpreted in a different way”
The statement above just shows how much thought went in to the design of his lifes masterpiece.
The body of the cemetery
The L shaped site has 5 main focal points; the arcosolium which was of great importance was placed on the north eastern corner to in Scarpas words “benefit from the best view and sunniest exposure”. The arcosolium acts as a kind of visual hinge on the L shaped site joining the north and eastern sides of the site. The family graves are situated on the north wall of the site sheltered underneath a canopy which shelters them from the elements. On the south side of the L shape is a pavilion which floats over a Lilly pond. To the western end he designed square chapel which leads to a private burial ground for local priests. Another entrance way to the site was constructed close to the pavilion where the original funerary chapel stood.
The site is enclosed by a 2.3m high wall. Internally the views out from the site almost become a part of the design and Looking towards the site the 60deg slope of the wall directs sight over the cemetery causing minimum obstruction of the views out from the town whilst also masking its internal parts. Scarpa acknowledged that he “had captured the sense of the countryside, as the Brions wished” (Scarpa 1978-84)
The Arcosolium in history has been situated within a catholic burial chamber. A single catacomb would contain multiple arcosolium for important people and martyrs. They are arched recesses carved from solid rock with a solid stone coffin sarcophagus to the bottom. The arch and around it were often decorated with symbolic frescoes.
In the image to the left is the arcosolium which is situated in Via Latina, Cubiculum E, a catacomb in Rome. You can clearly see the arched recess to the rear and the religiously painted walls.
Scarpas arcosolium is the main focal point for the whole tomb, acting as a hinge between the two perpendicular areas of the site. The two heads of the family are buried here and is therefore sited with importance and was built on the north east corner of the site. Unlike the solid arch of the historic catholic arcosolium the arch Scarpa designed is sleek and slender and is made out of concrete and bows over the sunken ground on which sit the two sepulchers.
The asymetical arch has four components or visual nuances which make the whole. The arch itself is visually two parts with the vertical main arch or the backbone spanning the sepulchres and below this sits a floating plane which shelters the crypts. The backbone has four fins which run the length of the arch. These fins are closed to their underside so to shelter the occupants. The two floating planes are decoratively layered to their topside rather like the arcosolium decoration of old. These are connected to the third and fourth components of the arch by pin joints and are the two concrete plinths which sit at the two ends of the arch and ground the design and also convert the otherwise compressional structure of an arch in to a tensile structure. The plinths themselves are split in to two parts with a solid mass capping the arch and a more dynamic form ending the completed arch. The plinths are decorated not with paintings or materials but with the zig zag form which dominates the cemetary. The two concerete plinths are orthogonally stepped three dimensionally lessening with weight the further away from the arch they are.
Below the arch the two sepulchres sit in a sunken circular bowl which is sheltered by the arch above. Originally this circular base plate was to be surrounded by a water channel emanating from the north pool. The tombs themselves are made out of two tone marble with the sides facing each other being ebony, the top layer a speckled, black marble and the bottom layer a more grained white marble. The ebony planks on the facing planes of the coffins give them a softer touch. The two crypts are sat side by side underneath the arch and lean to each other as though they were trying to touch. This is also reiterated on the underside of the masses. Scarpa not wanting to ground the two objects too much curved the underside of them making them seem moveable and not stuck to the ground. Scarpa described it like this “It is as it should be that the two people who loved each other in life to bend toward each other in greeting after death”. A sense of Scarpas romance can be seen here.
In Yutak Saito’s book Carlo Scarpa, he describes how the two sepulchres are perceived to “float like two boats beneath the arch.” This is reminiscent of the buildings of Scarpas beloved Venice.
Whilst under the arch the coloured glass tiles can be seen. Yutak Saito says “The ceiling of the arch is covered in glass tiles, giving the sense of celestial brilliance” The glass tiles run either side of an onyx strip which runs down the middle of the four fins of the arch, these “omit a milky white translucence” .
Brion Tomba graveyard entrance
The entrance lies down an avenue of trees which run the old Village Cemetery. Upon approach the first thing noticed is the two intersecting circles which lay at the end of the small corridor and their framed picture of the lawn and the ivy covered wall beyond. The entrance is sat beside other existing tombs and its scale is as those of the existing tombs. This gives the Brion Tomb a tardis like feel once inside having entered through here. The entrance is decorated with a zigzag design like the arcosolium with horizontal slices through the mass in which the sky or in Scarpas eye the heavens can be seen. On entering the square entrance opens up like a cave and upon speaking strange echoes bounce off the zigzagged inside. Again horizontal slices allow the sight of the heavens whilst inside this dark entrance way.
Four steps lead up to the corridor beyond. These are slightly offset to the left hand side giving you a sense of direction in which one should travel. This small gesture The intersecting circles at the end of the corridor are rimmed with red and blue glass tiles. They signify the earth and the heavens and the earth and the intersected section signifies the spiritual world which may lie in between. You can also see this looking through the two circles with the green grass signifying the earth the sky the havens and the grey concrete wall which splits the two the spiritual world. With these two connotations Scarpa wanted to instil a sense of how close the three worlds are and how they intersect with each other. The corridor splits left and right now. The left hand side is brighter and beckons you down, another path indicator of which Scarpa is well known for. Looking down the corridor the left hand side of the arcosolium can be seen with the countryside in the background and the corridor opens a few metres down. It opens to the right with the left hand side continuing further. At the transitional point between open and closed a water course continues the line of the structure which runs down in to the arcosolium adjacent to the walkway. Along this walkway are a set of offset steps which lead up to the grazed area above. These steps are of different thicknesses with each possessing a different sound when treaded upon.
If you turn right at the corridor the path leads you down a darkened corridor which opens up onto a floating path which leads to the raised pavilion, the pavilion sits on the pond that feeds the watercourse.
The pavilion sits on the north side of the site above a shallow body of water. At a distance it seems to float above the water. It is supported by a set of slender steel columns which rise out of the water. The idea behind the pavilion was to create a canopy under which the souls of the dead may enter to mediate. It is accessed via the main entrance way along a thin dark corridor and then through a glass door which is opened with an elaborate system of pulleys which are visible on the other side of the wall to the glass door.
The top of the pavilion is clad in timber and Yutaka Saito in his book Carlo Scarpa notes the similarities in the depth and emphasis of the design relating to the series of torri gates of the fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Below the weathered timber box sits a thin metallic modesty panel painted green and is textured with a pattern of nails which softens the strong material making the space more comfortable. From its exterior the pavilion looks like a solid structure and a sense of weight is felt on sight but the innards are hollow which lets light pass down in to the space where underneath sits a bench on which Scarpa imagined the spirits could rest after they have had their playtime in the surrounding gardens of the cemetery. Its openness gives a connection between the spirit world and ours allowing passageway of souls in to it.
Underneath the pavilion a small seating area is found for the spirits and this sits on a small jetty which seems to float a few centimetres above the pond. This may not be a piece of aesthetic design but a great knowledge of how water and construction materials react over time with staining and corrosion. This can also be seen on the back wall of the pavilion with it seeming to float just above the water level.
Use of water
Carlo Scarpa was of Venetian origin and this influenced his designs in that water and the effects it caused were often key elements of his designs. Bodies of water and/or water courses were elemental. He spent most of his life in Venice, wandering down its narrow gangways with buildings either floating on or reflected in water; a world changing with the ebb and flow of the tides.
The brion tomb is no exception with Scarpa designing two pools at opposing ends of the site which were to be connected by thin streams that would weave inbetween the tombs connecting them with a sense of life or movement of the flowing water. A relationship between the lagoon and the canal can be envisioned here.
The concept was not fully designed in but can still be seen in the form of a channel running between the pavilion and the arcosolium.
Being from Venice Scarpa knew the effect of the tide and how this could effect materials and sometimes whole structures, submerging their lower floors on some occasions and the water course and pool in the cemetery were designed to avert flooding the adjacent spaces when it rains.
The pools themselves are rather shallow being only half a metre in depth at their deepest point with the zig-zag pattern leading down to the lowest point giving the water a sense of volume and a place for the sun to play in, creating moving shadows and reflections of the surrounding structures during daytime hours.
There are a number of water channels on the site. They all flow to the arcosolium and narrow as they get closer. This narrowing of the channels give the feeling of a sense of momentum and in essence, life.
Brion Family Tomb
The small family tomb is situated on the south side of the site and sits against the exterior wall giving a sense of shade for its occupants. It is a triangular shaped structure with a small entrance to the west. The entranceway is small and was designed so that to enter one must bow as a sign of respect to the deceased occupants. Internally the space is small yet the horizontal slits in the form allow the external openness to join with the internal space. The roof of the tomb narrows towards the top with a slice taken out at its peak. This was again the idea that the spirits could roam freely around the site and come back to their resting places for repose.
The chapel and Sacristy
The chapel sits on the east of the site and its importance is emphasised by the continual vertical planes that cut through the horizontal plane of the flat lawn. This emphasis shows its hierarchy and label the structure as being the building of most importance. There are two entrances to the chapel, one through the gardens and the second which is used for more formal occasions such as church mass.
The entrance through the gardens shows this hierarchy the most, the tall walls create a strong vertical volume to travel down. Two small steps are at the entranceway and act as a transition between the less formal garden space and the more formal chapel beyond.
On the left hand side wall a grid pattern of concrete lines was formed with 10mm recesses in which layers of plaster were trowelled and then polished which reflects light down the corridor. On this wall the door to the private sacristy can be found and follows the same grid patten as the walls slightly camouflaging it to identify its privacy.
At the end of the corridor stands a large steel and plaster sliding lattice door reminiscent of the style of Otto Wagner of whom Scarpa was a fan and the traditional Japanese screen. Beyond the doors stands the chapel and the chinese style threshold that leads in to it which allows for the easy passage of coffins and on occasion to cope with a large numbers of people.
The predominant material used in the construction of the chapel was again layered concrete. The floor is made of small cobble like stones which run at a 45deg angle to the room towards the alter. Two marble steps lead up to the alter and junctions between the materials was planned meticulously.
The journey was very important in the planning of the site and all the senses were thought of when designing. Although the site is made up of lots of separate elements they are all part of the whole and are linked by pathways sometimes physical and sometimes psychological.
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