All these experiments in human agility at critical junctures, ‘celebrating the marriage of flesh and air’, as Wallace Stevens says in his poem ‘Life is Motion’, culminate at Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.31 Gallery floors are loosened from walls by shallow channels around the perimeter, giving a mild levitation to each raised surface. At the same time, the displacements cause rifts where rooms meet each other or adjoining corridors, so as to subtly waken and ennoble each arrival or departure. These edges of possibility turn especially adventurous in the outdoor niche at the northwest corner of the courtyard, where a nexus of circulation routes at multiple levels also serves as the meeting ground of the contrasting historic eras of the castle (p. 40). The lowermost routes link the garden and gallery wing to the Torre del Mastio and Reggia galleries beyond, but do this indirectly along a sequence of stepped digressions that twist and slide the body in space. The route winds about itself as it slips over an excavated moat, before zig-zagging under the old city wall in a series of bridges with changing overlooks onto archaeological excavations.
Similar but more airborne motions occur in the diagonal bridge above, from which branch multiple stairs to link gallery levels, and lead to a battlement walk along the river and up to a passage atop the city wall. The one still point in this complex gravitational field is the fourteenth-century equestrian statue of Cangrande I della Scala (p. 41). But even here a stair winds down and around the epicentre of this huge figure, providing an intimate view from beneath while extending out on a cantilever of steel and concrete. This projection bobs ever so slightly up and down under the influence of a person’s weight, so as to punctuate a site rich in chances for exercising bodily faculties, while giving the sedate museum experience an undercurrent of risk and adventure.
Carlo Scarpa, Brion Cemetery (1977), Italy, stutter steps with tombs beyond Carlo Scarpa, Castelvecchio Museum (1973), Verona, puzzle-like sequence of pavements and bridges underneath bridge wall Carlo Scarpa, Castelvecchio Museum (1973), Verona, overview of discursive routes around and below the statue of Cangrande I della Scala Sutejiro Kitamura, Kitamura House (1944), Kyoto, veranda and shoin Sutejiro Kitamura, Kitamura House (1944), Kyoto, stepping stones and bench at main entrance THE SPRIGHTLY JAPANESE FLOOR Scarpa’s penchant for slight displacements of floor, linked by brief yet refreshing climbs, is distantly rooted in his admiration for traditional Japanese decorating and gardens. The many slight shifts in Japanese floors derive, in part, from the pragmatic need to escape damp earth in a wet climate, but also from a cultural urge to differentiate territorial zones: a lowermost level of stones or pounded earth (doma); an elevated timber floor (engawa) for the intermediate levels of corridor and veranda; and an uppermost floor of tatami mats for sitting, dining and sleeping. Important consequences of this stratification are the modest yet psychologically momentous leaps that recur throughout the day in moving from one of these worlds to another, marking but also charging each boundary with tiny gravitational currents. Further complicating agility at each new level of a house or temple is a ritualized changing of footwear, aimed to reduce the transfer of dirt inside and to make each level slightly cleaner and purer than the one below. Outdoor shoes are left where the earth or street meets the inner wood floor, and slippers are removed at the edge of the tatami mats, which means that each climb is infused with the balancing act of removing or slipping on various shoes, as well as twirling around to leave each pair ready for easy departure, or in some cases placing outdoor shoes on a shelf or flat stone reserved for this purpose. All these intricate twists and bends, and rotations in the midst of ascent, transform otherwise simple motions into feats of equipoise, where many different forces converge to be creatively balanced and counterbalanced. Stepping stones to the teahouse at Kitamura House Sawatari-ishi (‘steps across the marsh’) at the Heian Shrine (1895), Kyoto
Katsura Imperial Villa (17th century), Kyoto, rising stepping stones to the Large Veranda and Moon-viewing Platform at Old Shoin
Human equilibrium is stimulated differently in the Japanese garden, especially in each unique series of stepping stones (tobi-ishi), whose ever-changing intervals invite a light, graceful movement. The stakes of a misstep are exaggerated by setting off the elevated stones from a soft, delicate earth not to be touched by human feet. These fragile settings range from carpets of moss and beds of raked gravel to the waters of a stream or pond, the latter taken to acrobatic heights when approaching the Kitamura teahouse, springing along the erratic series of cylindrical piles at the Heian Shrine or stepping out to a stream to wash one’s hands as a prelude to tea at the Katsura Imperial Villa.
The essence of Japanese stepping stones lies in the way their journey enlivens walking while shunning routine or inattentive motion. The size, shape and texture of each stone are distinct and unrepeated, ensuring that each deviates slightly from those before and after, and thereby calls forth a newly improvised footfall. Further expanding uncertainty is an evolving arrangement and course of stones. They are generally not fixed along a straight line or sequenced with equal intervals, but placed to sporadically shift direction with unexpected gaps between. The progression may be vaguely continuous, then abruptly angle off to one side, take unexpected diversions or twists and intersect other series of stones that swerve off in contrasting courses, all of which help to slow down motion and tap extra levels of skill in the feet, magnifying deeds in space.