Another mystery exploited by Scarpa is the interlocking of sumptuous doors that often, with a sense of wit and a surreal twist, hide utterly pragmatic building services. The radiator cabinet nestled within a column of the Olivetti Showroom, for instance, is accessed by hinged grid panels held in place by an alluring but baffling brass clamp. Equally enigmatic are the large hinged panels of the electrical cabinet at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, whose L-shaped and polished brass doors interlock in a vague rectangle. The offset and shape of the joint between imply two different doors and motions, but there is no indication of how or where the panels might swing. At the same time the metal, patinated by human touch, with small circular cutouts at the corners that expand the breathing space between sheets, capture the eye and lure the hand, inciting us to test different pressures and motions – experiments that eventually disclose counter-movements in opposite directions.
A similar mixture of promise and paradox in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia is conveyed by the gallery’s travertine door. Is this strange stone slab devoid of handles an immovable piece of the travertine wall, or a source of access to what lies behind? Spatial gaps have perceptually loosened the slab from its wall plane and offer hints of space beyond. But it is especially the Z-shaped cutout at the top that suggests mobility, and vaguely entices one’s hand to push upon the stone sheet – exerting pressure here and there, feeling the rough mineral texture so different from a nondescript doorknob, but also finding an unexpected mass and resistance. Within the many reciprocal doors devised by Scarpa can be found a spur to trial and error that approximates solving a jigsaw puzzle. As in the latter’s dovetailed pieces, the components imply related parts that suggest a capacity for manipulation, movement and fitting together, but never expose the act in advance so as to keep the future open for participants. To operate a door is not only to gain passage, but also to bring an unforgettable event into being that lay dormant a moment before.
Carlo Scarpa, Brion Cemetery (1977), Italy, vertically sliding glass door and external counterweights (top); rolling concrete funeral door, at right (above)
Forming another small masterpiece that bears little resemblance to stereotypical hinged doors are the pivoting doors at the rear of the Brion chapel, leading to a cypress grove housing the priest’s graveyard. Pivots are inset to give an unexpected orbit to each ironframed leaf infilled with concrete. But of equal fascination is the volumetric mutation of doors, owing to their L-shape in plan, and the surprising way that they block window slits at either side when fully open. Adding to our curiosity is the hardware of motion: cylindrical Muntz metal collars and pivots above and below, rotating on ball bearings housed out of sight, and milled with a fluting that echoes the concrete profiles of the building. The act of opening is enhanced further by small bolts that slide in and out of hollow discs rising from a mysterious drain. We are invited to tinker with and, through our initiatives, discover something unknown, rather than merely using the door to perform a preordained task.
The peak of secret operations at Brion is saved for the corridor leading to a water pavilion, a place set aside for contemplation. Walking through the dark passage sets off puzzling echoes from under the floor, an acoustic mystery followed by a thick glass door obscured in shade to confound the visitor. This door is not hinged, nor does it move upward. After some clumsy experimentation, it is found to open by grasping the top edge and pushing it down with all of one’s weight through a slot in the floor, making it disappear though bodily pressure. As soon as this pressure is released, the door rises back up, but now bathed in the water hidden below, producing through this dripping image an epiphanic moment, as if the door were being raised from the dead and reborn through an act of immersion. At the same time the door’s movement is accompanied by unexplained creaking and scraping sounds that emanate from the far side of the wall, another mystery later revealed as counterweights suspended from cables that have been strung through an angular system of pulleys. The visual separation of door and counterweight prevents the act from ever being fully exhausted, while extending its influence through space and time.
Playful involvement brings to life other elements of the cemetery, extending into things as small as the handle of a marble anteroom font and hinged alabaster windows of the chapel to something as mundane as the jigsaw timber doors of a nearby service room, all of which are strangely heavy yet smoothly sensuous in operation. The mutual animation of doer and building depends in part on each action’s unforeseen muscular engagement and pleasure, a surprise that turns especially strenuous in the steel-framed concrete gate for funeral services (p. 109), its bronze wheels and concealed ball bearings running along steel rails set into the concrete paving. One cannot anticipate being able to dislodge and move this massive object, but persistent effort sets the gate into motion, producing an almost superhuman feat analogous to the biblical story of opening Christ’s tomb (Luke 24:2).