Presence & Absence: Carlo Scarpa, Querini Stampalia, & Water
Where is ground level after all, where is terra firma? Hard to tell. Instead there is a strange sensation of hovering in a zone of water and sky as the earth drifts somewhere in the mix. – Michael Cadwell
[all references and images are taken from Cadwell, Michael. Strange Details. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.]
The Querini Stampalia Foundation by Carlo Scarpa is a powerful reminder of architecture’s capacity to embody particular qualities without necessarily being literal. Querini Stampalia was originally a family palace built in Venice during the 16th that was converted into a small foundation devoted to “promote study of useful disciplines and nation and foreign knowledge” (12). After a series of damaging floods in the early 1900’s, Carlo Scarpa was commissioned to renovate the ground floor in anticipation of future flooding.
What’s exiting in this work is Scarpa’s understanding of water as an unsettling force – as a medium caught between the solidity of the earth and the volatility of the sky. Water is at once dependable and volatile – it is present like the earth, but in constant flux like the sky. And as Cadwell points out, Venice embodies this precariousness. “In Venice, buildings do not spring from the earth – they tether themselves to the mud below, or they hover above it” (8-9). This aquatic quality, this precariousness, pervades Querini Stampalia through details that unsettle and keep us on edge.
For instance, the main entrance to Querini Stampalia is a small footbridge leading from the adjacent campiello directly into the ground floor foyer. Seemingly simple, the bridge is slightly eccentric so that the entrance to Querini Stampalia lies slightly below the campiello. So even before entering the building, Scarpa calls into question the solidity of the ground that is so precarious in Venice. The bridge drops us below the established ground line and brings us closer to the water below.
Inside the main gallery, we find a similar articulation of conflicting levels and an unsettling ambiguity regarding the location of water and ground. First, the gallery steps down from the entrance foyer, bringing the floor even further below the ground line outside. There are three columns in the space, but none of them align to establish a firm ground line. Finally, the floor is detailed for floods and wraps up the sides of the wall to define a waterline. Without being explicit, Scarpa places the visitor somewhere beneath the water, but where exactly is unclear. “So we are up to our ankles. The grass outside [in the courtyard] is above this line, but no matter, the water rises to our shins” (25). These waterlines all undermine any sense of a solid ground, but instead locate the room somewhere between the ebb of the tide. And though the gallery anticipates water and its presence can be felt throughout, the most unsettling part is the lack water and the lack of any reference to establish where that waterline actually lies. The gallery gives hints and suggests possibilities but provides no assurance. Instead it lies somewhere in the middle. Water is absent, but its presence is felt throughout.