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Drawing the house of the acrobat

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Villa Ottolenghi: Carlo Scarpa by Francesco Dal Co. Monacelli Press, 1998. 128pp. £13.99

To arrive at a final resolution of required and existing conditions, Carlo Scarpa's method was - more than for most architects - via long and 'luxuriating' pleasures of graphic exploration. His large number of drawings, annotated verbally and visually, on high-quality cream-coloured paper, indicate clearly his progression towards a satisfying composition.

Because of shameful professional jealousy and bureaucracy, Scarpa was not on the official register of architects and could not sign and submit his drawings for approval, but thanks to two of his former students, who were in charge of construction, the majority of his original sketches and most accurate detail drawings were preserved in the large archive kept by his son Tobia. Despite this, due to his continuous modifications, a definitive set of drawings for the Villa Ottolenghi (1975-78) does not exist - but a study of the various alternatives, in this book by Francesco Dal Co, is in itself a pleasure.

The commission to design a house for his friend Dr Carlo Ottolenghi, on a 7000m2 plot of vine and olive trees within the wooded slopes above Lake Garda, must have been a rare pleasure for an architect used to the alluvial openness of the Venetian farmland. In the series of plans that Scarpa prepared, the strongest feature is the disposition of eight columns of unusual 'weight'. They are of alternating discs of smooth concrete and two varieties of natural stone. This rustic element - used externally as well as within the house - is in strong contrast to the shiningly smooth surfaces of the scagliola plaster finish on walls and screens.

When studying the variations of the plan, and the freehand drawings, one can begin to follow Scarpa's thinking. Dal Co in his text attempts to give the key to that thinking, and writes: 'If an architect has the option of choosing between two models - as Le Corbusier put it, the clown or the acrobat - then it is unquestionably true that Scarpa would have wanted for himself the house of the acrobat, capable of spinning lightly atop the shattered tablets of acceptable values. He transformed his own acrobatics into the Villa Ottolenghi, transforming it into a fantastic grotto in which all certainty disappears.'

To integrate the building to its maximum extent with the slope of the terrain, the entrance level was cut into the incline, so making the access to the front door a 'romantic echo' of the narrow streets of Scarpa's native Venice; indeed, he called it by the Venetian word calletta. He created an unusual internal landscape on several levels, with the columns defining zones within an open central area. Gleaming white walls, stumpy layered columns, and terrazzo steps and floor crowned by a black ceiling together result in an interior of rare character.

Within the interior two unusual details (and there are others) deserve mention. The master bathroom is a circular extension of the bedroom, and the usual places for the electrical switches are discarded, with them fitted instead into the inclined, elliptical tops of circular metal columns in front of the walls.

Asked by a friend to modernise his large farmhouse, Scarpa decided also to transform the yard in front, traditionally used for threshing corn, into a subtle landscape of differing areas of sloping brick paving. The roof of the Villa Ottolenghi is treated in a similar way, forming a terrace that offers uninterrupted views of lush greenery and the distant, shimmering lake.

In Villa Ottolenghi we can enter the mind of a subtle and inventive architect; a wealth of photographs combine effectively with Dal Co's descriptive text.

Stefan Buzas is an architect in London

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