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Design of the The Brion Tomb by Carlos Scarpa

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
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 Pavillion
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.

Concepts of Universal Design in Architecture

There are many misconceptions surrounding the idea of universal design. People often believe that providing the disabled with signage or a ramp is sufficient and practices the ideals of universal design. What people must understand is that universal design is about providing these necessary amenities to the disabled without segregating them from the norm of society.
It is also about creating a space that can withstand multiple environments and the fads of time as a timeless creation. In a universally designed world peoples differences are not highlighted by building usage but are designed for and create seamlessness between users. The bottom up theory is looked to by many designers when establishing universal space; “it works on the premise that the building users, the architect is serving include those with disabilities are all people who can be treated as normal people[2]” and with this you must start at the bottom of the pyramid and aim to reach the top and achieve universal design. Questions to consider when designing a universally designed space may be how this space will respond to different environments or eras and as the user or users change what will be the response to how it is used.
Universal designed has been outlined and defined into seven principles that can be applied to a wide range of areas including architectural spaces to product design.
Equitable use
Flexibility in use
Simple and intuitive
Perceptible information
Tolerance for error
Low physical effort
Size and space for approach and use
Access Living Headquarters
Access Living is an organization that started in the early 1970’s and has been committed to rehabilitation and growth of disabled peoples by the support of disabled peoples. This company has personal with a multitude of disabilities and unique challenges that they encounter. In March 5, 2007 LCM Architects lead by partner John H. Catlin, FAIA designed access living’s main headquarters in Chicago with not only a universal focus by as a sustainable design direction. This 50,000 115 West Chicago Avenue. business footprint for Access living truly reflects the mission of the company and reinforces their ideals to empower the options available to differences of others. It has been awarded “the Barrier Free America Award from Paralyzed Veterans of America; A sustainable design award from AIA; the Trend Setter Award from Friends of Downtown; LEED Gold Certification; and a Silver Award from the Association of Licensed Architects”.
Design Solutions
“LCM architects started the vision of universal design, by choosing an accessible location” and considering building approach. The building is no more than two blocks from the local train’s underground station and from the city bus. This close relationship not only encourages green transportation but it provided for uses that may not have other modes of transportation and its prime location allows for people from multiple locations to be able to utile this feature with ease. In addition to the consideration of close proximity, the garage of the building has designated spaces that allow for electric vehicles to be recharged for use.
As users approach, the building integrates two curb drop offs seamlessly added to allow for users coming from street level and for wheelchair lifts to have a “direct route to the main building entrance”[4]. Being in a colder climate of the United States, architect Catlin devised a solution to deal with iced sidewalks in the winter months by designing a heated concrete sidewalks and well lit approaches. All of these features lead directly into the entrance of the building that is separated by two sets of sliding doors that open directly off the sidewalk. These doors have a wide opening of sixty inches to allow for easy mobility or two wheelchairs in passing.
Once you enter in to building for access living, its well designed interior lobby space and furniture selection leaves you no clue that this space is universally designed. LCM architects and there team of designers took close consideration into their interior choices being conscience of spacing, materials, colors and configurations so this truly was a universally accepting space. “Universal design has a close relationship to human factor and ergonomics. As a process they both attempt to consider the abilities and limitations of users when developing a product or building an environment.[5]” All of the furniture came from the Steelcase, so a select piece could be duplicated in several forms to include with arms/without, adjustable or basic systems that encouraged change as necessary. Using a single manufacturer line allowed for a wide range of seating choices to read and flow seamlessly. Within this configuration ample space is giving for wheelchair move ability and integration within a personal or large group interaction. Multiple chair heights are included for users of all statures and “clearance below some of the seating is open to allow the user to push up to the standing position with their leg muscles[6]”.
A custom feature within the lobby is the reception desk; “Lehner points out that the reception area underscores the universal design. “”A person approaching the reception desk in a wheelchair should have the same ability to use it as a person who doesn’t have a disability. That’s the premise behind the entire design-no one uses a back door or side door, and no one uses a ramp. Everybody comes in the same door and uses the same elevators””[8]. Unique to most reception desk, the primary dimension is at a wheel chaired accessible “counter height of (29-30” AFF)”[9]. Based on the guided approach to the desk knee and toe space is carefully designed and provide for. The reception desk does also include a small portion at the standard height of 42. Much consideration was giving to the reception side of the desk because this would be the primary and full time user of the millwork. The desk maintains the counter height and electrical outlets are placed at the ends of the counter opposed to across to minimize the need for users to strain to reach across counter span. The employee also is provided with a very accessible approach to their work station and a turning radius within, allowing for a 360 degree wheelchair turning radius.
Beyond the reception desk, clever inclusions of universal principles are utilized to assist with user move ability throughout. Two elevators with double entry points allow users to move quickly in and out without the need of turning within a small confined space. The elevators are also large enough to support four wheelchairs within. Along with the maximization of mobility within the elevator Architect Catilin incorporated state of the art emergency use technology for the deaf and head of hearing and enlarge elevator buttons placed at a universal accessible height. Each of the floors of the Access Living Company, are color coded so users can easily identify locality and direction. This color coding process is a wonderful tool to assist the young child to elderly and people with all timers. This would also eliminate the frustrations of getting off the elevator on the wrong floor, like so many of us have done. Once on a floor users, will notice ample floor space as to not to feel constrained by close furniture configurations and for wheelchair passing.
The high traffic and areas of egress are ingeniously deigned with a floor border that lines the walls so the visually impaired can easily utilize this tool to maneuver through the floors. To a user with no sight impairments this simply appears as an aesthetical feature because of how well it integrated throughout. This feature is a prime example of how universal design principles do not highlighting the differences of users.
In designing the Access Living headquarter LCM Architects, incurred many obstacles in creating a space that was not only universal, sustainable but also aesthetically and functionally useable. With their primary focus on creating a universal space they quickly learned that “what works for one disability doesn’t always work for another,[10]” Lehner says. As a universal designer you must learn to balance the integration of accommodations so they are not swayed by a particular user. “That’s nowhere more apparent than in the flooring. LCM discovered through research that carpeting, contrary to popular belief, serves people with MCS by trapping contaminants that would otherwise remain airborne. It also offers traction for people using canes. “But carpeting can be difficult to negotiate with a wheelchair,” says Catlin[11]” This is a great lesson to be learned because when people think a disability they too often only think of wheelchair users. After selecting a fabric that architect Catlin thought would be perfect for all of the users in the space he quickly had to return to the drawing board after one employee had an epileptic seizure from the intense patterning of the flooring. This is one example of the many difficulties faced in this project in designing for the masses, but Catlin remedies this problem by installing a more muted pattern through the building while still “ensuring there was still enough contrast on hallway borders to help guide people with visual impairments[12]”.
Although they are a portion of users there are wheel chair bound we must consider and be aware that there are countless impairments that cause all users to have different needs and ways in which they utilize a space. Designing a universal space you must have an understanding of that and remember that you are not designing for outlined user but in turn everyone becomes your user. It is often very difficult to create and design a workable solution that all people will deem user friendly, which is why architects and designers seem to steam away from this principle. Catlin illustrates that not only can design be an aesthetically pleasing universal space but green principle can also be an applied in a brilliant way.
Works Cited
Access Living. Ed. Geekpak. Acess Living, 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2009.
Boniface, Russell. “Paralyzed Veterans of America Honors Chicago-based Access Living for Accessible Design.” The News of American’s Community of Architects. AIArchitect, 17 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. .
Dong, Hua. Shifting Paradigms in Universal Design. Vol. 4554/2007. Heidelberg: Springer, 2007. Print.
Goldsmith, Selwyn. Universal Design. Maine: Architectural, 2001. Print.
Meyers, Tiffany. “UNIVERSAL DESIGN IN ACCESS LIVING HQ.” Metropolis Magazine Oct. 2007. Metropolis Magazine, Sept. 09. Web. 23 Oct. 2009. .
Tandem, Byan, ed. “Home Design: Understanding Universal Design.” AARP (2008). AARP. Web. 22 Oct. 2009. .
Goldsmith, Selwyn. Universal Design. Maine: Architectural, 2001. Print.
Access Living. Ed. Geekpak. Access Living, 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2009.
Access Living
Dong, Hua. Shifting Paradigms in Universal Design. Vol. 4554/2007. Heidelberg: Springer, 2007. Print.
Access Living
Access Living
Boniface, Russell. “Paralyzed Veterans of America Honors Chicago-based Access Living for Accessible Design.” The News of American’s Community of Architects. AIArchitect, 17 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 Oct. 2009. .
Access Living
Meyers, Tiffany. “UNIVERSAL DESIGN IN ACCESS LIVING HQ.” Metropolis Magazine Oct. 2007. Metropolis Magazine, Sept. 09. Web. 23 Oct. 2009. .