Archive 2012

On the Road in Italy: With A Bus Load of Architects

It’s 6.30am in the morning on Wednesday 29 August. The alleys and waterways of Venice are beginning to stir into life as we down a quick espresso coffee before jumping on a vaporetto. The aim of this very early wakeup? To meet the bus for the 7.30am start of the Australian Institute of Architects ‘Italian Architecture Tour’. The reality? The vaporetto we really need is not yet in operation and we have to take the slow boat in a reverse circuit. Along the way we run into a lost attendee and then proceed to confuse ourselves entirely about where exactly we are meant to be (hmmm helps to read all the directions correctly!).

Now running late, we finally we meet up with our guide for the day, Tone Wheeler and apologise profusely for keeping our fellow travellers waiting and for setting off late (thankfully we weren’t the only lost members). The (good natured?) threat to all late attendees of having to buy drinks for all participants as suitable apology, fills me with trepidation, as I contemplate past experiences of the ability of architects to imbibe liquids of an alcoholic nature and consider my imminent bankruptcy! Despite this initial hiccup, we set out from the port of Venice for what follows to be a day of some truly inspirational architecture.

The tour kicked off with a visit to Fabrica, the Benetton Group Communications Research Centre, near the city of Villorba in the province of Treviso. Set up in 1994 as a studio, come incubator for young artists from all over the world, it’s ethos is to provide a platform for the exploration of a myriad of communication forms including design, music, film, photography, publishing and the internet.


The restoration and enlargement of the complex was designed and constructed between 1992 and 2000, by one of my personal favourites, Japanese architect Tadao Ando (b.1941). The brief for the project included the restoration of a seventeenth century Palladian villa, the Villa Pastega Manera and the provision of additional space to house study areas, laboratories, offices, facilities such as a library and an auditorium, a cinema, refreshment facilities and meeting spaces.

Ando’s design is sensitive to the existing historical villa and much of the new structure is embedded below ground level, with freestanding landscape elements and water features designed to mirror, complement and not detract from the villa (though unfortunately during our visit the reflection pools were empty of water for maintenance). As with any Tadao Ando building, there is a simplicity of architectural form and material, with a constant connection to natural light and the surrounding landscape. Ando’s design reflects his understated approach to creating timeless architecture that focuses on personal sensation and physical experience rather then showy architectural statements.


Herding our snap happy camera crew back onto the bus (a bit of a feat in itself!) we set off for the next destination the Tombe Brion-Vega (Brion Family Tomb). For me this was the highlight of the day. Designed and constructed from 1969 to 1978 this poetic complex of built form and landscaping, showcases the unique talent of one the architectural greats of the twentieth century, Italian architect Carlo Scarpa (b.1906-d.1978 - he is in fact also interned within the cemetery complex in a structure designed by his son Tobia).


The Brion Family Tomb occupies an L-shaped site of approximately 2200 square metres located along two sides of the cemetery of San Vito d’Ativole near Asolo, Treviso. This sleepy little monument to the dead is truly one of the loveliest pleasures to experience. Scarpa was a modernist architect who eschewed the glass and steel boxes of his contemporaries. Instead his simple buildings and landscaped gardens reflect his Venetian training and exposure to the Sesession (Art Nouveau), with their traditions of the artisan and craftsmanship. His buildings celebrate the qualities of materials, simple understated asymmetrical built forms and the detailing of elements such openings, structure and their jointing systems.


Carlo Scarpa’s body of work also reflects his lifelong passion for history. Our third building of the day in Verona was the Museo di Castelvecchio. In his work on the citadel of Verona, which dates from the mid 1300’s and is located on the former site of a Roman fortress, he rejected traditional ideas of restoration and undertook a series of modernist built insertions, individual ‘exposures’ and judicious demolition to expose and make transparent the different historical stratas of the complex.

Designed and constructed between 1956 and 1964, Scarpa aimed to make history come alive by exposing fragments of the different ages in the building. Modern elements are utilised to draw attention to and display the impressive medieval collection by drawing in natural light. You would think that the insertion of modernist built elements would be jarring along side the simple medieval gothic style of the original buildings. It’s actually the opposite. Carlo Scarpa’s ‘new’ elements instead playfully and sympathetically frame the visitor’s views of the building, it’s materials and it’s contents.

Rather reluctantly we reboarded the bus to leave Verona for our fourth destination, the MABIC Maranello Biblioteca Cultura. Arising out of a competition for a public library in Maranello, in the province of Modena, this delightful sinuous building was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki in association with Italian firm Andrea Maffei Architects.


Designed and constructed between 2007 and 2011, the scale of this civic building is modest and suited to it’s village environment. The interiors are linked to the exterior through extensive sections of frameless curved glass that floods the reading areas and stacks with natural light. With it’s enclosing water pool, the building appears to float in it’s surroundings. The minimalist palette of materials and white colour, allows reflected patterns of dappled light to become the ‘star’ and to play over the exterior and interiors.

After multiple pictures were taken (anyone else appreciating the irony of a bunch of Australians hidden behind camera lenses paralleling the quintessential ‘Japanese’ tourist?), we again hit the road for our final project for the day, the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari. For the motorheads among our crew this would have been the most edifying of the selections! I must admit even I drooled over the selection of automotive designs displayed.


Located in the city of Modena the museum complex comprises the 1830 home and workshop where Enzo Ferrari (b.1898 – d.1988), of the ‘fast red car with a stallion insignia’ fame, was born and raised, along with a futuristic new museum for his extensive collection of cars. The complex eventuated out of a design competition held in 2004 and won by Jan Kaplicky (b.1937 – d.2009), founder of the UK based architectural firm Future Systems. With the death of Kaplicky, Future Systems ceased practice and it’s former Associate Director Andrea Morgante (who began his own firm Shiro Studio) took over the final design and construction phases of the museum. Following and building on Jan Kaplicky’s original vision for the building, he oversaw it’s completion in 2012.


The new museum is typical of Jan Kaplicky’s somewhat unconventional approach to building design. A bermed earth mound insulates and encloses the non-linear exhibition space, which is buried below ground level to ensure that the structure does not exceed and overshadow the 12m height of the residence and workshop. Along one face a structuralist glass façade opens up the building onto a courtyard facing the original house and workshop. The streamlined aluminium roof has slots incised to provide natural light to the interiors and is intended to resemble the air intakes on the bonnet of a car. It is also brightly coloured in the yellow used on the Ferrari logo.


In the original residence and workshop an inserted structure of white columns and bracings had to be installed to meet Italian seismic regulations. Seeming to float within the interiors are organically shaped vertical leaves. These act as a metaphor for the pages of a book recording history. Interpretive panels and multimedia displays are inserted in front of and between these leaves, telling the story of Enzo Ferrari’s life and automotive work.

After we had all selected our respective dream cars, it was time to conclude the tour within the colonnaded streets of Bologna. Taking over a local tavern we discussed of our impressions over a glass (or two) of vino and a plethora of local dishes. We clutched our distended tummy’s and dozed as the bus drove back into Venice in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

Many thanks must be made to Tone Wheeler and the assisting crew from the AIA for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I’m sure all would agree that we saw some outstanding architecture.


  • Article: Vanessa Couzens
  • Photographs: Vanessa Couzens