A medieval castle transformed into a museum is the benchmark for reimagining historic buildings, says architect Brian Zulaikha.
I went to see Castelvecchio on a holiday to Italy in 1984. Somebody said I should go so I did. Then I went again and again and again. It’s an easy journey from Venice, which I visit every second year or so. Castelvecchio was once a grand castle on the banks of the river in Verona. It’s been redesigned about five times and Italian architect Carlo Scarpa was commissioned in 1957 to reimagine the building as a museum.
A staircase in the barracks, built during Napoleon’s rule, was demolished. Scarpa convinced museum director Licisco Magagnato that it was necessary to create a new link between buildings then remodelled it as a ground-floor gallery. The remodel also made way for housing Cangrande, a statue of the equestrian Lord of Verona and one of the most significant objects in the museum’s collection.
You can walk along the ramparts and see the river and the city beyond. Scarpa created these beautiful steps, which take you on a journey around the site to the Cangrande. I read that the statue was meant to be seen from one vantage point but Scarpa created a void behind it and a number of viewing platforms so you can see it from below, above, all sorts of angles. It’s an interesting way to display it.
It was the first time I’d come across an architect who wasn’t afraid to touch a historic building. Scarpa showed that while the original fabric had to maintain its identity, his new work could be given equal voice. In the courtyard, he created steel bridges. If he’d made them from timber, which they would have done in the 14th century, it would have been softer and more in symphony with the original building but it wouldn’t have had the same impact.
I go to a lot of galleries but I don’t know anything about the art here. I’ve taken lots of photographs but most of them show the display cabinets. I look at the way the pieces are supported, which is a very architectural thing. And the windows are recessed so they produce subtle pools of light in the spaces. I fell in love with the way he displays the Gothic paintings and sculptures.
Brian Zulhaika is a founding partner of Sydney-based architectural practice Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, which was involved in the recent upgrade of the Sydney Opera House. He is committed to sustainable design and has been national president of the Australian Institute of Architects.
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Image credit: Federico Puggioni