The New Year is a time when we love leaving the old for the new.  Sometimes  instantaneous, more often a process, either way it requires grace. Appreciation for what has gone before and compassion for ourselves as we integrate new ideas can make the transition fluid and effortless. It reminds me of what happens when a skillful hand blends historic and modern architecture into a seamless yet playful whole. 

New England’s rich history spanning five centuries presents an exciting design challenge:  How do we integrate modern sensibilities into the context of historic buildings - creating environmentally responsible design and clean, minimalist lines - while respecting the regional character of what we already have?  Often this question is avoided either by a stuffy approach that mimics old styles, precluding innovation and relevance, or by one that is strictly modernist, ignoring the context or stripping historic buildings of detail and character.  A third approach takes a deeper look into the heart of an older building’s design and responds with agility in the language of today.


Last fall I returned to a favorite building, the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, renovated by Carlo Scarpa. After visiting our daughter in the dreamy hill town of Cortona, hiking, sketching, and parenting our busy art student and her friends with Italian meals, I travelled to take in Italy’s miraculous mix of ancient, historic, and contemporary architecture.  The Museo di Castelvecchio resonates with me so much that I had to return after thirty years, dragging questioning companions with me.  What had made me fall in love with it long ago was the interplay of historic and modern languages in one building.

The museum is a microcosm of the graceful Italian dance between history and modernism.  The Italians’ love affair with their multi-millennia of art and architecture is evident everywhere you look.  In Rome, around every corner is another spectacular church, fountain or ancient monument, but right next to you as you walk are modern sculptures and display windows with impeccable minimalism, installed below stone and stucco facades with washes of ochers, greens and rusts, layered and mellowed over the centuries. It all works together in a breathtaking symphony of form and color. 

Almost every Italian you meet expresses this love of local art history.  In the Veneto, where I was biking to visit Palladio’s classical renaissance villas some years ago, I talked with an Italian cyclist who knew every villa’s date and details.  Then I learned he was a car mechanic.  This may explain a bit about why Italy leads the world in high style high performance cars, but that’s only part of the story. It speaks volumes about the education of Italy’s workers.  They are artisans.  Historic and modern design and art are the two spiraling strands of the nation’s DNA.

Castelvecchio has had a wide influence since Carlo Scarpa’s renovation in the 1960’s.  A revelation at the time, its approach has been adopted by many. It still stands out as a superior work, as Scarpa’s detailing and understanding of materials remains almost unmatched.

Before Scarpa, the castle had undergone over 700 years of alterations as a military structure.  In 1930, the director of Verona museums, wanting to enhance Verona’s medieval look, took a fantasy approach in restoring the museum.  He rebuilt the main façade using Venetian gothic windows from buildings that had been destroyed. 

“In Castelvecchio everything was fake” Scarpa said.  Trying to restore originality would have meant inventing.  Instead he celebrated the falsity of the main façade, turning it into a kind of stage set.


Leaving the façade’s rough, gray concrete, he pulled the new door and window frames back behind the gothic ornament.  The dark bronze modern frames and mullions disappear until you get close, and then their asymmetrical rhythms take over, bringing you back to reality.  A small platform protruding from the central doors looks like a stage.  A beautifully detailed modern wall signals the real entrance to the right, like an actor’s entrance to a theatre.

Inside, the lyrical exchange between modernism and history benefits from the quality of craft in the new materials.  A prominent reveal between the smooth floor and rough textured walls detaches you from the walls, carrying the stage set idea inside.  In a historic language, symmetrical archways lead you through a series of galleries.  But details, picking up on the iron and bronze that would have been ubiquitous in the past, are crisp, minimal, and inventive.


Floating platforms display ancient sculptures. The asymmetrical window mullions are obvious now, silhouetted against the sky.  Bronze easels supporting paintings have modern details that harmonize with new iron stair rails.  Stair treads are concrete slabs that float past each other, at times in an organic pattern, carrying further the idea of freedom and detachment from the past. 

Gridded iron window grates are a familiar sight in Italian cities.  Scarpa modernizes this precedent by creating a double-lined square pattern and making the grates work with the asymmetrical new door and window frames rather than the arched openings.  The crisp wood-framed panels slide by the arch on a simple track, ending against the wall at 90 degrees to the opening.  The horizontal track follows the same direction as the light colored control joints in the concrete floor.  This stark rhythm contrasts with the historic art and architecture, but the architect’s choice of materials is completely in sync with the old brick and stone.

Scarpa, a modernist, deciphered history and celebrated our relationship with it, even the "fake" 30's Gothic Revival, with a mastery of materials and intention.  His work inspires us to rival the Italian passion with love for our own region's unique sense of place.  It invites us to take a fresh look at how innovation and minimalism might embrace period and revival styles in a new dance that's graceful and progressive, unique and yet universally understood.