James Newton


The Architecture of Intuition 10.19

A single leather strap hanging from a glass door was all it took.  No signage telling you to ‘pull’ or ‘push’, no decals warning you not to walk into it – despite the fact that it was a single sheet of frameless clear glass – this simple object explained it all at once and trusted you to understand.

Juhani Pallasmaa describes the door handle as being the “handshake of the building”, it is your first physical contact with it, your first impression. You can probably tell from this first moment what you are going to think of the rest of the experience, whether you are going to enjoy it or not.  So whilst it was perhaps not much to go on, I think that I became an appreciator of Carlo Scarpa at the moment I got to the entrance of Palazzo Abatellis; everything else in the museum only served to reinforce this.

This entrance, which allowed the visitor to intuitively find their way without being told (or at least feel like that was the case) was the perfect introduction to the galleries.  Here too we are confronted with the minimum of fuss, objects stripped bare of frames and display cases are presented with minimal text – title/artist.  The weight of history is lifted and we confront the art face to face, directly, in the present moment.

What this does is enables us to have clear vision. We can take in the objects for what they are (rather than what someone tells us they are) and imagine the hand of the maker at work rather than that of the curator, the connection with the objects is an emotional one rather than an intellectual one.  In short, we can see.

There are some wonderful moments of presentation where objects are framed by the architecture from specific viewpoints, places you have just come from or will go next.  This guides you through the space in a gentle way, intuitively.  Fresco coloured wall panels create backdrops against which sculptures can be seen, carefully positioned so that the light from an adjacent window will fall on it in just the right way but free within the space allowing you to decide where to stand.

Frameless paintings are mounted on hinged metal brackets elevating them from the wall slightly and reinforcing their presence as objects rather than pictures. This also gives the impression that they could be turned round in order to view the back of the panels and discover more about them and how they were made.

It is also a very democratic way of presenting, the most valuable and the most humble are given value and allowed to be seen as equals.  All the while the architecture of the palazzo provides the backdrop, the true framing device for the viewing of the collection. It is a refreshing way to see a museum collection, and very fresh too despite being completed in the mid 1950’s.

Carlo Scarpa’s design seems to manage to be both very direct and very subtle at the same time, my description and pictures may make it seem like it dominated the actual exhibits but far from it, it set up the perfect environment in which to view them and it is the best example of exhibition design I have seen.