Richard Olcott FAIA, FAAR, Design Partner, Ennead Architects, shares his respect and intrigue for adding to an existing historical vernacular, taking inspiration from its original design ques, and if course, the incomparable Carlo Scarpa
Something that has always interested Richard greatly is how one adds to historic buildings and how one builds in cities with existing constraints, which to him, is far more compelling than starting with a flat, open greenfield.
When Richard first became aware of the work of Carlo Scarpa, it bowled him over. Richard found it stunningly original and radical and modern, but at the same time totally respectful, contextual, and in some way deferential to whatever historic context in which he was working. It was a high-wire act that I had not seen anywhere else.
When Richard was in school, it was the time of the Modern Masters. Scarpa was not talked about much, he was regarded as a quirky, idiosyncratic minor Venetian architect. It was during his travels in Venice after college thatRichard had the chance to discover his work on his own, beginning with the Olivetti Showroom, and it resonated with him. Richard sought out many of his projects over the following years. They range from the enormous – like Castelvecchio, where he renovated an entire castle and is arguably his greatest work – down to these very tiny interventions with blink-and-you-could-miss-it details, which are amazing when you look at them closely.
Another thing that is so compelling about Scarpa is his use of historic, time-honored materials in radical ways – gold leaf, bronze, mosaic, terrazzo, stucco lustro, Istrian stone – a whole palette of classical Venetian materials that are completely reinvented. Richard thinks that is something that many architects admire, the idea of using the craft of those materials as ornament. Scarpa calls it “the adoration of the joint.”
For Richard, his work has been very instructive as to how to enrich an urban environment without completely overwhelming it. Richard found it to be powerful and timeless – most of his work is over 50 years old and it looks as fresh now as it did then. Richard has always been fascinated by how layers of history can coexist in the built environment in an additive way. This interest was the foundation of his work for the Rome Prize, and in some way, has informed every building he has done throughout his career.
At Ennead, so much of the company’s work involves interventions – they have added to buildings in every period. Classical, Brutalist, Modern, Victorian, they have done them all. For Richard, the project that best embodies his influence is the renovation and expansion of the Yale University Art Gallery, where they were working in and around three historic buildings. Ennead made interventions in each, that can be read on their own as well as together with the “host body.” It is the interaction between them that is so interesting. These were three very powerful landmarked buildings of three completely different architectural styles – Victorian, Romanesque and Modern with a capital “M”. The challenge was to find a vocabulary that ties all three together, showing off their individual finer points while bringing them into a cohesive whole that offers a new experience. It required a light touch and a somewhat modest, self-effacing approach, guided by the idea of “first do no harm”. The intention was to allow the buildings to keep their integrity, while bringing something new to the equation and prioritising the viewing of art.