There is so much to distract the eye in Venice – from the handsome palazzi to the novelty of watching people go about their daily business by boat – that it seems a shame to step inside. Yet some of the city’s greatest surprises lie concealed behind those big old crumbling façades.
The International Architecture Exhibition Biennale Architettura, a three-month celebration involving 55 nations, directed this year by British architect David Chipperfield, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the city’s heritage.
The classic features of Venetian properties – polished terrazzo flooring, frescoed ceilings and walls finished with marmorino, a type of Venetian plaster – will provide a backdrop for a diverse range of exhibitions and installations, starting this month.
However, none of them will quite prepare visitors for the 1960s timewarp that is Casa Studio Scatturin, a temple to the modernist Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, who renovated the four-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a 17th-century palazzo in San Marco for its owner, Luigi Scatturin.
Scarpa, already a prolific architect by the 1950s, had refused to sit the professional architecture exams demanded by the Italian government after the war. To be allowed to continue to practise, he went to court and Scatturin helped him win his case.
As a token of his gratitude, Scarpa spent three years transforming Scatturin’s family home; 50 years on, the property still bears Scarpa’s hallmarks, including coarse-textured concrete ceilings and polished plaster walls, padded black leather doors and a narrow moat-like channel skirting the sitting room floor.
A flight of Scarpa stairs – two-tone, zig-zagging steps that are striking, if a nightmare to negotiate – is set in a turret that leads to the roof terrace. He also built a curved wall in the dining area to fit in with the family’s existing table and chairs, but the rest of the furniture he designed himself.
“My father was very proud of this property,” says Pietro Scatturin, Luigi’s son. “Scarpa’s idea of blending the ancient and modern inside was so far from the provincial mentality of Venice in the ’60s.”
As one of a small number of homes that Scarpa designed, and the only one that he worked on to this extent, his touch carries a premium. The apartment is on the market for €3.8m.
“It would cost about half that without the Scarpa effect,” says Ann-Marie Doyle, director of Venice Sotheby’s International Realty, which is listing the property. It has also been on the market for two years – no surprise, perhaps, given that whoever owns it will need to preserve it untouched.
On quiet Giudecca island, a short water taxi ride across the canal, an architectural surprise of a very different kind awaits behind the brick façade of the huge, old Druher brewery. Casa Wagner is surely Venice’s most ingenious penthouse, constructed as a pre-fabricated cylinder that sits within the industrial loft.
The owner, a Swedish businessman and music lover, wanted a space for musical performances and views from the nine vast windows. The architect Michael Carapetian’s solution was to raise the living space, like a contemporary piano nobile, on a suspended platform built like a boat, giving panoramic views and perfect acoustics. Everything was built in workshops on Giudecca and assembled on site.
“I didn’t want the new structure to touch the historic shell, so I built an oval in a rectangle which could move in like a hermit crab, to give life to a dead shell – like most of Venice – and move out without leaving any nasty wounds,” says Carapetian. Many of the property’s features are concealed from view: a secret sauna, hidden cupboards and a galley kitchen that tucks away out of sight.
The penthouse is for sale at €8m through Venice Sotheby’s, and Carapetian plans to open it for small parties of collectors and prospective buyers during the Biennale Architettura.
Venice’s rarity value ensures a constant stream of interest in its high-end properties, from a contemporary one-off to a traditional piano nobile on the Grand Canal, the likes of which sell for several million euros. But transactions at this level are scarce, says Sebastiano Doria, who runs Savills’ associate agency, Views on Venice.
The £800,000-£1m market – enough to buy a two- or three-bedroom property in a good location – is healthy, says Doria, with the French being the biggest buyers, followed by the Swiss and British. Small, sub-£500,000 apartments are also selling, “particularly those that combine modern living with the charm of history”, he adds.
Doria has the perfect example for sale at €620,000: a 90 sq metre flat in the 17th-century Palazzo Bernardi in the San Polo district. While the palazzo retains its grand façade and an 18th-century frescoed ballroom in its piano nobile, this apartment has been turned into a homage to minimalist style by the designer Umberto Branchini. Almost every feature is black or white, including ancient kimonos from Kyoto that hang on the walls.
On the Lido, the island fringed on one side by sandy Adriatic beaches, one building has found a dedicated following over the past century. The Grand Hôtel des Bains dates from 1900 and has attracted writers (Thomas Mann was inspired to write Death in Venice while staying there over many years) and, as host to Venice’s international film festival, movie stars. The hotel closed for renovation two years ago as part of a wider regeneration of Venice Lido. Due for completion in 2014, it has 58 one- to three-bedroom apartments for sale at €1.1m-€5.1m and six units within four villas for €1.75m-€3.95m.
“The historic integrity of the building and grounds will be at the heart of the renovation and, once complete, it is hoped that the building will once again take its place as one of Europe’s most unique hotel and private residence buildings,” says Claire Hazle, Knight Frank’s sales negotiator for the development. No one can change the period charm of the façade but inside the decor will be contemporary, with kitchens and bathrooms by top Italian designers.