Canadian Architect


Places of Remembrance

A pilgrimage to memorial sites in italy recalls lessons from the late Marco Frascari, former director of the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University.

March 1, 2014
by Thomas Nemeskeri

A view of the chapel at the intimate Brion-Vega cemetery by Carlo Scarpa.

A view of the chapel at the intimate Brion-Vega cemetery by Carlo Scarpa.

TEXT and PHOTOS Thomas Nemeskeri

Est modus in rebus, there is a balance in all things. With this maxim in mind, I found myself travelling through northern Italy last May, a pilgrimage prompted by the recent loss of a family member. In between drawing, visiting galleries and improvising meals from local foods, I visited a number of memorials, cemeteries and tombs–places of remembrance that I had studied under the guidance of my former teacher, mentor and advisor, Marco Frascari.

After taking the train to Modena one morning, I made my way to the San Cataldo cemetery: the “City for the Dead.” Aldo Rossi’s massive unfinished project, composed of stark abandoned forms, was populated by those few visitors who came to whisper to their departed–the “residents” of the city, ordered along the endless corridors, entombed within the walls of otherwise vacant buildings. The overall effect was akin to the unsettling magical realism of a de Chirico painting.

The haunting San Cataldo cemetery by Aldo Rossi.

The haunting San Cataldo cemetery by Aldo Rossi.

The following week I drove to Castelfranco to visit the Brion-Vega cemetery, arguably Carlo Scarpa’s masterwork. There I stood and stared at length, observing the contrast of materials–some durable and others ephemeral, and volumes–some fluid and others monolithic. Combined, they formed a meditation on the mediation of opposites. Informed by Frascari, who had been a student and later an assistant of Scarpa’s, I knew that during the realization of the project, Scarpa had kept a copy of Locus Solus nearby. Raymond Roussel’s novel conveys the experience of walking through a labyrinthine garden of increasing complexity. At the Brion-Vega cemetery, Scarpa provided an opportunity for quiet reflection on this metaphor for life and death.

Overgrown foliage covers the tombs at Isola di San Michele in Venice.

Overgrown foliage covers the tombs at Isola di San Michele in Venice.

Later, in Venice, after taking a boat to Isola di San Michele, I wandered through processions of tombs, burial grounds and memorials. Roaming across the island, my gaze turned to the patina covering and altering every surface. Monuments had succumbed to decay; their slow transmutation to the earth was heralded by moss on stone, the overgrowth of foliage, the staining of glass and the corrosion of metal. Under the eventual passing of light and shadow, these materials bore an uncanny resemblance to the stuff of memory.

It was with this perspective that I returned to Canada, where only shortly afterward I would learn of Marco Frascari’s passing. His presence is still felt through his tremendous legacy to the field of architecture, both built and theoretical. With his passion for narrative, supported by his extensive knowledge of etymology, Marco encouraged students like myself to understand and pursue architecture as a binding element in our daily practices that affects and shapes our cognition, mental health and overall well-being just as much as–if not more than–we, as architects, shape it.

My recent experiences in Italy reinforced those lessons. Confronted by loss, I was able to embrace a balance between the past and the present, through architecture.

The 2nd Frascari Symposium on storytelling in architecture will be held from March 28-29, 2014 at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Thomas Nemeskeri is a Toronto-based architect. His photographs are available to view through

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