The astonishing renovation of the lower level of a centuries-old palazzo seduced a whole generation of architects and helped Carlo Scarpa to acquire a cult status that haunts Venetian architects today.


If architecture, in Goethe’s celebrated phrase, is “frozen music,” it makes sense that certain kinds of buildings get stuck in people’s heads. Coming at the right time, the right aesthetic married to the right conceptual framework can prove so irresistible that the combination can seduce a whole generation of designers, resonating for generations to come. More than just popular, more than just influential, these are the earworm practices that bury themselves deep in the psyche of the discipline: they come but rarely, and the architect-hitmakers who crack the code are few and far between.

Carlo Scarpa is one such figure. The secrets of the 20th-century Venetian master—the ingredients that make his work so mesmeric—seem on the one hand impossible to discern, and on the other (and this only compounds the mystery) not all that tough to suss out. Take one part medieval Japanese wabi-sabi, one part 1920s Italian futurism, season generously with late Byzantine ornamentality and simmer for about thirty years in a vat of Frank Lloyd Wright: ecco tutto, the Scarpa family recipe. Naturally that still comes nowhere close to explaining how Scarpa’s buildings really operate on the mind and on the body, as demonstrated by a quick look at one of his most enduring projects, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in his native Venice.


The profusion of details in the garden includes concrete walls trimmed in glittering tiles.

Housed in the former palazzo of one of the city’s long-defunct aristocratic families, the Querini is a bit of an oddball, boasting a curious assortment of work from regional masters alongside a smattering of modern painters, as well as rare books, decorative arts, and occasional special exhibitions, all packed into a sumptuous domestic interior. As the name implies, the Fondazione is not so much a conventional museum as a research institution; when Scarpa, then 53, was brought in to carry out a partial renovation in 1959, his aim was less to turn the centuries-old structure into a coherent space for viewing art than to retrofit it for slightly enhanced public programming. Confined largely to the lowermost level of the palace, that’s about as much as he had room to do anyway. Though what he did with the room he had is astonishing.

Descending from the library, the visitor arrives in what was once the primary waterside entrance —the place where, in ages past, the merchant-counts who dwelt there would arrive by gondola, or greet their masked guests at carnival time. Into this lower chamber Scarpa carved a small suite of gallery spaces, lining it with walls and dividers in brick and stone, carved here and there with rectilinear channels and touched with occasional sprays of gold. The first challenge for the casual art patron is simply to navigate the floor, which rises and falls at irregular intervals via steps that do not make for easy going underfoot; the whole interior, in fact, is cordoned into multiple mini-precincts, each at a different level. The effect is a giddy sense of disorientation that reaches its logical yet confounding dénouement at the canal-front gate, where a series of cascading stairs and planters lead straight into the drink: the whole room, it becomes clear, is a semi-submersible indoor landscape, capable of taking on water whenever the acqua alta strikes, working with Venice’s unpredictable elements to create a fusion of nature and artifice.


The Querini occupies the former palazzo of one of the city’s long-defunct aristocratic families.

Wonders do not cease there. Adjacent to his galleries, Scarpa created a garden that takes his uncanny organicism a step further, with concrete walls trimmed in glittering tiles running alongside pools and fountains fed by delicate stone and bronze sluices with patinated finishes. As before, the plan is more or less inexplicable, a sequence of stairs leading to nowhere, little parapets that either dead-end in hedges or that might be understood as steps themselves, leading up to the green un-manicured lawn at the centre. It is here—between the Renaissance spolia and the ivy-covered wall, walking on the curiously quarter note-shaped pavers— that Scarpa really sinks his hook in: the profusion of details, the twists and turns of the procession, make the visitor feel like some absurd detective, on the trail of a vast and unknowable case. Every time another minute discovery pops into view, there’s a ping of pleasure. String enough of these together, and addiction will take hold.

There’s nothing wrong with being a Scarpa-holic per se—except, of course, when there is. “All influence is immoral,” as Oscar Wilde put it, since the influenced party “does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions.” Though relatively obscure in his own lifetime, Scarpa has acquired a cult status in death that not only would have offended him personally but that has become oppressive to many of his latter-day successors in Italy: evidence the parody campaign mounted during the 2019 Art Biennale by one local culturato, who printed up adhesive messages boasting that their design gallery space was “100% Carlo Scarpa Free”. The architect’s legions of devotees are not hard to find, including at the Querini Stampalia, where subsequent renovations (the ground-floor library and an interior service volume) were undertaken in a Scarpa-esque mode by a pair of admirers, Valeriano Pastor and Mario Botta; both, in fact, are extremely accomplished, though they suffer by proximity to the source material. And therein is the danger of catchy architecture: the looming prospect that, in the middle of humming an original tune, one will inadvertently slip into the familiar chorus, repeating phrases that have already worked such deep grooves into the brain. To appreciate Scarpa’s originality, it is almost necessary to forget him.