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Venice vows to build for the 21st century

At a time when its economy is increasingly dependent on tourism, Venice believes that new construction is one of the keys to its future.

Venice, long resistant to modern architecture, has had a change of heart. Such was the message at a press conference there on 1 December to highlight the Venice Cultural Laboratory - a new coalition of almost 40 of the city's cultural institutions. In the opulent ballroom of 18th-century Palazzo Labia, decorated with frescoes by Tiepolo and Mengozzi-Colonna that surround you with architectural illusions, a list of 30 current construction projects was announced - many initiated by these institutions.

Venetians with Modernist sympathies are haunted by three buildings in particular that remained on paper: Frank Lloyd Wright's Masieri Memorial House on the Grand Canal (1953), Le Corbusier's hospital on the northern fringe of the city near San Giobbe (1964), and Louis Kahn's Palazzo dei Congressi, first meant for the Giardini Publicci and then for the Arsenale (1968-74). The present surge of activity should, we were told, 'make amends for these great opportunities lost', and alongside a roster of Italian architects are international 'names' such as Gehry, Calatrava, Miralles and Chipperfield.

But you will not find a skyline of cranes.

Many of these projects involve the reuse of historic buildings, so they tend to be discreet; the most visible new construction is on the city's margins. Some are still no more than a bright idea, and may prove to be as fictive as the images on Palazzo Labia's walls.

The one UK protagonist is David Chipperfield Architects, whose competitionwinning proposal for an extension to San Michele Cemetery was published in the AJ (6.8.98). Three years later it is yet to start on site. Chipperfield's scheme is in two phases: the first, a series of new courtyards within the precincts of the cemetery; the second, a new island, like a large raft moored alongside.

'It has been more complicated than we envisaged, ' says Sabrina Melera, project architect for the extension, in, for instance, the amount of geological research required.

She hopes that the first phase will go out to tender in spring 2002, when an environmental impact assessment for the second will also be submitted.

Another project which has been mooted for some time - it was promoted back at the 1999 Art Biennale - is Vittorio Gregotti's adaptation of the 17th-century Punta dell Dogana into a branch of the Guggenheim Museum. This former Customs House, empty for many years, stands at the very entrance to the Grand Canal - an address to rival the Guggenheim's base back on New York's Fifth Avenue.

Gregotti's scheme seems uncontentious though progress towards its realisation has been slow. But Philip Rylands, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection a little further up the canal, is 'optimistic'.With his longstanding involvement in the Venetian cultural scene - he has lived in the city since 1974 and worked for the Venice in Peril Fund for 10 years - he has few illusions about local politics and planning.

On the waterfront This Dogana proposal is but one instance of the contemporary arriving by stealth.

Another is Vittorio Spigai's new economics faculty for the UniversitÓ Ca' Foscari in the former Macello near San Giobbe - a complex of 19th-century buildings where animals were slaughtered and meat processed. It is precisely this old abattoir - not what Venice would once have regarded as a heritage to protect - that Le Corbusier would have demolished for his hospital. Its preservation now presumably reflects both local conservatism and a more global revaluing of such buildings.

Spigai has inserted simple steel-and-glass staircase links between the symmetrically arranged two-storey brick sheds - nothing to alarm anyone there. But the university's plans for adjacent sites, which would entail demolition, are presently a subject of protest - as picketers outside Palazzo Labia made clear to arriving journalists.

As another example of a changed attitude towards the city's 19th-century legacy, there is Molino Stucky on the south bank of the broad Giudecca Canal - a vast turretted Neo-Gothic flour mill begun in 1895 by the German architect Ernst Wullekopf. Wildly out of scale with its surroundings and studiously ignored by generations of guidebooks to Venice, the mill - steadily more ruinous since its closure in 1955 - is now being considered for a hotel, conference centre and housing. Its restoration is statutorily obliged 'to respect the original intent'.

Directly opposite the Molino Stucky, at San Basilio on the north bank of the Giudecca Canal, is one of the more promising sites.

At present there is just a heap of rubble, residue of the refrigerated warehouses that once stood here, but this is where Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue's new building for the Istituto Universitario di Architetettura di Venezia should stand.Won in competition in 1999, and comprising an auditorium, exhibition space, restaurant and lecture halls in three blocks around an inner courtyard, this seems both viable and necessary - and it is not unduly reticent.

Immediately beside it, but less radical, will be Gregotti's new library for Ca' Foscari, absorbing two existing warehouses; and next door to that - or so a display board on the quayside says - will be Bruna Minardi's exhibition and cultural centre, in still another warehouse. As yet there is no sign of activity on either of these sites.

What has happened here, though, is that an area previously off-limits to pedestrians, because of its use for shipping, has been opened up. The Venetian Port Authority is transferring heavy commercial traffic to Porto Marghera, so there is now a continuous footpath along this part of the Giudecca Canal - and the views are exhilarating.

Still very much on paper are the designs by Calatrava and Gehry. As far as one could gauge during the weekend of the press conference, there is no great political impetus behind Calatrava's proposed bridge over the Grand Canal, near Piazzale Roma. Gehry's 'Venice Gateway' project is another matter.

Providing a new boat terminal at Tessera airport, and dramatising the connection between sea and land, it includes a 350-room hotel and 2,000-seat conference centre. Preliminary design should be completed by the end of 2002, detailed design by the end of 2003, and construction by the end of 2006.

By which time the world's love affair with Gehry will probably be over and the failings of his architecture sharply exposed. It will be ironic indeed if, having missed out on Wright, Le Corbusier and Kahn (three designs which still look absolutely fresh), Venice should end up with Gehry - histrionic, pompous and arbitrary.

How very different is the best new building in Venice, a finalist for this year's Mies van der Rohe Award: Cino Zucchi's apartment block beside a quiet canal on the island of Giudecca. Standing in a former industrial area that is now being redeveloped, the block provides subsidised housing. Spare, thoughtful, and visually engaging through the play of solid and void in its asymmetrical facades, it meets both social and aesthetic obligations.

'But the authorities have decided that conservation is the main way to approach architecture in Venice, ' says Simonetta Daffarra, a local architect and teacher.

'Everything new that is proposed is criticised - it is very difficult to get something contemporary built.' She sees this as a national tendency, not just a Venetian one, with laws, as well as ingrained attitudes, which actively inhibit the new. A further problem, she argues, is political instability in Italy - the frequent changes of government over the last decade or more that frustrate innovation and continuity.

Tourist trail Though the various dispersed expansion schemes being undertaken by the university are an exception, many of the current projects - whether new-build or restoration - cement the idea of Venice as a tourist destination. For the past 20 years or more the historic city's population has been declining:

take a boat down the Grand Canal at night and many of the palaces that flank it, now offices or second homes, are in darkness.

With this exodus comes economic change:

small shops that once catered to Venetians are today crammed with tourist kitsch.

Institutions and commercial concerns continue to relocate to Mestre on the mainland. Developed since the 1920s, Mestre was first seen as a residential suburb of Venice but you can hear suggestions that there has now been a shift of gravity - that Mestre is the vital, functioning city and Venice its moribund satellite. The idea that Venice is 'a laboratory of culture' sounds suitably grand, but one purpose of the press conference was simply to publicise events that will be taking place in 2002 - exhibitions such as 'L'America di Pollock', further tourist lures.

More significant perhaps than any announcement at Palazzo Labia was one made a few days later. Thirty-five years after the disastrous floods of 4-5 November 1966, Venice has finally approved the construction of barriers against the acqua alta - the high tides which threaten it with increasing regularity. The scheme, which may take 10 years to complete, has been highly controversial.

Environmentalists think that the eco-system of the lagoon will be damaged, and there are fears that Venice's port will be affected, with ships paralysed when the barriers are deployed. This story is far from over.

Which just leaves La Fenice - the famous 18th-century opera house destroyed by fire in 1996. Its reconstruction was entrusted to Aldo Rossi, and no doubt his death in 1997 did not help matters. But, dogged since then by disputes and scandal, the theatre is still shrouded in scaffolding.Who knows when it will reopen? The audience at the Palazzo Labia conference was certainly sceptical when the topic was raised. Opera or soap opera? In La Fenice, Venice has found another endless saga - one set to rival the acqua alta.

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