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The Venice Biennale shows how a world of change can still have continuities

Paul Finch
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Once you’re tired of the contemporary architecture at the Venice Biennale, the city gives you the opportunity to admire some of the greatest examples ever, says Paul Finch 

I have always been suspicious about people who claim to know what is sustainable. I remember Charles Falconer – never elected to any public office but now one of those members of the House of Lords telling us what to think – claiming that the upper house was not ‘sustainable’ if it included hereditary peers. Unless the aristocracy stopped breeding, it obviously was sustainable, having survived for many centuries. I doubt the current arrangement will last as long.

People responsible for the failed ‘green’ boiler initiative should now acknowledge that it is not their boilers that are unsustainable, but their policy – which is costing taxpayers billions with little to show for it. Ditto crazy policies in relation to diesel fuel, including forcing all London’s black cabs to convert to it until, hey presto, it is suddenly decided that in fact diesel is very evil and must be stopped. 

It is unwise to try to second-guess history. Lots of things appear to be sustainable until suddenly they’re not: mining villages, fishing ports, London docks, Fleet Street, and so on. Stuff happens, justifying that tired old saw that ‘the only certainty is change’. But better to acknowledge that fact rather than pretend you can predict the future, like both sides in the Brexit debate, insulting our intelligence with their phoney predictions, especially Project Fear.

At their best, the envelopes architects design can survive through thick and thin, democracies and dictatorships, war, famine and plague

Change is part of the human condition, but not the only part. Continuities also exist, as the 33 million Brits who watched the royal wedding will probably attest, though it would be a foolish columnist who presumed to know that the monarchy will last the next 25 years, let alone another century or two.

Architecture is a good example of continuity across the centuries (eg Windsor Castle or the newly vitaminised Royal Academy, celebrating its 250th). At their best, the envelopes architects design can survive through thick and thin, democracies and dictatorships, war, famine and plague. There is something about cities and their architecture that seems to defy social change, hence the endless fascination of Rome. 

This week the world of architecture will be focused on the Venice Biennale, that extraordinary phenomenon which continues to attract many of the most creative architectural minds to its redundant charms. There is nothing like an exhibition of the new in a now long-defunct historic context to set a curator’s creative juices flowing.

Let’s face it, whether it is Venice’s art or architecture biennale, once tired of the contemporary you can slip away and admire, for the first time or the 50th, some of the greatest examples of both in the historic city. Of course Venice had to come to terms with modernity, as much of its engine-room architecture, the docks, for example, show. (I recommend Jonathan Glancey’s brilliant account of the bombing of those docks during the Second World War, published in the June issue of The Architectural Review, as an example of the unexpected juxtaposition of new and old. The RAF bombers damaged no historic buildings and didn’t kill any civilians.)

This week I will be raising a glass to the 7th Hussars, my father’s old regiment, the first British troops who arrived to liberate Venice in 1945. The response of the Venetian gondoliers was to quadruple their prices, at which point the army commanders introduced a form of aquatic jeep which would carry troops at speed and at no cost. The gondolier prices soon went back to normal. I will stick to the vaporetto – and a water taxi from the airport if we can find someone to share, defraying another exorbitant Venetian price.

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