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Up against the elements: high tide in Venice

Paul Finch
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It sometimes seems the classical elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water – are as relevant to today’s architectural environmental politics as ever they were, writes Paul Finch

Water was very much on this correspondent’s mind in Venice this week. First there was a one-day public transport strike, eliminating all vaporetto travel. Actually this was rather impressive – noise and pollution minimised.

Far less welcome was ‘acqua alta’, high tides coming in from the Adriatic, which disrupted the Venice Marathon and made parts of the city impossible to negotiate without waders. The best strategy was to stay on a boat or get to the railway station and head for Vicenza.

Before water disrupted things, it was a pleasure to revisit this year’s Venice Biennale, which is open until 25 November for those who have yet to see it.

While its subject and curatorial approach attracted some criticism, the wealth of material displayed made it a very worthwhile second look. And the way we think about Earth was very much in evidence in displays I rushed through previously.

For example, Station Russia, the magnificent Russian pavilion in the Giardini, provided an exhilarating presentation of the development of the railway system, which in many ways defined modern Russia and the way it thought about itself.

Particularly intriguing was the notion of railway stations being a form of pleasure palace – based on the 17th century gardens and buildings at Vauxhall (adopted into Russian as vokzal, the word for station), which makes Jane Vaux an unlikely but nevertheless authentic influence on a new form of transport architecture in a far-off country centuries later.

Pavlovsk vauxhall, station russia, venice architecture biennale 2018, courtesy the russian pavilion, venice (3)

Pavlovsk vauxhall, station russia, venice architecture biennale 2018, courtesy the russian pavilion, venice (3)

Source: Courtesy the Russian Pavilion, Venice

Pavlovsk Vauxhall, Station Russia, Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

The idea of architectural interventions in respect of the smallest transport facility was nicely illustrated as part of a much more substantial programme in the Italian pavilion in the Arsenale. Curated by the excellent Mario Cucinella, this substantial pavilion began with a long film examining ways in which neglected or abandoned parts of an ‘archipelago’ in the country, linked by decline or neglect, might be revived by architectural interventions. These ranged from reworking abandoned factories to the simple framing of spectacular views via a new sort of bus shelter, which doubles as a temporary meeting space.

Two huge spaces then explore the condition of the areas examined in the film, then the interventions proposed to bring them back to productive life, part of the earth and country from which they have been severed.

Fire is an issue always with us, as a visit to La Fenice opera house reminded us. Aldo Rossi’s faithful restoration of the original building, hit twice by fire, has worn well and the stratospheric price of tickets is proof of the ongoing popularity of both the building and the art form. (Tip: you can get cheap seats at the top, with restricted views but all the atmosphere.)

Reading Page\Park’s evidence to Scottish MPs on the Mac fire made for depressing reading, not least because it is still far from clear who precisely is responsible for what in respect of fire regulations at each stage of complex contracts, from the point of view of both design, construction and regulatory approval. One can only hope that the Grenfell Tower inquiry will dig into these matters in sufficient detail to establish whether we have the right rules, which have been ignored; or the wrong rules for the ways in which we now build.

As far as Air is concerned, I am baffled by the opposition to a pedestrian and cycle bridge between Nine Elms near the new US embassy, and Pimlico, a relatively quiet part of the capital. There is huge advantage in providing facilities for non-polluters, not least because it should help traffic flow on main routes.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in the UK, arguments about one thing are immediately framed in a binary, winner-takes-all context. Rather like our politics, alas.

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