A Grand Tour, Part 2: Venice the Menaced

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20,000,000 visitors, reflecting. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller

This is the second of a four part series which totally geeks out on cities.

The calm and orderliness with which patricians, citizens, clergy and populace process is also clearly intended to reflect the civic harmony of the Most Serene Republic; and to this end Gentile has seen fit to suppress many of the less dignified sights that would normally have been encountered by the late fifteenth-century visitor to the Piazza: the vendors’ stalls, for example; or the display of freaks and curiosities, and of criminals in cages; or the latrines.

-Art historian Peter Humfrey on Gentile Bellini’s pre-billboard Procession in the Piazza San Marco (1496), from Painting in Renaissance Venice (Yale, 1997)

Venice has a secret; it is a great city for runners. Typically the urban runner faces a conundrum. Running in parks is safe and healthy, but quickly grows boring. Running on city streets can be diverting, but the staccato disruption of crosswalks frustrates any possibility of getting into a rhythm. The runner fantasizes: what if there were a city riddled with paved passages too narrow for cars,  with squares, courtyards, beautiful buildings and water? What if it were completely flat? Running, especially early in the morning, reveals a different Venice, before the tour buses disgorge. As the Venice runner veers away from the broad fondamenti and seeks out the most obscure rami, a false sense of speed is created by the narrow passages and a simple run starts to feel like a video game. With no possibility of getting hit by a car, the Venice runner is free to concentrate on the sensory landscape of the city — the handcarts which collect garbage, the delivery boats full of roof tiles or toilet paper and underneath it all like a private drum roll the sound of your own footsteps on the worn pavers, mostly gray but edged with smoothed white stone wherever there is a step. It is advisable to always carry a map, but the Venice runner’s game is to notice enough details, not the names of streets but the spatial quality of them, to remain relatively un-lost.

Worn smooth. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Just the wellhead. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Venice may be beleaguered, but we’re still a long way from Disneyland. The Accademia is surprisingly peaceful, perpetually under renovation, no frills, and perhaps the best bargain in Europe. Venetians gather in various obscure campi spiritually distant from San Marco and yet often only a few steps from the congested passages which connect the familiar stations of the tourist cross. These are neighborhoods where old men gather in dusty social clubs, where children use precious monuments as backstops for their soccer balls. The livelier campi are bordered with serene Campari drinkers, sunned like pebbles on a beach, while small melancholy ones are barely large enough to frame the ubiquitous wellhead. The sight of laundry festooned across the wider lane ways (a human right denied, insanely, to many apartment-dwellers in Sydney) makes it easy to wonder whether Venice is some kind of eco-city of the future which, far from being dead, is just playing possum until  history again renders it indispensable. With so many old, naturally ventilated buildings and (almost) no cars, Venice may well have the lowest carbon footprint of any city in Europe.

Solar powered Venezia eco city. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

And yet once seen, those billboards are difficult to forget, and even harder to stop talking about. Just as Venice seems to invite decoding, so those billboards demand analysis. There are political and practical questions, still unanswered: How was the deal negotiated? Apparently one proposed ad was too risqué, but what exactly were the limits on their design? Is there any restoration work taking place behind them? Does any light penetrate their relentless opacity? Are people moved to buy more X cola and Y jewelry by the famous brands’ association with the defacement of the planet’s cultural heritage?

Does this actually move product? Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

In the first part of this series mentioned the twisted machinations by which architecture can become punishment, rather than what Jean Nouvel recently said it should be, “a gift.”  In Sydney, instead of, as would be logical, increasing residential density in those areas which would most benefit from the disruption, planners have allowed developers to sprinkle cheaply made, expensive to buy into six to fifteen story apartments willy nilly all over the city, ruining many delicate and beautiful neighborhoods in the name of sharing the burden. The Venice billboards are a similar form of unnecessary punishment. They punish the visitor for seeking to enjoy what used to be considered, when considered at all, the harmless pleasure of looking at buildings. The tenuous dance of corporate philanthropy, with its good and bad points, has shifted in favor of private interests to the point where allowing the most vulgar commercial excess in exchange for ‘public benefit’ — a new park, a restored facade — seems normal. Sydney’s Barangaroo, with its Mr. Creosote skyscrapers and harbour-encroaching hotel explicitly financing a park of dubious value is the crystalized manifestation of this trend. Sure, mate, you can build cities this way, but they won’t be very nice places.

Palladio’s unbuilt design for the Rialto Bridge.

Venice is the result of more venerable commercial forces than those which produced Barangaroo.(When I hear Barangaroo’s honchos bragging about the ‘canals’ they plan to, at great expense, cut out of the concrete apron of the site, I want to scream, not very concisely: ‘You guys aren’t even good capitalists! The canals in Venice were always there. Nobody dug them out for aesthetic reasons, their edges were simply the formalization of channels between natural islands. Beauty was a side-effect.’) In today’s Venice you are free to see the Venice you want to see, and in the course of a day, depending on your frame of mind and how close you are to San Marco or Rialto, it can seem one step from Disneyland or one from paradise. A contemporary visitor to Piazza San Marco must understand conceptually that it is gorgeous; its physical presence, because of billboards and crowds, is nearly unbearable — do Venetians even go there? (Perhaps the city could organize ‘locals only’ days, similar to the child-free days in certain suburban swimming pools.) Same with the Rialto Bridge, so clogged with humanity that you wonder whether Palladio’s proposed three lane mega bridge might have been a better choice (then again, if Palladio had beaten Antonio da Ponte we would be stuck with six rows of shops selling I ♡ Venezia sailor’s caps).

Gentile Bellini, Procession in the Piazza San Marco, 1496, Galleria dell’Accademia.

Piazza S. Marco, 2010. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

It is well known that the population of Venice has declined drastically over the past sixty years:

1901 – 146,682
1951 – 174,808
2001 – 65,695
2009 – 59,942

(Source: Commune di Venezia)

As annual tourism has exploded:

1960 – 1.563.427
1970 – 1.940.239
1980 – 2.487.687
1990 – 2.760.068
2000 – 3.562.728
2007 – 5.875.370
2008 – 8,842,874 (this is the number of visitors who stay overnight; the total number of visitors is estimated to be over 20,000,000 if day trippers (turisti mordi e fuggi) are included!)

(Source: http://www.aguideinvenice.com)

Those billboards sum up Venice’s great conundrum. Piazza San Marco now resembles the website of a venerable publication gradually engulfed by banner ads in an effort to keep afloat. These days, The Death in Venice-style big-spending high culture extended stay has gone the way of the steamer trunk. More and more tourists treat La Serenissima as a day trip; it is cheaper to stay in terraferma, pack a picnic and spend a day in Venice perhaps without spending a single euro (in recent years, revenue from tourism has fallen). Hotels in the Centro Storico, which face higher expenses than those on the mainland, cannot compete, while most Venetian restaurants too unappetizing to compete with a homemade sandwich.

In the light of this situation, the Mayor Orsoni’s frustration is understandable, even if his non-solution — the billboards — is indefensible. Venice’s dream would seem to have become a nightmare of almost sci-fi proportions: a daily invasion of alien house guests who admire and accelerate the city’s crumbling without contributing to repairs. At the very moment when Venice’s serene charms are increasingly unique in a throbbing world, the city is unable to benefit. Venice’s contribution to Italian tourism revenue must be immense, but the money winds up in terraferma, and Rome repays the favor by cutting subsidies for restoration. Far from being the anachronistic parasite it is often portrayed as, Venice is being exploited, even if inadvertently and without malice. It is the same dynamic faced by the Sydney Opera House, which has contributed untold billions to the Australian economy, and yet gets treated as a charity case when it comes time to pay for the much-needed restorations which would make it a better place to hear opera.

It is bizarre to consider that Venice — which is now smaller than Waltham, MA (pop. 60,605) and sixty years ago was larger than Providence (pop. 171,557) — has a housing crisis. The dynamic is tripartite, not between locals and tourists, but between locals, tourists and the vast population of service workers and students who commute across the causeway into Venice each day from, mostly, Mestre (my sources tell me that some students have resorted to renting rooms in monasteries, a scenario which could, depending on the height of the perimeter wall, inspire any number of genial romantic comedies). These working visitors make the city run and yet cannot live in the city or feel truly a part of it. Venice, like the Mac Cube (2000), whose pure beauty was enabled by the bulky power supply which concealed most of its guts under the desk, must outsource many of its functions to Mestre (“I’m nothing but a Mestre to you” could become a popular catchphrase). Given Venice’s inviolable fabric, this is probably inevitable to some extent, but I have a modest proposal to make.

Every Venezia needs its Mestre, the Mac Cube (2000).

It seems that one of the dumbest decisions in the planning of Venice took place in the 1930s, when cars were allowed into the Piazzale Roma, where the causeway meets the city. From the point of view of land use and transport planning, the arrangement makes no sense. Cars drive over the three kilometer causeway, immediately park at great expense in one of the largest car parks in Europe, which takes up a substantial amount of well-located land. What I propose is a version of the peripheral car parks Louis Kahn proposed for Philadelphia. A large but groovy multi-deck car park should be built in Mestre, and all cars should be banned from the Piazzale Roma and the island of Venice. The car lanes on the causeway should be replaced by a high frequency tram service which terminates at a tram/vaporetto/shoe leather interchange in the now serene Piazzale Roma. A mixture of affordable housing for workers and students should be built in place of the car park, which currently takes up a huge amount of land by Venetian standards. A, um, toll on all visitors entering the city would be an entirely reasonable way to finance construction as well as restoration (at ten euro, assuming 20 million tourists, that’s 200 million euro per year). The project would involve the creation of an entirely new contemporary neighborhood in Venice, a dream project for the best architects, urban designers and landscape architects in the world. The shape of the Piazzale Roma could be tightened up, perhaps divided into a network of smaller campi by a new layout of lanes and open space designed in the spirit of the rest of the city. Alternatively the current car park, which has a certain rationalist grace, could be adapted into apartments, and the  Piazzale kept as a large, unified space, shaded by trees and vines. The neighborhood could include facilities, such as a floating swimming pool and a place to ride bikes, missing in the rest of the city. The Calatrava Bridge would make sense in this context and nobody would dare call Venice dead ever again.

Piazzale Roma

Giovanni Grevembroch, Pile Drivers.

In the new Piazzale Roma a museum could be built in a prominent position dedicated to the history of Venice’s urban development, with models, drawings, paintings (perhaps lesser Canalettos) and photographs. One tragedy of contemporary Venice is that all those daytrippers get what they pay for. By visiting Venice in a rush, shunning museums and passing the hours gazing vaguely through the windows of mask shops, they miss out entirely. The purpose of the Museum of the City of Venice would be to inspire curiosity about the city through its singular urban design. Here, people would learn about the guts of Venice, the reason for things, the way that the city grew out of the particular natural constraints of the lagoon, requiring millions of wooden piles and buildings of soft, lightweight brick which could accommodate the shifting ground. Venice has been building green — that is, in harmony with its site — for centuries. If visitors find their imaginations fired then Venice will be more than one of ‘1001 dead places to see before you die.’ People will pause in awe and seek out its mysteries. They may even visit the Accademia.

Hosting the 2020 Olympics in Venice is an absurd idea which might just work. When in Campo Santo Stefano I saw a poster advertising the city’s bid (unlike the famous billboards of St. Marks, it was so modest as to be almost apologetic), I did a double take, but a Venice games could be good for the city as well as the Olympics. Accommodation for athletes could be built in down at heel areas like Piazzale Roma and Tronchetto and adapted afterwards to house residents. Venice has no room for stadia, but the 2020 games could be the terraquean games, with temporary sports facilities built cheaply on barges and floated in as a kind of Archigram-style Instant City Olympics. The Venice games could be the model of a cheaper, more beneficial, ‘lightweight’ Olympiad, one which could be hosted within the means of poorer cities. In exchange for three weeks of hellish overcrowding, residents might just gain some long-lasting benefits. Then again, it could be the most disruptive thing since Napoleon…

Archigram’s Instant City (Peter Cook, 1968-69)

These are the words of a curious visitor, and there remains much I don’t understand about Venice. I don’t understand why there are so many completely unappealing shops, why the restaurants aren’t better, why there is graffiti on the Rialto Bridge, no fly screens on the windows and why there is a figure in a painting in the Palazzo Cini which looks exactly like me. Venice is stranger than most places, and those billboards are the most obvious symptom of the city’s dysfunctional relationship with the present day. The city is the product of a cosmopolitan, fine grained, highly competitive commerce, which makes it sad to see the endless shops selling carnival masks and the restaurants with a few old fish sitting in the window. Modernity is hard to find. There is the Biennale, a cool orange couch in the lobby of the Palazzo Grimani and of course Carlo Scarpa’s sensitive interventions lurk here and there, but they are subtle, and very much out of the past. The Ponte di Costituzione, known to all as the Calatrava Bridge after its designer, was at the time of our visit undergoing work, apparently to allow for the disabled access which ought to have been accommodated in the first place. These things are all objects, and it is a mistake to dwell on them when the true contemporary accomplishment of Venice is all around, in the light, air and silence framed by its bricks.

 

The solar powered dogs of Venice. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller

Next week —

A Grand Tour, Part 3” talks about buildings.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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