The global city is an oxymoron. No one lives there. Any decent-sized city is an intensely local argument generating machine and the way in which cities fight about architecture is as revealing as the materials of their curbstones. These arguments are unfolding history. It’s worth paying attention to whether they are depressing or enlivening, who participates in them and for what reasons. In the midst of relentless planetary crisis, these juicy little local fights can seem unimportant. A dispute such as the current one about the future of the banks of the Seine might seem indulgent until one remembers the hardly old but nevertheless a bit out of fashion adage about thinking globally and acting locally. Aside from what they can teach us, local questions provide a bastion of the real against all the gloppy, terminally imprecise words about global this and global that. At a certain point the urge to turn away from the virtual and toward the animal, the mineral and the vegetal becomes overwhelming and probably healthy. Perhaps the only way to overcome, or at least hide from the hegemony of numbers will be, like Laurel and Hardy taking the sea air in Saps at Sea (1940), to seek out familiar places where the discourse suits us.
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.
It's been some years since I've been in Venice, and I found the state of the Piazza S. Marco disturbing. I was appalled by the huge ads for clothing and champagne which dominated both the Piazza and the Piazzetta — now the subject of a formal protest published in the Art Newspaper ("Ads of Sighs," The Art Newspaper, Friday, October 8, 2010), to which the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, has given a reply worthy of Glenn Beck...