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Misfits’ Guide to VENICE

First, make your way to Fondamenta Zattere and see Ignazio Gardella’s Casa alle Zattere built 1953–1958.

To say it pre-empted post modernism is to do it and Gardella a disservice for, with this building, Gardella did nothing more (or less) than respond to what was already there, continuing a tradition rather than proposing something new. Better than intellectual, it’s intelligent and caring.  

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Then take the #8 from Spirito Santo to San Marco (S. Zaccarhia) and change to the #4.1 for Redentore. Look back cross the Giudecca Canal at where you just were and try to work out how he did it.

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Proceed to the social housing designed by Aldo Rossi and Alvaro Siza.

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The building by Siza was never completed, a third building by Rafael Moneo was never begun. If you go before November 27 you’ll see the Portuguese exhibit for the 15th Venice Biennale. Go on in.

The dual theme is social housing and housing refugees. The simple exhibition consists of four movies of Siza talking to residents of projects he designed. It’s moving. The installation has prompted the completion of Siza’s building. It’s an example of an architecture bienalle changing things. 

After that, walk west along Giudecca Island and you’ll eventually encounter this social housing project designed by Gino Valle. The walkway is a joy. The usual images you’ll find of this development don’t do it justice.

Giudecca has layers of housing, much of it social and none of it trivial. You’ll see some examples of prefabrication that I’m guessing are from the 1970s.

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Next to them you’ll find later sophistications. 

You’ll see some old buildings that are solid and decent but were never grand.

Mixed in are some more recent buildings, all of them decent. 

All in all, Giudecca is a nice place. It has a nice feeling, people going about their lives, walking dogs that won’t fit into handbags. 

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Despite its abundance of social housing, Giudecca Island is not down-at-heel. There’s a strong sense of community and the people who live and work there are proudly self-reliant. They appreciate the historic centre of Venice but don’t depend upon it. They have Palladio’s 1592 Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, Il Redentore which is magnificent. 

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The Cipriani Hotel and an outpost of Harry’s Bar are also rather classy.

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Back across the canal now and in the Giardini bienalle exhibition grounds, you’ll see the German pavilion, originally built in 1909 but in 1938 remodelled into a piece of “Nazi architecture”. Over the years, it’s has various temporary alterations for different bienalli. In 2013, France and Germany actually swapped pavilions to show the idiocy of accommodating thoughts about art in pavilions identified by country. The same could be said of architecture in 2016 if it weren’t for Germany. Its exhibit, Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country is the definite result of national borders and a national government – specifically, the government’s 2015 decision to allow one million refugees into the country. The entire exhibit is available online, including a database of housing projects.

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One unreported-from front is the battle to prevent architectural representation getting more attention than architectural reality. The organizers are doing their bit to help. They maintain that “the open pavilion is not the architectural equivalent of the goverment policy statement of winter 2015-16”. Unfortunately, architectural metaphor is irrepressible because, with buildings, there’s always something external to generate it. A few holes in some walls quickly become a “less formal” “opening out” “towards the south” “enabling the discovery of new qualities previously hidden”.  Well-placed and well-proportioned openings offering light and breeze and a lovely view through trees across water shouldn’t have to be anything more.

Outside the main exhibition space at Giardini there’s this quiet corner.

The day was warm, the plants lush, the fountains tinkling and the concrete a heavy presence with its wilful curves. I liked it, but only the day after did I find out it was by Carlo Scarpa, an architect I’ve never really known much about or whose work I’ve ever felt much drawn to. I’d always thought there was too much happening, and couldn’t see why every surface and every join needed to be celebrated. I still don’t, but I’m less resistant than I was. Scarpa also designed the Venezuelan pavilion at the Giardini venue.

This too, I’d walked through the day before, wondering why every surface had to be made into an event yet still not putting two and two together. Scarpa was starting to get under my skin.

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In Piazza San Marco is Scarpa’s Negozio Olivetti (Olivetti Store) from 1957. I only got as far as the entrance as the girl at the desk didn’t have change for my €100 note. 

It was a stunning entrance floor though. It’s glass mosaic tiles have irregular shapes and sizes and are set in relaxed regularity. It’s beautiful. 

From what I could see, every other surface and junction was beautiful as well. Relentless taste. Aurisina marble, rosewood, African teak … It’s also very Venetian. It’s too well-mannered to be vulgar, but still it bludgeons you with design, materials and craftsmanship. By comparison, the Barcelona Pavilion is tawdry.

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I remembered passing a poster for an exhibition of Scarpa drawings at the IuaV University of Venice so I made my way there.

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I was intrigued by the sketches for the Masieri Memorial.

Agelo Masieri admired the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. He and his wife travelled to the US in 1952 to ask Wright to design a house for them on the Grand Canal. While there, Angelo was killed in a car accident and the project became one for a memorial. There was much resistance to having a ‘modern’ (as in ‘arrogant’?) architect like Wright design something for a site that’s not only on the Grand Canal but looks south along it from S.Toma to Accademia. Permission was refused, but the design has been imagined, vizualized and LEGO’d anyway.

Scarpa completed the project but, even then, the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri didn’t open until 1983, four years after Scarpa’s death.

I’d passed the building several times without noticing anything special. I later learned the City Council made Scarpa retain the original façade and exterior. It was closed when I visited but, apparently, the facade is detached from the floors and the interior completely gutted and new materials introduced. I believe it.  I couldn’t resist a quick google. I see what they mean by detached facade. 

Notice in this next image how the downpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right? Even if there weren’t a conservation order imposed, I’d suspect this downpipe is original for where else could it go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place for it’d visually split the building in two. The corners of the building aren’t great either for practical reasons of gutter slope. The downpipe is in the best place it can be even if it means the roof must extend so its gutter can bypass the chimneys. Personally, I think architecture has more serious things to concern itself with than asymmetries and inflections as visual entertainments, but I’m re-reading Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture anyway. If you’re Venturi, this minor functional element is doing something of crucial importance. I doubt its architect, whoever it was, gave its placement a second thought.

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The building isn’t widely known, probably as punishment for having prevented there being one more Frank Lloyd Wright building in the world. We don’t know if Angelo Masieri’s house would have ever been approved and built. The redesigned proposal is known as the Masieri Memorial for that is what his widow asked it to be. The Scarpa remodelling is known as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri for that is what it is. It’s site is still unique and the view from its windows still the same no matter who designed them and who didn’t. If the Olivetti Store is anything to go by, the interior is stunning and I’ll get around to seeing it someday. What I took away with me was a renewed awareness of the importance of safe driving.

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A sweet little house close by. Its owners and architect would probably have preferred a symmetrical facade but quite liked how it turned out anyway. I do too.

Nice people, good music, de-lish fish.

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