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What’s Already There

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Venice has been an inspiration to artists and architects for centuries. Even today, the Venice Architecture Bienalle sustains the city’s symbolic importance for architects and architecture despite the city having almost no 20th century buildings. its most used one is the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, designed by Angiolo Mazzoni. That’s it on the left, below.

(In 1860 the islands of Venice were finally connected by train to the mainland and the Church of Santa Lucia was one of the buildings demolished in 1861 for the current station’s predecessor.)

As state architect, Mazzoni designed many post offices and other public buildings but his speciality was railway stations. He designed them for the cities of Latina, Montecatini Terme, Reggio Emilia, Regio Emilia, Regio Calabria, Messina, Siena, Florence and Rome. Venice Santa Lucia was one of his first designed (1924–1934) and one of his last completed (1934-1943). But it was completed and Mazzoni is one of two 20th century architects who built on a major waterway in Venice.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not to be the other one. This small brown brick building belonged to Angelo Masieri who was a huge admirer of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Masieri travelled to the United States to ask Wright to design a building for this site on a corner looking down the Grand Canal. Wright agreed but Masieri was killed in an automobile accident while there and Wright’s project became The Masieri Memorial (1951).

It’s not horrible. Wright left a space between the building on the right, mirroring the path separating it from the building on the left and so making both buildings stand proud. The height of his building lines through the cornice of the taller neighbor and, importantly, his building is higher on one side and creates a transition from higher to lower and knitting the building into the canalscape. It didn’t work. We don’t know why the municipality’s town planning office rejected Wright’s proposal. My guess is they didn’t think Venice needed a Wright building and Wright of course was incapable of designing anything else but. In the end, the interior of the existing building was remodeled by Carlo Scarpa, a 20th century architect who did design and built much in Venice but nearly all of it is behind walls and not on waterways. One of his more known works is his Sculpture Garden (1952) for the central pavilion of La Biennale di Venezia

His most accessible however is the Olivetti Store (1958) on the northern arcade of St. Mark’s Square. You’ll never see a more exquisite shop fit-out. Every material, every corner, every join of every material shows the skill of design and the craft of execution. This next image is the floor immediately inside the front door. It’s beautiful. It’s also as far as I got for there was an €8 admission charge, they didn’t take cards, and nobody had change for a €50 note.

Le Corbusier didn’t get to build in Venice either but Venice seems to get the blame for that. You’ll often come across this next plan that, like much of Le Corbusier’s output, can be used to say pretty much anything about anything despite the ramps and pilots being brought into service yet again to say something about the man and his oeuvre. I’ve seen this plan used as an example of field space and also as an example of a mat building even though.mat buildings are supposed to be repeated units solved for access, ventilation and daylighting. I don’t think this is, as individual wards are lit by skylights and those skylights face all the ordinal points of the compass.

There’s always been a few images of a model floating around the internet but I’d always thought the absence of external views anywhere, suspicious. These days, surely some visualizer has had a go? Sure enough, the proposal is sinfully ugly, even allowing for the visualizer possibly not doing it justice. Design began in 1958 and, although an initial design was approved by the municipality circa 1964, Le Corbusier died in 1965 and a few years later the project either quietly died or quietly had the plug pulled by a change in government.

Louis Khan’s 1972 proposal for what I think is an assembly hall in what looks like The Arsenale never saw light of day. I can’t say I’m sorry.

David Chipperfield is a 20th century architect who has built in Venice. His San Michele Cemetery Extension (1998–2017) is both appropriate and completed but it’s not on a waterway.

To the south of the two main islands of Venice is the island of Giudecca that does have many 20th century buildings. There’s an apartment building by Aldo Rossi at one end and a townhouse development by Gino Valle at the other. Giudecca isn’t as precious as the other islands. Its inhabitants are proud of being part of Venice yet not.

The centre of the marker above is where you’ll find Palladio’s Il Redentore [Church of the Most Holy Redeemer], completed 1592 as thanks to God for sparing Venice “the worst” of the 1575–1576 plague in which 46,000 people, approx. 25-30% of the population, died.

Almost directly across the canal from Il Redentore is another church, the Church of the Sacred Spirit. That’s it at the right in this next painting from about 1700. To its left are three buildings, each about the same width but the one on the right is taller than the other two and the awning suggests residential. The other two are most likely storehouses.

In this painting from not too much later, some land has been taken from the leftmost of the three to create a laneway.

In this engraving from not too much later, the taller building remains the same but the adjacent building appears to have been extended.

This next photomontage shows that sometime between 1700 and 1950, the residential building was also extended sideways to incorporate part of its neighbor and, probably at the same time, given a symmetrical tripartite facade to unify them. Nobody bothered to unify the roof so what we have is a building with a facade that wants us to think it it’s a whole, but with a roof denying that reading. This is not complex or contradictory. It’s just different problems being solved in different and most obvious ways.

This site belonged to the family of this lady, the Countess Marina Cicogna (b.1934). This noble family is one of Italy’s wealthiest, owns the Cipriani Hotel. The Countess has organized the Venice Film festival forever. The family has probably owned the site forever.

We don’t know why The Countess wanted an apartment building built on it but she did and she chose this architect to do it.

Ignazio Gardella (1903–1999)

And this is what he did.

Casa Alle Zattere (1958)

Ignazio Gardella was born in 1903 so, in the 1920s when he began his career, he was a Rationalist architect. Now you can think of Rationalism as a type of Italian Modernism but it wouldn’t be accurate. It was more a philosophy of solving architectural problems in the most rational way. I’ll leave aside arguments that Architecture is not just about how a problem gets solved but also about what problems get chosen to be solved but, for practical purposes, Rationalism meant that structure and shape tended to be congruent with the more “heroic” strands of modernism but the details often weren’t and, for this, Rationalism has been regarded as “impure”. Gadella’s first major building was the Tuberculosis Clinic in Alessandria (1934–1938). It’s all very boxy and modern but the upper level sundeck is screened by a wall of open brickwork characteristic of the Lombardian rural vernacular, particularly barns for the storage of straw.

Gardella’s next major commission was the Casa Tognella apartment building (1946–1953) for a spectacular corner site overlooking the castle and the park in central Milan.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Countess Cicogna knew the Tognella family and had visited and admired this building because Gardella’s first proposal was this next. It’s definitely not the same style as the church but it still does two very important things. One is the setback on the right side that separates it from its neighbor and creates a symmetry with the laneway on the other side, much as Wright had done with Masieri Memorial. Additionally, the important line of the base of the church’s pediment is carried over, separating a visually heavier base from the lighter two upper floors.

This next model better shows how those two techniques were applied but it also shows a third. The wonderful thing about Gardella is that any time your attention is drawn to something and you wonder why it is so, you’re usually rewarded with understanding. The first three floors have narrow windows with those on the right stacked yet those on the left are slightly unstacked plus there’s an extra window. Why? Because doing so creates a virtual horizontal line in line with the height of the building the other side of the lane.

This symmetry is apparent in this next sketch of a later development. That such a sketch exists shows Gardella’s concern for how his building will fit in. We see that the main windows of the apartments’are stacked but also centred as they are in the larger buildings to the left and right. The upper two floors are still set back but now the top floor terrace has no roof and the railing is like that on the five-story building further along the canal. Also, the roof is no longer flat, but pitched and tile.

This next development explores paired windows while the explicit lining through of the previous iteration is replaced by the fourth floor’s offset balcony that does the same job of acknowledging the church. On the fifth floor, the stone balcony becomes a parapet that is suggestive of a roof while for the small building on the left it indicates one.

The final building as built has the narrow windows mostly paired, with the offset narrow windows on the fourth floor continuing the horizontal line of the offset balconies and the church pediment on the far side in much the same way as as the offset windows on the first floor continue the line of the low building on this side. The second and third floors are now the only floors with windows the same. Why? My guess is that it repeats the pattern of the four windows on the upper floors of the building two to the left. Lastly, you’ll notice that the windows on the front facade are full height yet the doors are not. Again I’m only guessing, but I believe it mimics the lintel difference between the buildings two and three to the left. Something that’s not even a recognized element of a building is still something present in the surroundings.

What Gardella is doing is not post modernism because he’s not representing anything or contriving anything to represent anything – he’s doing it for reasons that are real. And it’s not historicism because everything he’s reacting to may be old but it’s still there in the here and now. And it’s not contextualism either because his building is borrowing but not imitating. It looks like an apartment building and not a church or a palazzo. It was something new in 1958 and we still haven’t got our heads around it.

I don’t think we ever will. Gardella didn’t tell us what he did or how he did it. He left it for us to work it out if we’re interested and, mostly, we haven’t been. Gardella makes “the difficult whole” look easy but Gardella isn’t “taught” and what understanding there is of this building doesn’t go beyond lining though.

What’s Already There

Taking one’s clues from What’s Already There is a way of understanding the work of Gardella’s contemporaries such as Milanese architects Mario Asnago [1896–1981] and Claudio Vender [1904–1986]. Their buildings are like Gardella’s Casa Alle Zattere in that they are respectful yet distinctive. They hold your attention if you look at them but they disappear into the city the moment you look away.

Gio Ponti buildings will always recognize the size of neighboring buildings as well as the shape of a site, especially if a corner is involved.

As do those of Guiseppe Terragni, particularly around roundabouts.

Looking at What’s Already There and letting that influence what your building is going to be like is more than just a safe thing to do. It’s the decent thing to do. You can still see it everywhere when walking around Milan, or Venice.

The projecting balcony elements on the facade of the middle building appears to be riffing on the arbitrarily closed shutters of the adjacent buildings.
The floor slabs of the middle building are lined through with the balcony railings of the building on the left, while the balconies themselves borrow from the building on the right.
I like the way this building speaks two languages. It’s big where it can be big but turns the corner and disappears into the street. Masterful.
At first I thought this building might be some undocumented Asnago Vender building but it’s more likely just an ordinary building doing the right things. It’s almost invisible. I think what’s happening is the wall on the right with the three stacked windows mirrors the wall of the adjacent building on the left. The four open bays therefore appear symmetrical with respect to the protruding balconies and the whole thing becomes a single composition. Excellent work!