I have always arrived in Venice at night, and therefore have always had an acronychal impression of it, but the truth is that in this city, nothing is fixed or inerrant. The very darkness falters, is resolved into thousands of reflections, in a brilliance that reduces its architecture to a zigzagging, pointillist deconstruction. Le Corbusier defined it as ‘a perfect cardiovascular system’, doubtless for its expanse of intertwining canals and the absence of vehicles giving rise to the experience of a subtle inspiration and an aquatic trip around the city and its palaces that is never fixed, but interpolated and diffractive.
Today, to explain Venice in photographic images may initially appear implicit and inclusive given its over-exposure to the gaze; actually its imaginal prodigality, its retinal persistence, should render any photographic notation or register impractical given the replacement of its representation by a harsh shutter commutation. On the other hand, as Michel Onfray reflects, this city ‘with no possible double or duplication is the epitome of a form of exception: the challenge flung at nature, the sum of pride and culture tak- en to their paroxysm’. This is the contemporary paradox; its dissimilitude, its exceptionality, its eccentricity, are returned to us in terms of paroxysmal representation.
Any image of Venice is opposition to extraversion; to an experience through the senses, therefore, the search for the snapshot is merely the refuge of an unrealisable pathos, hence the barbarism that implements the variations on a loss, the same loss, over and again. Because first and foremost Venice implies the repeatability of the past, from the inability of the present; a limitation that observes, disturbed, from an amplifying recreation, the crumbling of a desire for permanence. It allows us to sojourn in a time that is now halted, and which has aligned itself to a flowing time. Which is why we inflate our diaphragm to absorb what is volatile in the lagoon or the canals whilst the other diaphragm – the photographic one – opens and closes depending only on the light, which is always the conscience (foreseen in this case) of nostalgia.
Furthermore the architectural sum of the city, ‘the most beautiful salon in Europe’, accompanied by the musicality that Nietzsche conferred on it as its own and unadorned, and which was presciently organised around ideality, gives rise to a disturbing estrangement for whoever experiences it and whoever, accompanied by a flow of extenuative and hasty foreignness, yearns to acquire part of that perfectibility by the fact of being there, of being presentaneous; that is, effective by their mere presence. But Venice, which Onfray defines as ‘the production of a thought, the finishing and the fulfilment of a project of titans who wanted to inscribe in the water, in the lagoon, on the mobile surface of the swamp a petrified dream; minerality and its permanence against the equivocality of the elements worn out by time’, retains many other absences in its memory.
Indisputably, the territory in which it was founded is a radical challenge to many of the traditional forms of habitation. Perhaps the very fact that it consolidated itself as a civitas because of flight – the first inhabitants settled in the lagoon after fleeing from the incursions of the Berbers, creating a palafitte community – has caused, today, an uprooting, an exodus of the population of Venice, a loss of ethos, which is to say of the seat, of the settlement, in favour of a massive invasion, what Marc Auge called supermodern mobility, established in five-year periods of happiness.
In 1951, when Venice still belonged to the Venetians, the local government awarded the Stella della Solidarietà and an honorary PhD from the I.U.A.V. to Frank Lloyd Wright in the Palazzo Ducale. During the visit a young architect named Angelo Masieri, who was accompanying a by now octogenarian Wright as part of his retinue, decided to commission him to design a family house and professional studio, transforming a small house the Masieri family owned on the Grand Canal at an angle known as the volta del canal at the entrance to the small artery of the Rio Nuovo, beside the Palazzo Balbi and facing Ca’ Foscari. As a result of its location on the Grand Canal, this small building retains (because it still stands there) the portent, almost the prognosis, of the perspective of the double view – always a wonder – of the Rialto and the Accademia bridges. In June 1952 young Angelo Masieri and his wife Savina travelled to Taliesin West in the United States to see Wright’s work and discuss the project. Wright was in New York, so they decided to travel round to see some of his houses whilst waiting for him. During the trip, Angelo lost his life in an automobile accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, near Bedford.
The project for a house and studio turned into a project for a memorial: the Masieri Memorial. Without doubt Nietzsche, that lover of Venice, would have argued that ‘pessimism is neither practical nor has any chance of success. Not being cannot be a goal. Pessimism is not possible in the kingdom of concepts… Our will keeps us fixed on existence and makes each conviction an opinion that renders existence possible’. The memory of a painful segment is always an event recovered in its contiguity because it spreads the consequences of the initial trauma to all the instances of existence. We neutralise the suffering by spreading the pain to the public domain, to a generalisation of it and, therefore, to a necrolatry, a distancing of oneself from the ‘I’ to reach out towards the other and communicate. All Venice is no more than a memorial, a concept, perhaps a determination to exhibit oneself before the other so as to neutralise, with that other’s presence, part of the pain caused by the memory that has been wrenched from us/him.
In April 1953 a draft of Wright’s project for the Masieri Memorial was displayed in the gallery of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. When the press got hold of the news, an exercise in smallness began, one of accessorial phrases and nonsensical controversies from a perspective of ignorance and superfluity. The stance of an untouchable, reactive and infusible Venice put an end to the possibility of exchanging a small building whose sole value lay in its inadvertence and precarious imitability for a memorial designed organically and mimetically for the surroundings by one of the great architects of our times.
There can be no doubt that the controversy was not merely an architectural debate between objectors and sympathisers of Wright’s project for the Grand Canal. In a chronicle on the Masieri Memorial, Carmen Díez Medina points out that ‘both the ambiguous attitude of the municipal authorities and the implicit opposition of the SADE (Società Adriatico di Elettricità), the hidden rejection produced by corporate interests and the scant involvement of Venice’s ruling class, and even of a large sector of the architects’ groups, were the reasons why Wright’s project was not put into practice’. Although on 11 July 1955 Wright wrote to Bruno Morassuti, who had become his representative, still hopeful that he would be able to build the memorial, on 18 November of that year the last commission meeting was held, signalling the end.
Worrying about the past allows us to wash our hands of the present, benefitting from the credit of a clear conscience. The symbol of the ending of memory and remembrance is linked in immediacy to progressives, to a systemic ordering of time that turns towards the future. Wright himself, in his Modern Architecture – the published version of his Kahn lectures at Princeton – already warned us that architecture in its grand ancient form was going to die; a terrible tragedy, the consequences of which he did not dare think of. But he also pointed out that ‘Art is a species of valor. To deny that men of genius to come may be the peers of the men of genius of the past would be to deny the ever working power of God!’ Illustrious reflections from a man who is already one of those men of genius of the past, and who would have bestowed on Venice yet another rung on the ladder of repose.
According to Heidegger the origin of the work of art is art itself and, in accordance with his ideas, the work shows what is reified in very different ways. In Venice there have been architectures which, like that of Wright, had an origin, a being of the work and therefore, a reflection, a pre-concept of conceiving the reified, but which ultimately renounced the foundation of the object.
In 1962 the civil and health authorities tried to convince Le Corbusier of the need to erect a Hospital in Venice and that he should be responsible for implementing the project. Le Corbusier travelled to Venice on 29 August 1963. This was not the first time he had done so, as he had visited Venice previously, in 1907, 1922, 1934 and 1952; in fact, the city of Venice is present in the architect and town planner’s thought from very early on, and designing a project for a city he had already theorised about – and not in an exalted fashion, or on the contrary in an amiable or uncritical fashion, but with strength within the dynamics of elasticity the city possesses and its practicable or operable impediments – was different, there was a consciousness, a shared cause.
In his book When the Cathedrals were White, completed in 1936 and published for the first time in June of 1937, Le Corbusier indicated that this city which ‘because of its foundation water, represents the most formal machinery, the most exact functioning, the most incontrovertible truth – a city which in its unity, unique in the world, still is (because of its foundation of water) a complete and integral image of the harmonised and hierarchic actions of a society’. He also indicated that in spite of this (we should bear in mind that he was the architect of the urban planning utopias who applied a formula to his buildings: The Modulor, always linked to the human dimension), those ‘Renaissance artists, from that time on, give us the measure of rootlessness. They place themselves above things; they are not so fundamental as those things. Now they are the ones who have been drawn to our attention and who have been imposed upon us in the schools by our instructors. With them life stops; often there results a fair of vanities – a sect setting itself up over society’.
That is to say, he postulates a criticism of all that is theatrical about the city and of the destiny which seeks to situate events of quality, aesthetical completion, above and beyond human tasks. For him it was not a matter of a crisis of life, but a crisis of the corporation of the makers of art, because the work requires the participation of all, not of an official or corporative class that survives theatrically in the tale for which they had not been– could not have been – designated.
Le Corbusier, who had drawn, thought and published Venice since 1907, decides to plan the hospital not on the basis of the detailed or fragmentary nature of those initial studies, but using the approach of a building which in itself accommodates and is organised like a town. A hospital town with 1,200 beds, on the site of the slaughterhouse in San Giobbe, micro-grafted like an ethopeia that is distinguished by its own equilibrium and circularity, and it is presented as such to the hospital board of trustees who visit him in Paris on 21 July 1964.Those governing Venice enthuse over the horizontal arrangement of the volumes and the inalterability of the silhouette of the city. In his prefiguration the architect presented the hospital on ‘pilotis’, like the Palazzo Ducale itself, or the very origin of the palafitte town in the lagoon and the marsh, to develop what many consider the first Mat Building, or carpet building, that is, removing the borders between city and building, buildings with unlimited growth on an urban scale.
On 22 February 1965 the Superior Council of Fine Arts studied the project and approved it unanimously. In March Le Corbusier presented a second, modified project, geared towards its future users. On 16 March the Venice Gazzetino informed about Le Corbusier’s arrival to the capital of the Veneto region on 10 April , for the presentation of the hospital. On 8 April Le Corbusier arrived in Venice: this was to be his last trip to the city of the canals. Mazzariol, the historian and architecture critic who had already suggested Le Corbusier’s name in 1962, spoke in the presentation of an encounter, for civilisation, of historical knowledge and rigour, poetry and architecture.
On 27 August 1965 Le Corbusier died in Cap Martin, and following the meeting of the first hospital board of trustees, the conclusion was clear: the project must move forward. Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente, the Chilean architect who had worked for Le Corbusier since 1959, continued with the project, now from the Atelier Jullian, until 1972. At this point, once again, Venice swallowed up another opportunity to renew itself; in reality, it swallowed up an unprecedented opportunity in terms of both architecture and town planning. Another brief relationship without contrition that cancels the realisable thing, the foundation of the thing, snatched away because it is unpredictable in spite of being subordinated to the process which snatches away the thing, like a corrective in the face of the being of progress. ‘If there could be no limits, life would become unbearable’, contends Daniel Bell. Moreover, tradition is no more than an illusion of permanence; everything is revocable, incurred and disfigured. Tradition is not necessarily a suspension, or a halt; it should mean acting from the mobility of an apprehended knowledge. ‘I do not feel that I am breaking with tradition’, Le Corbusier was to say in The City of the Future; ‘I believe myself to be absolutely traditional in my theories. All the great works of the past, one after another, confirm my statement that the essential spirit of any period is bound to have an equivalent in material things’.
Venice was to plan and catalyse, right up to the near conformation of the thing, of the materialisation, other impulses like the Palazzo dei Congressi commissioned to Louis I. Kahn, who developed the project from 1968 to 1974 for the Giardini space and later for the Arsenale. But incomprehensibly the city was incapable of realising this project either, in spite of the fact that Kahn's work was expected to lead to the rehabilitation and revitalisation of the Arsenale by enhancing the palace building through the inclusion of squares, arcades, shops, craft cooperative and small businesses with associated workshop schools, as Elise Vider shows in her monograph on the Palazzo dei Congressi.
Any unrealised work belongs to a theory of the eclipse, as it is not, cannot be, anything more than intuited (since something operates in its place, on its allocated site). But it is not so much desolation as destruction, hence its eclipsed nature, occupied by another region of concepts that clouds over its unknown being. All the projects mentioned above were, in Venice, the result of inapplication. Inapplication in both senses of the word; that non-diligence and assidiousness, paradoxically caused by the other meaning ascribed to it; a superimposed ornamentation with a different object. It is a cautionary tale about a city that looks in multiple directions but on which a global responsibility falls, not just for its singularity and cultural wealth, but for having become a symbol. Venice has huge difficulties raising the object, building, because the whole of it is the result of the reified. It has a voracious appetite but if feeds fundamentally on the culture of death, opposing the trivialisation of the life and distraction before the enigma of destiny that dehumanise out age.
The photographs I have taken of Venice are the result of prior research and investigation work which determined the exact locations of the absent architectural works cited (Wright, Le Cobrusier, Kahn, Rossi). As a result they are initially photos of routing, of performance and positional precision; their visual writing is the basis of their georeferencing. Afterwards the buildings were raised three-dimensionally using the existing drawings and plans. For all of them, the second projects, those which have been modified more times, were used. Subsequently they were scaled. But what has really been accomplished is the bestowal of presence on significant absences. Depiction and shape has been given to planning. Absences have been repaired and, in spatial terms, the pseudo-presences have been retrieved from the antithetical omission of the ellipsis. It is a work of integration, of replacement, that constitutes a possible Venice or a Venice that could have been.
Two singular projects also appear in this series of images. The first one, far from raising or restoring an architecture omitted from the place, planned but not realised, represents its antagonism; that it is an architectonic intervention, in this case planned and created by myself for the place, which substitutes a project by Ignazio Gardella, applauded and distinguished as an architecture in keeping with the surroundings and standing in the Zattere. In many senses Gardella’s project is no more than an excessively imitative and camouflaged register. We should ask ourselves if there is any sense in the copy, the compulsoriness, the anachronistic awakening like a kind of adoptionism within what Le Corbusier defined as a sect. And ask ourselves, too, if there is any sense in making a gnostic façade grow for knowledge by now improbable, in search of some sort of universality, be it patrimonial or endorsed. On the other hand, menacingly, the architectural proposal that replaces the Casa Alle Zattere by Gardella (who is in any case a superb architect) is, logically enough, provocative and is emphasised because, in itself, it carries a critical concept. It is an invasive yet at the same time dialoguing proposal, as it rests on a dual meaning in the pre-existing buildings and defensively buoys itself, or positions itself as a ‘dyke against the Adriatic’.
The second of these images can be taken as a tribute, as an approach to the treatise The Four Books of Architecture published in Venice in 1570 and to the unique style of the Palladian villa based on the application to a structural system constructed from brick. As a tribute to Palladio, a viewing platform has been forged from brick and concrete on the waters. An impossible point of view at the rear of La Giudecca, to the back of San Giorgio Maggiore, where the rules of the city are more flexible and the gaze can rest, subordinate to the immensity of the lagoon.
The same lagoon that resumes the Teatro del Mondo by Aldo Rossi, designed for the Venice Biennale in 1979, bearing a portable architecture standing 25 metres high with capacity for 400 people which bears witness to or regularises the brevity of a now-dismantled temporary building, a resonant strangeness that recovers the idea of the floating theatres of Venice and its carnivals in the sixteenth century. A movement through time and space, now that we know that the suppression of distances does not introduce us into proximity and that Venice still appears remote to us, since it has definitely not been crushed by the uniformity of that which lacks distance.
This series of images contains the spirit of redress, of restitution, of the promotion of sense, rational doubt and opposing considerations. The crossing through omitted or inconstant sparkles whose fatality is not that of not having been built, in short, not having had their space crossed, but rather that of not having been inhabited, not possessing or being possessed. Because what is present is what dwells and remains. That which is lasting, to put it another way, is not irrevocable, it can be dismantled and forgotten; nothing, including the most beautiful memorial, prevails without archiving. There can be no doubt that this has been a work of archiving, the response to which was processing the object, dealing with the thing, so that oblivion does not corrupt it and it is interpreted on its scale, in its dimension, in its own metrics. Heidegger said that ‘man’s taking measure in the dimension dealt out to him brings dwelling into its ground plan. Taking the measure of the dimension is the element within which each human dwelling has its security (Gewähr), by which it securely endures (währt). The taking of measure is what is poetic in dwelling. Poetry is a measuring’.
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