Venice has blown me away. Not because of the any of the monuments, or museums, or gondolas that draw the throngs of tourists to the Disney like centre, but for it’s edges and remaining residential neighbourhoods.
I’m sure it is not only the beauty and history that keeps the crowds returning, but the perfect structure of the city that makes the place so uniquely human and liveable. In the early hours and in the quieter neighbourhoods it is possible to see the bare bones of the town and watch as life unfolds slowly but efficiently.
"Venice has everything: dense city structure, short walking distances, beautiful courses of space, high degree of mixed use, active ground floors, distinguished architecture and carefully designed details - and all on a human scale. For centuries Venice has offered a sophisticated framework for city life and continues to do so, issuing a whole-hearted invitation to walk." Jan Gehl, Cities for people, 2010.
Whilst I agree completely with the overall sentiment of this statement there are things that are no longer true. As everybody knows Venice is under threat from the very element that makes it so unique. Sea levels have been slowly rising for centuries, many times a year the lagoon waters surge over the streets, and this predicament is predicted to get far worse. The controversial and hugely expensive MOSE project is in the process of installing huge 24 metre high metal barriers designed to temporarily close off all marine inlets to the lagoon in the event of storm surges. It is believed by UNESCO that these barriers will protect the city for the coming decades, but that they are inevitably a temporary fix. As we walked the around the city the effects of this flooding were evidenced in the eroded mortar between bricks, friable plaster and salt efflorescence almost everywhere, but most noticeably in the seeming emptiness of so many residential ground floors. In the future Venice may need to abandon it’s ‘active ground floors’ altogether to save the city. Most crucially, Venice is not only under threat from the ‘aqua alta’ (high waters), but from the constant decline in it’s working population as industries have migrated to the main land. The centre of the old city and it’s public image has been the victim of it’s own success. At peak times the population is estimated at over 250,000, of these only 68,000 are permanent residents, the majority of the remainder are tourists and the story is the same for the outlying islands in the lagoon. Venice is at once thriving and dying. Venice cannot have everything, because it no longer has enough relevant, well paid and exciting jobs or industries that can attract young people and keep communities alive.
For the city to adapt it’s structures to the rising waters, or even to the diminishing tide of working residents, it would require city wide architectural transformation that would inevitably alter Venice’s picturesque qualities forever, however sympathetically done. If Venice were to lose it’s historical aesthetic appeal would it also lose it’s tourists (and remaining jobs for locals)? The city is a world heritage site and some of it’s builders are renowned as world leaders in conservation. The walls that keep homes and monuments standing and quays from collapsing are preserved in spite of constant saline intrusion by persistent and painstaking repair work. It is in the culture of the place to resist change.
So here is the problem as I see it - Does anyone really want to save Venice?
Could Venice be transformed once again from a beautiful, melancholy relic to the utopian, thriving, living and working city that represents it’s true history?