Liyuan Library Li Xiaodong ATelier
Section drawings (etchings) by architectural artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi 1720 - 1778.
'Thamesmead 1970' from the London Metropolitan Archives.
I went for a walk with a friend yesterday around South Mere lake, landscape of the beleaguered Thamesmead estate, made famous as the setting for Stanley Kubrik’s Clockwork Orange. Designed by a team of Greater London Council architects and planners in the mid 1960’s, Thamesmead was an ambitious utopian modernist vision of grand boulevards lined with tower blocks, lakes, canals, traffic free pathways and raised walks. The existing (biodiverse) landscape was ‘enhanced’ to ‘relieve it’s natural flatness’. Housing was built on pile foundations over the marshes, made from pre-fabricated blocks built on-site and residencies kept mainly to the 1st floors to avoid flooding. A town for the 21st century, impressive in plan and from a distance but on the ground i found it to be the most brutal landscaping i think i’ve ever seen, almost absent in human scale. This area was isolated from the rest of London with little public transport and cut off from local shops by busy roads and railway lines. With little passing pedestrian traffic and no reasons for people to come into contact with each other throughout the day, there were no “eyes on the street” (a key component to urban safety identified by Jane Jacobs). Concrete ramps and bridges were avoided by locals, not being considered safe places to walk. The place has had a bad reputation for a long time, once dubbed a ‘sink estate’. We met a construction worker, fixing a new sculpture beneath an overpass. He warned us to to hide our camera’s and to be careful around the estate.
Thamesmead is set in a landscape like no other in London, beautiful, austere, open and windswept, dotted with pie-bald ponies, tethered randomly around the green spaces of the estates- but the forbidding concrete landscape, when experienced close at hand forces people into vulnerability and isolation on their own door steps. Even now, the obvious lack of care and investment in the most basic services and maintenance of both the buildings and the streets makes a mockery of the carefully laid plans, envisioned with the best of intentions, but perhaps too little empathy, for London’s working class.
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?
We came away from Venice with so many questions about how the city functions and how everything was built - this super straight forward video answers most of them. Really amazing stuff.
How does Venice work? A must see video showing how Venice was built, is maintained, and it’s infamous interactions with water. High quality production, and very educational. Electric, gas, and fiber optics are buried beneath the sidewalks. The place is always under restoration. It even describes in detail how the sewers work and where the gunk goes (if you’ve been to Venice, you probably know it’s nasty at low-tide, this shows why).
Still, the place is sinking, and I’ve raised the question if it should be abandoned or saved. It’s primarily a tourist attraction, having little cultural significance beyond architecture. It will cost billions to save Venice from sea level rise. It’s difficult for me to advocate saving a place where barely anyone lives.
The video was produced by a company called Insula. Insula was created by the City of Venice for the purpose of restoration and planning:
Insula is responsible for the process of implementing public works and infrastructure: it plans, designs, tenders and coordinates the execution of works and services for the urban and building maintenance vital to the preservation of the city.
- ordinary and extraordinary maintenance
- restoration, regeneration, renovation, new construction
- management of real-estate assets
- canal maintenance
- preservation of the building heritage along the canals
- restoration of the sewer system
- upgrade and reorganization of the underground utilities systems
- execution of the works and actions involved in the physical and environmental preservation of Venice and its lagoon as required by law 171/1973, art. 12 of Dpr 791/73.
- Source: Brochure
Insula’s website is beautiful and well designed. There are sections for photos, restoration, videos, and education. There are also brochures explaining what Insula does, including the processes and materials it uses for Venice, here.
Thanks to the wonderful CondeNastTraveler Tumblr!
What we’re watching right now—thanks, @kressie42, for the link.
“One morning in 1961 at the Querini Stampalia, I asked him to keep water outside the palace… He looked at me and after a pause he said: “Inside, inside! Water must be inside, like everywhere in the city. We just need to control and use it as a shining and reflecting substance. You will see the light reflections on the yellow and purple stuccos on the ceiling. That is so gorgeous!”
- Giuseppe Mazzariol, director of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, recalls Carlo Scarpa’s attitude to the creation of the museum space in the centre of Venice.
When I arrived at the Fondazione one afternoon last week, the tide was rising and canal water was slowly infiltrating the dusty channels cast into the museums interior, making it’s way through round holes cut into the walls. The steel grilled ‘watergate’ in the museums facade is permanently submerged and the sound of water lapping against stone inside the corridor and it’s cooling effect makes the space uniquely beautiful, neither interior nor exterior.
In the garden to the rear there is a beautiful continuity of form and material from the inside spaces.
I think Scarpa’s design and many of the older buildings in Venice offer a positive glimpse of future opportunities for living in cities threatened by rising water levels.
I accompanied a plaster geek on a miniature Carlo Scarpa odyssey around Venice. This is the recently restored Olivetti Showroom in Piazza San Marco which Scarpa originally designed in 1957 for the typewriter manufacturer. He is the master of architectural fine detail and seamlessly blends a warm, human scale modernism with much older surrounding buildings.
I was lucky enough to visit the Orsoni Library of Enamels whilst in Venice this week. The library is the working archive of the Orsoni glassmakers who produce mosaic tesserae for use in restoring and producing new mosaic masterpieces around the world.
Behind the ‘water gate’ (pictured above) is a foundry and the only glass kiln in the city. Raw materials are blended to a white paste in huge ceramic crucibles fired in a kiln at over 1300 degrees and mixed with metal oxides to produce over 3000 different colours. The “recipes” for these colours are a closely guarded family secret, handed down through generations. The cooled enamel is rolled into slabs and cut up into tesserae by women in house coats working on what look like sewing machines in the workshop next door. The family firm was founded in 1888 to revive the Byzantine art of mosaic and exploit techniques developed on the nearby island of Murano during the Renaissance. The custom made orders of mosaic tiles are shipped directly from the factory by boat, bound for the walls and ceilings of St. Paul’s Cathederal in London, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Tawn Hall in Stockholm and many more.