Justice is done

In Venice, a slender blade has crept in between the rationalist body of a multistorey car park and a former industrial complex. Housing the new Supervisory Law Courts, it denotes a feat of architectural acupuncture in the waste ground between the historic city and terra firma.


Architecture / Fulvio Irace

This article was originally published in Domus 964 / December 2012

In Venice, the modern always arrives unobtrusively. It appears in interiors (Aldo Rossi at Teatro La Fenice; Tadao Ando at the Punta della Dogana; Renzo Piano at the Vedova Foundation; Michele De Lucchi in the Manica Lunga wing of the Cini Foundation). It blossoms in the outer stretches of the lagoon (David Chipperfield on the cemetery island of San Michele; Cappai and Segantini, C+S Architects, with the water filtration plant and infrastructures to facilitate visits to the island of Sant'Erasmo). It pops up unexpectedly at the access to the city (with Santiago Calatrava's new bridge). Or, as with the new courthouse complex in Piazzale Roma, it creeps into the articulations of a framework that looks more like a body stretched out on the ground.

Venice's acceptance of the new is porous and selective, rejecting demonstrative gestures (from Palladio to Le Corbusier) yet welcoming a scattered transformation. It tolerates acupuncture but refuses the surgeon's knife, which might remove the wrinkles from its face. Through a practised but unwritten tradition, it prefers to adapt to an apparent permanence, challenging design's ability to fathom its depths and probe its density. But above all, Venice calls for a perception of its "voids" not as empty pockets to be filled, but as deliberate intervals in an urban maze covering the whole lagoonscape. Like a piece of writing that constructs an elastic and flexible plot with its punctuation and ellipses, Venice cannot be readily reduced to the linearity of a mannerist account, and hence not even to the myth of the anti-modern city by definition.

This seven-storey building in Venice clings to the historic framework of the ex-Manifattura Tabacchi complex, the oldest part of which dates from 1786. Together they house the new citadel of justice. Photos by Pietro Savorelli

From this point of view, Venice lays down a challenge to architecture, expecting it to be a kind of measure rather than an act. Architecture is asked to exercise its skill in the art of detachment, identifying limits, establishing heights and configuring thicknesses; to gauge the built body by making it look like a comment on the question of the city's changeable form. The "point" from which the slender body of the Supervisory Court rises lies in the heart of the ex-Manifattura Tabacchi which, from 1786 until its closure in 1997, denoted the area's industrial and infrastructural character. Situated behind the historic city, it is a frontier-threshold to the mainland world.

This is Venice before Venice: a point where drivers are transformed into pedestrians and vice versa. In the 1930s, with all the selfassurance of rationalism, the elegant and impressive glazed cage of Eugenio Miozzi's parking garage had tried to represent the ebb and flow of that regular tide. It is an amphibious place, seemingly untidy and chaotic. Made almost "vulgar" by the intermingling of countless architectural idioms and styles, it becomes a backdrop to the sumptuous stage heralded a little further away by the copper cupola of San Simeone. In reality, this "minor" Venice is the functional hardware of the festive machine that awaits tourists and commuters in their daily assault on the city's historical centre.

Resulting from an international competition held in 2002, the building is clad externally with a pre-oxidised copper skin engraved with a geometric pattern. This material was chosen in homage to its historical use in Venice, where it traditionally characterised the roofs of monumental buildings. Photo by Alessandra Bello

A compact fabric of voids and courts became available with the disuse of the Manifattura Tabacchi buildings and their conversion via the programme for a future citadel of justice. Now encapsulated and reopened by the sudden appearance of the courthouse, this urban fabric is now accessible for the whole area around the square. Maria Alessandra Segantini and Carlo Cappai have in recent years learnt to move around Venice with a firm but muted step, especially in its wider, outer reaches. On the island of Sant'Erasmo they captured the landscape quality of a "void", interpreted through an infrastructural project. In Piazzale Roma, meanwhile, they have seized the hybrid character of what is both an interior and an exterior: a "service landscape". It is a spurious place of waiting and transition, and for this very reason it is perhaps more vital and exciting than anywhere else in the city.

Towards Piazzale Roma the volume overhangs by five metres, emphasising the entrance to the building. Besides the law courts, it also contains all the technological (heating and cooling) systems for the whole block that used to house the Manifattura Tabacchi (the old tobacco factory). The architects describe it as a large “inhabited infrastructure”. Photo by Pietro Savorelli

To understand complexity means to respect it, without attempting to roll it into one emblematic and demonstrative expression, but endorsing its natural tendency towards stratification. This therefore implies working by punctuation, with the discretion of full stops and commas or the accentuation of an exclamation mark, as for example with the broad "brim" that connects the civil function of administering justice to the down-to-earthness of the infrastructure and services "machine".

Right, view from the bottom of the grand staircase. The atrium is a hybrid space accommodating bars, tobacconists and shops. The upper floors are occupied by offices, courtrooms and council chambers. Left photo by Pietro Savorelli. Right photo by Alessandra Bello

The building could be a shell or the hull of a ship (echoing the huge cruise liners anchored outside the Grand Canal); a cavana where justice perhaps takes shelter; or again, the sublimated childhood ghost of a house, reminiscent of John Hejduk's surreal explorations in Berlin. Clad in copper to stress its belonging to the class of public buildings, this elongated parallelepiped challenges the multistoreyed mass of the adjacent parking garage, creating the perspective of a street with access to the whole citadel. It is like a telescope with two focuses: one concentrated inside the enclosure, the other directed at Calatrava's bridge and the cupola of San Simeone. It is a ruler measuring the perspective of the two cities and stretching their extremities until they are reunited: a shadow whose dark hermetic walls are faintly engraved by lean incisions, extending between the concrete structures and the low walls of the older buildings. Fulvio Irace, professor of the history of architecture at Milan Polytechnic