The Battle of Venice

The Fontego dei Tedeschi has an inescapable public dimension, and Rem Koolhaas's project could improve the local population's quality of life. We're rooting for a restrained and revolutionary building that will help the city construct its future and, by analogy, become a model for similar interventions in Europe.

I attentively read Matteo D'Ambros's appeal regarding the Rem Koolhaas project for Venice's Fontego dei Tedeschi. "Well!" I said, "Thank goodness people are talking about it. The stakes are higher than they may seem." No one could disagree with D'Ambros, but after reading the text I started harbouring strong doubts on the efficacy of the codes that we architects adopt for today's debates and communications. I shall try a different route.

Come on, let's get our hands dirty, even if we are spatial intellectuals. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty!
Why is it that when we write, we seem to have lost the nerve to express our views on the substance of designs, always going back to general and abstract concepts? In the case of the Fontego, it is true, "There is a property and there are procedures that set down the rules", and the Heritage Service has halted the project. The substance, however, is a very central location and many millions of Euros — hard to come across these days — being invested in a project to convert a historic building that is deteriorating irreparably and used to have a public function. A large Rinascente department store is to be opened a stone's throw from Rialto, replacing the former post office. We also have a progressive local government, a design by one of the leading living architects and an entrepreneur called Benetton, which has always been sensitive to social issues and is known for its innovative drive. Despite all this, we do not find the result before us — the design presented — totally satisfactory. So, why don't we say so?

Rem Koolhaas based his project on an assumption: "Venice is a city where no one lives and that is consumed by tourists; consumption is its lifeblood." He speaks most lucidly of the department store as a means to produce culture via retail channels and of the public in the form of the tourist-consumer. He then develops an argument that reveals our dogmatic — and, to some degree, conservative — approach to the issue of conserving cities. The Italian architects and urban designers involved in the debate reply to these positions by raising the ante and attacking the city which, in their view, lives on its reputation and exploits the past without having the courage to bring design into its contemporary dimension. Matteo D'Ambros's article places the responsibility of producing an innovative project, in terms of functions (creative economy), and taking the public dimension it is built in into account firmly in the hands of the investors, the "clients".

In a recent world in which capitalism and the market gave us wellbeing and widespread growth, the loss of Venice in the sense of a "real" and genuine city was a price that could be paid. A "lay" and pragmatic stance on the sequence of events underway such as that of Koolhaas was compulsory and unavoidable. Our heads were filled with metaphors, visions of intangible economies and potential cultural and urban designs, and we hoped the erosion of the "real" city was simply a passing phenomenon before an enlightened ruling class put everything right again. Nothing could have been more wrong. Cities evolve and do not go back. The Koolhaas project takes a precise standpoint when it addresses future citizens as if they were the tourists. This is the crucially critical element in the project. Venice is a place of urban "resistance", with much of its population striving to be normal citizens in a city that is different and asserting their right to exist despite the differences. This context highlights the weakness in the Fondaco project. It lacks content that can help the genuine dimension of the city of Venice counterbalance the erosive force of mass tourism and of the speculative market. This is the "battle" that has been in progress in Venice for a few years now — and for the city's very survival. How does the Koolhaas project fit into this "battle"? Is this not what we should be discussing?

The Battle of Venice
Those who came before us over the years and centuries produced elaborate thoughts that were crucial for the culture of their times and Venice was their starting point. In modern times, Venice may be considered the prototype where a whole host of contemporary theories and forces are tested and clash, but we have let the city be turned into a museum. The local population is shrinking and flagging, the patrons have become more numerous and more generous, and the tourists more pressing and omnivorous. The city has stood still in its beauty and more than four billion Euros are being and have been spent on a flood defence system to conserve it. But that was in the pre-recession world of constant growth. Today, conditions have changed and the picture that is emerging is not one of happy degrowth. This is a battlefield that has reached the heart of Europe's cities. The population cannot afford the houses in the city centre, young couples are pushed out because they cannot pay the mortgage, financial investors prefer to keep office buildings empty as bank surety rather than convert them to housing, corporations take over and brand landmarks buildings in old city centres, the middle class is ever poorer and vanishing, and concentrated wealth is buying portions of cities or the abandoned public heritage. Everything that is happening, and with remarkable speed, in cities around Europe has been happening for at least 30 years in Venice. Almost "emptied", perhaps, but still vibrant, Venice continues to launch the models that people want to impose in European cities. While people have been debating whether or not to open Koolhaas's terrace for months, a few kilometres away in Marghera, renowned fashion designer Pierre Cardin (88 years old, originally from Veneto and born Pietro Cardin) is proposing a phantasmagorical Dubai-style tower that look more like a mausoleum to himself than a part of the city. Simply because he is proposing investments totalling a billion and a half euros (does he really have that much?), the mayor and the heads of the regional and provincial authorities are backing him to the hilt. The local people cannot understand how similar investments can be proposed during such dire financial straits and even the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano has asked to be briefed on it. For the moment, the project has been halted by the Italian Aviation Authority (ENAC), which prohibits 250-metre towers close to airports, but the newspapers say that the Authority is "being subjected to huge political pressure".

We might even reach the paradox in which the Koolhaas project is halted or reduced while the celebratory 250-metre Cardin tower is built a few kilometres away. These are two fiery debates being fought on slippery ground. The fashion designer, ephemeral by nature, is backing a 250-metre glass-and-steel tower while the visionary architect is turning a 16th century building into a shopping mall that will mostly sell fashion to tourists. A dual nemesis in which both projects are forced to evolve and the winner will trace the city's future policies (both or neither might win). An allegory of the current situation could see a Dubai that casts off from its moorings and — sailing against Marco Polo's tide — besieges Venice, and therefore European city centres, to impose its model. Must we consider this a natural Darwinian evolution of urban models? Having visited and lived part of my life in these "contemporary urban models" and balancing this with the fact that I am Venetian, I am convinced we should not sit idly and watch this happen.

New Tactics and Strategies — From Fatalist Modesty to Restrained Vision We must go back to things and take care of them. The Koolhaas project constitutes a remarkable opportunity for the city. We might raise the doubt that Koolhaas himself described the project as "modest" because it lacks the innovative components we are accustomed to seeing when OMA is involved. Think of the relaunch of the Prada brand, with research on shopping and design applied to points of sale that projected the Milanese brand onto the world stage. Those projects were not bigger or more prestigiously positioned but nor were they "modest". Why has OMA not shown the same propositional force in the Venice project? The escalators, the public courtyard and the terrace-bar are not enough. Instead of working by subtraction, as requested by the Heritage Service, should we not be shouting out for implementation? The architect has adopted a "modest" approach in a place where we cannot afford to be "modest". The chance to implement and improve the project lies, today, on the fine line between modesty and restraint. Modesty is intended as renunciation and reasons by subtraction but restraint is the new condition of our times, optimising and focusing resources.

Restraint can be revolutionary if it is visionary. After its rejection of the project, we should ask the Heritage Service to explain what vision of the city it promotes as an alternative to that presented. The response to the request to revise the project should relaunch it with restrained radicalism as one that fosters urban and city vitality, which is the best possible safeguard. In the next version of the Fontego project, Benetton and Koolhaas will have to decide which side to take: whether to steer the project in a direction that helps the local population's "urban resistance", but within an economic mechanism that benefits the investors, or give up on the "Battle of Venice" and focus on the tourist-consumer as the sole and preferred "user" of the building. Matteo D'Ambros cites Amate l'architettura by Gio Ponti, referring to the initial "exception, dream or folly" that generated monuments (first private and then social). We back Koolhaas to overcome the restrictions of the Heritage Service and create the conditions for a more "exceptional, dreaming and folly" project for the city. The Fontego has an inescapable public dimension and the architectural project can still improve the condition of urban life (and of those who live in the city).

What we hope for is a restrained and revolutionary building for Venice that will help the city build its future and, by analogy, become a model for similar interventions in city centres around Europe. We shall ask the Heritage Service to explain the following: what design process, rules and alternative proposals does it back as guidelines to break the deadlock? If the Fontego process can meet these challenges and is not halted, perhaps we shall not have to witness the erosion of this city and the res publica that is already being seen all over the continent. Where can the battle of the European cities be fought if not in Europe and in Venice?

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