Studio Venice


INTRODUCTION   The genealogy of Venice can be understood as a role model of cultural adaptation processes to water bound conditions. The successful integrative system of Venice was based on its local setting in the lagoon. In the past century it was struck by the measures of scale and speed imposed by modernization.

Venice lost its ability of further adaptations of culture to the local requirements. Today its success is reduced to a kitsch spectacle based on mass-tourism gazing on a drowning empire. Venice was a laboratory of civilization; by what means can it be reinvented?

A NONLINEAR HISTORY   Venice was conceived as a detached entity, fitting perfect in its time an environment. The entire structure of the archipelago is consequently modeled along pre-modern conditions. Within the process of founding Venice a number of brilliant solutions were invented to make the impossible location hospitable. Due to sparse resources most infrastructural requirements were tight fit. For example rainwater was collected on the campi and stored in cisterns below, serving the appropriate fresh-water supply quantity to the residents of the neighborhood in a brackish environment. The network of this underground invisible water system was determining the size and scale of the urban fabric. Transport was organized water bound. The urban system was optimized and integrated to the needs of the time within a local and regional scale and pace. The decentralized structure made the city independent. Independence was the key to Venice success. Transport was largely water based therefore the archipelago was accessible and also protected by the lagoon from the sea. Critical functions like graveyards and industry of the time were outsourced to neighboring islands in the lagoon. Venice was perfectly adapted to the ecology of the lagoon in the terms of trade, defense and representation. It was taking advantage out of the conditions of its territorial setting. This made the city is a symbol of proud representation of culture going along with the natural system.

MODIFYING THE GEOMORPHOLOGY DELTA, SEA OR LAGOON   The specific territorial location of Venice at the mouth of the three rivers (Brenta, Sile, Piave) exposed it to the dynamic natural processes in a geological scale. In the renaissance the lagoon threatened  to transform into a delta with the river mouths silting up the tidal water of the lagoon. The rivers were redirected in the 16th century to avoid the basin becoming part of terra firma. Today the lagoon is facing a reverse threat; it is endangered to turn into a bay and become part of the sea. The largest measure proposed today is the flood barrier project to save Venice from sinking. The entire lagoon is meant to be taken under technical regime and control of M.O.S.E. It is in doubt if this strategy may succeed in the long run. The technical mega structure wants to impose a flood control on the entire lagoon. The consequences of the impact are unforeseen, yet. Dynamic feedback loop of the lagoons hydraulic ecology can only be predicted and have been subject of surprise before.

INFRASTRUCTURE In pre-modern times the lagoon itself was utilized for infrastructural purposes. It was providing transportation and defense and many other means. In modern times the railways and roads based transportation represented accelerated networks of traffic and trade. The frequency of people and goods increased significantly. Venice was still water bound, bound no longer in the sense of being supported, but in the sense of being delayed. It became to slow; its detached structure did not allow to incorporate modern infrastructure systems. Venice could not speed up. The splendid isolation resulted in a strangled isolation. Modernization imposed Venice to be connected to its accelerated terms. Very late a bridge/dam finally linked the city to terra firma like a prostheses. The archipelago is attached to the centralized infrastructure systems of traffic and supply today. The harbor was relocated to Marghera leaving the lagoon city behind. The ferry terminal welcomes the largest cruise ships like queen Elisabeth II. Digging deep navigation channels brings another massive measure to the aquatic system resulting in further sinking of the ground the city is founded on. In order to accommodate the demands of acceleration and centralization massive interventions were imposed neglecting the geological setting. Drinking water could not be provided for the large demand of tourists by the traditional cistern rainwater system. Therefore groundwater was pumped out of the aquifer beneath the city. As a result approximately half of the sinking rate of the territory in the past 50 years is a long-term man-made side effect of exploiting the aquifer. Venice is not only threatened by the rising water level but by physical drowning of the territory itself. Therefore aqua alta is not an outside condition, but a direct result of misreading and mismanaging the lagoons hydraulic system.

NOSTALGIA OF A STATIC ARTEFACT   Venice forgot about its own concept: Although founded on unstable ground, the culture of the city was always embracing nature and the sea. The Marcus Square located at the canal front is iconic and symbolic gesture of the city facing and living with the water. The predominant cultural ritual is the cities annual espousal with the sea. The traditional ceremony represents an understanding of treating the water in harmony and respect instead of dominating and forcing it.

Venice is born from the sea; at the same time Venice is a wonderful expression of human creativity. Although it is committed to the water it is a product of human fantasy, inventiveness and determinedness. Venice is the utmost expression of our capabilities and vulnerability.” Mayor Massimo Cacciari

The city was located within the regime of the lagoon. Living in Venice was bound to a continuous process of adaptation to the changing cities necessities towards the lagoons requirements and limitations.

PARADIGMENSHIFT   Today the city is a static cultural artifact that is not able to adapt to changes of its environment anymore. Raising water level, sinking ground level and bad water quality are turning the lagoon to hostile setting that endangers the cities further existence. The cliché image of Venice is cloned several times in the world: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Dubai and China. Venice is understood as an image, not as an emerging cultural-natural system. The more successful the image of the city was the more the lagoon -the immediate local environment has been neglected and rendered invisible. The success of exporting the image of the lagoon city destroyed the elaborated resilient system the city emerged of. The predominant idea of adapting cultural systems to the natural regime and resources reversed to a technical regime that is taking control over the natural system of the lagoon in order to freeze a cultural state of nostalgia. In terms of a future development we may ask: „Is this what Venice is about?  Would it not be more promising to understand and reflect the long tradition of symbiotic conditions of culture and nature in the lagoon city? Venice reached a bifurcation point. Venice will either drown or must reinvent itself. Most residents already left the island behind to leave it to the faith of mass-tourism. This raises the question to our concept of modern culture today. Modernity should be reflexive as Ulrich Beck² suggests, understanding the consequences of each measure taken. Cultural heritage should not be considered in the sense of a static nostalgic postcard, but as a pool of references based on the ingenuity of sophisticated pre-modern techniques and strategies.

REDEFINING MEASURES OF CONTROL TO MEASURES OF NEGOTIATION AND ADAPTION  Since Venice will not win the race of catching up with other regions in terms of Late-Fordism modernization, it might be better of to reconsider its local condition and immediate environment. It seems like an old person, trying to run without having ever practiced it before. The lagoons water and marshland condition can no longer be neglected. If trade and defense were the advantageous requirements in the beginning, what might be the contemporary condition of a water bound civilization?

Venice has been punished in contemporary time, it was struck by modernization. The city could not reinvent itself since it never was a modern city. Venice is limited by old bonds but challenged by new constrains. Mayor Massimo Cacciari

The urban structure of Venice is not laid out to carry a centralized infrastructural system. Centralized systems are hierarchic and static in their layout they either function well in their logic of dimension and hierarchy but they must fail in the next adaptation process. In order to succeed as a knot in a postmodern global network of city regions Venice must respect the limitation of its local environment again. Future concepts should re-engage measures of decentralization, deceleration, diversification instead of measures that impose control and dominance. We are interested in developing an understanding of nurturing the lagoon as a park. The lagoon itself is the outcome of larger forces of natural dynamics. We are interested in understanding these forces and their physical expression in the dynamic system of the lagoon. Wind, current, sedimentation rates, temperature, in water and air change during the course of the seasons. Mapping the complex system of the lagoon can identify a variety of locations with specific ecological parameters and comfort zones that suggest to develop new environmentally adapted prototypes for being venetian.

Jorg Sieweke with Anna Viader: Presented and published at IFLA: Transforming with Water, Appeldoorn, NL 2008.

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