“ELEMENTS OF VENICE” by Giulia Foscari
A Book Review by Randy Bosch July 10, 2014
Foscari, Giulia, “Elements of Venice”, Lars Muller Publishers, Zurich, June 2014, 692pp., paperback, small format.
I received this fascinating and critically important work literally “hot off the presses” as it was published just in time for the opening of the 14th Venice Architectural Biennale at the very end of June, 2014. It is an extraordinarily well-researched and presented research effort, led a written by a key member of the Biennale team, architect Giulia Foscari, a daughter of Venice with impeccable credentials and profound insights into the nature and history of the great, enigmatic City of Venice.
This work will be intriguing for those just beginning to dip their toes into the lagoon of Venice’s cultural and architectural history. It is also a boon for those now fully immersed into the deep historical waters of La Serenissima.
Giulia Foscari helps to prepare us all to meet the challenge of
“The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing”
(Joseph Wood Krutch, “The Desert Year”).
“Developed as a research project parallel to FUNDAMENTALS – the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Rem Koolhaas – this book introduces a radically new way of seeing Venice. With examinations of twelve different architectural elements, the guide allows readers to better understand the fundamental transformations that have shaped Venice over the past ten centuries.” This Biennale opened at the end of June 2014, with this book printed in June as well.
The Foreword by Rem Koolhaas states that the presented research “…presents micronarratives revealed by focusing systematically on the fundamentals of our buildings…” and uncovers “…not a single, unified history of architecture, but the multiple histories, origins, contaminations, similarities, and differences of these elements and how they evolved into their current iterations through technological advances, regulatory requirements, and new digital regimes.” He concludes, “With Elements of Venice, this radical and thought-provoking book, Giulia demonstrates that Venice has been a city in perpetual transformation and, in the centuries of its splendour, at the forefront of modernity.”
The book’s Introduction consists of the author’s Preface and two articles that set the stage for the elements discussions.
Foscari’s Preface presents an intellectually rigorous yet very approachable rebuttal to false paradigms routinely used to characterize Venice – applied sometimes because of the city’s apparent homogeneity, but often because of the desire of some correspondents to eek out “new” secrets to demystify an allegedly mythical place. She concludes,
“Lauded for decades, the ‘myth of Venice’ has become, through overuse, a cliché. Venice is not a perfectly round, gleaming ‘pearl’; it is not the ‘Serenissima’ that survived, unchanging, even when it had been demoted from the ranks of the world’s capitals (sic). If this is how it has appeared, it is because it is a metamorphous entity. It is because the city truly is an amphibious creature, born between land and water, in a lagoon that for centuries has served a a huge womb, protecting its offspring in a constant state of development, in which constant changes were the norm. Never have there been turning points so abrupt as to compromise its links with the past; never a revolution. The city has moulded itself to history just like its building have adapted to subsidence. Without ruptures. It has aged over time (col tempo, as Giorgione teaches us by portraying the face of an elderly woman who looks us straight in the eye with a intensity that, at times, is hard to bear). It is only through clues, or minimal alterations of the elements of architecture that at first glance might appear coincidental or insignificant, that we can see that this metamorphosis has happened and is still happening in Venice.”
The Metamorphosis of Venice – A Historical Parenthesis uses San Marco – the Piazza (“Square” in this book) and the Basilica – to show transformation of elements – a metamorphosis from the Lagoon into the precinct and structures that are present today.
Dissecting the Building Elements of Venice reveals the City through its architectonic features, studied by performing a post-mortem dissection to make the key elements readily observable, and t0 gain an understanding of their relationship to context over time, in the manner of Rem Koolhaas’s studies of elements and typology over the decades, not by utilizing a chronologically “evolutionary” route.
The twelve elements explored through “micronarratives” – ranging from one to many within the study of an element - are:
FAÇADE STAIR CORRIDOR FLOOR RAMP ROOF CEILING DOOR FIREPLACE WINDOW BALCONY WALL
Rest assured, this approach is not a “building blocks” kit or arcane technical dissertation, but a new way of seeing through well-researched and illustrated micronarratives.
A Maps section follows the text, locating the specific discussions by color code to helpfully identify the element involved and by page number for the specific site. The scale of the maps, however, makes the page numbers minuscule, so keep a magnifier handy if you desire to route find with the book as a guide. Finally, the Appendix includes complete Image Credits, and Acknowledgements.
The beauty of Giulia Foscari’s work includes an implicit challenge to us to remove blinders of traditional approaches to assaying Venice, allowing development of our capability to “see” with fresh eyes, to comprehend not only Venice, but all areas of the environments we inhabit or visit. Perhaps each, in their own way, will be inspired to greater understanding and more comprehensible communication. Hard work, true. Yet, as Pablo Picasso observed,
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”