Bacon on Venice

No, this is not an article about the food of Venice.  This Bacon, Edmund Bacon, was renowned for his leadership of the City of Philadelphia Planning Department during the heady days of redevelopment, helping to guide many community-building projects and
infrastructure improvements into reality (Beacon Hill, for example).

His book “Design of Cities” (Viking Press, New York, 1967 and later editions) used many of his studies of historical and mid-20th Century urban development to demonstrate his theories of proper modern city planning, primarily achieved through redevelopment of existing urban cores.

Bacon addressed Venice, Italy, directly on pages 85 to 91 of his book.  Did he superimpose his pre-existing concepts upon the then-existing form of Venice, or did he gain insights from Venice for application to his work of rebuilding Philadelphia and his concurrence with others’ work to replan older cities elsewhere?

It is the Sea, Not the Land!

He first reminds readers that the open space of the Piazza San Marco was only slightly larger in size to that of the Piazzetta for many centuries.

Venezia - Wedded to the Sea at Piazzetta San Marco  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Venezia - Wedded to the Sea at Piazzetta San Marco (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

His point was that the Piazzetta was the primary space in that tableau – the connection of the City to the Sea at the Bacino di San Marco, the Piazzetta as an extension of the maritime space to which Venice was inexorably physically connected for its survival and its success.

For Bacon, this was a very important realization, that he saw parallel to the situations at Todi, Perugia and Firenze, “…the underlying design theme is the establishment of a clear and powerful expression
of civic unity connected to some feature expressive of the natural forces of the region”.

An Expression of the TOTAL City Life!

Edmund Bacon determined the existence of “dominant and subdominant themes” in
Venice by explicating what he identified as “the basic design movement in the heart of the city”, Sestiere San Marco but only part of that district!  He determined that citizens of Venice identified with Piazza San Marco as “an expression of the total civic life” of their city (the TOTAL civic life), “and with his daily life centering around the local square with its church, café, wellhead and perhaps monument, he feels a reflection of the total civic magnificence in his own neighborhood”.  We would rather question Mr. Bacon’s conclusion that the eventual and ultimate top-down planned community hierarchy seen as imposed upon the collection of neighborhoods rather palely reflecting the glory of the supreme space.

Bacon’s vision of “the principle of the dominant center and dispersed sub-centers” helps a bit, yet his vision that only the formal, dominant State center is THE TOTAL center of civic life in a city based upon commerce, trade, banking (Rialto), sea power (Arsenale) and major social/religious/philanthropic organizations such as the grand monasteries and teaching churches like the Frari and Zanipolo would perhaps find him a place of honor in the court of the most power pomp and ceremony Doges!

Selective Connectives

Edmund Bacon mapped his core of Venice as that which included Piazza San Marco, the Campi San Stefano, Manin, and several busy – but not always busiest, best designed, usefully equipped or even pre-foreign “redevelopment” routes – connecting them.  No Rialto, no Riva, no Merceria, no identification of water as the grand connector – whether Grand Canal or rii – no reflection upon the development of the 1400’s “Master Plan” of the City and of the Piazza San Marco itself, or the powerful and planned relationships to landmarks across the water that physically identified Giudecca and Dorsoduro as inextricably key components of the City.

Limited Vision, Limited Comprehension

He claimed that the spaces he determined to connect are “each comprehensible only in relation to the others”.  Ask yourself if Campo San Stefano is only comprehensible in relationship to Piazza San Marco, or if you are missing the  forest for the trees!

The evolution of the Piazza San Marco is recounted by Bacon in one paragraph, and few could go wrong with such brevity!  Bacon included a sketch by renowned American modernist architect Louis Kahn, a view west along the Riva degli Schiavonni with the indented Doges Palace allowing the Ponte railing to (sort of) align with the St. Mark and St. Teodore columns and beyond them to the Libreria Marciana south façade.  That view could provoke unwritten consideration of how, throughout the Piazza ensemble) such details were used to draw order and focus into, across and to elements that were otherwise often in discord, but Bacon did not see that potential.  Bacon remarked only on how only
“…an architect of rare insight” could telegraph the one important lesson of the place in one un-annotated sketch.

If only the insightful Bacon had perceived that it is often what specifically DOES NOT align or connect orthogonally that catalyzes designs and life to improve parts of the City and relationship to its physical environment, that massive urban renewal may sometimes
result in a fine product for its time, but that the long history of Venice and progress
brought with great price to its city form, urban spaces and neighborhood life with much trial and error tells the more important tale!

A Sigh of Relief!

Venice was never Rome and Pope Sixtus V, or Paris and Baron von Hausmann (or Philadelphia and Edmund Bacon) bringing political and re-divined physical order to the City by slashing what are now seen as grand lines across the medieval urban fabric,
excising or slicing and dicing underperforming neighborhoods.  Von Hausmann’s grand boulevards cleared slums and provided open field of fire for cannon to suppress popular uprisings – at least in the febrile dreams and plans of Emperor Napoleon II.

The grand schemes of American urban renewal planners rooted in only the visibly successful, time tested work of their European predecessors ignored those that did not succeed, and that most of them ignored the citizens and their relationship or lack thereof to an idealistic, imposed “expression of the total civic life”.

I have found many positives, many excellent planning concepts well illustrated in Edmund Bacon’s work and in his fine book “Design of Cities”, but found an even greater appreciation for the fact that…

He was not let loose to impose
his visions upon Venice!


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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