Architecture: African Independence and Nordic Models

Architecture: Forms of Freedom: African Independence and Nordic Models

Exhibition of the Nordic Countries Norway, Sweden, Finland at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2014

Fehn’s extraordinary Nordic Pavilion in the Giardini at the Venice Biennale showcased a very enlightening exhibit this year, the mentoring of modern architecture in three newly free southern and eastern Africa in the 1960’s and 1970’s (Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia) by the three social-democratic Nordic Countries (Norway, Sweden and Finland).


Nordic Pavilion Roof - 14th Arch Biennale (Photo: R.D.Bosch)

Nordic Pavilion Roof – 14th Arch Biennale (Photo: R.D.Bosch)

How did such a relationship develop?  The exhibition curators tell the story (with this writer’s emphasis added…):

“The liberation of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia in the 1960’s coincided with the founding of state development aid in the Nordic countries, where there was widespread belief that the social democratic model could be exported, translated, and used for nation-building, modernization and welfare in Africa.  The leaders of the new African states wanted partners without a murky colonial past, and established solid bonds with the Nordic countries, built on a mutual belief in progress.  During a few intense years in the 60s and 70s, Nordic architects contributed to the rapid process of modernization in this part of Africa.”

Peaceful socio-political nation-building exported to countries desiring to shed links to their colonial past via export of aid and extra-national design prototypes.  No military.

The exhibit identified two areas of design intervention provided by Nordic nation designers as part of their country’s aid package:

“Building Freedom”:  Architectural nation-building by applying Nordic-derived  master planning techniques and examples to African cities and regions,  along with implementing Nordic prototypes and prefabricated systems for public buildings in those countries.

“Finding Freedom”: National leader-provided input and impetus to create non-colonial national symbols and prototypes, interfaced with Nordic-defined  progressive ideas for architectural solutions intended to elevate building design to that of Nordic au currant progressive international style leaders.


Kenyatta Conference Center, Nairobi (Image: Nasjonalmuseet)

Kenyatta Conference Center, Nairobi (Image: Nasjonalmuseet)

The curators noted, “This is the incomplete story of this architectural production, exploring how these works were absorbed, rejected, adapted and transformed”, a careful reaction to the resultant mix of cultural goals and physical  artifacts.  More commentary presenting the reaction to and retention of these interventions from the new nations’ points of view – then and now – would have been helpful.  Examples of extraordinary successful projects were provided, some now beloved icons of independence in several nations.  Yet, it appears that mutual anthropocentrism limited success, complicated by emerging new nation leadership  not always sympathetic to or intending to adopt “social democratic” systems.  Importation of design style neither indicates nor catalyzes freedom and democracy.  It is only a symbol and a tool.

Kenyatta Conference Center, Nairobi (Nasjonalmuseet Image)

Kenyatta Conference Center, Nairobi (Nasjonalmuseet Image)

Since those heady days, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia have set forth on their own internally-derived destinies.  Their public architecture is as much defined by the European Modernists from the former colonial rulers in Great Britain as Nordic models (and, in Tanzania, earlier German colonialism on the majority mainland area of Tanganyika, earlier Arabic influence in the islands of Zanzibar).  Thankfully, it is even more defined by the design culture and physical environment of those nations.  Perhaps, at some point, they shed the need to react against an oppressive colonial past by becoming subservient to a Northern European ideology, “…where progressive ideas could be developed as architectural solutions on a par with the international avant-garde.”

Discernment is the key … Absorb, Reject, Adapt or Transform


Posted in Architecture, Bauwerk, Planning & Urban Design, Venice Italy, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , ,

Romania at the Biennale 2014: Site Under Construction

Projecting the future from amidst the relics of modernist ruin.

Deep inside the Giardini in Castello, Venice, the Romanian Pavilion for the Architecture Biennale sits amidst a long row of undifferentiated pavilion facades, evocative of their design era and the design politics of that time, punctuated only by their entrance doors and identifiable by nation only by virtue of a sign announcing each country.

Romania Pavilion Site Under Construction - 14th Arch Biennale

Romania Pavilion Site Under Construction – 14th Arch Biennale

Ironically, the neutral, anonymous façade – which acts as a “plain wrap” container for the wonders many nations have proudly showcased within – serves as an exemplar for what the Romanian Pavilion curators critically note:  “In Eastern Europe the assimilation of modernism proved a rather divergent process, correlated with tumultuous and contradictory socio-political events.”…

 “Any art movement is directly linked to the political and economic context it develops in.”

They report a clear image of Romanian architectural modernism, a dictated, forced development, “through the brutal transitions due to ideologically opposed political contexts.  Transitions from interwar to communism and then to post-communist capitalism reflects our understanding of modernism.”

Thirty-five artifacts of industrial modernism and their urban environments are displayed primarily by videos, many now modern ruins from a ruinous half-century long socio-political system.  The presentation is color-less, as are the people celebrating the creation of the Romanian socio-economic modernist empire in the videos.

How intriguing that systems which create ruins are so often populated by leaders without style (except when behind the walls of their palaces, reveling in wealth and excess), and visibly impose that monochrome culture on their people and institutions.  “The entire space of the pavilion reflects the mega-space of the contemporary city, seen as an imperceptible black box without definite outlines” amidst the “void of the post-industrial present”.

Very Detroit-ian.

Romania is working diligently on its newest transition, freed from wars and harshly imposed utopian systems – at least for a time.  Learning from that past — how and why it arrived, what its “leaders” imposed, what and who it ruined — the country is projecting a different future, of its own and for its own.

Many nations could learn from the Romanian experience and new resolve.  Many nations have modernist ruins brought about by a toxic brew of some combination of central planned economies, unilateral governance, social upheaval, physical war, natural disaster or avarice.  Only one such ingredient is required for ruin.

Romania Pavilion - 8 Hr Shift - 14th Arch Biennale

Romania Pavilion – 8 Hr Shift – 14th Arch Biennale

The curators count on you, the observer, to learn from the relics of soul-less culture, to project the future – as Romania must and is doing from its legacy of politically imposed modernism, its physical, institutional and human ruins.

Project a different future.

This exhibition is a brutally frank, brave confrontation with the past, a necessary Recapitulation to identify error – including the misappropriation of artistic style for political purposes – and return to a rightful course – Reformation and Renaissance.  Bravo to the curators of the Romanian Pavilion and its sponsoring people.  May others open their eyes and comprehend, to apply this lesson in their own nations.

“Any art movement is directly linked to the political and economic context it develops in.” 

As George Santayana perceptively observed,

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Learn from Romania.  Be aware, and beware…

Who is designing and dictating your future and its ruins?


Posted in Architecture, Bauwerk, Recapitulation, Reformation, Renaissance, Renaissance Rules, Venice Italy, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Augmented Australia – Recreating Lost Architecture – 14th Biennale Architettura – Venice 2014

The Australian Exhibition at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale

Since the permanent Australian pavilion for the Biennale in the Giardini Publicca is being rebuilt, Australia made certain to participate in this year’s architecture exhibition by creating a temporary pavilion – the “Cloud Space” – across the Rio dei Giardini on the Sant’Elena portion of the grounds.  Befitting the grassy open space that is the forecourt for a relatively sternly modernist array of virtually identical structures housing the exhibitions of a number of nations (with the exception of the parentheses-like Austrian and Greek pavilions to the north and south, and the Brazilian pavilion smashed into the middle of the space), Australia was granted permission to create a light and airy tension structure with red canopy material for the temporary site.


"The Cloud" Augmented Australia -  14th Arch Biennale

“The Cloud” Augmented Australia – 14th Arch Biennale

The twenty-two projects exhibited in the “cloud space” are “parables of the virtual”  Why “virtual”?  The projects are represented by twenty-two metal stands.  Upon downloading the exhibition application to any Android device and focusing on the image that appears, the pre-existing site and a superimposed three-dimensional image model of a project materializes and can be manipulated to provide an animated tour of each the site and project.


“Eleven historical projects chart Australian architecture to 1988, the bicentenary of European settlement and the moment of ‘Deconstructivist Architecture”.  Another eleven projects reflect an unruly heterogeneity condensed into the last 25 years.  In an era of maximal globalization, where there is no shared canon, there are parables of anarchy – very Australian ones.”

The parables of anarchy have been extended throughout the City of Venice.  Android “radar” could be utilized to locate each of twenty-three full scale models sited around Venice in order to contrast the impact of modern architecture – Australian and otherwise – set in an historical place.

The projects are grouped into three categories:

  • Not yet built (in costruzione).
  • Not going to be built (non realizzato).
  • Was never built (mai realizzato).

 A fascinating virtual presentation in an ephemeral setting!

You may have missed the Biennale.  Even if you are in Australia, you may have missed many of the historical projects or the presentations of the in costruzione, non realizzato and mai realizzato one.

Fret not!  Virtual reality grants you the ability to enjoy Augmented Australia in its literal entirety on-line at .




Posted in Architecture, Bauwerk, Recapitulation, Renaissance, Venice Italy | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

nel segno di Carlo Scarpa (the sign of Carlo Scarpa)

Scarpa Intervention - Querini - Venice

Scarpa Intervention – Querini – Venice

Thoughts after experiencing an exhibition at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice, Fall, 2014, by Randy Bosch.

Rarely has an architect with a relatively limited body of work, primarily located in one region of one country, had such an impact upon the world of architecture than has Carlo Scarpa.  Many volumes have been produced illustrating and explicating Scarpa’s work – even some by Scarpa!

The source is always the best place to seek comprehension!

The Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, is an extraordinary public institution housed in co-joined, phenomenal palazzi on the eastern edge of Campo Santa Maria Formosa  that were gifted to the City of Venice by the also extraordinary Giovanni Querini  in 1868.

In the Summer and Fall of 2014, simultaneously with the Biennale Architettura and its fundamentals – elements of architecture theme, the Fondazione mounted a unique exhibit to share specific insight into one of the seminal works of Carlo Scarpa —

Scarpa’s design interventions within the Palazzo Querini itself.

The exhibition gave a too-rare opportunity to see his creative background sketches – the gestation of ideas for the spaces and their detailed implementation sketches — with limited verbal explanation, within the designed space itself.  The spaces “speak” volumes for themselves.  You are the interpreter.

The Scarpa designed interventions from the early 1960’s are primarily on the Ground Floor of this venerable building, extended upwards by  a phenomenal stairway enveloping an elevator shaft.  The intervention also extends laterally into a signature garden (Giardino) on the east side of the palazzo and a bridge across the Rio della Santa Maria Formosa on the west side.


Querini - Scarpa Garden Steps

Querini – Scarpa Garden Steps

Director Giuseppe Mazzariol recalled the creation of what are now referenced as the “Scarpa Spaces” to be “saturated with light from the very beginning. “ Said Mazzariol,

“One morning in 1961 at the Querini Stampalia, I asked him to keep water outside the palace… He looked at me and after a pause he said: ”Inside, inside! Water must be inside, like everywhere in the city. We just need to control and use it as a shining and reflecting substance. You will see the light reflections on the yellow and purple stuccos on the ceiling. That is so gorgeous!”

The Scarpa bridge, water door and water lobby are unique in the world.  The adjacent aula Luzzatto – the hall in which the formative design drawings were displayed – is a design tour de force in itself. The adjacent Giardino is small by contemporary Western standards, but large in Venice.  Within it, Scarpa created a complete world replete with movement, light, sound, water, and details formed together like the notes on the page of a symphonic score.  Even the stairway, winding around the elevator shaft, is a complete work, fully informed by Scarpa’s design sensitivity to the least detail.

Scarpa Water Entrance - Querini - Venice

Scarpa Water Entrance – Querini – Venice

Curators Yuko Hasegawa and Chiara Bertola understood the sign of Scarpa:

“Scarpa left a sign which is both ancient and modern, full of forerunner energy whose propelling push has not run out yet. As a blooming tree, it has favored the architectural works of Valeriano Pastor, Mario Botta, and inspired an engaging interaction with other different art expressions: photography, video, music, dance.”

Botta and Pastor were indeed favored by nel segno di Carlo Scarpa, including in interventions of their own designs in adjacent areas of the Querini-Stampalia.  Even if you missed this exhibition, the Palazzo itself exhibits their inspirations from Scarpa’s work alongside them for you to experience at leisure.

Many others have “quoted” from these interventions in their own design work, but few show evidence of having comprehended their import, merely plucking a few petals from the blossoms of the Querini’s “blooming tree”.   I believe that in proper and ethical architectural design, no lesser attention can be paid to a building’s sides, rear, floors, ceilings, interrelationship with surrounding spaces, or any detail than is paid to its primary façade and key spaces.  A well-designed building is not a few jewels stuck on and into a crate of banality, that class spaces and details (that is, people and experiences) to be on a sliding scale of import.  Architecture needs to be a complete work, not the too-often seen “lipstick on a pig” version prevalent in our cultures today.

Go, find Carlo Scarpa in his work.  Study the fertility and creative work in Scarpa’s sign, as did the exhibition curators and those who learned from it in their later work in the Querini and elsewhere.

Dare to never again ignore what it means to truly create architecture.

nel segno di Carlo Scarpa

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The Het Nieuwe Instituut choreographed the exhibition for The Netherlands at the Biennale.  The Jaap Bakema Study Centre is one of their ongoing programs.  Their stated premise was to see that “The centenary of World War I is an occasion for He Nieuwe Instituut to reconsider the history of progress.  They chose to do this by making the exhibition about Dutch architect Jaap Bakema (1914-1981).

Co-curator Guus Beumer stated, “We consider Bakema not so much an architect of buildings, but an architect of a new idea of what Holland could be–a new national identity, a new national landscape…with an architect in the center of this particular ambition.”

Holland Pavilion - 14th Arch Biennale

Holland Pavilion – 14th Arch Biennale

This was at the core of the Dutch concept of a new “open society”, as was Bakema.  Beumer’s exhibition is a research-focused display to encourage identification and thinking about the elements – how they were intended to work, how many are still in use today, and how they might inform design for the future.  Laudable concepts and hopes, not dictates.


“Jaap Bakema aimed to build a new, open society that was democratic, egalitarian and all-inclusive.  He believed architecture should accommodate the emancipation of the masses while allowing for the self-realisation of the individual citizen.”  They asked, “What is the relevance of such idealism today?  What was the open society then And what could it be today?”  Bakema has been celebrated as a “compelling exponent of the Dutch welfare state,” and was deeply involved in the planning and design of mass public housing for the reconstruction of Rotterdam after World War II.

The result was a crisp, simple installation of many parts – all multiples of a series of components for user-arranged systems.  In other words, in my view, plain modular boxes to be used by all of society to populate interior spaces – democratic, egalitarian and all-inclusive.


Holland Exhibit - Open - 14th Arch Biennale

Holland Exhibit – Open – 14th Arch Biennale

Bakema’s intent to use architecture in this way to “accommodate the emancipation of the masses while allowing for the self-realisation of the individual citizen” seems to result in “one size fits all”, like having the entire population wearing uniforms, only in this case completely furnishing their spaces with wooden boxes.  No independent design – the “self-realization of the individual citizen” would only be through arranging the pre-determined boxes that were made available to them.

The development of interchangeable modular units that integrated with one another in a broad, perhaps limitless variety, limited only by the parameters of the surround and with the imagination of the user simplified to an utter extreme to rearrange those boxes in their assigned spaces was quite well done.  Many years ago, I studied Operation Breakthrough proposals and helped develop a completely modular system of components that could be fabricated and assembled by local communities as a method of providing lower cost – but quality – housing, using under-utilized community industrial spaces (even off-season agricultural processing facilities) and labor to provide their own solutions. That is emancipating and self-realizing, at least.  My advice? Do not write off the value of modular design thinking and application, but do not settle for repurposed definitions of “egalitarian” to fit any political agenda!

I struggled to find the concept presented as a celebration of Bakema’s work to be emancipating, self-realizing, democratic, or egalitarian for the people – but find it certainly intended to be all-inclusive and efficient.  I can imagine that the elite who would impose and manage such a system would live to a different standard, as is usually the case with alleged “utopian” programs.

I did not struggle to contain satisfaction that this view of “emancipation, self-realisation, democratic, and egalitarian”  has failed to gain traction – other than through the much broader and more freeing form of IKEA furnishings that perhaps Bakema might find appalling and petit bourgeois.  I know that this is an overly harsh reaction, since limiting the materials and forms presented certainly aids comprehension of the system concept, yet too many slavishly copy the presentation without comprehension of the freedom it can bring.

My advice? Do not write off the value of modular design thinking and application – it benefits life and society all around the world, and it has often served well in free modern societies, from household products to building systems, to automobiles. Even the good old American 4’x8’ plywood sheet and 8”x8”x16” concrete block are the baseline modular components for an incredibly vast array of building, applied with surety and in great variety without constraining the life of the people within (except in prisons, of course…).

A caveat: Do not settle – never settle – for any agenda that repurposes “egalitarian” to be the prescription a self-appointed elite requires of the masses.  Too often, they soon follow with “you must conform, or else”, as more than amply recorded by the history of modernism in countries recently freed from the yoke of tyranny.

 The exhibition was beautiful and will pack up very easily.


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A short review of the Catalonia exhibit at the 14th Architecture Biennale, Venice, 2014, by Randy Bosch.

The Catalonia region of Spain, very recently near to a non-binding plebiscite regarding independence from Spain, sponsored a Collateral Event at the Biennale.  Their venue was in an old warehouse on the Isola d’Olivolo at the far eastern end of Sestiere Castello, an island thought by some to be the site of the earliest settlement in the midst of the Lagoon.


Catalonia Pavilion - 14th Biennale d'Architettura - Venice 2014

Catalonia Pavilion – 14th Biennale d’Architettura – Venice 2014

Grafting Architecture was beautifully curated to take full advantage of the long, narrow space, successfully contrasting contemporary exhibit installations with the exposed finishes of the old warehouse.

I viewed the result as a successful and invigorating grafting of a contemporary exhibition onto the historic stock of the building.

The curators, Josep Torrente along with associate curators Gulliem Carabi Bescos and Jordi Ribas Boidu, provided a carefully wrought explanation:

“Grafting is a process that involves inserting part of a tree with one or more buds into the branch or trunk of another tree such that a permanent union is established between the two as with the viticulturist who grafts a scion from the desired grape variety onto the rootstock and where the subsequent grape quality and the excellence of the resulting wine stem from correct union between scion and rootstock.”

Sixteen projects spanning the past 100 years were exhibited to illustrate the concept as realized in the architecture of Catalonia.


Catalonia at Venice 2014 - Grafting Architecture

Catalonia at Venice 2014 – Grafting Architecture

Their intent is to encourage us to learn from the past in order to renew architecture, “…giving it new horizons” – not to return to the past.  They perceive much contemporary work to be “global and franchised architecture” rather than recognizing, appreciating and reformulating local architecture, updating a living tradition.

This approach is a continuous process, diametrically different than embracing and promoting a “movement”.  The approach is informed by the passage of time, by daily life and by “reinterpretation of architecture through an artistic action.”


Rather than bulldozing out the vineyard of local tradition and replanting it with a non-native “International Style”, they challenge the creation of an architecture that is refreshed and renewed through grafting over the vast passage of time in a place that is nurtured by it, and in return continues the nurturing,

Where local tradition has been corrupted or become moribund, bring in strong, healthy new scions to graft onto existing, healthy roots.  Or, bring in strong, healthy new rootstock to replace what has not survived the test of time and graft on healthy, local scions that continue cultural quality and sense of place with renewed vigor.

“Grafting transmits the idea of a new organism that combines the strong points of its original components and is more vigorous than either of them on their own, an idea of renewal and growth.”

In this, there is wisdom for application in far more than architecture.

Bravo, Catalonia!

Posted in Architecture, Bauwerk, Reformation, Venice Italy | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Architecture Biennale – Venice 2014 – A Few Reflections




There is simply too much to cover – molto troppo!  In future posts, I will share impressions formed in many of the pavilions and exhibits we did visit this year.


Ubiquitous Poster for the Biennale - 2014

Ubiquitous Poster for the Biennale – 2014

The thought, hard work and dedication that went into the conceptualization, design and implementation of each and every one of them was incredible.  Conformance to the Director’s mission statement was, as usual, extremely sporadic – we are dealing with architects here, after all…. Of course,

Non-conformity is the ultimate form of respect for conformity!

Most exhibits, in various ways, either celebrated modernism to impose socio-democratic (in the case of many countries, read “20th  Century Socialist/Marxist”) political and cultural ideas on their own and other countries.

Most exhibitions from countries currently freed from totalitarianism showed how that failed, and failed miserably at a high cost to local culture and creativity.  Some other countries’ exhibitions, countries that have not faced such extreme or long-lived “new order” rule, show that the lesson has not be learned in them, although their “me too” embrace of modernism usually shows far greater freedom and innovation.  Too many show the effects of literally always having and still maintaining totalitarian systems.

What did the countries now independent of totalitarian masters, whether home-grown or imposed from without, learn from the imposition of Modernism in architecture and city planning from 1914 to 2014?   They learned, painfully, that the system and imposed Modernism failed not only because the goal was to wipe out historical cultures and impose a new, monolithic world-wide social order.  They found that most of the cityscapes and buildings for the general populace were not only poorly built (crap for the proletariat, lowest value goods), but also created sheep pen/chicken coop uniformity.  They learned that the “new order” leaders – the “elite” political group and their architectural acolytes – knew what was best for their lesser, the masses they claimed to champion, and demanded its imposition and unquestioning acceptance.

The outcomes for many cities and for whole nations in terms of their cities and individual buildings of all types were in the most part chilling.

The “New Humanist” social order was to be partially enforced by modern architecture as part of the destruction of regional, national and ethnic cultures – one size to fit all of society, all nations, but it did not fit any.

Not one

I am a student of and even a fan of much of what is known as Modern Architecture – only the better parts, of course!  I designed more than a few modest examples during my architectural career.  However, the exhibition of that genre that I appreciate turns out to be the forms in which it often been found in non-totalitarian, non-centralized power countries.  The rest may produce a “wow” response in a few examples due to the sheer audacity and overpowering statement in designs, but that “wow” is usually one of shock and horror, definitely not of appreciation or a source of inspiration.

In the Giardini for the 14th Biennale d'Architettura 2014

In the Giardini for the 14th Biennale d’Architettura 2014

Other exhibitions highlighted an aspect of change in a type of economic development or a specific use-type of building over the century past, or basely promoted the design and construction companies and products with which they have or hoped to seize an ever larger share of the contemporary competitive world market.

As I stated, MOLTO TROPPO!

We explored the Elements of Architecture theme pavilion as well as Hungary, Brazil, the Venice pavilion, Italy, Serbia, Austria, Poland, Greece, Austria, Romania, Egypt, Australia, Nordic Countries, Portugal, Slovenia, Morocco, Kuwait, Malaysia, Thailand, Croatia, Kosovo, Bahrain (“Arab World”), Indonesia, Latvia, Ireland, Chile, Dominican Republic, Mozambique, United States, Estonia, China, Russia, Spain, Catalonia, Netherlands, Belgium, AND MORE…

Time, energy and over-exposure kept us from visiting the exhibitions from Iran, Costa Rica, Macedonia, Albania, Turkey, South Africa, Peru, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Finland, Israel, Denmark, Switzerland, Korea, Canada, France, Czech Republic, Great Britain, Japan, Uruguay, Armenia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Paraguay, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Moscow, Liechtenstein, or Taiwan.

de Chirico Lives!  In the Arsenale for the 14th Biennale d'Architettura 2014

de Chirico Lives! In the Arsenale for the 14th Biennale d’Architettura 2014

Many exhibitions are scattered around Venice in various palaces, salons and cloisters, allowing visits into many buildings normally not accessible to the public.

Sometimes, the building is more fascinating than the temporary exhibit!

Within the main venues for the Biennale, the Giardini Publicca and the Arsenale, there are simply too many halls and themed exhibitions to be consumed, even if one were given to drive-by visits, within the two back-to-back days allowed by entry tickets.  One can purchase a season ticket at great price or, of course, another 2-day ticket, but eventually sensory overload occurs.

Perhaps more importantly, there is all of Venice to experience!

Posted in Architecture, Bauwerk, Planning & Urban Design, Recapitulation, Reformation, Renaissance, Renaissance Rules, Venice Italy, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Collection of Sand” by Italo Calvino – Book Review

by Randy Bosch                     December 3, 2014

“Collection of Sand”, essays translated by Martin McLaughtin, Mariner Books – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston – New York.  First published in Italian as “Collezione di Sabbia”, October 1984.

This collection of 38 non-fiction stories by one of Italy’s most acclaimed 20th Century storytellers is described as the “…last organic volume of new work put together by Italo Calvino in his lifetime.”

Collection of Sand by Italo Calvinor

Collection of Sand by Italo Calvinor

Translator McLaughtin was not a newcomer to working with Calvino.  His post-mortem rendition here, at the behest of the Estate of Italo Calvino, is informed by decades of earlier work with the living author, debating intent, meaning and language with the author as earlier works were translated.  It represents a most faithful view by a most trusted translator of the words of a man he knew better than most.

McLaughtin states in his forward, “…the image of rocks eventually turning to sand, emblematic of the slow passing of geological eras, is a cosmic theme in the writer’s other works.”   “He (Calvino)claims to write as a dilettante (neither a trained art historian nor a travel writer).  He displays encyclopedic curiosity and uses meticulous observation to attempt to understand what he calls ‘the truth of the world.’”  “One implicit message here is that the discreet observer of art and other countries “(for example) “can perhaps offer as much as the committed intellectual to the reader trying to understand societies and cultures.”

Calvino organized his stories in four sections:

  1. “Exhibitions – Explorations” deliberating ten different exhibitions in Paris in 1980 and 1984;
  2. “The Eye’s Ray” exploring aspects of the visual on our lives in eight compositions, 1980 to 1984;
  3. “Accounts of the Fantastic” with five book reviews of works about fantasy in the early 1980’s;
  4. “The Shape of Time” with fifteen travelogues from visits to Japan, Mexico and Iran in 1975-76.

Calvino’s travelogues are “…not just accounts of journeys crossing geographical space but also speculations on larger questions of time and history.”

All of the stories are stated to be ekphrasis – verbal portraits of works of art or places – yet all smoothly cross the line into compelling narratives.

The title, “Collection of Sand”, is not only of the intentional first piece in the book, but establishes the connection between all of the sections and stories, granular tales set in a collection of cultures and time.

Translator McLaughtin is entranced by the first and last sentences employed by Calvino in his stories, not only in “Collection of Sand” but in other works as well.  I found them to be deeply formative, exquisitely crafted verbal parentheses around the stories that help to retain memory of their import.

Of those thirty-eight parenthetical sets – word preludes and postludes – two follow:

From “Collection of Sand” :

α :           “There is a person who collects sand.”

∞:          Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.”

From “How New the New World Was” :

α:            “Discovering the New World was a very difficult enterprise, as we have all been taught.”

∞:          “There is no longer a Europe that can look down on America from the height of its past, its knowledge and its sensibilities: Europe now contains within itself so much of America – just as America carries within itself so much of Europe – that the interest in looking at each other, which is just as strong and never disappoints – resembles more and more what one feels when looking into a mirror: a mirror that is able to reveal something of the past or future to us.”

Whether or not you have read other works by Calvino (To date, I have only read “The Baron in the Trees” and “Invisible Cities”, both tours de force worthy of your time and reflection), I strongly recommend “Collection of Sand” as a thought-provoking excursion into cultures, people and time, into perception, language and meaning.  The stories can be read one at a time and in any order of your choosing without disturbing their individual – and eventually  collective – view into the layers of sand deposited by the passage of man.

Italo Calvino’s stories capture not only his observations of people, images and impressions limited by his brief encounters.  He dusts off artifacts and uncovers layers of remembrance and meaning in place,  history and culture during their slow progression from “dust to dust”.  They remind us of and link disparate elements of the human walk on this earth, its path, progress and product.   They consider that entropy and stasis are not the experience and outcome of that walk, but a return to that basic foundation of sand, from dust back to dust.

Calvino’s stories also remind me of the truth that Joseph Brodsky had thrust upon him over many, many winter sojourns in Venice, wearing down the stones, the truth that

“Dust is the flesh of time”



Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Zeitgeist | Tagged , ,

Venice Myths: Is There Only ONE (or TWO)(or THREE) “Canal”?

Canale di San Pietro  (c)2009 R.D.Bosch

Canale di San Pietro (c)2009 R.D.Bosch

Articles and reviews continue to pop up in fairly high volume on the internet and in published materials stating that Venice has only one waterway actually named a “Canal” – or maybe two, or maybe three.

The lack of originality in repeating this myth is boring!

Certainly, names change over the course of history, yet these articles are being published in the 21st Century!  A review of current maps of La Serenissima reveals, at the very least, the following waterways named “Canal” (or “Canale”, an alternate and very Venetian usage) within the main body of the City:

  1. Canale Grande (the one referred to as the “one and only” by those determined to perpetuate that myth)
  2. Canal de Cannaregio (the usual “one of two and only two”)
  3. Canale di San Pietro (separating the eastern island of San Pietro from the main body of Castello)
  4. Canal de la Misericordia (in Cannaregio, leading south from the Sacca della Misericordia)
  5. Canale de la Galeazze (within the Arsenale, north from the Darsena Vecchio)
  6. Canale di Porta Nova (leading east to the Lagoon from the Darsena Grande in the Arsenale)
  7. Canale Scomenzera – (between Stazione Marittima and Santa Marta) which extends the old…
  8. Canale de Santa Chiara (the extension of the Grand Canal between the station and Piazzale Roma and the old island of Santa Chiara)
  9. Canale della Giudecca (separating the Giudecca from Dorsoduro – not considered by some to be part of the “main City…)
  10. Canale di San Marco (between Castello and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, leading east from the Bacino di San Marco)
  11. Canale della Grazia (between Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore and la Giudecca)
  12. Canale Columbuola (between Stazione Marrittima and Tronchetto, and from the railroad yard to Canal de Cannaregio – formerly a “perimeter” canal)

Some maps refer to several other Rii as Canale ( or vice versa…), but those occurances might be considered drafting and editing conceits.

Canal de Cannaregio (c) 2009 R.D.Bosch

Canal de Cannaregio (c) 2009 R.D.Bosch


A whole perimeter of Canale surrounds the main archipelago of the City, plus a whole network criss-crosses the Lagoon, as well as canals within the Burano, Murano and Torcello island groups.  Two examples along the north side of the main City are the Canale delle Fondamenta Nuove (north of Cannaregio and Castello) and Canale delle Sacche (northwest of Cannaregio)


These days, the Canale Contorta San Angelo is in the news as a proposed route for an ill-advised major cruise ship channel from Marghera to the Giudecca Canal to access the Stazione Marittima.

Even for the historically minded – after all, “History begins where memory ends” (Aldo Rossi), there are more than a half-dozen named Canals in the main City of Venice.

If you hear someone say, or read that there is only one canal (or only two) (or only three) in Venice, please gently disabuse them of that false notion.

It is the real myth.







Posted in Planning & Urban Design, Venice Italy | Tagged , , , , ,

“Elements of Venice” by Giulia Foscari, 2014 – A Book Review

“ELEMENTS OF VENICE” by Giulia Foscari
A Book Review by Randy Bosch July 10, 2014

Elements of Venice by Giulia Foscari

Elements of Venice by Giulia Foscari

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.

Cloister: Corridor: Wall - Venice (c) R.D.Bosch 2013

Cloister: Corridor: Wall – Venice (c) R.D.Bosch 2013

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.”

Posted in Architecture, Bauwerk, Book Reviews, Venice Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments