I went to hear the author of If Venice Dies, Salvatore Settis, at Brown this evening. On the way I took the picture above. During his lecture Settis noted that the world is spotted with copies of the Venice Campanile – which was rebuilt in 1902 after toppling – including here in Providence, he added, I think (his English was beautiful but heavily acccented). He did not name the Carrie Tower, built just two years after the Campanille’s reconstruction. Our tower is not an exact copy but more than close enough to claim patrimony. He discussed how a city has a soul, partly reflecting its people and partly reflecting its physical and cultural makeup. He said modernity increasingly threatens the civic soul.
At the end of his lecture he took questions. I asked how far can a new building in a historic city diverge from its historic appearance without violating or diminishing its soul. He mentioned a building in a city near Venice as exemplifying (again, I think this is what he said) how well a new building could fit in. I could not tell for sure whether he was arguing that new buildings should closely adhere to the tenor of the surrounding historic architecture. I don’t think he was saying that, at least not tonight. He might have. He certainly does say that in his book, however, and without demurral.
If Settis does not believe that modern architecture hurts the soul of historic cities, then he has no real argument, at least not aesthetically, against skyscrapers and cruise ships. True, a modernist building can come close to fitting in, if that’s what its architect wants – but he usually does not want it to fit in. And city officials are reluctant to force the issue. Modern architecture, as Andres Duany frequently points out, is parasitical – that is, its personality only thrives by elbowing its neighbors in the ribs. Amid others of its ilk, its intrinsic dullness is more obvious. Modernist buildings love to imagine they are lording it over their neighbors. “Look at me! I’m new! I’m different!” They can’t do that in Houston.
Settis understands this perfectly well, I believe, based on the first half of his book, which is grandissimo (is that a word in Italian?). At the beginning of the second half he spends a lot of ink deploring the idea that a city might become a “museum.” To modernists, that is code for “do not build new buildings that look like old ones” This also seems to conflict with a city’s need to conserve its soul. Settis concluded his answer to my question by saying that how different a new building in an old city can be must be determined on “a case-by-case basis.” To be sure. But what is the principle involved?
Well, it was an interesting evening. I sat next to a fellow who I thought was Michael Wise, Setti’s publisher. I had not seen Michael since 1981, when he and I were both employed at the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, he as a reporter and me as a dictationist. I thought it was him, and I introduced myself assuming it was, but it turned out it was not him. He must have thought I was nuts. Again, an interesting evening, but not without its confusions.