Review: “If Venice Dies”

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From the cover of “If Venice Dies,” by Salvator Settis. (New Vessel Press)

By the time I was half finished reading If Venice Dies, I was proclaiming its virtues to anyone who would listen. It was to be another of my bibles. But, although the book, by Italian art historian Salvatore Settis, starts out with interesting chapters about the loss of population, the rise of skyscraper cities, the nature and design of the skyscraper itself, the historic city (especially Athens) that has forgotten its greatness, and a vigorously slashing chapter about the monetary value placed by “experts” on Venice itself, it was not until I reached chapter 8, “The Paradox of Conservation and the Poetics of Reutilization,” that the book really started to sing to me.

Written in Italian by Settis, the very evocative English translation is by André Naffis-Sahely. It was published in April by the New Vessel Press. Italian is a beautiful language, but so is English, the language in which books must strive to sing to me.

This passage in particular:

These days, self-styled “innovation leaders” seem to pop up at every turn to trigger witch hunts against the “conservationist mullah,” depicting them as opposing any sort of change, who dream of an impossible world where landscapes, cities, and monuments can go into hibernation, thus condemning them to a perpetual slumber. However, our cities’ historical memory doesn’t seek inertia, it seeks movement. It doesn’t wish to be embalmed, but rather exalts life. The kind of life and movement that nevertheless respects the city’s DNA, which favors a harmonious sort of growth, and not violent destruction; that gently grafts new kinds of architectures onto it, or restores its ancient ones, and does not brutally violate its shape and soul. Yet those who launch attacks against “conservationist mullahs” are the same people who promote indiscriminate intrusions, becoming complicit in the ruthless devastation of our cities.

In America, this sort of dishonesty often takes the form of a warning to a city against becoming a “museum.” The usually unstated idea here is that a city becomes a museum by constructing new buildings in traditional styles. As Settis points out, people who want to erect buildings that respect a city’s heritage are not against change. This “museum” warning is not only wrongheaded. It is also an insult to museums, which constantly embrace change by way of new exhibits, new arrangements of old exhibits, new schemes of interior design, even new wings (often unsympathetic, alas), etc. Here in Rhode Island, Newport has done a better job than Providence of seeing through these warnings.

For all his focus on skyscrapers, Settis warns readers against any sort of addition to a city that does not respect its soul. The key idea in Settis’s defense of Venice and of all historic cities facing the challenges of modernity is from his chapter “The Invisible City”:

Let’s try to think of a city as having a body (made of walls, buildings, squares, and streets, etc.), but also a soul; and its soul doesn’t merely include its inhabitants, its men and women, but also a living tapestry of stories, memories, principles, languages, desires, institutions, and plans that led to its present shape and which will guide its future development.

In the chapter “The Forma Urbis: Aesthetic Redemption,” Settis continues his attack on the sensibility and the true venal purpose of modern architecture. After discussing a series of recent efforts to “modernize” Venice – including a plan to save it from rising seas by surrounding it with skyscrapers (“The Venetians who remain in the city will therefore be reduced to the role of fish inside an aquarium. … One might as well force them to wear wigs and petticoats as though they were characters in a theme park”) – he writes:

A paradoxical continuum runs through this and other Venetian metamorphoses: that the city’s uniqueness is a thorn in the side of a two-bit modernity, the prime example of a stale and intolerable forma urbis, whose mere survival is a provocative challenge that must be met, forcing Venice to assimilate until it looks like any other city.

These are relatively uncompromising statements of the threat posed to Venice and other historic cities by modern architecture. Although Settis does not say so directly anywhere in the book, so far as I could find (and I did keep my eye peeled), he cannot possibly mean just the modern architecture of skyscrapers: his definition of the soul of a city asserts otherwise. Without pointing the finger of blame for the erosion of cities’ souls at the modernist infill architecture as well, he loses the aesthetic basis he claims in order to object to the soul-destroying impact of skyscrapers or of the cruise ships that sail up the Grand Canal, thrusting their mammoth skyscraper-like forms into beautiful historic viewscapes that have ennobled Venetians and pleased their guests for centuries.

… [R]egardless of whether it’s ships or skyscrapers, the abuse of Venice isn’t just a random consequence but the primary aim of such projects.

Many modern architects claim to love traditional architecture. I believe them. So many of them actually live in classical domiciles, naturally refusing to inflict upon themselves the sterile “machines for living” they inflict on their clients. I do not buy into Settis’s belief that skyscrapers or modern architecture in general aim to destroy historic architecture for the challenge it poses to their own work. Like Andres Duany, I believe modern architects are parasites – they understand that the contradiction their buildings pose to tradition in historic districts adds a panache to their allure, such as it is. Some people actually take a kind of pleasure in this contradiction, paying attention to the immediate “Wow!” factor, but failing to recognize the wound it inflicts upon the symphonic quality of the broader city setting. Modernism leans on the traditional city, a sort of crutch that is unavailable to modernist buildings set in places like Houston. Modern architecture is willing to chip away at traditional cityscapes, and will do so until they are slowly ruined – ruined before most preservationists have any idea they are even at risk. They do not, I think, want to destroy traditional buildings and settings out of an animus against their role as “thorns in the side of a two-bit modernity.” Most modern architects are just as thoughtless and self-serving as anyone else. Settis has some choice lines devoted to architects.

The creativity of artist-architects is still loudly proclaimed even when it breaks the law or jeopardizes the fates of those who will live and work in these new buildings. As Robert Venturi wrote, “modern architecture has been anything but permissive. Architects have preferred to change the existing environments rather than enhance what is there.” Yet architects who irreversibly denatural- ize environments and contexts do so on behalf of third parties, selling their services for cash (customers) or favors (politicians).

Modernist architects are not afraid of historic buildings but of new buildings in historic styles. They understand that if there were an even playing field for major commissions, traditional architecture would soon push modern architecture into the dustbin of history.

And I am afraid that this fear afflicts Settis no less than other writers who defend the historic city. I must assume that for Settis, this phobia is deeply implanted and part of the cultural deterioration of Italy since World War II. He may not even realize that it exists in the darkest corners of his mind.

Preservationists, or at least those who have jobs as preservationists, have little good to say of new architecture that looks like the architecture that preservationists used to chain themselves to bulldozers to protect.

Settis has nothing to say in his book, at least not directly, about new traditional architecture. Just about everything he says about the soul of the city seems to support the concept of new traditional architecture as a method of enabling soul-enhancing change in old cities, to avoid their becoming “museums.” At the same time, and also by implication, everything he says about “theme parks” – including the many copies of Venice – seems to oppose new traditional architecture, or at least to cast it in a ridiculous light. But he does not say anything at all about it directly. I wonder why.

Settis writes that Venice and other historic cities are threatened because skyscraper cities are pushing to eliminate historic cities for economic reasons. Historic cities are not thorns in the sides of modern architects so much as thorns in the sides of modern capitalist developers and financiers. There is more resistance there to development projects. There is plenty wrong with capitalism these days. The free market has been hijacked by pirates who operate in a financial environment of crony capitalism. Modern architecture is the “brand” of the 1 percent. If the rest of us were, somehow, to reinstall the free market as the basis of capitalism, the market forces that Settis detests for monetizing the value of Venice and other historic cities would become his ally. As in the days when businesses and corporations valued innovations that added value to goods and services by serving the needs and desires of the consumer, a free market untainted by crony capitalism would place a more nuanced value on the buildings and walls of such old cities as Venice. All that makes up their souls would be much more accurately valued. It would no longer be just about making money. In the meantime, to lift the siege the skyscraper city lays upon the historic city, an alternative is required that bases value on real human needs and desires.

That alternative is hiding in plain sight. It is the alternative that Settis for some reason completely ignores. Why I do not know, because Settis spends paragraph after wonderful, insightful paragraph describing the accumulation of value – including architectural value – in historic cities, a calculation that adds up to the city’s soul. But when it comes to figuring out why Venice is at risk, he does not even mention the most obvious answer.

Historic cities are at risk because in the middle of the last century it became unfashionable to build beautiful cities that people can love. In many places, it became illegal. To the extent that more cities, towns and communities that people can love are built, to that extent the pressure on old historic cities – the surviving preserves of such admirable civic qualities – would be lifted.

It is wrong, I think, to blame tourists for visiting tourist attractions (that is, beautiful places). Tourists come in all shapes and sizes, and some of them may truly appreciate a historic city like Venice, even perhaps more so than some native Venetians who remain. And certainly more than some of the Venetian natives in power who have, for example, banned cruise ships from coming within two miles of the Italian coast, everywhere except in Venice, which is exempt and where the limit is nil.

A good place to start inside Italy and Venice itself might be legislation to limit the extent to which very rich people can buy second houses (or third, or fourth houses) in Venice and then stay there only two days a year. The negative effect of this is only partly economic.

Some of the most entertaining stories told by Duany, mentioned above and a founder of the New Urbanist movement (basically reviving old urbanism), are of the somersaults that developers must undertake to get town and county governments to let them do things that were not just legal but the conventional wisdom before modern architecture and planning took over as the establishment in the 1940s and ’50s. Settis should place a phone call to Duany. The founder of the Congress of the New Urbanism has fought to begin the process of launching new traditional towns – and new traditional infill in existing cities – that at least strive to create an urbanism of character that might someday evolve into genuine soul.

If it were not for the municipal bureaucrats fighting tooth-and-nail for rules and zoning that guarantee the production of soulless suburbia and monolithic skyscraper cities, creating cities that work and that people love would not be all that difficult. The blueprints are all around us, especially in Europe where so many intact cities, big and small, remain as laboratories for urbanism that can work in the future. If climate change is a threat to cities, it should be noted that 40 percent of carbon emissions are from buildings, most of which have been built since the onset of the Thermostat Age. A machine architecture that offers a machine metaphor but not the promised machine efficiency is not just wasteful but ugly, hurtful to the souls of cities and people. It cannot be that difficult to shift from a fashion that has become unsustainable to one that promises to replicate the already well understood sustainability of the historic city.

Why is there nothing about this in If Venice Dies?

In his book and in his lecture at Brown University last Tuesday, Settis expressed a certain pride in his friendship with one of modern architecture’s most interesting theorists, Rem Koolhaas, who has done several projects in Venice. Perhaps Rem has bent the Settisian mind. Maybe Settis has ignored the obvious solution out of some sort of fear that he might offend his friend, whose internal contradictions on the subjects of architecture and cities are notorious. Maybe If Venice Dies, although it does criticize Rem’s design to transform the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, is really a reflection of the Koolhaas ethos. I don’t know. I am stretching here in my attempt to identify the reason why Settis has not yet embraced the obvious answer to the threat facing Venice and – as he so often says throughout the book – all historic cities. It is fashionable for critics to sneer at new traditional cities like Poundbury, but even some of these critics are beginning to realize that they are working. Let us not forget that Settis, for all his brilliance, teaches at universities and institutes in Western Europe and the United States. He is as susceptible to the rigors of intellectual fashion, I suppose, as anyone else.

Settis’s book is filled with lively, imaginative responses to some of the absurdities that have gathered in the arsenal of strategies for saving Venice. He clearly knows how to think about cities, and knows what makes them great places. His book is a joy to read, and its righteous anger at the awful predicament facing Venice and other historic cities is an invaluable resource to be visited again and again by those who love cities. That is true in spite of the gap in its effort to attack the enemies of Venice. The book clearly wants to save the soul of cities. Its real message may lie between the lines, but difficulty of access has never deterred the search for nuggets of gold.

I leave readers with another passage that proves Settis understands cities:

A city, like a living thing, is a united and continuous whole. [It] does not cease to be itself as it changes in growing older, nor does it become one thing after another with the lapse of time, but is always at one with its former self in feeling and identity, and must take all blame or credit for what it does or has done in its public character, so long as the association that creates it and binds it together with interwoven strands preserves it as a unity.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Review: “If Venice Dies”

  1. Pingback: A dream book of Venice | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Ruskin’s “Two Paths” speech | Architecture Here and There

  3. Mary Campbell Gallagher says:

    Bravo, David. If Venice Dies is an enchanting book and also an important one. I do not share your reservations, precisely, but I am delighted to see you praising Settis’s excellent contribution to our thinking about cities.

    Like

    • How someone so involved as you are, Mary, in saving Paris from modernist incursions can fail to share my reservations about Settis’s book is hard for me to comprehend, but never mind. It is a very good book, but it would be even better if it had not avoided discussing new traditional architecture as a strategy for reducing pressure on historic cities. How the book can have nothing to say about that is, to me, mysterious.

      Like

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