Mary Campbell Gallagher, founder of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris, has written a review of Salvadore Settis’s If Venice Dies for The New Criterion. Here is a direct link to her fine review, elegantly titled “La Serenissima” no more?” Below are my further remarks on Settis’s book in honor of its having now been reviewed by Gallagher.
“We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Benjamin Franklin’s revolutionary bon mot serves as excellent advice for great historical cities as well as for citizens challenging authority. They are engaged in a revolution – really, a counterrevolution – against worldwide urban trends that have the survival of historical cities in their crosshairs.
Venice and Paris are chief among those great old cities under siege, so it is appropriate that Gallagher, who is fighting to save Paris, praises Settis’s book If Venice Dies, published last year by New Vessel Press. Her focus is on many of the economic challenges facing Venice and other old cities. My own focus in “Review: ‘If Venice Dies,’” which posted last October, is more aesthetic, more design oriented, more focused on Settis’s idea that a city has a soul. My conclusion was that the greatest enemy of Venice’s soul, to its character etched by human behavior in its appearance, is modern architecture.
And so it was unfortunate that Settis did not address the most obvious and by far simplest answer to the plight of cities like Venice and Paris. This is to build more architecture that reflects that soul, that builds upon and strength- ens that character. Far easier to break from the recent past and build in a manner that revives the evolution of centuries than to try to solve the problems they face that have nothing to do with design. New traditional architecture in Venice would strengthen its beauty and its will to fight modernist incursions. Likewise, building in historically appropriate ver- naculars globally would reduce the pressure of tourism on Venice, etc., by adding new places that people love, so that our desire for beauty does not force us to stuff ourselves, on holiday, into the few cities that still have it.
Design may not be a sufficient answer to the problems facing Venice and its besieged brethren, but it is easier to change a design strategy than to change existing economic, political and social conditions. New traditional architec- ture could thus make it easier to solve the many other far more complex and politically difficult problems such cities face.
Gallagher considers Settis’s account of those more complex problems and how they might be addressed. But her review also cites an unsettling argument from Settis’s powerful polemic. She writes:
In a bold analysis, resting on his deep knowledge of the history of architecture, Settis says that the aestheticization of architecture has killed ethics. Aesthetics legitimizes real estate speculation and has become a mere market mechanism in the pursuit of profit.
Perhaps. But that makes sense only if by “aestheticization” Settis means using modernist design fads as an excuse to break away from historic character so as to profit by modernism’s gigantism and el-cheapo materials. “Aestheticization” really ought to refer to the opposite – to the prioritization of civic beauty, or “soul,” over the profit motive. It is difficult to imagine that Settis would be against that.
Gallagher urges UNESCO to place Venice on the list of World Heritage in Danger. I agree, as I am sure Settis would as well. If the world bureaucracy can help Venice’s citizens and government fight off powerful economic elites, such a designation can be vital. Among the most powerful elites is the mod- ernist design establishment. If it can be brought to heel in Venice, perhaps it can be neutralized or displaced elsewhere. If so, the entire world will benefit.