Virginia studio statement

University of Virginia School of Architecture
Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture
Architecture 809/875 Landscape Architecture 873 : Venice Research Studio
Nicholas de Monchaux
Fall 2004

This studio is dedicated to the proposition that the maritime city of Venice is not just a delicate specimen to pin to the cardboard of history, but rather a crucial case study in the continuing story of the city and civilization. Many visit Venice to understand the past; we will go to understand, and change, the future. On our increasingly urban planet (some 60 percent, or 5 billion of the worlds population, will live in cities by 2030 1) our problems, and promise, seem increasingly to rely on the fate of our cities. As architects, we are weaned on the study of urban fabric and form – and yet, it would seem, our current history of affecting and improving the structure and functioning of the city is mixed at best. In the middle of the last century, an oversimplification of the problems of urban organization and development led to scorched plains of urban renewal, and the evisceration of urban environments. Globally, the end of the 20th century brought with it an even more curious chapter in the history of master-planning; cities, such as Jakarta, Cairo, Lagos and Shenzen, where a generation of urban plans became obsolete before implementation, as sprawling urban fabric outpaced the most excessive projections for change.
It has recently been proposed that increasing digital connectivity renders cities, with their dense masses of population and capital, obsolete. Yet one only has to briefly glance at our headlines to see the city – Manhattan, Baghdad, Najaf, Athens – still firmly at the center of our hopes, and fears. In light of such recent history, we will argue that the study of Venice, its epic lifespan and ecological liminality, is essential.
Historically, Venice was a center of trade in goods and ideas, governed continuously, and independently by its citizens, from the eighth century to, almost, the nineteenth. It was the center of its own empire – and, unlike the empires of its contemporaries, but clearly relating to the empires of today, its greatest victories were achieved, without gunpowder, through the steady force of ideas, and money. Contemporary Venice is besieged by twin tides that threaten its destruction; tides of nature, and tides of man. Like any urban artifact, Venice represents temporary balance between manmade and ‘natural’ systems. Yet in Venice, unlike most cities of the developed world, this balance is visibly precarious, with problems, and possible solutions to managing urban ecology legibly illustrated. Yet if Venice manages to survive the rising tides of its lagoon, it still faces more corrosive currents in the millions of tourists that visit the city each year. Globally, we seem to crave the history and density of urban environments as an entertainment, an antidote to the sprawling, sterile agglomerations of contemporary development. Venice is far from alone in finding itself becoming a victim, as the Italian Umberto Eco
characterizes it, of the “hyper-real.” The city threatens to become a simulacrum of its own self, destined to satisfy not the curiosity of its visitors, but the onslaught of their basest expectations. Yet while we find such examples of the hyper-real erasing reality throughout the globe – fake Fakirs in front of the Hagia Sofia, Disney’s trademarked “Times Square experience” – Venice is unique in that it threatens to be obliterated not just by the character of contemporary tourism, but by its sheer volume as well.
From a background in the history of Venice in particular, and theories and problems of the contemporary city in general, the studio will dedicate itself to the examination of two current design problems in the city: the planning of a national park in the northern lagoon, and the construction of a contemporary touristic infrastructure through the use of historic wellheads. Through the use of the most current methods of architectural work, and its publication and presentation, we will reach out to an audience in Charlottesville,
Venice, and beyond. Finally, the solutions proposed by the studio will not only attempt to bring contemporary thinking about the city to Venice, but, attempt to both understand and proclaim the relevance of Venice –the intimate sharing of responsibility for a piece of the city by many and many over time, the contingent qualities of particular urban objects and ecologies in a larger system, the style and savvy of urban life as spectacle – to the problems, and opportunities, of the 21st century city.
1 United Nations Population Division, 1998 Estimate.

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