The Venice Variations: Introduction Preview

Between authored architecture and the non-authored city

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Three artefacts

In 1972 the Italian writer Italo Calvino published his most acclaimed work of fiction, a novel about cities that made a seminal impression on architects and the architectural imagination. Written as a prose poem about cities, Invisible Cities recounts how Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan, the emperor of Mongolia, the cities of the great Khan’s own empire. These are not cities Polo has visited, but places he invents in his mind. Kublai soon realises that every time Polo speaks of a city he is saying something about Venice, and that all the cities he describes are merely variations, achieved by an interchange of elements from his native city. Calvino wrote this fictional tale at a time of urban crisis, when architects, urban thinkers and planners were envisioning bold alternatives, drawing attention to imaginative projection as a key resource in constructing better places for social habitation. The significance of Venice in this fiction lies less with Marco Polo as a Venetian explorer, and more with Venice as an archetypal model for the creative imagination. Having evolved from a conglomeration of islands, Venice opened up to classical architecture in the Renaissance, acting as an interface between the conscious creativity of artists and architects and the unconscious collective creativity that combined to produce an extraordinary urban setting. Centuries later, it would again challenge its own orthodoxy by inviting Le Corbusier, in the post-war period, to propose a design for a modern hospital. Inspired by Venice – and in striking contrast to his early-twentieth-century visions of a clean slate approach – the archetypical Modernist proposed a radical design, re-thinking architecture and the city as adaptable urban environments.

Not only have urban conditions changed since Calvino’s text and Le Corbusier’s projects, but so too have the forces shaping cities and architecture. The upsurge in urbanisation and globalisation, the effects of climate change and the rise in social inequality call into question where we live and how we build, demanding new models for urban development. Yet, our confidence in addressing these questions through conventional design is increasingly waning. With the aid of digital technology new approaches have emerged, adopting direct analogies with natural systems through scientific theories of complexity. Trapped between Modernistic utopias of the twentieth century and twenty-first-century technocratic utopias, our everyday urban realities languish, in pressing need of imagination and innovation. More importantly, they require models that link the creative ideas of designers and experimental scientists with the richly woven tapestry of collective human creations, conventions, customs, culture, social relationships, behaviour, artefacts and artistry that produced our urban environments in the past and has the potential to enhance them in the future. However promising the new technologies may be, they will be more effective in improving wellbeing if they engage with the imagination of architects, the rich cultural evolution of urban societies and the lived lives of people.

Rather than providing a new manifesto for the age-old concept of utopia, The Venice Variations sees in the three artefacts – Venice the city, Invisible Cities and the Venice Hospital – an opportunity to explore architecture and cities as a matter of authorship, asking how they are generated, how they function, who makes them and for what purpose. By contrasting the creative authorship of a work of architecture and a work of literature, both drawing on Venice as their inspirational source, the book explores the creative potential existing in this city, and the deeper insights it holds for other cities and architecture. This subject requires looking deeper, beyond conventional, superficial impressions, at Venice itself and the two other artefacts. What is it, apparently implicit in Venice, that has the generative power to inspire such a wide range of imaginative variations? If Venice provided inspiration for two of the twentieth century’s most creative minds, what are the mechanisms by which this was accomplished, and how do Invisible Cities and the Hospital inspire the imagination? Beyond its being a unique city in an unimaginable setting, and over and above having an extraordinary outward appearance, what in this city so powerfully stimulates creative invention?

For the full text and images, the book is free to download here.

Image: Venice Canal, by Sophia Psarra.

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