Elements of Venice

The following is an excerpt from Giulia Foscari's Elements of Venice, a book that applies the dissection strategy Rem Koolhaas explored in "Elements of Architecture” at this year's Venice Biennale. The book aims to demystify the notion that Venice has remained unchanged throughout its history and addresses contemporary issues along with strictly historical considerations. Read on for a preview of Elements of Venice, including Rem Koolhaas' introduction to the book. 

Elements of Venice in display in the Introduction room of “Elements of Architecture” exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Image © Giulia Foscari

Foreword by Rem Koolhaas

Architecture is both ancient and modern, each work an amalgamation of elements that have been around for over 5,000 years and others that were invented yesterday.
Elements of Architecture, an exhibition developed as part of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, presents micronarratives revealed by focusing systematically on the fundamentals of our buildings: the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator, the ramp. . . .
Our research uncovers not a single, unified history of architecture, but the multiple histories, origins, contaminations, similarities, and differences of these elements and how they evolved into their current iterations through technological advances, regulatory requirements, and new digital regimes.

Giulia Foscari has been a crucial part of the team that organised Elements of Architecture. Because of her Venetian background, it seemed compelling to undertake an original experiment: to look at Venice, a very complex architectural and historical subject, through the lens of its smallest components.
Giulia is presenting the results of that approach in this brilliant book. She has produced an entirely unprecedented work that turns out to be more profound than the traditional architectural historian’s comprehensive perspective. Her focus on specific elements rather than individual architectures or architects exposes differences and contrasts in a sharper way than a typical global overview would yield.
The history of an entire city has never been analysed at the scale of architectural detail before, but this is what Giulia has done in the case of Venice: a city so rich in unique masterpieces that it seems futile to search for common patterns.
By looking through a microscope, Giulia demystifies the perception of Venice as a static entity providing (also visual) evidence of key moments of its metamorphosis while offering an interpretation of architectural elements as products of cultural and political shifts rather than just formal experimentation. 
With Elements of Venice, this radical and thought-provoking book, Giulia demonstrates that Venice has been a city in perpetual transformation and, in the centuries of its splendour, at the forefront of modernity.
June 2014
Rem Koolhaas

FROM THE INTRODUCTION: Dissecting the Building. Elements of Venice.

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

In her history, Venice has never been a “museum-city” as it is often described. Its transformations are far-reaching and rooted in cultural and political thought. They are apparent at every level. Water became earth. The boundaries expanded through successive land reclamation projects (often contracted by the Republic to religious orders that wanted to settle in the Serenissima). Key urban areas were planned, built, razed to the ground and rebuilt to ensure that the image projected by the Republic reflected the political strategy of its ruling class. Buildings were demolished and rebuilt to reflect the dictates of new architectural languages. Others were embellished with ornamentation and clad in stone, breaking the centuries-old tradition of the laws of Daulus and ruling out a transformation similar to that cited by Emperor Augustus Octavian in 20 BC, who claimed to have “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”. Everything has been in constant transformation for centuries.

It is therefore possible to reveal this metamorphous process by following a chronological and linear path. But the focus of this book is to look at individual architectonic elements, not at buildings, searching for those clues that allow us to retrace, beyond formal consideration, the ideological, cultural, and political background of the historical context that informed their definition.

Instead of following a Darwinian approach, revealing the linear evolution of the architectural “species”, I have concentrated on studying the corpus architecturae. By performing an autopsy, I have analysed the organs of Venice, its architectonic elements, one by one.

By adopting this approach, even in the Doge’s Chapel we can find and analyse individually the elements proposed in Rem Koolhaas’ research on Elements of Architecture: roof (domes), ceiling (vaults and mosaics), corridor (matronea), balcony (the tribune on the narthex and the ambo), wall (iconostasis), stairs, façade, windows, and doors.

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers
Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

FROM THE FAÇADE CHAPTER: Façade as Exhibition. "Authentication by Appropriation." 

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

It was inevitable that the backdrop of St Mark’s Square, namely the façade of the Doge’s Chapel, would be adorned with sculpture and messages that have evolved into an accumulation of signs that now appear largely indecipherable. It was impossible for the Venetian government to resist the temptation to use it as a medium of self-expression and representation.

Such a media-savvy use of the façade was very precocious, as it began shortly after its construction. At the conclusion of the Fourth Crusade (which ended in 1204), the government decided to use the façade as a “billboard for conquest” (Fabio Barry, 2010), showcasing columns, capitals, statues, and the four superb bronze horses as eloquent and tangible proof of the conquest of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Latin Empire, and the many other victories in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Following the same logic whereby the possession of the body of Saint Mark had supposedly symbolically granted Venice special protection from heaven that “helped legitimize [the city’s] grand geo-political ambitions” (Michael Jacoff, 2010), by cladding the façade with trophies, Venice demonstrated its rightful status as holder of both of the material spoils and moral authority of the Byzantine Empire.

The emphasis on the figure of Mark the Evangelist – whose body was stolen from Alexandria, in Egypt, and brought to Venice by enterprising merchants in 824 – depicted on the mosaics of the church is yet further proof that the intent of this façade is anything but religious or canonical. Not only does Venice’s patron saint occupy the position otherwise reserved for Christ, but St Mark’s story is also instrumentalised to celebrate Venetians as the ultimate protagonists of their city’s glory. The conscious awareness that the construction of the chapel façade was conceptually associated with the construction of the Venetian identity (as argued by Jacoff) is demonstrated by the fact that the same mosaic sequence (only Jacopo Bellini’s painting of it survives) depicts the entire façade of the Doge’s Chapel above Sant’Alipio’s door. The volume of the narthex, juxtaposed to the original nucleus of the palatine chapel, thus became increasingly illegible from St Mark’s Square as it was used, de facto, as a structural support for an “exhibition” featuring marble spoils of starred porphyry, green serpentine, white and black marbles from Aquitaine, and Phrygian and Preconnesian marble, “curated” in homage to the Evangelist, of whom the doge believed himself to be the interpreter and earthly representative (at least as much as the Pontiff in Rome was the Vicar of Christ on Earth).

Barely a century would pass before such a self-referential conception of religion would be seen, internationally, as “politically incorrect”. During the same years in which the Council of Constance was being held (1414 –18), the doge decided to give public proof of his will to harmonise state religion with the canons of Christianity being defined at the Council. Figures from the Old and New Testaments were therefore symbolically located above the archways of the façade on the upper level of the narthex, alongside opulent floral motives, forming an acroterion rising towards the sky.     

FROM THE FAÇADE CHAPTER: The Doge's Palace. Precursor of Modernity.

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

The 14th-century decision to erect an immense structure over a double order of columns can today be seen as an almost prophetic precursor of Le Corbusier’s principle, elaborated five centuries later, of raising the buildings above ground by supporting them on pilotis. Yet rather than prophecy, it was the result of a complex decision-making process. Elevating the chamber of the Grand Council to the sky not only implied a celebration of the highest office of state, but offered proof – with the openness of the groundfloor portico and unprotected loggia above – of the government’s confidence that no enemy or popular revolt would ever target the palace. The prudent exercise of justice (portrayed throughout the palace’s ornamentation) sufficed to ward off civil unrest, while the Lagoon’s impenetrable waterways protected the Venetian Republic from foreign enemies. Such a bold architectural choice, unrivalled by any other public building in Italy at the time, is also a tangible demonstration of the technical skill of the Venetian labourers (especially those working in the Arsenale) who constructed the building under the guidance of Filippo Calendario. One need only look at subsequent scaffolding constructed by the engineers Giandomenico Malvezzi and Annibale Forcellini from 1875 to 1890, when replacing close to a third of the portico’s columns and capitals, which had worn over time, to understand the structural challenge Calendario’s men had overcome.


Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers
Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

The new pedestrian streets cut into Venice’s ancient urban fabric (in which the old walkways connected the insulae without guaranteeing the same capillary reach of the current network) would have appeared with brutal evidence had the construction of new buildings along the sides of these streets not acted to “cauterise” the incisions made by the numerous demolitions. The pedestrian reform, put to motion in the early 19th century, was the result of a substantial shift in governance of the city.

New power structures, such as banking and insurance, and new public institutions, such as the chamber of commerce and the postal service – alternatives to those of the mercantile oligarchic Republic of the Serenissima – called for the construction of new representational buildings. New buildings were thus erected facing onto new streets, which, in turn, marked the discovery of “traffic” as a powerful tool of urban control in the hands of a “ruling class interested at once in political and commercial power”. At the expense of a traditionally compact urban fabric, the new government created, with public money, “urban voids” that were to become catalysts for representative buildings,commercial thoroughfares and modern infrastructure (such as electrical wiring).

Millions of tourists reaching San Marco from the Accademia or Rialto Bridge are thus deceived. The urban landscape they see as a striking testimony of ancient Venice is actually a particular collection of façades designed by 19th-century (academic and eclectic) architects, each responsible for designing a cluster of buildings along new circulation axes. Among these are projects by Giovan Battista Meduna near the ponte del Lovo in San Fantin, by the architect Pividor near Campo San Vio, by engineers Fuin and Balduin near San Moisé and on the Riva degli Schiavoni, by engineer Calzavara in the Frezzeria, and by Berchet and then Ludovico Cadorin at San Trovaso. All devoted to the notion of “revival” and “reusing of architectural styles” (Bellavitis, Romanelli, 1985) these architects could be grouped according to two separate tendencies: “the party using terracotta, emphasising on polychrome solutions with reference to late central-Italy and Lombard Renaissance style (practised by Cadorin, engineers Calzavara and Romano, for example); and the party referencing to severe Lombard architecture of the quattrocento, featuring Istrian stone and scarce use of ornament – Meduna, Fuin, Trevisanato” (Giandomenico Romanelli,1998).

There are no longer banks or institutions in the buildings flanking these pedestrian thoroughfares, which are now described as “Venetian bottlenecks”, given the density of persons found in these very streets at any given time. Fashion boutiques from the world’s most famous brands have taken their place. This is yet another example of how Venice has gone from being the capital of the mainland area of Padania, as it was still at the end of the 19th century, to being a capital of global tourism.

Reciprocal Contamination. Icons.

Our contemporary world, in which forms quickly dissolve into one other, is thirsty for icons. Each tourist – the common denominator of a mass phenomenon – is hunting for images, travelling the world without letting go of his camera, his smartphone, his iPad. Icons are not histories or phenomena. Thus a tourist does not know, is not interested in knowing, the history behind the city’s pedestrian reform, or distinguishing an ancient building from a 19th-century construction. He does not wonder whether tourism helps or harms the city. He is searching for images. One such icon could easily be the Doge’s Palace, or St Mark’s bell tower, or the Rialto Bridge. Even lesser things suffice: gondolas, winged lions, pigeons walking, horses held high in the air. Even masks. By propagating her symbols, Venice has reached the entire world and has become a commoditised image. Enterprising managers – perhaps better than intellectuals – have understood and seized the (conceptual) reality of this contamination, reproducing Venetian icons on a vast scale, as if they were masks of their own identity, to use on their casinos and on customers visiting shopping centres, the special fascination created by the allure of entering an imaginary world (a “fantastic mutation of normal reality”, as Thomas Mann would write in Death in Venice) and leaving – if for a while – the at times oppressive contingency of reality.

FROM THE RAMP CHAPTER: One Ramp in Venice. The Colonia dei Principi. 

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers

FROM THE BALCONY CHAPTER: New Balconies. How 1.8 Million People See Venice Every Year. 

Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers
Courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers


© Giulia Foscari
Take-away map of Venice produced by Giulia Foscari for the Biennale allows visitors of “Elements of Architecture” to identify within the host city of the Biennale architectural “Elements of Venice”. This map is also included in the book to allow for the creation of architecture itineraries within Venice. Image © Giulia Foscari

Giulia Foscari was born in Venice in 1980. Since her graduation cum laude in Rome (completed with a thesis on Brazilian favelas published by the Italian Institute of Urbanism and exhibited at the 2006 Venice Biennale), her enrollment in the Order of Architects in 2004, and her DRL MArch degree at the Architectural Association, Foscari worked as architect, curator, author, editor and assistant professor in Asia and Latin America. Between 2007 and 2011, Foscari was based in Hong Kong, teaching at Hong Kong University. In 2009 (after working one year at Foster and Partners) Foscari joined the newly founded OMA Hong Kong where she focused on cultural design projects (including the West Kowloon Cultural District, the Edouard Malingue Gallery and the MTR). In parallel, Foscari curated two Collateral Events at the Venice Biennale: “Andrea Palladio and contemporary architects. Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher” in 2008, and “Quotidian Architecture” in the Hong Kong pavilion in 2010, with Juan Du. In 2011 Giulia Foscari moved to Buenos Aires where she was responsible for opening a platform for OMA conducting research in the region and working on design projects with OMA New York. While in South America, Foscari guest edited and authored numerous articles in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, and contributed as lecturer and guest critic both in Argentina and Uruguay. In 2013-2014 Foscari shifted her attention back to her hometown, Venice, a part of Rem Koolhaas’ “Fundamentals” team, contributing to the “Elements of Architecture” research, exhibition and publication as well as coordinating the Latin American national pavilions. It was for this occasion that Foscari authored “Elements of Venice.”

See Giulia Foscari's evening lecture on
Elements of Venice at the AA, presented on November 18, 2014.

Elements of Venice can be purchased from Lars Müller Publishers or via the Amazon.com link below.

Elements of Venice

About this author
Cite: Giulia Foscari. "Elements of Venice" 13 Feb 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/576545/elements-of-venice> ISSN 0719-8884

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