Learning from Venice

Cities that barely survive are as interesting as cities that thrive. The responses in Venice to simply survive are strategies of urbanization that are as useful to know as the ones that can be gained from rapidly developing cities. There is value in circling back to contemplate old cities struggling to stay alive, rather than only studying new, fast growing areas. It’s a different way to appreciate cities than the predetermined learning-through-travel mode that might be best called the Rome syndrome. The 1968 Venturi/Yale trip to Las Vegas is the prototype of the 'travel studio,' and Learning from Las Vegas is the prototype of the 'travel studio' publication. Both are as much about Rome as they are about Vegas. Venturi’s study references Rome to interpret Sin City, but more importantly it references the 'learning experience' of the architect’s journey to Rome — the excursion undertaken by generations seeking to cultivate a bona fide relation to The City. Rome is the architect’s pilgrimage site to apprehend the sacred link between architecture and urbanity. It is the source guide and model city of architectural education, and the firsthand experience of walking its streets and encountering its buildings and public spaces is essential to the formation of the architect. Not only is Rome the city of eternal architectural lessons, but it is also the eternal travel experience that can be reenacted in any city, new or old, with the preordained outcome of discovering positive architectural traits through the observational filters of urban emergence, expansion, and excessive symbolism.1 In this sense, the Rome of Learning from Las Vegas is the prototypical travel state of mind in which the architect unearths new patterns of urban growth and architectural innovation in any rapidly changing context, be it Las Vegas, Shenzhen, Dubai, or Mumbai.

The flip side of the Roman mode of experience is to learn from the urbanism of stasis. There are cities that by comparison have remained mostly the same, whose ambition is to preserve and endure—not to evolve and grow. Venice is a city that tries to maintain rather than change what is there. It plans for continual retreat instead of expansion and is defined by entropy not vitality. The pacing of urbanization is not dictated by the short-term demands of return-on-investment cycles, but by the long-term need to protect against slow but inevitable decay. Vegas was built in a day, whereas Venice has been successfully falling apart for centuries. Unlike other cities that try to conserve their architectural heritage and to reincarnate the urban center as a museum for tourism, Venice’s precarious siting makes it more challenging to preserve and maintain a living past. The initial act of building the city in a lagoon to protect against military invasion from land has led to an unending battle with the sea and the technologies that respond to it. Silt accumulation, erosion, changes of sea water level, and tidal patterns continually jeopardize its existence. Technologies that have been applied over the centuries to respond to these forces have had to work antagonistically against nature. They tend to prevent natural systems from evolving in a sustainable way in order to keep alive a city founded on an unsustainable premise.

Preserving Venice requires balancing its supernatural ecology. It is supernatural in that both nature and technology have altered the lagoon system to the extent that their roles, effects, and reactions are indistinguishable from one another. As nature in and around Venice threatens the city, a technology is implemented to respond against it. This results in more complex mutations to the environment that in turn require the need for a more advanced responsive technology, all in order to preserve the experience of a seemingly unchanging urban mise-en-scene. While each engineering intervention in the lagoon seeks to uphold an imagined harmony with the sea, the attempts seem to inevitably produce a more hazardous and entropic situation, introducing further environmental threats instead of conserving Venice’s urban and architectural integrity. For example, to reduce urban flooding, the inflow of water to the lagoon has been limited to such a degree that it has also reduced the outflow of water, consequently debilitating the ecosystem’s ability to clean itself, which in turn has allowed for the growth of organisms that threaten the city’s wood foundations. Now further technologies must be devised to counteract the lagoon’s new organic profile without increasing the inflow of seawater. Stasis.

This supernatural dynamic works against both change and preservation. Venice simultaneously resists the inevitability of ecological flux and the technologies devised to conserve its history. Corrective actions that successfully reduce harmful environmental forces but also alter the integrity of the historical image of the city are themselves at risk of peril. Schemes that preserve the functions of the city face compromise if they endanger the city’s patina of decay. There is self-assurance that when things get close to the point of irreversible implosion a new fix will help perpetuate the city’s unique condition of ecological instability and timeless appearance. At the same time, the constant cautionary refrain that Venice is exposed to forces that may lead to its extinction increases its value as an urban artifact. The longer its collapse is deferred, the more appreciated its tenuous existence. It may not sink tomorrow, but the notion that soon it may is the source of its appeal.

As part of a self-initiated plan to help preserve Venice, the city, inducing menacing forces in order to expose it to peril and thus prolong its existence and value. By gradually yielding to the encroachment of the sea, we envision a partially flooded Venice resulting in the dissolution of the urban figure-ground. New islands of consolidated program will form flotsam of a historic ruinous fabric that will increase the city’s desirability and initiate actions to preserve it, setting in motion further catastrophes in need of preservation.
-Jeffrey Inaba


1. See Rem Koolhaas, Robert Somol, and Jeffrey Inaba, eds., R O/S, Roman Operating System, unpublished manuscript, 2000, Loeb Library Special Collections, Harvard University.

Learning from Venice was originally published in Perspecta 41: The Yale Architecture Journal.