National Pavilion UAE - The paradox of integration/functionality- in a specific and well-determined urban historic environment as that of Venice|By Humaid Mansoor
  • The paradox of integration/functionality- in a specific and well-determined urban historic environment as that of Venice|By Humaid Mansoor

    Ponte della Costituzione

    (Ponte della Costituzione. Photo by Mohamed Al Qemzi)

    When one thinks of Venice, you automatically start thinking of the grand structures that carry with them a legacy of historical importance. It wasn’t until recently that I learned the islands that come together to form the city were actually manmade – a feat no short of marvelous keeping in mind at the time the city was formed. After the foundation was laid, master architects and artists spent years constructing the marvels that we see today. The process of how these were then dotted along tiny islands and connected by several bridges to form one homogenous city, is itself a miracle.

    Walking around Venice today, for me it is hard to visualize that a majority of these structures have been around for many centuries. Not only have they withstood the elements for hundreds of years, they are still functional for the most part.

    Given the fact that space is finite in Venice, it is not very common to come across modern structures. To build something new, the Venetians would have to forsake already existing spaces. Also, the people are very proud of their history which often times leads to resistance when it comes to any new construction which would in turn contradict their heritage.

    Having said that, there are a few instances of newly constructed elements and one prime example would be the new – and controversial – bridge by Santiago Calatrava, called Ponte della Costituzione. It crosses the Grand Canal between transport hubs Piazzale Roma and the railway station and is the first really recent work of architecture that most visitors will come across.

    It was on my first ride down the Grand Canal, while I was admiring my surroundings and trying to absorb the history that I was riding by in a matter of minutes, when I saw this gleaming structure. Needless to say, it’s hard to miss as it stands out not only because of its size but also because of its obvious modern approach being the only bridge that uses glass as a primary element. Some may say that it connects people arriving from the Modern world with the historical architecture of Venice. While I can appreciate the argument, personally I felt that it does not belong.

    In a city where open space is very limited, especially in between existing structures – anything that does not belong is very obvious. This bridge is a prime example of such a structure as it is set against a backdrop of buildings – on either side, that date back centuries, and in my opinion doesn’t necessarily compliment its surroundings.

    Other examples of modern architecture in Venice can be found on the Giudecca island – a short ferry ride from the main city. It was historically an area of large palaces with gardens, the island became an industrial area in the early 20th century with shipyards and factories. Much of the industry went into decline after World War II, but it is now once more regarded as a quiet residential area of largely working-class housing with some chic apartments and exclusive houses.

    A lot of these old abandoned structures were then refurbished over the years. More recently, buildings that were primarily used for industrial purposes have been redesigned and given face-lifts and converted into residential buildings. Another example of this re-purposing of buildings is the Hilton hotel – which is now internationally recognized as one of Italy’s iconic pieces of industrial architecture. A flourishing flour mill at one point in time, it has now been beautifully restored to house a hotel.

    In addition to the hotel, smaller structures on the island were given the same treatment. For the most part, in my opinion the Venetians were successful with these smaller projects and trying to update these already existing structures. One reason would be because they weren’t forced upon the already existing framework of historical Venice. Secondly, it was done in a manner where the juxtaposition of the newer structures alongside the older ones provided for an interesting skyline of sorts.

    A lot of work has been done from the start of the early 20th century, with world-renowned architects to try and update the city and make it sustainable in the long run. With approximately 20 million visitors on a yearly basis, the city sees tourists from all over the world coming to Venice for a unique experience that only she can offer. With fears of Venice ‘sinking’ due to the rise in water levels, the city needs to use available resources to avoid becoming the modern-day ‘Atlantis’.

    Coming from Dubai, a city that has seen major development in a the past couple of decades, I have experienced firsthand what the influx of major investment and architectural advancements are capable of. I have been fortunate enough to live through what is known as the ‘boom years’ of Dubai’s growth and seen the physical transformation of the city from a young promising city to the sprawling metropolis that it has become today.

    Maybe a certain faction of Venetian society feels that it needs to match what the rest of the world is doing in terms of architectural advancements. I personally feel, as I am sure majority of the locals would agree, that these investments should be injected in trying to preserve the already existing elements, and in turn help preserve the legacy of their Italian forefathers.

    To know where we are going, we must know where we came from.

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