Contemporary Architecture in Venice
For most visitors, a trip to Venice is an immersion in history: every corner of the city seems to have remained unchanged for centuries, like it’s caught in a magic spell.
Yet, the city that hosts the Architecture Biennale is also home to some contemporary architecture projects designed by world-renowned architects: we’ve picked 4 of the most significant ones built after the year 2000.
Urban Renewal project:
“Ex Junghans” residential area
Cino Zucchi, 2002
Located on Giudecca Island, facing the southern lagoon, the Junghans factory first produced watches, and then, until 1971, bombs and fuses. After its closure, the area remained abandoned until 1995 when a competition was held for designs to transform the former factory buildings into a residential area.
The winning urban development project was submitted by the Italian Cino Zucchi, who, in collaboration with other architects, also designed some of the new buildings. The very idea of having different architects working next to each other prevented the appearance of a standardized, monotonous environment, leading instead to the creation of a more multi-faceted residential quarter with some of the former structures being renovated and some completely new buildings being added.
A former bunker that once contained bombs and explosive materials was renovated by the architects Parenti and Barucco: they transformed the windowless space on the ground floor into a theatre and planned apartments on the upper levels.
One of the best projects in the area is the “D” building, designed by Zucchi himself, which is a totally new construction.
Playing with the windows placed on the facades in an apparently random order, the architect used some traditional elements of Venetian architecture: the frames of the windows painted white and the balcony on the corner of the building. A smokestack behind the building remains as a reminder of the area’s industrial past.
The Bridge: Ponte della Costituzione
Santiago Calatrava, 2008
Connecting Piazzale Roma with the railway station, this is the fourth and longest bridge across the Grand Canal: with a central span of 81 metres (266 feet) it’s almost twice the length of the Rialto Bridge (48 meters, 157 feet).
Though the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was commissioned to design the bridge in 1999, the structure was only completed in 2008.
Since Italy was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its Constitution in 2008, the new bridge was officially named “Ponte della Costituzione” (Constitution Bridge), but you might more often hear the nickname “Calatrava Bridge”.
The supporting structure is a lowered arch of red steel, which brings to mind the backbone of a gigantic whale if you look at it from below. The other elements are tempered glass (steps and parapets), Istria stone (steps), bronze (handrail), and concrete (abutments).
The very complex structure led to significant difficulties during construction, and the bridge is still one the most controversial projects in the city.
Many people also object to its location, saying it is too close to another bridge crossing the Grand Canal (the Ponte degli Scalzi) and therefore useless and even misleading. The idea of placing a bridge at this point, however, is not new at all: in the 16th century, the engineer Cristoforo Sabbadino envisioned a project which would frame the entire city with a walking path, and he imagined a bridge exactly here!
The Museum: Punta della Dogana
Tadao Ando, 2007
A former warehouse, the Dogana (“custom house”) was built between 1677 and 1682 and remained in use until the end of the 19th century.
In 2006, the City of Venice held a competition for designs to transform the Dogana into a center for contemporary art.
One of the competitors was the Guggenheim Foundation, which presented a project designed by Zaha Hadid.
The winning project, however, was presented by Palazzo Grassi, the museum of contemporary art belonging to the French billionaire and collector Francois Pinault, who had commissioned the work from the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
The renovation works lasted 14 months, from January 2008 to March 2009, and costed 20 million euros.
Ando was not allowed to modify the external appearance of the historical building, and he also tried to preserve as much as possible of the original internal spaces and materials while adapting them to new needs. Around 150,000 damaged bricks were replaced with other old ones in good condition, found in 16th and 17th century buildings on the mainland.
The new walls, however, were built of concrete, creating a clear contrast with the old structure.
The 58 original doorways in between the internal halls were reduced in number to 18, and a new staircase leading to the upper level was designed.
The most interesting intervention was the restoration of the central courtyard, where Ando created a “cube”: a space of 196 square meters surrounded by concrete walls and a floor of trachyte stone (“masegni”, the traditional paving used in external spaces all over Venice).
Finally, as an homage to one of the masters of 20th century architecture, Ando used the same pattern on the windows and gates of the Dogana that Carlo Scarpa had designed in 1957 for the Olivetti Showroom in St. Mark’s Square.
The Mall: Fondaco dei Tedeschi
Rem Koolhaas, 2016
In a previous article we explained the history of this building that was once the base of operations for German merchants in Venice.
Used as a post office beginning in the 1930s, in 2008 the building was purchased by the Benetton group, which commissioned OMA–Rem Koolhaas to transform it into a luxury shopping mall.
The new mall opened in October 2016, after about 2 years of work.
As with Ando in Punta della Dogana, Koolhaas too had to respect the existing building, which had been granted the status of “historical building” in 1987: the layout of the shops follows the original division of the internal spaces, the existing entrances and the old mailboxes on the public street were preserved.
OMA’s project redesigned the paving of the ground floor courtyard, using the traditional red and white stones very often found in Venetian palazzos, but with a new design.
The ceiling of the central courtyard was also renovated to create a space for events and exhibitions on the top floor, from which one can access the brand new rooftop terrace created by removing part of the roof.
The escalator, with wood paneling and red steps, was placed on the Eastern side of the building, where the 1930s interventions in concrete are more evident.
So, who said that Venice is old?
Besides the landmark buildings that we described above, there are many other projects in the city that surprisingly mix old and new: come with us to discover the contemporary side of Venice!