While the bridges of the Rialto and the Academia support tourist throngs, steel girders have started to replace the failing wooden beams holding up the arches of the typical sotoportego—the arcades along canals and between houses connecting the labyrinth of streets—and, with dull hubris, the Hilton chain has opened a hotel in the refurbished Stucky flour mill on Giudecca Island. This is possibly the ugliest building in all of Venice. Squat and massive (and perfectly right-angled in this city of leans), the building could’ve easily served as a prison. The new hotel shows the gall of Venetians persisting in finding a way to live in a place that is sinking, but without any of the interest in beauty that has turned centuries of wresting a city from the lagoon into an act of human wonder. In La Serenessima, transgression became transcendence.
But if the city, marvelous as it is, does eventually die, it will be because it is obstinate rather than organic. The 21st-century mentality of the Hilton Molino Stucky and of the cruise ship juggernauts, which bring 3,000 passengers at a time for a quick walk over the Rialto and through Campo San Marco, will have won out, turning the city that has relinquished its osmotic relationship to the lagoon into the world’s prettiest mausoleum. At night, the lights are not on. There is no one living or breathing in the city’s splendid palaces and apartments. The Venetians who for centuries made the city work cannot afford it and have abandoned it for smaller islands in the lagoon or for a life of commuting from the mainland. On the distant shore are the factory stacks and the elegant arch of the Porto Marghera, these industrial lands providing wealth to the cities of Mestre and Chioggia as the lagoon once did to Venice.
The relationship to the water was symbiotic once; Venetians exacted a living from the lagoon and those who sailed into and beyond it did so in ways that these days would be described as “sustainable.” By Palestrina, at the southwestern end of the lagoon, island life continues in the manner that visitors from Ruskin to Hemingway would have known. Fishers’ shacks off the banks of the islands may not be made of “organic” materials, but their ways of being meet the definition—their piles of junk, which could easily be props for a science-fiction movie about a post-apocalyptic world, are actually remarkable illustrations of materials living, breathing and being recycled. In their crazy, idiosyncratic way, they are a part of the environment. They belong.
At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, there is a consciousness of the proximity of the lagoon—in particular, in the British pavilion’s celebration of Ruskin’s notebooks and its accompanying exploration of the lagoon as morphic and changeable. However, Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Chilean exhibit is striking for just the opposite reason—it takes buildings out of their context and isolates them as objects in themselves, miniature forms suspended freely in empty space against striking photographs of actual in situ buildings. In the Dutch pavilion, the blue shapes of buildings are suspended on tracks of wires and aligned in blocks as they would be in a city, and spectators are free to observe them from above or below.
Overall at the biennale, there is much made of the idea of building and the meaningful relationships that good ones have to the space around them (enough to have kept three firemen busy in conversation, this being Italy, after all) but it is the Canadian exhibit of Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground that takes the relationship of materials to buildings a quantum leap further—to the point that the installation, like the fishers’ huts resting on pillars in the lagoon and like the antique city of Venice itself, lives and breathes and appears a part of the environment in which it rests.
In darkness of the pavilion, visitors walk through and around and beneath Beesley’s root- and fern-like shapes; they’re made of plastic that resembles a silvery-transparent glass. The leaves of these shapes lift, and the stalks and roots of his constructions occasionally brim with light as an animal with a visible heart might. The very motion of visitors about the room warms the air and prompts movements in the installation that occur with a slight mechanical-wheezing sound. Beesley’s shapes are at once delicate and strong. They feel mutable. The shapes have an interesting symmetry. They appear, like certain plants, to be vertically symmetrical, dissolving the border of matter that in our own mundane lives, as we presently imagine them, distinguishes earth from air. Hylozoic Ground draws sustenance from both realms.
Leaving, it is hard not to wonder when (more than if) our future building will be like this. A humility has come, in the 21st century, from a new understanding that humans are subject to immutable laws and are better off working with nature rather than seeking to dominate it. What Beesley’s installation appears to suggest is that these immutable laws do not distinguish between biological matter and what we think of as “man-made” stuff. It is possible to envision a world in which the ordinary architect’s model—a place where rivers and fields and towns and people behave exactly as their office-bound, godlike designer intends—is a far more outrageous fantasy than Beesley’s hint of a new life, one in which the matter of houses, and not just their inhabitants, is organic.