“Love’s Labor Found”
Sometimes the hardest act to follow is your own. Michael Jordan is arguably the most celebrated basketball player in the last fifty years. He had so much success in later years that people tend to forget that his first six years in the league he played his heart out and went nowhere in the postseason. Not until the seventh season did the Chicago Bulls actually make it to the NBA Finals, and this time they beat the Los Angeles Lakers. There was the usual whooping and hollering and champagne showers and the like, but then a cry went up. “Where’s Michael?” No one had seen him for several minutes, so they began looking for him. They found him sitting on the floor in a corner of the dressing room, his arms wrapped around the NBA Trophy, his face streaked with tears, sobbing like a baby. All he could think about, he said later, was those first six years, all that losing, and now finally they had done it. They were Champions.
For all his prowess on court, it’s my favorite Michael Jordan moment—which is about all the time he had to savor it. Almost immediately, he was faced with the question: “Do you think you can do it again?” It’s American. No matter how much you do, no matter how hard the battle, no matter how many things you go through, you can never rest on your laurels. Sooner or later, someone wants to know if you’re going to do it again. And if you can’t—and more can’t than can—then it’s proof positive of the old adage: there are no second acts in America.
Having spent so much time with JoAnn Locktov’s first book on Venice I had every reason to believe that she would put a second masterpiece alongside the first, and I would be writing the type of book review I’m writing now. But I cannot say such things unless I also point out the sheer difficulty of what has been accomplished here from the banishing of every negative thought or fear JoAnn may have entertained at three o’clock in the morning (doubts about current projects are always nocturnal visitors) to actually doing the work itself. It’s not enough to know you can. You still have to actually do it, a feat made all the more difficult for JoAnn by her own first act.
What she did the first time around was little short of a miracle, an absolutely flawlessly realized concept. It had form and meaning and surprises and insights and reminisces and through it all a love for the city that was absolutely palpable. When I finished reading her book, my first thought was on the completeness of the project itself, but right there at the end of the book was that little blurb on JoAnn. She was both editor and publisher, and she was dedicated to publishing books on Venice. There would be more.
In “Dream of Venice Architecture” JoAnn has revisited the city of her dreams, expanded a little on previous thoughts and gone in a different direction for new insights, new concepts, new writings and reminisces and reactions from a wide range of people in the field of architecture, some of them students or reporters, many of them practicing architects, all of them wonderful, insightful writers with much to say and to share. But along with the written one must see, and for that she has enlisted the artistry of Riccardo De Cal, who took a photograph to accompany every essay in the book.
At first blush a book on a city’s architecture seems too narrow, too specific, too arcane, but you must remember that it’s not so much love of technical challenges that causes people to enter such professions as it is passion. Theirs is a passion for the beauty of what they can make, a passion for viewing every problem as a challenge, a passion for shape and form and function that completely transcends any vision the rest of us might have, not so much because they are more intelligent—which they are of course—but simply because they see things differently. This passion spills over into many of the passages featured in this book. Some are paeans to the genius of those have mastered such a forbidding discipline. Others are from the architects themselves, as witness this from Thomas Woltz: “Five years living in Venice as a young architect altered the very lens through which I see the world. The watermark the city has placed upon me is indelible—an aqueous tattoo that endures today.”
Architecture is a large part of what draws us to Venice, those wonderful old buildings towering over the lagoon, those canals, those many bridges, but Venice has deeper charms than that, obscure delights she shares only with those who love her, those who do more than pop off a cruise ship, buy a T-Shirt, and pop back on the cruise ship, having scratched Venice off their must-see list. For those who come during the winter months or who stay for more than a few hours or a day, there are other enchantments.
Those who love Venice love her to such an extent, really, that the whole question of architecture and ambiance becomes one of those chicken-and-egg questions. Which came first? It’s like visiting one of those marvelous old cathedrals. What most draws you, the building or the ambiance inside it? And can one exist without the other?
Clearly none of those who love Venice would care to separate her architecture from what it has created. Randy Bosch states it perfectly. “Of all cities, Venice is my paradigm. She responds to millennia of necessity with inspirational creativity. Her architecture is the container of profound experiences, lives and loves. She engages all senses, celebrates action, embraces innovation and intentionality, shuns tyranny and tolerates hubristic Modernism in art.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of using architecture as a motif for a book on Venice is that it becomes such a broad canvas, enables us to explore a great many viewpoints. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed,” an axiom that immediately comes to mind while reading through so many profound and insightful commentaries. The get-a-T-Shirt-and-get-back-on-the-cruise-ship group has no time for such things, but there are people who come to Venice to work or study, to imbibe of its secrets, to become part of the city, to enjoy, to see, to experience, to wander about and in so doing to wonder about Venice’s many imponderables.
There is a picture and a thought in this book that haunts me, which is interesting because it is part of Constantin Boym’s own piece on a thought that haunts him. He wrote, “I cannot rid myself of an impression that every Venetian door represents a particular year; that the city is, in fact, a museum that contains all human history and our future as well.” It is part of his dissertation on doors of all things, but when you read the passage itself it becomes a wonderful insight, and the photograph that accompanies it is as right as rain.
“Dream of Venice Architecture” is not an explanation of Venice’s architecture so much as it is a celebration of a people who built in a lagoon for protection from marauders, began a international commerce, became rich, and poured that money into an ad hoc collection of buildings and bridges that are a marvel to this day.
If you’re lucky enough to have visited the city, you will see it in a different light; if you’ve not yet been, it will heighten your resolve to go, entice you with an incredible variety of mysteries, perspectives, memories, vistas, and impressions. The many contributors write of secret tunnels, mysterious doorways, and the maze that is Venice, of labyrinths and getting lost and finding one’s way and then getting lost again for the sheer delight of being in such a city.
Architecture is a natural theme for a second book in this series because, really, when you think about Venice, whether you realize it or not, you’re thinking about an architectural masterpiece, an entire city build on marshes and mud flats. By rights all those palaces should have long since collapsed into the sea. They didn’t because of a secret. They’re built on mostly oak pilings some sixty feet long that were driven into the muck and mud until they reached hard clay below that would support the hideous weight of those stone edifices above. But solid clay or no, those posts should have long since rotted away. They didn’t, in part, because wood rots only when both air and water are present, and those posts were in an oxygen-starved environment. The other part of the reason those pilings survived is because the silt and soil actually petrified the wood, an event the original builders could not have possibly foreseen. It’s a kind of serendipity that borders on genius.
I admit to being something of a nerd in this discussion because of the kind of work I do. I’m a cabinetmaker who works from my own designs. Doing so obliges me to figure out various things for my projects, the size and shape of an item or how it shall be joined and on and on with all kinds of decisions and thoughts that often keep me awake at nights. But I cannot brag about such things because in the end, the most I’ve ever created is enough to fill one half of a large family room. These people built an entire city of stone and sited it on mud flats! That is not even remotely the same thing!
Carlo Ratti has an interesting insight on that very subject in JoAnn’s book. He wrote, “Here is what impresses about Venice. Architecture always had the task of creating an interface between us and our surrounds. In Venice, this task seems to have reached perfection where the water merges with the structures and becomes both road and border; where work, salt and mud become the foundations for ornate palaces.”
Whether it floods when you visit Venice or not, the plain fact of it is that it will be flooded at some time, especially during the winter months. It’s a facet of Venice’s reality that is never far from the mind of the architects who work there, cannot be, because sure as sunrise, whatever they create will be flooded at some point. So how does one deal with that sort of thing? Diana Yakeley broaches that subject when she writes about Carlo Scarpa’s garden of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia:
“Carlo Scarpa created this, perhaps the most perfect small city garden in Europe, and with the daunting design constraint, regular flooding from brackish water… Water, the protagonist, is celebrated and lovingly manipulated through channels and complex stone mazes cut into Istrian stone and past magnificent fragments of classical sculpture. Bronze spouts pour water to lower levels, creating bubbling sound installations that are amplified by the high walls surrounding this sublime space.”
Maybe it’s just a limited vision, but symmetry, when I think of my own little projects is as essential to me as breath itself. The one must offset the other, the flow is to be repetitive, tranquil. Monotonous. Wait, who said that? Maybe it was Carlo Scarpa. The marble mosaic floor for the entry hall in his renovation of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia mentioned above is an absolute tour de force, but as Robert McCarter points out, “The vibrant, shimmering floor is made of a complex, non-repeating pattern of small L-shaped, three-quarter square stone pieces in white and pink-orange marble, with inset smaller square pieces fitting into the one-quarter square void of the L-shaped pieces, in dark green and dark red marble.” To one as stodgy as me that seems impossible. How can it look right without a repeating pattern, but when you see the accompanying picture you realize that Scarpa somehow surpassed the easy comfort of a repeating pattern and in so doing brought to his floor a serenity that is nothing short of transcendent.
McCarter goes on to add a little tidbit about the challenges that face architects in Venice and how they work around the main enemy, high tides: “A tall curb, faced in Istrian stone, edged the marble mosaic floor, and between the new curb and the existing walls was a moat-like trench that contained the acqua alta that allowed the room, whose floor was well below the flood line, to be used in all seasons. Pipes that run through the exterior wall connected the perimeter trench to the canal, allowing water to enter and depart as the acqua alta rose and fell.”
In some regards I think there are as many views of Venice as there are visitors. Certainly, it seems so in the many writers who make up this book. Venice is a riot of sizes, shapes, textures, feelings, impressions, hauteur, dignity, dread, love, life itself, really, both good and bad, noble and venal. Annabelle Selldorf probably sums it up best in this passage: “Like the water, splendor envelopes the city but it is also subject to the perverse—where the domes of Santa Maria della Salute are dwarfed by the monstrosity of cruising megaships, the Rialto crumbles under the weight of tourists, and the most magnificent palazzi are forced to admit putrid lagoon waters inside. It is this coexistence of immense pleasure and profound sadness that makes Venice, for me, the perfect place.”
What most impressed me about the first book in this series was the many evocative passages from such a myriad of contributors, all of them quite literally singing the praises of the most unique city on Earth, so I approached the second in this series with a bit of trepidation, not sure if it could soar to such heights again. I need not have worried. Like its predecessor, there is a poetry of imagery that runs through this book, as witness this excerpt from Enrico Baleri: “When you walk through Venice at night, in the silence, in the darkness, the canale fills you with anguish, fear, anxiety, dissatisfaction, as if you’re seeing a sleepless dormitory town, full of ghosts and dark clouds… The gondolas are moving slowly as the water laps the shore, the silver blades almost black and you think they are open funeral carriages ready for the reclining ghosts.”
I wrote so much about the physical aspects of these books—how they look, the incredible sensuousness of the book covers themselves and so forth—in my review of her first book that I’m ashamed to add to that, but one thing I somehow missed is that these books have stitched bindings. Stitched! I’m old enough to remember when stores still sold various lines of products labeled: Good, Better, and Best. Now, so help me, it’s Poor, Wretched, and You-Cannot-Be-Serious, so to see this little delight of a book with its evocative photography, poignant quotes, and ineffable delights gathered between the most tactile book covers I’ve ever encountered, complete with a stitched binding.. well, now!
That’s not just a publishing venture; it’s a labor of love. Yeah, I know, hackneyed phrase, if ever there was one, but every now and again you have the privilege of viewing the work of someone who approached the project for love of the work and the process and the subject matter. No, make that a passionate love for the subject matter. JoAnn is certainly not the only person who has ever loved Venice, but I doubt that anyone has loved that ancient city more. The proof is in these two books.
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