The Pillars of Venice

30 December 2014 Comments Off on The Pillars of Venice


What were we talking about? Oh, right: Italy. Now that we’ve basically covered four of the five cities my travel group visited, I’m going to move on to Venice.

As you may have read in a news article in this very newspaper a while back, “Bilkent ARCH Students [went to the] Venice Biennale.“ Being one of them, I was in the city to attend one of the most important architectural events in the world.

And it was a good year to do so, because this was the first Biennale (out of the 14 so far) that has featured a Turkish pavilion. It was designed by one of our foremost contemporary architects: Murat Tabanlıoğlu. The son of another famous architect and based in İstanbul, Tabanlıoğlu used visuals and sound effects to demonstrate the change Turkish architecture has undergone, using Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (the Atatürk Culture Center) in Taksim Square as a case study. This strategy was a little poetic, given the theme for this year’s Biennale: “the fundamentals of architecture.” Not only does Tabanlıoğlu honor his background by emphasizing his father’s work; he also focuses on a public space that has witnessed some of the most important events of recent Turkish history. After all, who can deny that Taksim is one of the “fundamentals” of Istanbul?

Not every country favored such a realistic approach. Some of them only showed videos of inhabitants and journalists explaining how they view the changes that have taken place in the national architectural language. These presentations were a bit more literal than some, but also slightly more artistic. The Saudi Arabian pavilion was one of the most striking in this category, featuring a small, mostly open space enclosed by bookshelves filled with actual books. That is, copies of the same book: a rather thick volume containing examples, sketches and drawings of various structures in the country. To experience this in a different way, the visitor could also opt to listen to recordings of Arabic literary excerpts in the audio station in the center of the circular space.

More architecturally oriented  exhibits included the one from Kosovo. It was a construction of wooden stools with all of the legs pointing outward to create a visually stimulating object upon approach, while the smooth surfaces of the seats formed a pleasant feeling on the interior. The fact that a furniture design that dates back a couple of millennia was used to accomplish this effect tied everything together and, in my opinion, made for a successful pavilion.

To be honest, I found it quite strange that an event such as this didn’t feature more “architectural” works, but rather was dominated by artistic ones. I expected to see more of what Finland, for example, did (they constructed a wooden tower similar to the one we built in front of Meteksan as a project for our ARCH 999 course). I guess the diversity among the various countries’ approaches ties into the whole “architecture is life” mantra. It’s what is constantly implied in our profession: design is as much a result of your taste and experience as it is an outcome of your studies, so it has a strong connection to art. Except, as my Basic Design instructor kept telling us, we’re not sculptors, so we need to justify what we create.

I mentioned in an earlier article that architecture is the only department where the faculty encourages the students to wander in order to experience new places and activities. The best location for this may be Venice. I’m pretty sure that you’re supposed to get lost in Venice. I certainly got lost. Many times. Once, for example, I was trying to find St. Mark’s Square, accelerating toward a piazza full of sound, when I suddenly ended up in the square I set out from, having drawn a perfect zero. It was a little scary doing this at night, since the darkness combined with the omnipresent, never-changing water constantly made me feel like someone was about to push me into one of the canals.

The thing is, you are supposed to get lost in Venice. It’s part of the whole experience. The city wasn’t designed to ease circulation in the slightest. Some of the connections are so weird that they can’t even be mapped clearly. There are few landmarks: for someone who is unfamiliar with the city, all of the buildings and canals look the same. This is especially strange since in most European cities the water (usually a river) is what defines the shape of the city and allows people to orient themselves properly.

A notable child of Venice was the architect Carlo Scarpa, the designer of the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona. His architecture is an understandable result of his hometown, since he focuses almost exclusively on interiors (there is no more space in Venice for new buildings). He deconstructs the fundamentals of architecture as we know them to explore their meaning and their potential. For example, he cuts off an upper floor slab about 50 cm before the wall starts, so that it catches the eye and we notice the floor as a separate element and not only as one of the six surfaces that make up the room. Scarpa’s work isn’t faultless, but it’s definitely worth seeing, especially if you get to Venice—although his best building, in my humble opinion, is the Brion Cemetery in Treviso.

Now that I’ve dug up all these memories, I want to go back. Soon.

On a last note, since you’ve survived to this point of my version of Italy’s architectural highlights, you may as well know the reason why I wrote about a trip that I took in the beginning of the summer at the end of the fall semester. The truth is, I meant to write something, anything, about this trip throughout the summer. As I put it off, it got harder and harder. But having had to filter the photos after months of procrastination, I thought I might as well get it out of the way  now that my memory had been jogged. After all, what better time is there to write about summer than the middle of winter?