Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

of the Piazza San Marco in a closely-packed network of canals and side streets. It was rebuilt in the mid-late 1500s by Antonio Grimani’s grandsons to reflect the artistic achievements of ancient Rome and Greece that were informing the rebirth of culture that gave the Renaissance period its name. An L-shaped building was doubled in size and thus acquired a rare internal courtyard as a result. A decorated, barrel-vaulted staircase leads to an enfilade of rooms that takes up one entire side of the building. Lined with tapestries, frescos, busts and wall paintings, they form an impressive introduction to the focal point of the sequence, the tribuna or museum. This once held Giovanni Grimani’s collection of ancient Roman and Greek sculpture. Its richly yet severely classical interior in grey, red and white stone, lofty lantern light and coffered domed ceiling, is imposing even today, when its niches stand empty; in the 1570s, it must have been overpowering. It is believed that Michele Sanmicheli was the overall architect.

Far larger and more ostentatious, and situated directly on the Canal Grande, the immense Ca’ Pesaro epitomises the Baroque phase of Venetian palazzo design. Built about a century after the Palazzo Grimani, its highly modelled white stone walls rise like cliffs from the water which surrounds the palazzo on three sides. The ground floor is rusticated with blocks chamfered at such angles they resemble pyramids from certain angles. The two upper floors are almost identical to each other, and utilise single and paired columns in classically-correct orders before double-columned arched windows. Sculpture fills window heads, cornices and entablatures and continuous balconies have intricate balustrades. The Ca’ Pesaro’s cavernous andron is lined with oversized doorcases with broken pediments and busts on shelves. It leads to an internal courtyard rather than the street. The cost of this for Procurator Leonardo Pesaro can only be imagined. The design was begun by Baldassarre Longhena, one of the great palazzo architects, and completed by Gian Antonio Gaspari.

Longhena also built the Ca’ Rezzonico, equally grand given its double-height ballroom on the second floor. Its andron directs the arriving visitor’s view to an oversized stone carving of the family’s coat of arms which, in contrast to the assumptions of modern audiences, was originally painted in bright colours. Writer Robert Browning, painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler and composer Cole Porter all lived at the Ca’ Rezzonico at various times, Browning dying there.

The pressure that building such elaborate, sumptuous residences placed on even the richest clients is reflected in their extended construction period, some taking fifty years to complete. A few were paused, awaiting new owners with deeper pockets, whilst one, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, never rose higher than the ground floor before work was abandoned forever. It is now the home of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Although only a limited number remain in use as single residences – the Palazzo Molin del Cuoridoro, for example, is currently being converted into eighteen luxury apartments – the Venetian palazzo has proven remarkable versatile; indeed all of those mentioned are now operating as museums or galleries. Others are luxury hotels, including the Danieli and the Gritti Palace. The Palazzo Papadopoli, regarded as a rather conservative design when built, is to become another in a conversion by the Dottor Group. The Ca' Foscari forms part of the campus of the University of Venice. Smaller buildings are also often rejuvenated. Walk down any side street and the sound of workmen adapting and restoring can be heard. Worn facades often conceal new windows.

It is surely significant though that, aside from the new fire station and a remodelling of the railway station linking Venice to the mainland, not one architect has succeeded in building directly on the Canal Grande throughout the twentieth century, though this is not to say that some haven’t tried. Le Corbusier’s plan for a complex of hospital buildings on stilts – perhaps the only instance of one his Five Principles being justified – failed. Frank Lloyd Wright fought the hardest battle to erect a palazzo on the Canal, intended – following the untimely death of his original client – as a memorial as well as residences for architecture students. Ultimately this too failed.

And perhaps this is right, for it is hard to accept that any twentieth century insertion could improve the exquisitely homogenous, sinuous panorama that is the Canal Grande’s sweep of palazzos, many of which have been in continuous use for 600 years.

There are, though, examples of good twentieth century architecture in Venice, but placed carefully, and hard to find. Their discovery is thus especially pleasant.

Undoubtedly the best known is Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa’s delightful jewel box of a shop for Olivetti, made in 1958. Tucked into a corner of one of the arcades around the Piazza San Marco, this was intended as a showcase rather than a straightforward retail outlet, a kind of three dimensional business card, decades before motor manufacturers and fashion houses did the same.

Large plate-glass windows in brass frames light a floor at different levels and finished in postage stamp-sized marble pieces in four colours: red for the threshold, white for the main space, yellow for the canal entrance, blue for the side entrance. Delicate wooden plates suspended from the ceiling by steel rods display adding machines and typewriters. A riser-less stair made from ‘trays’ of stone of diminishing widths leads to a mezzanine in warmer wood. Slabs of polished stone, riven edges bared, cover structural columns. Outside the side entrance, the Olivetti logo is carved as fat, rounded stone letters in relief.

The whole is a chapel of cool light and colour accents. Passers-by both animate and form part of the space. Scarpa’s use of horizontals and verticals and a restricted palette of mostly natural materials recalls the Japanese-influenced work of Wright, particularly in his V.C. Morris gift shop in San Francisco.

Five years later, Scarpa was commissioned to remodel aspects of the 16th century Palazzo Querini-Stampalia. A new bridge over the canal leads to a new entrance and thence to a wittily-reshaped andron, where a raised ‘catwalk’ of stone leads past the palazzo’s watergate, accepting the inflow of water from flooding but now controlling it. In a wide, low passage from here to the courtyard garden Scarpa plays with stone, brass and glass once more to an absorbing degree. In that garden, the play of water around and through an intricate procession of channels and pools is mesmerising, even – or perhaps especially – in the rain. Throughout, layers of translucency add extra depth.

It is tempting to suggest that the random-seeming positioning of planes of differently-textured materials in Scarpa’s architecture is a direct and pleasing reference to the similar contrasts seen on buildings all over his native city, with their soft crumbling stone, contrasting window jambs and sculpted bell pushes, though as architect and writer Sergio Los, who worked with Scarpa, writes, he also considered “their connections, the treatment of structural joints and hinges as well as the development of elements like corner windows”.

The Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia savings bank was founded in Venice in 1822. In time the main branch was established in Campo Manin. Dating from 1883, the building was designed by the local authority architect, Enrico Trevisanato, later responsible for the first biennale pavilion in the city, an event which the Cassa in fact sponsored. By the late 1960s the Trevisanto building was too small and unsuited to banking operations as they had developed after the war. It was demolished, and replaced by a bank building for the modern era that opened in 1972.

The architect chosen was Angelo Scattolin, who had lived in one of Venice’s palazzos on the Grand Canal (now the Ca’ Angeli hotel) and was a professor of architecture as well as a practitioner. Scattolin was determined to erect an urban palazzo for a new age, yet also to exercise sensitivity. He would do this by rebuilding within the same volume and massing envelope used by his nineteenth century predecessor, and taking care with the new bank’s façade treatment, materials and detailing.

In plan, a slightly irregular quadrilateral conceals an atrium roofed at second floor level with curving, deep-section members. Elevations are layered, reflecting the Florentine palazzo; the double-height banking hall is defensively concrete-panelled at street level with a glazed upper part, set back slightly and lying behind paired metal brackets that connect with further panels above and also form a balcony. Two identical floors with tall, narrow windows, closely-set and punched into Istrian stone cladding, sit over this base.

Inside, a mezzanine (a word originating in Italian palazzo architecture, and originally describing small rooms immediately above the ground floor andron) circles the banking hall which has only four structural columns. A helical staircase is sprung from a central concrete newel, indexed every 90 degrees as it rises. The need to maximise usable space was planned through excavation of a double basement, presenting obvious difficulties in Venetian soil. Pier Luigi Nervi contributed the eventual structural solution, which resulted in the deepest part of the building – one of Nervi’s last works – being founded around five metres below sea level. For further proofing of the building against Venice’s unique situation, the principal service pipes and ducts were run through the first floor slab to reduce their vulnerability to flood damage.

Today, encountering the Cassa from one of the narrow streets feeding into the Campo Manin is an arresting experience. Its powerful facades press in but do so elegantly, just as with Florentine palazzos. The asymmetric facing onto the campo lends additional lightness.

Scattolin’s detailing is impressive, and confirms his use of historical precedent. The stone panels of the upper floors are finely chiselled horizontally, a minimalist recollection of Classical rustication. Biscuit-coloured window blinds tone with the tougher materials used. The spandrel panels at first floor level are composed of dozens of green glass blocks, their surfaces attractively bubbled. The bicycle chain-like metal hangers are patinated. The spiral stair, finished in machined steel and wood, is visible from outside. A bronze gate, the work of sculptor Simon Benetton, closes the entrance out of hours.

These instances of stone, glass, metal and wood are clear and pleasing architectural references to Italy’s past. Elsewhere in the city the design products of other countries’ histories are cited, no less impressively or unexpectedly.

Facing the Campo San Moisé with its baroque church of that name and skirted by a canal stands the Bauer hotel, originally the Bauer-Grünwald after its Austrian and Germanic founding partners. An 18th century palazzo facing the Giudecca to the south formed its core, but in the 1940s new owner Arnaldo Bennati commissioned architect Marino Meo to create an entire new inland wing fronting the campo. Standing on a recessed ground floor and faced with travertine carefully worked, continuous balconies on two sides feature slim smooth columns and metal screens. The façade is given the most gentle of vertical ‘lips’ as it turns the corner to the canal, where a side entrance allows direct passage between a private landing stage and the lobby.

Inside Meo, who was later to design the famed Bristol hotel for Bennati in Merano, looked to Art Deco for inspiration and in doing so produced some of the most startlingly luxurious interiors imaginable.

A large, bright lobby provides dual-aspect views over the campo and the canal and is dominated by an immense wall mural of Venetian maritime history. The tiny wood and lacquered brass lift cars are original, as are the padded white leather doors to the bar. A long, narrow internal ‘street’ connects the new wing to the palazzo. It is faced with richly-veined polished marble and lined with exquisite half-column-shaped vitrines with brass trim displaying luxury fashion pieces. The overall effect is strikingly reminiscent of the Street of Shops from the German Norddeutcher Lloyd liner Bremen, launched in 1929.

To one side is a snug seating area; to the other, on a different scale

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Carlo Scarpa's sublime mix of materiality and light; the Olivetti showroom stair, entrance 'mat' and upper floor. Note the polished plaster walls and ceiling.

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Scarpa's re-interpretation of the palazzo at the Palazzo Querini-Stampalia - layers of material and time. The watergate steps are especially good.

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