altogether, a spectacular double-height ballroom-cum-function space. Its floor is cleverly laid in marble imitating wood block, and the central third of each wall is sheathed in floor-to-ceiling mirror flanked by towering glass luminaires. The overall effect is dazzling. The main stairwell is partly clad in travertine and detailed in bronze, with etched glass panels at the landings. It is top-lit via a skylight.

 

Meo’s work at the Bauer, combining as it does Venice’s past with the wider aesthetic movement of the time, is sensitive and impressive. Virtually intact after a multi-million-Euro restoration, it is well maintained and complemented by restrained contemporary insertions.

 

But these are exceptions. Other twentieth century insertions have been limited, both in number and quality, such as the crude new terminal at Marco Polo airport and a slew of rather grim post-modern housing blocks scattered around the city. And no-one should underestimate the opposition likely to be encountered when building in Venice. As that same guide book quoted earlier pithily notes, “of the two big building contracts awarded in the late 1990s, one is for the reconstruction of a destroyed structure (La Fenice), and the other is for a site that will have no living occupants – David Chipperfield’s extension to the San Michele cemetery.”

 

Works are being carried out to Venice’s existing built environment. The sounds of refurbishment echo from inside many tiny palazzos; a chance peek inside the door of a grander example, encouraged by a workman, reveals more, and a hidden garden – “very beautiful”, he says. The Gritti Palace hotel is currently closed until February 2013 for a major refurbishment that will see not only the usual upgrading of technical services and restoration of the décor but also a radical structural modification. A waterproofed, reinforced concrete ‘basin’ has been inserted into the lower level of the palazzo between the load-bearing exterior wall and the internal finishes. Covering the entire ground floor and extending a full two metres in height, it is intended to protect the interior from flooding above the levels experienced in recent years and indeed passed its first such test in late 2012.

 

And what of the future? Venice is, undeniably, a city aging, like its declining population. The melancholia of a faded power is everywhere. Tourism both nurtures and kills it, the massive cruise ships that slide in and out of the dock to the north west agitating the very waters of the canals. The much-delayed MOSE flood-prevention barrier system inches toward completion, whilst an ambitious scheme to raise the ground level of the city at certain vulnerable points is also under way. All materials for such projects, of course, have to be brought in by boat and barge, bringing an extra layer of complexity, risk and cost. The first giant advertising hoardings now cover buildings around the Piazza San Marco to raise money for refurbishment.

 

For now, Venice remains a bewitching contradiction. Impossibly pretty, uniquely beguiling, its wonderfully rapid and continual changes of scale and the unexpected vistas opened up with every turn make it the ultimate walkable city. It is liveable, and living, symbolised by the evening-orange glow of lighting from a ballet school visible through the windows of a dark, hulking palazzo rising above a quiet canal. And yet its destiny is inseparable from the waters that flow through that canal, that surround it, that are rising.

 

 

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Posted 2013 after a week in the city

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ven - Cassa - stair (bancaintesaarteecultura.com)

Scattolin's palazzo is a highly-crafted marriage of old and new (interior images - CdRV, bancaintesaarteecultura.com)

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A beached ocean liner; Marino Meo's designs for the Bauer-Grünwald hotel extension combine Venetian approaches to Modernism and Art Deco

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture