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Sandwiches and water

To be there or not to be there: Herbert Wright mulls over the Venice biennale

Maybe the Coop supermarket on the Fondamenta Santa Chiara, below the Piazzale Roma in Venice, is still the only place in town where you can buy an English-style sandwich – you know, the triangular white form, cut, curated and displayed in the mini-vitrine of its own packaging. Maybe we’ll die in a palazzo. Maybe not. Maybe Venice is the future as well as the past of our civilisation, whatever wistful musings on its built environment the Architecture Biennale may offer.

And maybe I’ll actually get to the Biennale one day.

There are distinct advantages to not being in the legendary swing of the biennale’s allegedly ­ Fellini-esque opening parties

I’ve never made it before, but I got pretty close in 2008. That was the one when ­Aaron Betsky curated lots of digital, futuristic stuff on the theme ‘Beyond Architecture’. Just a week before, I was in town looking at a newly delivered design that was digital, futuristic and beyond budget- Calatrava’s new fishbone bridge (since named the Ponte della Constituzione). There are distinct advantages to not being in the legendary swing of the Biennale’s allegedly Fellini-esque opening parties. For example, rather than have to share a floor in mainland Mestre you can get a room in Venice proper. There is no looming mountain of exhibition agenda to work through at the expense of seeing perhaps the most sublimely magical built environment in Europe manifested in reality. But there are drawbacks too, like no ligging possibilities- outrageously, you have to pay for food and drink yourself. And with tourists inflating the price of a slice of pizza to Ryanair-like heights, a Coop sandwich can be handy. 

This year’s Biennale theme is Fundamentals, turning back to the basic elements that constitute buildings rather than showing off projects. In March, curator Rem Koolhaas produced a montage of ‘then’ and ‘now’ pictures contrasting vernacular architectures in 1914 with 2014’s glass towers (strangely the UK ‘then’ is Lutyens’ New Delhi). Shame there was no Netherlands shot of his 150m-high triple glass towers now menacing another water city, Rotterdam, but he’s making a point: contemporary architecture is ‘not in particularly good health’. What a good job, then, that after 104 years no-one has yet heeded futurist Filippo Tomaso Marinetti, who repudiated ‘ancient Venice, exhausted and ravaged by centuries of pleasure’. He urged blanket redevelopment, but everyone knew it was crazy talk. Not even Frank Lloyd Wright or le Corbusier designs have breached Venice’s conservation lobby. Scalfarroto’s no-nonsense neoclassical San Simeone Piccolo church looks like a modern intrusion, and that slipped through the net in 1738.

So, what of the future? Is it the sunlit ­proto- Photoshop perfection of Canaletto’s Venice, or Guardi’s grimy, slightly distorted version, under skies that suggest stormy weather to come? Will the city pulse with Carnival, ache with the forlorn love of Mann’s Death in Venice, or subside into du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now sorrow, maybe even with a horror ending in a palazzo featuring a freakish knife-wielding psycho dwarf in a shiny mac?

In Venice, fondamenta also means the open canal-side, which flooded increasingly often. Latest IPCC worst-case predictions say sea levels could rise 98cm by 2100, but in a couple of years the multi-billion-euro MOSE project should be finished, its tidal barriers protecting the city and lagoon against surges of up to 3m. There are other dangers but it looks like Venice’s worst peril will soon pass.

In 2100, with populations falling and the elderly dominating society, beautiful cities will be preserved, probably as museum habitats gated in environmental protective structures. Just like Venice. The biggest danger may be a proliferation of English-style sandwiches.

Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic

Costume dramas

Art Deco architects dressed as their own New York skyscrapers for the celebrated Beaux Arts 1931 Ball. Why not revive it? Imagine Rogers or Stirk in Cheesegrater form, Foster and Shuttleworth clashing in Gherkin outfits, Piano in the sharpest, tallest headgear, Viñoly with a chest-mounted radiator. And Ms Hadid? A big floppy hat, like Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Center roof.