Avant-garde is an epidemic. From modern architecture—an added misfortune, like a hunchback struck down by elephantiasis—there is simply no escape, as its creedal symbols pursue me all over the European continent like the fiends of America’s cinematographic industry or the muttering of the witches in Macbeth. “People meet in architecture” is the prophecy of the Architecture Biennale, which opened in Venice last month. Accursed be that tongue that tells me so! I met my wife under the open skies of the Pyrenees.
From the Centrale in Milan to the Santa Lucia in Venice it went without a hitch, but a shock awaited us on arrival. Opposite the station—“half of glass, half of crap,” as the driver of the water taxi explained—there had appeared a new bridge. Completed a couple of years ago, long after I had quit Venice for the wilds of Sicily, it is the work of the famous Spanish architect Calatrava.
Historically there was only ever room for one bridge spanning the Grand Canal, the Rialto, or for three, if you count the Scalzi near the station and the Accademia, tactfully rendered in wood to impress its impermanence upon the local inhabitants. Yet the town that built St Mark’s knew how to build bridges no worse than the portly gentlemen with rat-tail moustaches from Calatrava’s studio who have now given Venice the new Constitution Bridge. In the thousand years of the town’s existence more than 400 bridges of Istria stone have been erected over the smaller canals, each testifying to the mastery of the architect and the generosity of the patron, usually the owner of the nearest palazzo. Yet the link between the two halves of the stone clamshell that Venice resembles remained firmly in the hands—and in the feet—of the gondoliers, manning the multiple ferry stations for those wishing to cross the Grand Canal.
The gondoliers are an ancient guild in some ways reminiscent of London’s black taxicab fraternity, in turn glorying in its famous Hackney antecedent. As visitors to the capital soon hear, it takes three years of study, including a motorbike stint whose aim is to familiarize the apprentice driver with the exigencies of traffic congestion, to obtain the license. As a result, not only are London taxis the best in the world, their drivers make up the single most honest, serious, and intelligent segment of the population of Britain. Were the meretricious posers of the House of Commons replaced with these denizens of the East End, Britain’s fortunes would doubtless mend overnight.
So, too, with the gondoliers of Venice in their collective role of pontiff. Why change the millennial order of things, then, by building another bridge, thus weakening the gondoliers’ guild and pushing them to become the singing, dancing and thieving tourist attraction that ignorant tourists think they are anyway? True, there are 200 visitors here for every native. Yet if the town is to continue to attract them, it must safeguard its identity as a living and breathing relic, not an Italian branch of The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.
“Why? To steal money, of course,” said the water taxi driver as he cut out the engine, mooring the boat by the mossy walls of an estate on the Giudecca, where my oldest friend in Venice, Giovanni Volpi, had offered me a bed and a supper. I thought I detected a Sicilian glint in the driver’s eyes.
In the morning we made our way to Giardini, where the Mostra internazionale di architettura has pitched its tents since the last century. Incomprehensible slogans in Eurenglish (“contemporary culture’s curatorial bias, an event serving as both a register and an infrastructure”), set in experimental, hallucinogentic typefaces, were everywhere, but we headed past them for the Russian pavilion, built in 1913 by an honest man called Shchusev in the delectable style of a Napoleon pastry. Surely the new capitalist Russia had not had time to scale the heights of Western avant-garde depravity, itself an heir to the Bolshevik revolution?
There was another reason I wanted to see what my compatriots had been up to. Old Shchusev built well because in the old days there was no call for rubbish. To build to steal money is a modern invention, like concentration camps and bad restaurants. Rather like the mass tourist or the Gulag inmate, the Western taxpayer is a citizen without rights; he is there to be fleeced, after having been thoroughly brainwashed with slogans like those of the Biennale, while his native city becomes a nightmare of alienation. In contemporary Russia, on the other hand, things are done differently; there, people in power steal at the source, without bothering with paradoxes in concrete and glass. Monumental steel spirals expressive of mankind’s hope, giant dog kennels lined with mauve astroturf, harebrained projections of capitalism’s luminous future—all that is unnecessary. Any post-Soviet apparatchik worth his Swiss bank account knows exactly where to steal, how to steal, and when to steal. Art, for him, is a nuisance.
This is why the exposition on view in the Russian pavilion was so clueless. The idea was to show how a small provincial town the size of Venice, Vishny Volochek by name, could be rejuvenated and modernized. Needless to say, this called for the construction of a lot of things like the Constitution Bridge, as well as cinemas, conference centres, art galleries, and the other “spaces” without which, in the West, the life of a thief with cultural affiliations becomes claustrophobic. But why in Vyshny Volochek, for crying out loud?
There was a projection room in the pavilion, where a grainy film of life in the dreary town was being shown. It all looked like Italy in the late 1940’s, with boys diving off a bridge into the river, with girls smiling as girls do not permit themselves to smile today, mysteriously and a little sadly, with old men fishing against the background of factory chimneys billowing smoke.
Change all this? Without even the justification of stealing, as in Venice? Uproot it all, and replace it with cinemas showing Saw 3 and exhibition halls filled with Damien Hirst wannabes? Thank God all the money in Vishny Volochek has long been stolen!
As we were leaving Giardini, we found ourselves wishing a similar fate upon Venice.
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