The challenge of Venice
Edoardo Salzano
Book review: Luigi Scano, Venice:Terra e acqua (Venice: land and water), Edizioni delle autonomie, Roma 1985
E. Salzano, The challange of Venice

Book review: Luigi Scano, Venice:Terra e acqua (Venice: land and water), Edizioni delle autonomie, Roma 1985


At the end of his journey through “the land and waters” of the Venice city-planning, where he has guided us with the confidence of someone that has very often undergone those itineraries, Luigi Scano leaves us with an awkward question mark: the controversial issue of the “restrictions”.
Are these restrictions borne as ineffective or welcomed as useful? Behind this question mark, behind the role-playing of who is in charge of what and the cunning game of using old measures for new scopes, hidden behind all these tricks lays a more significant and greater problem.
A problem that, among the Venetian debates and polemic discussions, finds its shape in the querelle between “protection” and “development”: between those who – in different ways and modalities – believe that priority must be given to the need of protecting the formal quality of Venice architecture and environment in which the city world-wide distinctiveness and prestige rests, and– on the other hand – those who suppond operate in order to privilege the socio-economic development, as an unavoidable warranty for the city self-sufficiency.

It is not enough to say that the contraposition between these two terms, protection and development, is pointless (even when and if in good will).
In fact, if this contraposition has always accompanied the recent Venice history and political arena and has emerged every time a city crucial issue (i.e. the city urban plans, how to use St. Mark’s Square and the Arsenale, legality and opportunity of new house-building) was put under discussion, it cannot only be because the entire town has ended up wrapped in a cultural misunderstanding.

My opinion is that the reason for this enduring contraposition is that, although a cultural framework able to resolve this contrast has sufficiently clearly emerged, it has not yet been able to provide a system of measures to achieve – concretely – the objectives of protection and development at the same time. Consequently, this cultural position has not managed to wield its leadership. It is also because of this, that various interests have had the chance of ambiguously contrast each other – one at the time – behind the deceptive ideologies of either protection or development, or to find precarious solutions, compromises and mediations.


First, let’s then attempt to express the cultural position that could acquire leadership, being able to provide adequate answers to both the above-mentioned needs and, therefore, to carry out the necessary synthesis between the two platforms.
In a situation like Venice, the qualities gathered in the long, methodical and intelligent work of mastering and transforming the natural elements have become cultural heritage and richness.

In addition, these qualities do not only consists in the materiality of the objects through which they are expressed (the lagoon landscape, the disposition of the historical settlements, its architecture), nor in the incredible formal perfection achieved by the intertwining among the various elements (water and land, built and un-built, the disposition of the walkable spaces and the home structure, the consistency of the building systems and the diachronic and synchronic variation of the architectural solutions).
They also include – most substantially – the still surviving balanced and dynamic relationship between the city environmental physical elements and the real and articulated social and economic tissue (population, productive activities, trade, the entire city-life) that represents a crucial component of the city richness.

Thus, the quality of Venice does not consist in the “monument” that some seem to consider it, nor in the “landscape framework” that some want to reduce it, but in its being a complex environment, made such by a multi-century work aimed at governing and transforming the surrounding nature and at helping it hosting the life, activities and trades of its inhabitants.

A work that can be seen everywhere in its historical accumulation: where it has produced the utmost “artificiality” (but always starting from an attentive evaluation and utilization of natural regulations and rhythms), and where it seems that nature constitutes the prevailing element (but always a man-work controlled and shaped nature).

Venice as continuous mankind intervention on nature, according to natural laws. Venice as steady transformation and maintenance (as continuous government). Venice as creation and conservation of a complex structure, where the stability of the governing laws can be seen in the seconding, exploiting and modifying action that the Serenissima’s government has daily exerted on the lagoon environment: the hydraulic interactions between sea and lagoon and rivers and lagoon, the balance between economic activities and the environment, the urbanization activity in which a strong “material culture” has for centuries dynamically operated according to a system of “unwritten laws” on the relations between building lots and water-ways, on the buildings structural layout and on the building formal elements, materials and technologies. Moreover, where the continuous and constant intertwining between physical and social elements, between the city and the nature use and shape, is expressed in a social complexity (of functions, classes, occupations), which is at the same time product and condition of the city structure complexity and richness.

Thus, protecting the quality of Venice necessarily means protecting both these two aspects (the physical and social structure): the synthesis between the two elements that the city and its environment express with masterly skill. A synthesis that can never be achieved once for all (as it has never been during the whole city history), but must be pursued dynamically, with the aim of developing (and not freezing) the existing qualities.


For those who agree with this cultural position is it clear that the restrictions, if and until they only represent limitations (both substantially and procedurally) to some given activities or transformations, are not very useful at all. They only serve the scope of guaranteeing the material survival of a resource: but of a resource that is not only material and that needs to be transformed (exactly because is an alive resource) in line with the social development dynamics. Restrictions do not work (are not enough) to govern the correct mechanism of this resource. Therefore, they can only be used for defence purposes and for limited lengths of time, and are totally ineffective for the scopes that they officially pursue.
On the other hand, we need to understand what are the changes in the city physical and social structure, that not only are compatible, but also are consistent and sound with its “artificial nature”. We need to identify what are the alterations able to recover and develop the quality of this special and complex urban reality and the quality of the synthesis that it represents. It is also necessary to transfer the results of this understanding in a system of measures for the government of the urban transformation that can make the desiderata transformations true and concrete, by guiding, addressing, supporting and controlling the wide and numerous city players: public and private operators, homeowners and builders, who are the ones in charge of the actual acting.

Luigi Scano informs us, in his meticulous and involved account, of the attempts and experimentations made in the recent years, of the plans and their difficulties, of the achievable objectives and the started work. I will only comment on some points.
Some great options have been chosen. Among them: the method to follow to intervene on the city physical; what transformations in the city social structure should be promoted and supported, and which ones should be discouraged or hindered ; what measures to undertake for the government of these transformations.


The method to follow to intervene on the physical structure (Scano has sufficiently outlined it) basically consists in identifying the “unwritten laws” through which the city has been built and modified over the time, from the early XI Century until the breaking of the “upholding culture” determined by the coming of the concrete technology. After having developed Saverio Muratori’s and his school’s method of analysis, and by generalising its application in the structural reading of historical building unit and experimenting its use under a normative viewpoint (in the coordination urban plans and the detailed plan of Burano) and operationally (in the planning and evaluation of building interventions), a crucial element in the new system of planning measures is now within close reach.

Already, for each building unit of the city historical centre we can define what is the structural category, the “type” that the builder has referred to erect and altered that given building unit. And because for each “type” the characterising structural elements can be sufficiently clearly identified ( and thus, what elements to conserve or restore or recover in order to safeguard the historical message that each building brings with it), it is then possible to create a regulatory frame to direct building operators and indicate the lines to follow for each codified structural “type” of building. What it is that should be preserved ore recovered to safeguard each building unit “message”, and what, on the other hand, can be modified or erected ex novo (within the identified structural web) in order make that building unit adequate to the needs of the modern life-style.
Not all building units can correctly host all the possible utilisations and functions. We can define (through the structural reading) what is for each “type” of building unit the range of the compatible usage destinations: what use will not inflict the building a devastating alteration of its structure. On the other hand, what is the most proper usage destination (or destinations) within this range, and thus what is the trend to follow in developing the city structure and its elements, can only be defined in relation with the transformation proposed for the city social structure.


As we have already mentioned, Venice is a complex city. A city which essential nature is represented by the co-presence, interlacement and mutual interrelation of a great number of classes, professions and activities. Venice is one of the most vivid proof and evidence that urban quality means complexity, and that to recover appropriate urban quality in the devastated towns and suburbs built in our century means to overcome the logic of single-purpose zone division. Under this point of view, Venice is a model.
Nevertheless, Venice is increasingly more exposed to the risk that its social structure deteriorates and that the expansion of tourism and its related activities will reduce its complexity to a single-purpose.

The risk is that the social events, the interests and flows caused by the very same urban quality and the increase in the capacity of expenditure, mobility and leisure time of all industrialised countries will not only determine the expulsion of the inhabitants and the replacement of economic activities with other activities, but the radical transformation of the city social quality: its reduction to a mono-culture.
Such a devastating risk cannot be avoided with a policy made of only restrictions and bans. Tourism cannot be exorcised: it can be governed by conferring it the adequate spaces, the needed facilities and the appropriate organisation. Most of all we can contrast and avoid the tourism monoculture by promoting diversified economic and social activities, in order to let the town being “involved” in other interests. But the question is: what interests? The city debate that for many years had been concentrated on the defence of the residentiality, in the 80ies has opened up on a wider range of issues.
An option seems to stand out with wide consensus. The town is not a generic container that suits any kind of activity. Its space is limited and its appeal enormous. Thus, first we must select and then promote activities that have, or may find, a reason in the history and the special nature of the city. Not only we need to defend the residential capacity for those who live and work in town and to select the economic activities related with the city social classes, but we also have to be aware of the prestigious Venice localisation, in order to support and promote the development of activities that apply research, technological innovation and cultural creativity to the City raw material: the outstanding resource that the city special environment represents.

Thus, new projects and ideas emerge. Along with the plans to defend the city residential capacity and improve the “level” of city services, there are proposals to govern the tourist activity by rationalising the number of accesses (cone-shaping terminals), the identification of specific spaces for tourist accommodation (smaller islands), the organization of tourist itineraries aimed at discovering the city and its environment.

New projects include the development of research and experimentation on smaller shipbuilding industry (one option for the recovery of the ancient Serenissima productive area of Arsenale is to establish a new CNR institute), in order to promote a policy to support this traditional – and still alive – Venetian activity. Another new project is the establishment of a research centre for the development of the glass industry (to place in the Murano island in an old and abandoned industrial building). Projects also include the development of an environmental research institute, through a collaboration between VeniceUniversities and CNR and with the contribution of international experiences and skills, to concur with the public agencies to the monitoring of the unique Venice lagoon, and for the scientific evaluation of the State projects for the protection and recovery of the lagoon ecosystem.

Other projects regard the application, experimentation and dissemination of methodologies, technologies, tools and organisational structures able to make the city restoration and recovery works more successful, stable and cost effective and to contribute to the knowledge-base of the city historical, cultural and artistic heritage.
This would result in the renewal of the city and of its activities, skills and professional structure. It would mean that the Venice architectural and environmental heritage is no longer seen as a mere appealing showy stage to sell to the best buyer on the market, but as a resource for research, culture and material work to graft innovation on the tree of history and on the territory of environment.

This will somehow help the demythicization of the “ magnificent, progressive destinies” that every fin-de-siécle attaches to the technological development. Instead, it will more humbly recognise that applying cultural, research, innovative technical tools to the actual problems of this city and its society has been the consolidated usual procedure of the Venetian “Serenissima” Republic, and that it’s this routine that we must recover.


The measures to govern such transformations of the physical and social structure of the Venice historical city centre are very different from the instrument of the traditional urban culture and theory. It is not a plan that anticipates a possible future disposition of the various city functions, abstractly “outlined” on the territory and integrated with mostly restrictive and quantitative norms and regulations, to be translated into actions through the technical mediation of progressively more detailed operational plans and the political negotiation of a programme made of a selection of priority interventions to carry out in the short term.
Instead, it must be a planning activity, the three phases of which are inseparably inter-connected: plan (that is the overall consistency of the choices on the territory), programme (that is the choice of the actually feasible priority operations) and implementation and management (that is the concrete actions of transformations).
A planning activity in which not analysis, objectives and choices are actually connected, but also are in continuous and methodical interaction. So that the choices are not only the almost automatic consequence of how the political and administrative objectives are applied to a correct analysis of the reality, but also where the planning process can allow - in every given moment – the measurement of the transformation of the reality, the consequent evaluation of the decisions made on the territory and their updating in relation with the change of conditions.
It must be a planning activity in which the three requisites of consistency, flexibility and transparency (that is the evidence and public awareness of why some given objectives in a given reality translate into given choices) are at the same time solidly achieved.
In view of such a planning activity, the numerous necessary technical and operational tools are being arranged. In advanced progress there is the cartographic system, which is not only a crucial knowledge and measurement tool, but also represents the knowledge base of all the territorial information, and thus a fundamental and primary component of the territorial-based urban information system (SIUTE). The latter is in progress and an experimental simulation has started on a limited area. In the meantime, the fundamental analysis has been drafted: a draft that includes the structural typologies, the settled activities, the ownership, and the demand for spaces from those organisations that deal with public services or utilities. Scano gives account of all this in the final pages of his book.
In addition, three kinds of restrictions are compound, heavy and often paralysing and is necessary to remove them in order to establish a new planning system. First, the restriction represented by the personnel, in which the interlacement among salary level, qualification and commitment requires a huge effort (to be made first of all – but not only – by the City Council) in order to promote the growth of those professional skills indispensable to manage, with independence and professionalism, the new urban planning system. Second the budget restrictions: the increasingly greater financial straits make the work of providing the material basis for the new planning more and more precarious, vague and unsure. The supply of hardware material, the dissemination of results, the assistance of independent consultants, the staff training initiatives become increasingly more difficult and uncertain. The third restriction is connected with the competency conflicts and confusions. This tend to represent a factor of paralysis the more the government activity becomes an action that must involve - within a single consistent process – a large number of technical, administrative and political skills, that are now often separated in their own “castling” behind defence lines.


From the issue of the restrictions applied to the territory to the issue of the practical restrictions. It is not only assonance of words.
In order to achieve the conditions that can allow the real establishment of an operational synthesis between conservation and transformation, protection and development, history and innovation, environment and life – I mean, in order to really overcome the territory constraints -, we must, first of all, innovate the culture, organisation, qualification and the very role of the institution in charge of administrating the territory.
Perhaps (to draw up a balance) – this is the most serious limit of the current left-wing coalition City Council. Overcoming this limit is surely not an easy and quick thing to do and requires determination, firmness and the cultural and political commitment needed to cope with issues that do not “reward” on the short run. However, these issues must be dealt in order to bring about a “government culture” that really wants to take care and solve the real problems of the territory.
Actually what we are trying to create in Venice is something more ambitious than what it may look at a first glance.
The attempt is to solve - not only theoretically but with concrete administrative measures and actions – the above-mentioned relationship between conservation and transformation, history and innovation. In fact, this would represent a deeply innovative event within the Italian – and not only Italian – scenario.
In addition, rebuilding the credibility and authority of the public government procedures in the territorial and urban transformations, through the creation and the application of a system of appropriate planning tools, would represent a substantial innovation not only in the current phase of deregulation, “conditional amnesty for building violations and infringements”, and casual operations on the territory, but also as regards the traditional planning altogether.
Most of all, turning the current decision-making system (which is a confused interlacement of too much often occasional and discretional choices and actions) into a systematic and verifiable procedure is something that can radically innovate the entire approach and accountability of the political leadership.
Is it possible, in Venice, to achieve such an ambitious objective? To bring in such deep innovations? The millenary history of this small and great part of the world – reviewed by Luigi Scano in his book – suggests that it is possible and it is necessary. The possibility meaning the motivation and the lesson given by the immanent presence of an environment deeply sodden with the qualities produced by ten centuries of tradition, incredibly rich in fundamental world-wide values and shaped by a material culture that – during the Serenissima’s centuries – has been able to make urban transformation the core of its political and administrative agenda. And where the necessity can be perceived in that interlacement of tensions and falls, attempts and failures, rationality and compromises, intuitions and impotence that has marked – as Scano points out - Venice history in the recent decades.
A recent history that is just about to arrive at the point where clear decisions can no longer be delayed, because the instability and precariousness of the cultural and political equilibrium can no longer be prolonged, the hard price being decadency for stagnation or death for congestion and denaturalization.
Venice, its history and its qualities defy us. To accept the challenge and win it can mean not only to lead the city to “new splendour”, but also to produce, here in this town, administrative and technical examples able to demonstrate that some crucial knots of the current society can be unravelled and that Venice has again something to teach to the world.

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