Wolfgang Wolters' introduction to Francesco Trovo's book about building restoration in Venice

28/02/2010

Wolfgang Wolters' introduction to Francesco Trovo's book about building restoration in Venice


Francesco Trovò has written two books in one. The first is shorter and summarizes "planning in Venice through Special Laws and Town Plans" (chapters 1 and 2); the second uses Venice City Council's "Paper Less" archives to analyze the "Transformation projects" and "Conservation projects" carried out between 1984 and 2001. The first two chapters also offer pointers to help the reader find a way through the labyrinth of legislation and red tape that governs planning and building in Venice, while the third and fourth deal with the results of over a thousand projects carried out with financial contributions from public funds. This part also gives statistical data on various - not only technical - aspects of these projects. Data and concrete information provide invaluable arguments for the debate over how restoration work in Venice should be tackled in future.

The author uses a wealth of documentary evidence to illustrate the gulf between the restoration work conducted in listed buildings under the protection of the Superintendency, the "monuments", and that performed, not always with the same expertise, on unlisted buildings.

The concept of "monument" used by the legislator is based on criteria and inventories that are now out of date and do not reflect the reality of an urban fabric such as that of Venice. It is now accepted that the houses and palazzi of "minor Venice" represent not only an aesthetic and "townscape" value but also constitute a material source of precious information about the history of Venice. The 1984 exhibition "Dietro i palazzi" gave comprehensive proof of this.

The quality of any restoration depends to a large extent on the "information-gathering phase", involving analysis of the material state of the building, or in other words the scrupulous, first-hand observation of the "building-as-document". As his base and starting point the author analyzes the "technical reports" of restoration works; many of these, unlike those written by the architects and art historians of the Superintendency, show no determination to save what can be saved.

It is precisely at this information-gathering stage and in the planning and documentation of the restoration itself that the municipal authority could, if it wishes, exert a crucial influence over the situation described and analyzed. Considering the large number of restoration projects that involve the refurbishment of floors at ground floor level, for example, it should be obligatory to document and report the results of all archaeological excavations so that a sort of "open" atlas of the Venetian subsoil can be built up. The establishment of effective procedures to improve the quality of the "information-gathering phase" is the best way to limit the inevitable damage.
 
Any architect or owner intending to embark on a restoration project (whether under the heading of "extraordinary maintenance" or "ordinary maintenance") should therefore pay careful attention to the parts of this book that deal with decisions made in "transformation projects" and "conservation projects". These chapters, with their photograph illustrations, give an idea of how much the substance of Venice has changed over the last few years.
 
While the positions of doors and windows and or architectural elements on façades remain immune from substantial changes because they are considered important for the image of the city, transformation of the internal parts of buildings is subject to typological criteria. The reference typologies used reduce the infinite variety found in historic buildings, lived in and adapted to the needs of many generations, to just a few easily recognized and reproduced models embodying an implicit invitation to restore the building to its initial state. In painting one would speak of a return to the "original". The suspicion remains that the widespread practice of giving preferential emphasis to ensuring the "proper" appearance of façades is influenced by the way mass tourism perceives architecture.
 
The best example is set by restoration projects designed and carried out lege artis. The reader of this book will learn, if he or she does not already know, how to proceed cautiously, using the lightest possible touch, so as to conserve as much as possible of the material heritage of Venetian history. Readers will also discover how features that could be conserved, at least partially, are too often needlessly and thoughtlessly sacrificed.

Another negative aspect of many "transformation projects" is the lack of research into the past of the building through the documents that speak of it. The history of art or architecture cannot make a very great contribution to the design of a restoration project in the case of "minor architecture". Analysis of archival documents, by contrast, may well reveal not just the odd ground plan but also other useful information, as was demonstrated by the ground-breaking and inexhaustibly enlightening research on the "redecime", the real estate assessable value registers of the Venetian Republic, directed by Ennio Concina for UNESCO and Save Venice Inc., the results of which are also in the archives of the Superintendency. But there are other research campaigns that ought to be taken into account by those applying for building or restoration permits and by the Authorities that issue them: one such, also consultable on internet, is an inventory of the historical renderings and painted decorations found on the external walls of Venetian houses and palazzi, compiled by Mario Piana and his associates at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice (IUAV).
 
These are examples of the kind of wide-ranging research which, in the absence of an inventory which is accessible to those who have no expert knowledge of the history of building, contribute, or rather could contribute, much to the drawing up of cautious projects. Francesco Trovò gives proper prominence to the research so far carried out in Venice and its value in the planning of best practice restorations. Direct, first-hand, prior investigation of each and every restoration subject nevertheless remains a matter of vital importance. The proposal made some time ago that the whole of Venice should be statutorily designated an area of special architectural and historic interest and that its status should be used to draw up a framework of intelligent regulations and structures to guide all action to restore the habitat unfortunately fell on deaf ears. It was considered provocative and never got off the ground.

What has been successful, however, is a number of model-restorations of non-"monumental" houses, which show that the application of conservation criteria can lead to extraordinary results without unreasonably high costs. As well as the series of cases described in the latter part of this book, the restoration of a house in Calle delle Beccarie 792, near S. Giobbe, promoted by The Venice in Peril Fund of London and carried out together with Venice City Council, offers telling proof. This way of proceeding, with all the associated documentation, could serve as an example to both property owners and architects. Venice in Peril also financed an investigative campaign on the ground floor of the Gothic Palazzo Soranzo - van Axel, which produced results that were useful not only for the history of architecture and building but also for the architect responsible for designing the restoration of the palazzo and who willingly allowed the research to take place.

It is clear from the wealth of material assembled by Francesco Trovò, that many less than acceptable projects are not the result of a lack of methods or models to follow - these, after all, are now available - so much as a preference for other approaches or operational practices.

The book concludes with a description and analysis of the various "components of historical building practices in Venice": foundation systems, ground floor flooring, masonry, upper floor flooring, roofing systems, external surfaces, structural consolidation operations, and an extensive bibliography. The experience and knowledge contained in the works cited, often published in specialist, difficult-to-find journals, could and should serve as a guide.
 
Speaking of restoration operations, the author rightly points out the significance of the administrative and political context in Venice. A large number of the restorations carried out in recent years have benefited from legislation that tends to encourage change in the use of houses and palazzi, including those classed as "monumental", with serious social and economic consequences. This is the outcome of a policy that rewards those who "do" but which also seems to lack the far-sightedness to take the consequences into account.
 
In his description of "conservation projects" in this book, Francesco Trovò documents an approach to dealing with historic housing in Venice that one hopes may become the rule in future.
 
Wolfgang Wolters

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