Microscopic Observations of Venice

Having only learned about Venice from secondhand accounts, postcard images and fictitious novels for a very long time, I finally had the opportunity to experience this beautiful city in person earlier this month. Built on stilts that suspend a ‘ground’ on top of the Adriatic Sea, I was always curious about how such a city works in response to its distinct topography. Simply put, how does even the most basic infrastructural system integrate itself to the daily lives of a floating city? Instead of preparing a series of urban studies of Venice beforehand, I decided to submerge myself into the urban flow and uncover its substructure by peering into the smallest objects and overlooked details. In this post, I will share some of the observations that I have gathered across this journey.

Piazza San Marco

(View of Piazza San Marco)

Venice is comprised of 137 islands that became interconnected over time with numerous bridges. A void amongst the aggregation of buildings, campos act as important urban platforms for each island where its inhabitants engage in all sorts of social activities, such as temporary urban markets, dining strips and party dance floors.


(Sellers set up their temporary facilities early in the morning to prepare for another busy day)

Looking at the fish dealers consistently spreading water onto its fresh goods, my trip mates and I were wondering about where the water supply came from. As we approach the stand, we noticed tap water supply connectors underneath the pavement tiles, and on top of the displaced tile was a small screw socket that appears to function as a lock. We only found few of such tiles in the campo, and they were all located at one corner of the campo. A water supply system underneath the campo started to reveal itself.


Our next question: How does a tiny island acquire infrastructural support? We found small marble signage engraved on certain pavement tiles indicating the location of utility structures. Following these signs, we noticed that they often led us to the foot of the bridges. We ran into a group of workers digging the ground and repairing the sewage pipes, and realizing that the utility structure often runs underneath the bridges. Therefore, the bridges not only support the pedestrian circulation between islands, but also an elaborate infrastructure system that spans across isolated nodes.


By the canal, we noticed a crew of waste collectors loading cartloads of trash onto its boat. Since we grew up accustomed to see trash trucks doing the same on firm ground, we were surprised by the use of canals as urban infrastructural corridors.


To further understand the trash collection process, I started to spy on the waste collectors.

Depending on the day of the week, each household leaves a specific type trash at their doorstep. The trash collector begins his routine at the narrowest streets with his slim wheel cart, proceeds to the wider ones and congregates at the campo. Each trash collector is responsible for a certain part of the island, and they hardly go across the bridge.  By observing the process of trash collection, I begin to  understand the size of neighborhoods on the island, the urban maintenance, and the relationship of ground and water in such unique place.

As architecture students, we have been so accustomed to understand the city at the scale of the masterplan as we abstract it into elaborate diagrams of circulatory flows, programmatic zoning, density zoning, etc. to explicate the experience at the scale of the individual. Let us not dismiss the reverse methodology of exploring a city from the perspective of the individual: by observing in-situ the small-scale objects, the benign activities carried out by the people of a city as well as their associated emotions, we can also rediscover the larger urban forces that shape, empower and deceive us.

(Many thanks to Professor Shun Kanda and Pak Kin Chan for the contribution of this post.)


One comment

  1. […] some people are off having international adventures this IAP, January here in Cambridge has been just as packed with activity. A sample of […]

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