In 2008, British economist John Kay proposed to the famed Venetian Academy to turn the lagoon city of Venice into a Disney theme park. Although the proposal was framed as “the most kitsch images about Venice and its future”, it certainly put many pressing concerns and realities of the city on the spotlight. I happened to have watched a documentary that focused on the repercussions brought by the large cruise ships in Venice. “Venice Syndrome” depicted an intricate web of tensions between tourists and locals, domestic concerns and eco-political decisions.
The official census figures tell its story: the population has been sliding from year to year, from 174,000 in 1951 to 58,483 in 2012. (Squires, 2009) Every day, there are more than 60,000 people visiting Venice, which is more than its local population, and a large proportion of the visitors are from the cruise ship. Cited from UNESCO, the ships cause unusually big tides that erode the foundations of buildings and create pollution in the city. In other words, the vast amount of tourists leaves little space for the local residents, and thus “Venice has started to be a city only for the tourists” (Mack, 2012). Yet, one cannot simply attribute this phenomenon of extreme tourism to the downfall of Venice, as the city has been feeding upon this economic monoculture. More importantly, real estate speculation has skyrocketed as result of the economic overturn has eroded the city, and ultimately led to the exodus of the locals.
To further this line of thought, I watched another conference video entitled “Death in Venice: Is tourism killing or saving the city?”. It was a debate panel held by the Institute of Ideas with Iowa University/CIMBA and quite a few productive proposals came out of the conference such as the implementation of new infrastructural system. However, the more I dug into the topic, the more I started to question the role of the designer. How can we possibly position ourselves in such an intricate scenario? What could be our role as a designer that can allow us to actively engage in the transformation of the city? What kind of propositions should we advocate for in light of such an issue?
Professor Shun Kanda has been running design workshops in Venice for over the past decade. This semester, he offers a workshop entitled “Design Research on Transformative Continuities” which explores the historical and contemporary transformations at Rialto Mercato, one of the most important nexuses in Venice. Given the chance, I posed a few questions to him regarding the future of the city.
Jinhui: People have been describing Venice as a theme park, and someone actually proposed to one of the famed Veneto Academic Institution about selling Venice to Disneyland. What is your opinion on this?
Professor Kanda: Even earlier, a Japanese company suggested building a mono-rail around Venice to get the best view from a higher vantage point, much as the grand cruise-ship passing through Canal Giudecca offers a condescending panorama from its deck of the fairy-tale buildings and people below. I would propose visitors who travel to “Veniceland” to be managed via means such as virtual technology. The most serious irreparable damage is the visible “slow disaster” of the loss of its resident population. In the case of Venice, this is precisely due to the concept of “selling of Venice” as a theme park. One balks to admit perhaps that as Disney World has Orlando as a legit collateral town at the outskirts, and that Las Vegas has its corresponding suburban development to support its theme park, Venice is already “jointly owned” by its mainland booming city of Mestre. I personally do not support this fate that Venice is potentially headed, and “freezing” Venice as a museum is not quite the right solution either.
Jinhui: A lot of criticism goes to the change of economic structure, claiming the shift from multi-economic components to the economic monoculture has been hurting the city and its residents. Do you think Venice starts to lose its identity due to this shift of paradigm?
Professor Kanda: Today, the word “identity” is an elusive term, and we need to define what it means. The definition of branding, labeling, popular classification and identity are becoming rather blurred. Given the more than one thousand year history of an utterly unique “city on water”, Venice will never suffer from a loss of identity. It is more about what we – Venetians, visitors, 21st century civilization, will do with this identity. It’s a sad irony that the mono-culture of extreme tourism invading Venice is in fact suffocating this city which is the very result of its poly-valent multi-cultural accumulation.
Jinhui: The economic dependency on tourism seems to be an inevitable trend for Venice’s development. Do you see designers playing a role in the future transformation of the city? If yes, what are the aspects you think the designer can contribute to?
Professor Kanda: It took money, politics, the great fire of 1514, acqua alta, influx of Mediterranean culture, Venetian cloak and dagger to build Venice, which is without doubt “belissimo” and possessed with “magical beauty”, then and now. Corbu, Wright and Khan all had their commissions at inserting their architecture but never got built. Piano, Ando, and now Koolhas have done their piece but you would not notice from the outside. Only Calatrava’s bridge at Piazzale Roma just off the Grand Canal exemplifies what a designer can contribute. It is those diligent, passionate Italian architects who are at work extending the life of the hundred-years old buildings where contributions will probably continue, not as relics but to bring them into the 21st century.
“Tourism Overwhelms Vanishing Venice.” DW.DE. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2014. <http://www.dw.de/tourism-overwhelms-vanishing-venice/a-16364608>.
Squires, Nick. “Is Venice Being Loved to Death?” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 08 Mar. 2014. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2012/1031/Is-Venice-being-loved-to-death>.
“The Venice Syndrome.” Taskovski Films. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2014. <http://www.taskovskifilms.com/film/the-venice-syndrome/>.