A Shoe and a Clog: Anger at new building on Grand Canal


Finally the advertising hoardings have been removed from the building site on the Grand Canal near the new Calatrava Bridge and the new wing of the Hotel Santa Chiara has been revealed in all its stark ugliness. Venetians call it ‘The Cube’ and are very angry about it.

The colloquial expression una scarpa e un zoccolo is on everyone’s lips. ‘A shoe and a clog’ describes a mismatch, things which can never go together, as in chalk and cheese. It is the first new building on the Grand Canal since the Fascist era (the Santa Lucia Station was the last to be built) and unlike the station, Venetians say it is an eyesore.

In a recent poll conducted by the Corriere del Veneto, people were asked whether they liked ‘The Cube’. Result: 12.3% yes; a resounding 87.7% no.

The old Albergo Santa Chiara is a familiar friend, a traditional 500 year-old building which blends perfectly with its surroundings in Piazzale Roma, one of the first to be seen by tourists arriving in Venice by bus. There had been an agreement with the owners since 1959 that there would be no changes to its ‘footprint’. The new annex (19 rooms and an underground car park) is an ugly cement motel, which “offends Venice, offends Venetians and the people of the world who love the city. Shame, shame, shame!” The Corriere della Sera claims that Piazzale Roma has now become the sort of space you can find anywhere from Texas to Tijuana.

Like other underhand Venetian projects, the building of this ‘cement box’ went ahead because of deals between private companies and the local council.

It isn’t the only building to be constructed in Venice recently, though. Amazingly, there was once a plan to build a Frank Lloyd Wright palazzo on a curve of the Grand Canal so that it would be visible for quite a distance. Much as I admire Lloyd Wright, there’s a context for his architecture and Venice isn’t it. Away from the Grand Canal, in the Campo San Moisé, there is a “bulky, protruding vast structure” which nearly hides one of Venice’s finest medieval towers. The great art critic Bernard Berenson writes in his diary that “hitherto public areas had been held sacred and nobody had the temerity to usurp one square foot of them”

Remember the agreement finally reached after years of protest about restricting the size of cruise ships coming into Venice? It lasted a few months, but only until the next tourist season began in earnest. A few months ago it was announced that the recently agreed law forbidding big ships from entering the Venetian lagoon had been reversed because the risks to Venice “have not been proven”. What nonsense! And of course the floodwater barriers begun in 2003 and due to be completed next year are behind schedule, and are absorbing most of the city’s revenues so that levels of spending only amount to 10% of the sum available in 2002. The extensive campaigns to protect Venice from the damage caused by bad planning or monster cruise ships must continue. Curiously, Venice’s status as a World Heritage Site since 1987, gives it no protection. Citizens can only report abuses to the headquarters in Paris.

It’s time, as has been suggested by the excellent Anne Somers-Cocks, (Editor of The Art Newspaper) for Venice, as a World Heritage Site, to be taken over by an international body. Otherwise, in a few years’ time, it will have turned into Disneyland, or its Las Vegas replica. Ironically, if that were the case, it would certainly be better managed.

This piece first appeared in the art newspaper, The Jackdaw, in January 2016

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