Beyond simply absorbing the culture and scenic beauty of Venice and discovering the nuances of this city within the sea, my class was involved in a design project that attempted to rejuvenate part of this historic place. A short distance from the city of Venice, the industrial suburb of Murano has been the heart of artful glassmaking since 1292. Before this time, glass was an important component of Venetian industry but due to the dangers of fire, the doge ordered all kilns moved away from the city. Now, like the rest of Venice, Murano is in a state of transition and in need of a rekindling of its unique identity. Unlike Venice, Murano’s industrial identity is tied to glass factories, boat-works, and other large-scale constructions. Because there are now so few glass artisans still working and as cheap glass from elsewhere continues to flood the market, Murano is seeing fewer and fewer opportunities for the maintenance of its heritage. As a part of Venice, Murano has witnessed a slow exodus of residents and the services that once supported them. Produce markets have given way to tourist shops and most of the people who work here cannot afford to live here.
Addressing these issues, the Vetro Artistico Murano has proposed a biennale festival of glass that would return the world’s attention to the city. As landscape architects, we were given the opportunity to participate in the process by offering design solutions to a number of the existing problems. Primarily we would articulate a route to circulate visitors throughout the archipelago (seven separate islands) that would allow them to sample the various incarnations of the industry. This route should bring people in contact with factories and artisan studios, retail shops, and museums. As all of Venice is a World Heritage site, protecting existing patterns of the built environment is required. The chaos typical of the Venetian streets is somewhat lessened in Murano because of the large scale development there but the urban fabric is still somewhat confusing to the average visitor. Calli meander through neighborhoods, connect at strange places, and often dead end at factory loading docks or canals. Making the biennale route legible is a difficult task and necessitates the implementation of some sort of way-finding device like cairns in the wilderness.
To accomplish this, our class studied maps and wandered the streets of Murano to find the best spaces to exhibit glass sculpture for the biennale. I made this map to demonstrate viewsheds, masses of buildings, existing glass studios, and vaporetto routes. Using existing campi and proposing new public spaces, we would attempt to designate a network that would connect the various neighborhoods of Murano. The plan should be staged in phases of development so that a loop was created to allow visitors to explore the islands at their own pace. Perhaps new bridges would be constructed to make the route more navigable.
Another of our tasks was to consider relocating the glass factories from their antiquated facilities scattered throughout Murano into modern ones to be built on the western most island called Sacca Sarenella. The present factories could be transformed into hotels, shops, and housing while the modernized factories would be more efficient. ‘Artist incubators’ and studios to attract young people to the glass industry might accompany these factories.
Lastly, the northernmost island known as Sacca San Mattia should be developed and programmed. Venetian islands have always been constructed as cultural landscapes of interaction between humankind and nature. Each of the islands in Venice began as salt marshes or berena which are deposits of soil held in place by root masses in the lagoon. The Venetians stabilize these islands with long poles driven into the marsh substrate and then construct fondamente around the naturally occurring soils and fill the sacca (litteraly “sack”) with construction debris, dredge soils, and other materials until the islands are firm enough to build upon. In the case of Sacca San Mattia, industrial waste from the glass factories has been piled up since the 1950s resulting in the present configuration. While the island supports a small population of social housing and a recreational area of soccer fields and other play equipment, most of Sacca San Mattia is a mix of natural salt marsh vegetation and exposed soils. It is the largest open space in all of Venice but is currently underutilized. It was suggested that we design a part of the island as a museum complex to inform people about the lagoon and develop a large park on the rest of the space.
My plan for Sacca San Mattia creates a connection between existing residential boroughs by establishing a social housing community along the southern edge of the island complete with services such as community gardens, market, and a laundromat. I also proposed a church because churches have historically been the organizing center of island communities in Venice. A parterre garden adjacent to the church could provide an interesting venue for the exhibition of glass sculpture.
This community would tie to the recreational facility that could be advanced as the population increases. My proposal for the Museum of the Sea would bridge two islands and be housed in an existing significant scuola that has fallen into disuse. The museum would have a wing that was underground that would eventually continue into the lagoon allowing visitors to experience the waters of Venice from within. This wing would emerge from the water to bring people to a high point with 365 degree views of the lagoon environment and then carry them across via a new bridge to Sacca San Mattia where a botanical garden could expose visitors to the various plants of the Mediterranean. From that point, a walking trail would allow people to visit the chaparral vegetation of the island’s hinterland.
This project was different than the design charettes we participated in while staying in the Netherlands. Those projects were quick sketches of the first order and intentionally unrefined to simply scratch at the surface of a landscape design. In comparison, the Murano project passed through several iterations and benefitted from the opportunity to revisit the site and conduct in-depth research as our plans evolved.
The Murano project concludes the University of Minnesota’s 2012 Cities on Water study abroad project. This is only the third year that the program has visited the Netherlands while Venice has been the major component of the trip for fifteen years. The level of learning intensity in both countries was incredibly high and my peers and I all agree that this has been a transformative experience. The opportunities that we have enjoyed are incredible examples of the breadth of landscape architecture. This program has allowed us to observe a wide range of cultural landscapes in both urban and rural settings and of both natural and constructed environments. The organizers of the Cities on Water program have done an exceptional job of providing the students with well-rounded educational opportunities and have introduced us to people who will influence us for the rest of our lives as designers.
My fourth semester as a graduate student has come to a close. As I write this, I am on a train passing through vineyards and olive groves heading north to Milan where I will fly to Norway for a week of self-guided exploration. The notions and implementations of change are more poignant to me now than they have ever been. As an undergraduate studying anthropology, I learned about the adaptations to our environment that have impacted the physical and cultural identities of humankind. As a student of landscape, I am learning how to design and guide these mutations to benefit people and places in both marginal and terrific spaces. This summer I will begin researching my final capstone project, which will encapsulate all I have learned to this point and will occupy most of my life for my third year at the College of Design. As I depart from where I’ve been I am comforted by an Italian phrase I learned while living in Venice: Per realizzare un bel sogno bisogna essere suegli. Less poetically, “In order to make your dreams a reality, you must be awake.”