The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination

by Sophia Psarra. UCL Press, 2018, ISBN: 9781787352391

Sherry McKay (UBC School of Architecture and Landscape) reviews this book which considers how the architectural imagination has shaped the spatial history of Venice.

Does the discipline of architecture possess its own form of knowledge? A possible answer to this question is proposed through an exploration of architectural discourse and design as it responded and responds to urban morphology. It is an answer guided by Bill Hillier’s spatial syntax analysis and Henri Lefebvre’s identification of different modes of perceptual, conceptual and lived spaces. The exchange between these two forms of spatial understanding, one methodological the other theoretical, is threaded through an historical account of a single city in Sophia  Psarra’s The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination.

Space is a much-theorized topic in architectural theory, prominent within this discourse is an ambition to counter its abstraction with an understanding of space as embodied. It has produced the psychogeography of the Situationist international (1957-72), the tripartite conception of space as produced from social practice, representation and representational or symbolic means (Lefebvre, 1974) and spatial syntax analysis (Hillier and Hanson, 1984), among other propositions.  Innovative images seeking to represent these alternative conceptions of space have followed. This reorientation is legible in the ambition of The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination  to consider history spatially and is augmented by a consideration of the role of architectural imagination in the production of urban space. The book correlates macro and minor urban morphology with economic and social structures, parses the exchange between collective builders and individual architects, recounts the dialogue between imaginative interventions and existing variations of urban form, materially and representationally and charts a path between historical artefacts and contemporary conceptions of imagination and knowledge.

The architectural imagination is a concept familiar to most design schools. It is exemplified by speculation, invention and the transformation of precedents. Psarra casts it more specifically as  ‘a conscious concern for crafting space  and using geometric notation to establish coherence against different constraints and requirements’ (p. 225). In this manner, Psarra argues, the architectural imagination can be expressed as principled knowledge. Psarra also  proposes a second form of the imagination at work in the devising and revising of urban morphology that is collective, exemplified in the city anonymously crafted by customs, conventions and artisan practices. The contrasting of architectural with collective imagination allows Psarra to explore ways of embedding architectural practice in the social and political practices undergirding urban morphology These two imaginations, especially its architectural expression, are tracked through an interdisciplinary study of Venice, drawing primarily on architectural and social histories of Venice and space syntax analysis of urban infrastructure (canals,  streets, well heads) and bodily movement.

Chapter 1  “City-craft: Assembling the city”  and Chapter 2 “Statecraft: A remarkably well-ordered society”  develop the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of the book as well as a narrative about the social, cultural and political development of  Venice from its founding to the late 16th C. They address the first half of the subject signaled in the title: The Venice Variations and offer a neatly bifurcated chronology that serves to correlate urban morphology with social and political structure. “City-craft” describes an organic city produced collectively by craft persons for a parish-based society, while “Statecraft” delineates a hierarchical city produced by the autonomous projects of architects for an oligarchic city council, pre- and post-Renaissance respectively. Psarra’s history of this corelated shift is rich in description, theoretical exegesis and imagery. The role of the imagination is insinuated into the narrative as collective imagination of what she terms the ‘unauthored’ city and as architectural imagination attributed to the architect of the ‘authored city’. Attention to both, unauthored and authored, she concludes,  will ultimately reveal the social relevance of  the architectural project.

The following chapters, 4  “Story Craft: Calvino’s Invisible Cities” and 5 “Crafting architectural space: Le Corbusier’s Hospital and the three paradigms” shift focus from the material city of Venice to its imaginative expression. They explore the proposition that the complex spatial patterning created by the historical development of Venice elicits imaginative engagement with the city in the 20th C. “Story craft” examines Calvino’s literary work, Invisible Cities, which encourages readers to imaginatively plot their own course through the various stories that serve as representations of Venice. In also being a collective endeavour of author and reader, this chapter mirrors the production of the “Craft-city.” “Crafting architectural space: Le Corbusier’s Hospital and the three paradigms” analyses Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital as a case study of the architectural imagination responsive to both the city of Venice and conventions and inventions within the architectural discipline. It mirrors “State craft”. These more current case studies interlace contemporary, architectural and aesthetic concerns with the historical narrative of Venice’s development as social, represented and representational space.

Venice Variations does not offer an entirely linear progression, the history explored in the first two chapters establishes the existing morphology of the city, but little of the specific social or political context for what is discussed in the subsequent case studies of Invisible Cities and Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital. The fifth chapter “The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination” serves to connect the discussion of the historical city of Venice with the larger field of the discipline of architecture, remapping the connection between the city of Venice, Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital onto an expanded field of a more theoretical understanding of the imagination, its inspiration and inventions and knowledge.

The five chapters of Venice Variations suggest a series of palimpsests, each successive chapter possessing an evocative impression of what preceded it. Each chapter offers a network of ideas rather than a singular line of development; each a web of possible readings allowing multiple conclusions, which would seem to reflect to some extent Psarra’s conception of  both Venice and a design process guided by a disciplined imagination.

The dialogue between imagination and extant morphology is also evident in the several representations used throughout the book. The diagrams are seductive, colourful and abstract patterns, suggestive of meaning hovering over the quotidian streets, canals and piazzas of the city. While their abstraction is attractive, the meagre labelling often lessens the insight they might offer regarding the spatial practices that Psarra claims produces them. The abstraction of the diagrammatic visual aids is perhaps also calculated as a prompt for imaginative engagement, speculation on possibilities, or invitation to see Venice differently. This objective may explain the vagueness of the network diagrams or the inclusion of GIS models that do not seem to add much to the discussion otherwise.

Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination proffers an imaginative and ambitious account of urban development and the architect’s means of engagement with it. The text is expansive,  offering a virtuoso display of different modes of knowing. But equally, the breadth of material gathered into a single locus and the complexity of the narratives woven into each chapter and across the book as a whole may be disorienting to some readers. The quantity of material gathered into some 260 pages of text has meant that some concepts are given truncated treatment and some material appears tangential. Some readers unfamiliar with contemporary architectural discourse may find the significance of Bill Hillier’s ‘generic’ city (p. 59) dimmed and the criticism of digital technologies’ entanglement with neoliberalism (p. 16) blunted by a lack of explication. Some exegesis seems to  make only an attenuated contribution to the main points of the argument. As interesting as the discussion of the map of Manhattan is, it does not clearly contribute to the overall thrust of the book (p. 72-75), while the brief discussion of the 15th C portrait of Luca Pacioli over complicates the discussion of representation (p. 135-6). The numerous spatial analyses of modern architectural projects by different architects and for different locations  included in  a chapter dedicated to Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital seem to unnecessarily over-burden the argument.

The book is both a history and a proposed methodology, a concatenation of erudition and imagination, it is both about Venice and refers to elsewhere. It offers a rather circuitous route to making the point that the architectural imagination can access and direct toward contemporary needs and contribute to social capital. Psarra asserts that The Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination does not offer solutions for the contemporary problems of the city or for its ongoing environmental degradation. But why doesn’t this wide-ranging and theoretically rich analysis of the architectural imagination not provide insights, if not answers? What is the  relevance of an architectural imagination that does not engage with such social and political concerns. The book certainly suggests why it would be important for it to do so.

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