Louis Kahn and Venezia The project for the Palazzo dei Congressi and the Biennale building


The exhibitionLouis Kahn and Venice, which inaugurates the USI Teatro dell’architettura Mendrisio, stages for the first time the profound link between the American architect and the Italian city.

Since 1928, when hearrived in Europe on his first Grand Tour, having left Estonia as a child when his family moved to Philadelphia, Kahn had kept up close ties with Venice. There were to be many close encounters: with itsarchitecture – the Doge’s Palace,Piazza San Marco, the anonymous streets and bridges suspended over the water – as well as with its eminent inhabitants, such as Carlo Scarpa and Giuseppe Mazzariol. This network of experiences and relationshipsledhim, in the late sixties, to become involved in the city’s cultural life, culminating in the commission to design an ambitious Palazzo dei Congressi in the Giardini della Biennale, where he had already exhibited his works. The project remained on paper, butit still appears one of the most interesting examples of his unbuilt architecture, as well as a chapter in the history of the Venice that failed to materialize, together with projects by Palladio, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and many others.

Louis Kahn and Venice: human relationships, projects, presentations, exhibitions, encounters with students, lectures and special lessons, such as the one held on the roof of the Doge’s Palace, overlooking the domes of the church of St. Mark. Each chapter of thisrelationshipopens reflections on complex themes: the connection between the memory of the past and the revitalization of a city that is, as Kahn said, “a pure miracle”; the rereading of ancient architecture by a modern architect; the construction of a building devoted to cultural life in a symbolic location ofinternationalcivitas; the reception of Kahn's work in Italy; the relationship between architecture and engineering.

The sum of these experiences reveals how LouisKahn read Venice, based on a consideration of the relations between people and nature, translated into a vision of architecture that still deserves to be explored both in terms of history and in relation to the problems of the city in the lagoon. The approach indicated by Kahn is, in fact, a lesson that, in its validity, is still worth listening to.

Venice is architecture of joy. I like a place as a whole where each building contributes to the other. An architect building in Venice must think in terms of sympathy: working on my project I was constantly thinking as if I was asking each building I love so much in Venice, whether they would accept me in their company” (Louis Kahn).

The sections of the exhibition


The exhibition opens with a large model of Venice, including Louis Kahn’s project for the Palazzo dei Congressi at the Giardini della Biennale. The model is set at the centre of the Theatre of Architecture and can be viewed from the galleries on the upper floors. Images of Louis Kahn and Venice are projected onto the large walls of the central space.


Return to Europe

Born in a small town in Estonia in 1901, Louis Isadore Kahn moved five years later to Philadelphia in the United States. Here he graduated in architecture in 1924. Trained by his teacher Paul P. Cret(1876-1945) in the principles of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and Lyon, the young Kahn would return to Europe to make two important formative journeys, in two very different stages of his career, discovering the architecture of the past and much else.

His first trip, in 1928-29, represented Kahn’s direct contact with the history of ancient architecture, but also his first encounter with the constructional culture of the Modern. On the second trip, which took place in 1950-51 when he wasArchitect in Residenceat the American Academy in Rome, Kahn visited various Mediterranean countries – Italy, Greece and Egypt – and remained enduringly impressed by the monumentality of the great masterpieces of the past as well as the spontaneous energy of vernacular architecture. On both occasions Kahn spent a period in Venice.

The drawings from his first journey include depictions  of the lagoon landscape and Venetian architecture made by a young artist-architectat the start of his career, still seeking a precise definition of himself. His pastels of the Basilica of St. Mark and the Ca d'Oro, from 1950-51, are testaments to a key moment and turning point in Kahn's professional and artistic development, which would lead to the construction of his major works in the years ahead.

Of great importance is his “itinerant reading” of Piazza San Marco, which demonstrates the Master’s analytical striving to understand one of the most significant places in the history of architecture and thecity. This isa series of sketches made in 1951 from a number of viewpoints that are far from casual, by which he reconstructed the phases in the process of formation of the piazza, based on the order dictated by the hierarchy of routes by water and land that underlies its extraordinary spatial unity.


Mazzariol and the idea of ​​Venice

Behind the relationship between Louis Kahn and Venice, a fundamental role was played by Giuseppe Mazzariol (1922-1989), art historian, director of the Querini Stampalia Foundation (1958-1974), Venetian university professor and politician.It was Mazzariol who chosethe American architect to design the Palazzo dei Congressi on behalf of the Venice Tourist Board (AAST).

If Kahn felt that the idea of ​​building in Venice was the fulfilment of a dream, for Mazzariol it was yet another attempt to promote his idea for the city, called on to be, by vocation, a “cultural meeting point between people from all parts of the world”.This vision was based on the ideas developed, among others, by figures such as Sergio Bettini, Wladimiro Dorigo and others, who protested against the danger of turning the city into museum. In 1954 Mazzariolwas one of the organizers of an exhibition at Palazzo Grassi with the programmatic title:Venezia Viva, hence capable of renewing itself and engaging in a dialogue with modernity. For Mazzariol, the problem of Venice was not just an environmental issue, highlighted by the flooding in 1966 and the high tides: he observed even more anxiously the embalming of his built heritage, its reduction to a “tourist ruin, which will be exactly the opposite of Venice”.For this reason, he proposed to relaunch the city’s historic role as a meeting place between West and East through new works, so that it could fulfil “its historic function as the city of encounter”. This vision also embraced the projects by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, respectively for a residence for student-architects on the Grand Canal (1953-54) and the new Hospital on the San Giobbe site (1964).


Wright and Le Corbusier in Venice

Before Louis Kahn, two other Masters had been summoned to add the vocabulary and approach of modern architecture to Venice’s special urban fabric: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

In 1951 Wright – in Venice to receive an honorarydegreefrom the IUAV – accepted a commission to design a house on the Grand Canal from the architect Angelo Masieri, a student and later partner of Carlo Scarpa. The storythen turned to tragedy: Masieri had gone to the United States to discuss the details of the project with Wright, where he died in a car crash. As a result, the brief changed: instead of a house, Wright would designa residence for student-architects at the IUAV, near Ca’ Foscari, in 1953-54. The architectdesigned a triangular building laid out on five levels, characterized by the façade which, in Wright’s own words, “will rise from the water like reeds, seen below the surface of the water”.

Le Corbusier in 1962 was commissioned to work on a much more ambitious commission: the design of the new Venice Hospital, on the site of ​​ the San Giobbe municipal abattoir. His proposal, presented in 1964, developed as a large horizontal complexso as to fit into the context without altering its urban profile. Supported by asystem of pilotissunk in the lagoon, the hospital is set on three levels: the first houses the services for the public and the pedestrian routes in continuity with the surrounding area; the second contains the medical services and laboratories; the third the patients’ rooms. To Mazzariol, the project appeared “the most obvious solution, indeed the only one; obvious andunique like a miracle or a poetic fact. The internal spaces have the same layout as the calle and the campiello: the city is brought back inside the hospital.” Both projects, like Louis Kahn’s, were never built: missed opportunities, according to many, that would have given new life to the city.

Kahn’s lecture (video)

When, in April 1968, Giuseppe Mazzariol arrived in Philadelphia to offer the Palazzo dei Congressi project to Louis Kahn, he also outlined his idea for ​​founding a school specifically devoted to “the problem of Venice”. The school, founded in 1968 by Mazzariol with Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti with two venues in Venice and Florence under the name of the Università Internazionale di Venezia (UIA),grew out of the urgency of constituting “a permanent work table for discussing ideas” to revitalize the two cities through the creation of concrete projects capable of “coordinating the legacy of the past with current events”.

Kahn was animated by his passion for teachingand the many years of experience in the management of shared design groups within the ARG (Architectural Research Group) and ASPA (American Society of Planners and Architects) between 1932 and 1948. He gave his full support by taking part in the birth of the UIA with some educational proposals. Among them, together with Oskar Stonorov and Frederick Gutheim, also involved in the project, he proposed the establishment of a course on the “Urban social sciences” and the creation of a “Workshop for high-level training of architects of the urban environment” with specialized branches on the different islands of the Lagoon.

In March 1971 Kahn held a seminar in Venice on the theme of “New projects for the islands of the Lagoon”. The workshop, which followed by a few weeks those held by his friends and colleagues Buckminster Fuller, Isamu Noguchi and György Kepes,opened with the historic lecture entitledArchitecture and Urbanismat the Cini Foundation, on the Island of San Giorgio, on 22 March 1971, before a crowd of students and teachers.


Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa

In 1968 Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa took part – together with Franco Albini and Paul Rudolph – in the 34th Venice Biennale, entitled “Lines of Contemporary Research: From Informal Art to New Structures”. Kahn presented a selection of personal drawings. Carlo Scarpa preparedthepavilion Ambiente, in which he exhibited some works specially created to express the close relation between art andarchitecture. Among thesewas Growth, a geometric sculpture in wrought steel and gold leaf on display in the exhibition, by which Scarpa sought to explore the theme of light on a mobile sculpture in space in relation to the specifics of the materials.

On the occasion of the Venetian event, Kahn and Scarpa met in Treviso in May 1968, at the home of Luciano Gemin, where, as a fortuitous recording of their meeting testifies, theyexchanged ideas and teachings. Through the help of Giuseppe Mazzariol,the two masters would then cultivate a friendship marked by profound esteem, with meetings that followed whenever the American master returned to Venice. This series of meetings included a visit by Louis Kahn and Carlos Enriques Vallhonrat – his assistant at the time of the project – to Scarpa's home in Asolo, recorded in a series of photographs showing the two architects surrounded by their assistants and Tobia Scarpa, intently analysing the book on the works of Frank Lloyd Wright published by Hendrik Wijdeveld for “Wendingen” in 1965.

In 1972 Kahn would be involved in the exhibition project presented at the 36th Biennale, entitledFour Projects for Venice, with an exhibition design by Carlo Scarpa. A few months before his death, Louis Kahn devoted a text titledIn the work of Carlo Scarpato his Venetian colleague. Two years later, Scarpa paid homage to his friend at a lecture in Vienna: “Do not call me Master. The last of the Masters was Louis Kahn and his death was a serious loss for architecture.”


The project

The project for the new Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice started with the meeting between Giuseppe Mazzariol and Louis Kahn in Philadelphia in April 1968. From the start it was clear that the architect found it necessary to give an urban character to the development by adding a new building to the conference hall: a research centre for artistic creation, as well as a new venue for the Biennale.

Kahn worked on the assignment from his office in Philadelphia, but the constant requests for information about the project site – supplied by the young architecture student Mario Botta, as Mazzariol’s assistant – and the numerous aerial photographs that the master had forwarded from Italy bear witness to his profound reading of the context.Hisanalysis of the territory included the area of the lagoon facing the project site and the principal architectural landmarks with whichthe new buildings would interact: the island of San Giorgio, Piazza San Marco, the Punta della Dogana with the Chiesa della Salute, the churches of Palladio on the Giudecca and Le Corbusier’s hospital, never built. From the beginning, the objective shared by the designer and his client was to use the new insertion to revitalize the area and the city, asurbsandcivitas. Mazzariol and Kahn also shared a deep faith in the potential of modern architecture: the structural choice, the use of advanced materials and techniques, were meant to shape a complex capable of generating new ways of using the site.

Kahn presented his project by inaugurating the exhibition installed in the rooms of the Doge’s Palace (30 January-15 February 1969), in which the three models stood out on different territorial scales, revealing the specific features of the complex to be built. The analysis of the architectural scale was entrusted by Kahn to the wooden model on a scale of 1:200 – now reproduced in Mendrisio – which, strongly desired and built in Philadelphia, became the real attraction at the ceremony of presentation tothe press and public. Dino Buzzati, at the time the envoy of theCorriere della Sera, described the project in these words: “a limpid, solemn and in no way provocative invention.”

After the exhibition, the project was widely published in newspapers and reviews, including “Domus” and “Lotus” in Italy. Kahn continuedto develop the building, together with the engineer August Komendant.But in 1972 the possibility of building in the Giardini was definitively rejected and a new location proposed in the area of the Arsenal. Thearchitect adapted the project to the new site, but it soon became clear that the political will to build it was lacking, so consigning it to the limbo of missed opportunities for Venice.

06 - 07

Original drawings

The following sections, on the second floor of the Theatre of Architecture, present the original drawings of Louis Kahn's project for Venice, brought from the archives in Philadelphia (The Architectural Archives-University of Pennsylvania) and Montreal (Canadian Centre for Architecture). The drawings are divided into thematic sections:The project’s genesis, The idea of the ​​theatre, The structure, The façade, The Biennale building, The Palazzo dei Congressi at the Arsenale.

The exhibition catalogue

Louis Kahn and Venice. The project for the Palazzo dei Congressi and the Biennale building
edited by Elisabetta Barizza and Gabriele Neri
Mendrisio Academy Press / Silvana Editoriale
27 x 27 cm, 222 pages
200 illustrations in b/w and colour
Bilingual edition ITA/ENG
ISBN 9788836641628
Price at the exhibition 35 CHF/Euro
Price in bookshops 50 CHF/Euro

Introduced by Mario Botta, the book presents critical essays by the curators together with others by Werner Oechslinand Fulvio Irace. It also contains two iconographic sections: a photo album with images of Louis Kahn in Venice and a portfolio with reproductions of drawings and sketches made by Louis Kahn for the projectof the Palazzo dei Congressi and the Biennale Building.


Ø   Kahn in Venezia by Mario Botta

Ø   Photo album

Ø   Louis Kahn and the “Miracle” of Venice by Elisabetta Barizza

Ø   Louis Kahn and August Komendant: the structural project for the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice by Gabriele Neri

Ø   Louis Kahn’s project for Venice (drawings)

Ø   «Giotto vibrates in this area, defies time» by Werner Oechslin

Ø   Kahn and Italy by Fulvio Irace

The curators

Elisabetta Barizza (Padua, 1967) Architect, PhD in Architecture and Construction from Università Sapienza in Rome. Since 1993 she has worked professionally in the field of architectural design in Switzerland and Italy. Since 1999 she combines teaching with research and the dissemination of knowledge through publications and exhibitions. Among her essays, with Marco Falsetti: Roma e l’eredità di Louis I. Kahn (FrancoAngeli, 2014) and Rome and the Legacy of Louis I. Kahn (Routledge, 2018). She has also published La forma tangibile. La nozione di organismo nell’opera di Louis I. Kahn dalla svolta di Roma al progetto di Venezia (FrancoAngeli, 2017).

Gabriele Neri (Milan, 1982) Architect, PhD in History of Architecture and Urbanism. Since 2011 he has been teaching and conducting research at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio. He is adjunct professor of History of Design and Architecture at the Milan Polytechnic. He has curated numerous architectural exhibitions in Italy and abroad. Since 2010 he has contributed to “Domenica” of “Il Sole 24 Ore”; he is on the editorial staff of the Swiss review “Archi”. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Fondazione Museo del Design (La Triennale di Milano). His publications include: Capolavori in miniatura. Pier Luigi Nervi e la modellazione strutturale (MAP-Silvana Editoriale, 2014); Caricature architettoniche. Satira e critica del progetto moderno (Quodlibet, 2015, Premio Forte dei Marmi 2016 “Studi specialistici sulla satira”); Umberto Riva. Interni e allestimenti (LetteraVentidue Edizioni, 2017)   


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