Futuristic Vision for a City Rooted in the Past: my comments in NYT/IHT article on Venice & Cardin’s Palace

Light Palace

The article below was written by Elisabetta Povoledo and published in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune on 6/7 December 2012:

The original can be accessed from this link:

VENICE JOURNAL: Futuristic Vision for a City Rooted in the Past

Futuristic Vision for a City Rooted in the Past
VENICE — The elite of Venice gathered this week to celebrate the career of a native son, Pierre Cardin, who turned 90 this summer. Rather than celebrate past glories, the fashion designer — who has lent his name to pantsuits, toilets and cigarettes as well as haute couture — used the occasion to push his next venture: plans for a towering palazzo that will, he hopes, take Venice into the future.

If it is built, the project, called Palais Lumière, will be a glittering menagerie of private apartments, hotels, commercial spaces and even a fashion university, and it would transform a dilapidated industrial area bordering the Venetian lagoon. Mr. Cardin has described the Palais, actually three structures linked by six flat discs, as a “habitable sculpture” and said it was his dream.

While many in Venice have welcomed Mr. Cardin’s ambitions, the project has alarmed conservationists and stirred a spirited debate about the prospects of a treasured and once-powerful city that is threatened by a declining population, mass tourism and rising sea levels.

This week, some of Italy’s renowned art historians, architects and intellectuals wrote to President Giorgio Napolitano asking him to halt the project. Mr. Cardin’s plan has received informal approval from local politicians but still awaits the verdict of the Italian Culture Ministry. If everything comes together, construction could start early next year.

The opponents’ concerns are partly aesthetic. The colossal Palais — inspired by an image of three flowers in a vase linked by a long ribbon — has been derided as outdated, cartoonish and even “superphallic.”

But many fear that the project could also endanger the lagoon’s fragile ecosystems and blight one of the world’s unique landscapes, created over “centuries of interaction between the terra firma and the sea,” said Marco Parini, national president of Italia Nostra, a group that defends Italy’s historical patrimony.

It is “a delicate harmony that risks being thrown off balance,” Mr. Parini said. “Can you imagine putting a skyscraper in Monument Valley?”

The project’s dimensions are so outsize that developers will have to reroute roads and train lines to Porto Marghera, the area where Palais Lumière would be built, about five miles from the heart of the city.

Mr. Cardin, who is underwriting the project, which is estimated to cost $2.6 billion, breezily dismisses such criticisms, reminding those who will listen that his quirky retreat in Cannes, France, the Palais Bulles, designed by Antti Lovag, was deemed “so ugly” that people wanted to tear it down. “Now it’s considered a historical monument that can’t be touched.”

The Palais Lumière, or Light Palace, (so named because many of the walls would be transparent) “will be like a lighthouse illuminating the sky, for free,” Mr. Cardin said during a ceremony this week where he received the Lion of the Veneto prize, bestowed each year on eminent citizens. Mr. Cardin was born in San Biagio di Callalta, north of Venice, and was 2 when his family moved to France. “But I still feel very Italian,” he said in French-inflected Italian on Monday.

Some fear that the Palais is a Trojan horse of sorts that will turn Venice from a “charming courtyard to Dubai on the lagoon,” as Mr. Parini put it. “This is unacceptable, unsustainable and incompatible with Venice’s history. It must be stopped immediately.”

Such unbridled development, conservationists claim, could be final blow for a city already under siege by tourists and the cruise ships that shuttle thousands of them to the gradually eroding canals each week.

Some Venetians are concerned that the sheer size of the structure, 820 feet, will require deep foundations that could break through the aquifer, substantially altering the fragile balance of the lagoon, which has already been damaged by pumping.

“The Palais could make the situation worse,” said Cristiano Gasparetto, an architect and expert on the Venetian lagoon. Opponents have filed a court challenge to a permit issued earlier by Italy’s civil aviation agency.

But others worry that to preserve its uniqueness, Venice remains too mired in its past.

“The Palais Lumière may not be the solution, but it is a symbol of an opportunity to embrace a different history for Venice,” said Dominic Standish, a professor of environmental sociology and author of “Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality.”

“It is shortsighted to reject it outright,” he said. “Venice needs a new model of moving forward.”

Mr. Cardin said he believed that the project would bring jobs — about 5,000 of them during construction and when the Palais’s apartments, hotels, restaurants, stores and sundry services are open for business — to an area that has been battered by the economic crisis, especially in the construction industry and the real estate market.

Local administrators quickly gave the Palais a green light, swayed by Mr. Cardin’s enthusiasm and the prospect of the city’s making millions from the sale of a former industrial dump.

“The city is certainly interested in the growth of the area,” said Oscar Girotto, the planning department official overseeing the project.

During his long career, Mr. Cardin has gained a reputation as a forward-thinking visionary, introducing ready-to-wear clothing in 1959 and making his mark in fashion with “space age” attire and futuristic furniture. He spearheaded fashion forays into Japan, the former Soviet Union and China.

He wants the Palais to experiment, too, with avant-garde, ecologically sustainable technologies to reduce its carbon footprint.

“Our challenge is to make this an example of zero emissions,” said Guido Zanovello of Studio Altieri, the engineer in charge of the project. It would include wind turbines and other forms of renewable energy, along with an internal waste recycling system.

“We’re integrating new technologies in original ways,” he said.

Only 6 of the 50 acres, will be developed. The rest will be landscaped and turned into a park. “I am giving Venetians grass and trees instead of factories,” Mr. Cardin said Monday.

The designer has said he wants to complete the project in time for the Milan Expo in 2015, but the Culture Ministry has yet to rule on whether the area planned for the tower is subject to conservation rules.

Mr. Cardin also must finalize deals to buy plots of land from a few dozen owners. And questions have been raised about whether he can pay for it, even if, as he has said, he has to put up as collateral his real estate holdings — which include Maxim’s restaurant in Paris — or sells his fashion empire. On that count, Mr. Cardin seemed unworried.

“My name is my guarantee,” he said.

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