The subversive urbanism of Venice

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Subversive Urbanism is a blog by Phil Wood that takes us on an exploration through the urban environment “ready to question the ‘common sense’ or ‘expert’ ideas about the way our cities are and have to be.” According to his bio, Phil has been described as “cultural planner, urban therapist, intercultural innovator, insurgent anthropologist, psychogeographer…” and I have very much enjoyed reading back through his archive of work. Phil has kindly given us permission to re-publish the following piece on Venice – a city that is more subversive than you might think…

Venice… subversive? When I made a short visit to Venice I wasn’t expecting to be inspired to write anything in this blog about subversive urbanism… but I was wrong.

After all, isn’t Venice the ultimate clichéd example of a city that has lost all point and purpose other than to offer itself up as an open air museum, hawking its illustrious past along with an over-priced cappuchino and a souvenir tea towel?  Well that’s certainly one way of looking at Venice and there’s plenty of evidence for the prosecution, even on an off-season Tuesday in March. There’s something dispiriting about those hordes of visitors trekking dutifully across the Rialto and into Piazza San Marco. Judging from many of their faces it seems hardly more pleasurable than the job, in the office or call centre, they’ve had to endure in order to raise the money to pay for the trip to La Serenissima in the first place. Somehow it’s a reciprocal obligation both they and the city must perform but which no-one really enjoys.

But beyond the tourist tat there are other sides to this remarkable city we should never lose sight of. Firstly the BBC documentary Venice 24/7 reminds us this is a real place full of real people – both ordinary and extraordinary.

But I want to argue that Venice is a genuinely subversive city for our age. Not because it’s full of radical artists, urban hackers or guerrilla gardeners –other than during the famous Biennale. Venice is subversive by virtue of its mere existence.

It subverts – magnificently – any sense that a city should be rational and orderly. The mesmerising tangle of passageways, alleys, courtyards and canals completely defeat any pretentions you might have had to travel directly from A to B. On the other hand you might discover C and D by way of A once again, before realising you never really wanted to go to B in the first place and E is much preferable. And that appointment you had for 2.30? Well the person you were due to meet never expected you to make it by then anyway, so why should you worry? Any other city in the world would tell you that you were about to head down a blind alley with a convenient “cul-de-sac” sign but not Venice. The city seems to be deliberately challenging you to get slightly lost and possibly discover something you might otherwise have missed.

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Venice subverts too – like no other city – the predominance of the car. Not so long ago this was simply a quaint anomaly. “Ha-ha, funny old Venice that hasn’t kept pace with progress”. But perhaps progress is now taking us forward to a place that might be something like Venice in the future. 50 years from now, and probably sooner, we won’t be jumping into the car to work or to take the kids to school. We might be zipping around by hydrogen-powered scooter but, frankly, many more of us will simply be walking. Being in Venice for a few days reconnects you with the idea that there is a life without cars. Venice, like nowhere else, gives you the experience of being in a dense highly urbanised environment where the automobile is an irrelevance. Maybe we should give the tourists a couple of years off and simply use Venice as a therapeutic retreat for us to rinse our minds of car-dependency and prepare ourselves for the future.

Let’s change gear now to a different level of subversion –the way in which Venice positions itself as a city. It’s Italian for sure, but not wholly. Its long history of conquest and trade made Venice a more cosmopolitan city than most and this tradition remains, as if stored magnetically in the stonework. Italy is currently working its way through a long, painful contortionist dance in search of its identity. How else could it tolerate the long wasted and embarrassing years of the Berlusconi governments? Take a look at the political map of north eastern Italy you will find Venice is cut off from the world not only by sea but by a string of seats held by Lega Nord, a radical right wing party which has used the buffoonery of Berlusconi as a cover to build up a hard and intolerant core inside Italian political opinion. They include the Veneto Province and the city of Treviso whose Mayor is the appropriately named Gian Paolo Gobbo and has made aggressive and racist statements against migrants and minorities. Venetians meanwhile have continued to vote in politicians grounded in the ideas of liberal internationalism. The current Mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, has declared his intention to make Venice the ‘European capital of human rights’. Rhetoric possibly but, nevertheless, in a land currently awash in legitimised hate-speak this is a powerful and reassuring aspiration.

And let’s not forget that Venice also seems determined to defy every attempt by the experts to prevent it submerging under its own weight and there can’t be anything more subversive than that.

Words & Pictures: Phil Wood

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