January 29: Venetian Phoenix

2016/01/29 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1996 the most recent fire at La Fenice broke out and destroyed the building.

Some buildings just seem to ask for it.  Opera houses rank among the daredevils of the building world: they are giant boxes full of silk and cotton draperies and costumes, fuzzy wigs, oil-based paint, petroleum makeups, forests of timber.  Illuminated by candles, oxyhydrogen fixtures and oil lamps, their very function  requires thousands of fires be set inside of them every night.  The history of opera houses is, in part, a history of open-flame building illumination and the inevitable spectacular structural fires.  La Fenice is special in this history, for not only does it keep burning down, but it also has a name that sort of taunts the conflagration.

La Fenice’s history began with an architectural competition announced 1 November 1789 for “a theatre … that shall be most satisfying to the eye and ear of the audience” and with the high architectural goal of being deemed “worthy of a capital where Palladio, Sansovino, Sammicheli, Scamozzi and other artists of the Great Century have left such noble monuments.”  Giovanni Antonio Selva won it, and the building opened on 16 May 1792.  All was well for forty-four years, and then a huge fire broke out on 13 December 1836 and burned for three days, completely obliterating Selva’s building, which was quickly rebuilt and opened on December 26 1837.  Restoration architects Tommaso and Giambattista Meduna were faithful to Selva’s original plans, although later years brought certain changes.  Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries La Fenice was reconditioned and revamped to reflect changing taste; rebuilt and repaired after intentional damage.  In 1849 the “Imperial Box” was restored after its destruction by political rebels; it also fell prey to various “modernization” efforts in 1854, 1878 and 1937.

La Fenice was, then, kind of an archaeological site when it burned most recently; its rebuilding would prove to be exceptionally challenging.  First of all, great architectural debate swayed between those who saw an opportunity for Venice to build an intentionally contemporary-looking building (a noisy minority), and those who wanted the opera rebuilt dov’era, com’era (“where it was, as it was.”)  But deciding what that meant–which vintage represented it “as it was”?–was no easy thing.  All of these concerns shrunk in the face of the complications of Italian labor issues, politics, financial scandals, and general building culture craziness.  It’s rather a monument to the architect’s office that it ever got finished.

Designed by Aldo Rossi (1931-97), the building is a reconstruction of the highest order, and dates back to the early nineteenth-century version of La Fenice.  Rossi was a profoundly smart choice: his theory of “collective memory” manifest in the buildings of a city (articulated most clearly in his L’Architettura della Città published in 1966 and translated into English as The Architecture of the City in 1982) is clearly at work in La Fenice, and struck exactly the right note for prevailing contemporary values, and even the original competition’s call for a theatre that would be “worthy” of those historic architects “of the Great Century.”  (Clio has a soft spot for Jean Nouvel and even Norman Foster on occasion, but they, and their tribe, just would not fit the bill in the city of Palladio, et al.)  Rossi was responsible for the initial design, but his participation was cut short by his untimely death in a car crash a year and a half after the fire.

Others carried out his carefully considered plans: no strident modernity; this  building is a hymn to the heyday of Venetian opera and not, as some would argue, a cosmetic, irrelevant frivolity.  Its beauty is not only skin-deep.  Some architects might have aimed for the beauty of the original but “modernized” the materials or techniques. Not Rossi’s office.  Contemporary opportunities and changing preferences in acoustic qualities are served by very traditional structural methods and finish materials.  The opera house is supported by a considerable amount of wood, including the ceiling, which is made of wooden ribs and layers of a coochio pesto (which is neither a lovely pasta dish nor the name of a small dog as you might think; it’s a special mortar).  The ornament of the ceiling, wall surfaces, gallery balustrades and columns follow the original shapes, sizes and materials including timber, stucco, and carta pesta (super-fancy papier-mache).  These materials have been employed neither out of nostalgia nor again to tempt fate, but instead to capture the particular acoustic qualities of the original auditorium.

Nine years after the fire, the opera house opened in November of 2004 with a performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which premiered in La Fenice in 1853.  Clio leaves the opera criticism to her sister Terpsichore and addresses the architecture, which is splendid.  La Fenice was more than a music box; it had a particular relationship with its surroundings and the cultural memory of Venetians.  By recreating that, Rossi healed the scar left by the fire.  And by so doing, he also preserved the specific and unique acoustic experience of this  very famous, and very special, opera house.  To rebuild in an arbitrary modernist vein for the sake of novelty would have been false to the legacy of opera in Venice, and also false to Modernism itself, since such an approach would make the building an exercise in taste and style–an adamant demand for modernity would have reduced that idiom to the exercise of cosmetic frivolity.  Also, Rossi’s design, as a return to the original vigor and beauty of the hall, is true to the name of La Fenice, which is the Italian for “The Phoenix.”

more history on La Fenice here

Technical info about the reconstruction by acoustical über-geeks Müller-BBM  here.

image: the smoking ruins of La Fenice with San Marco in the distance (from this source)


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