Louis Kahn and Venice - ISPLORA

Louis Kahn and Venice


Kahn’s project and lesson for the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice on display in Mendrisio

The exhibition Louis Kahn and Venice

The exhibition “Louis Kahn and Venice” opened a few weeks ago at the Theater of Architecture of Mendrisio, examining closely, or rather revealing the relationship between the American architect and the city of Venice. The exhibition, open until January 20, 2019, was curated by Elisabetta Barizza and Gabriele Neri and was promoted by the academy of Architecture, the University of Italian Switzerland (USI) and the Foundation of the Theater of Architecture of Mendrisio. It is not a coincidence that the exhibition, in addition to its intrinsic value, also represents the inauguration of the program of the new Theater of Architecture of USI designed by Mario Botta and completed in February.

The topic of the exhibition: Louis Kahn’s project for Venice

The subject at the center of the exhibition – from which it unravels – is the project for the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice. Despite the fact that it was never built, Kahn’s project was the result of an intense analytical work carried out between 1968 and 1972, which is retraced through different tools and sources: models, plans, drawings and sketches of Venice seen through Kahn’s eyes, photographs, video-installations, letters and other documents, some unpublished, from numerous international archives and private collections, including The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice and the Sue Ann Kahn Collection in New York. All these documents contribute to the recreation of a microcosm, not only a project but a true architecture lesson: the reconstruction of the design process made of a dense network of relations and deviations, according to the meaning given by Bruno Latour.

Exhibition itinerary and sections

The itinerary winds along the three levels of the Theater in a symbiotic relationship with the architecture which houses it, around the centralized circular space.

On the ground floor, in the middle of the court designed by Botta is a large scale model – with great visual impact – of the city of Venice, while on the walls around it are images of Kahn, his trips to the Lagoon and sketches of the project for the congress center. Moving upwards along the circular walls, you reach the first floor, where the relationship between the city and the architect becomes manifest: the calle, the bridges, the facades, Saint Mark’s Square, details of buildings, proportions and colors which tell the story of a complex and productive relationship, Luis Kahn’s glance and his interpretation of Venice. A study which, as highlighted by the exhibition, will lead him to use elements of the city in his projects, in some ways like the fragments of Calvino’s invisible cities which reconstruct the imaginary city for Kublai Kahn. So we might find a bit of Venice also in Dhaka, Saint Mark’s Basilica in the Bangladesh Parliament Square.

Echoes which continue on the following level of the exhibition, where the protagonist is Venice in its exchange and relationship – often not easy – with modernity and its protagonists. This section in fact includes unbuilt projects by Le Corbusier (the hospital) and Frank Lloyd Wright (Masieri Memorial) for Venice, the only one missing is the one by Noguchi (1970) for the park between the sea and the lagoon in Jesolo.

It is no coincidence that the other figure in this narration of Kahn and Venice is Carlo Scarpa, who in 1972 curated the 36th International Art Exhibition in Venice and the exhibition “Four projects for Venice” with the four modern architects and their projects, acknowledging their value and innovative capacity. Kahn and Scarpa had already cooperated in the previous 34th Art Exhibition in 1968, also thanks to Giuseppe Mazzariol, another important figure in this story. Mazzariol, an art historian and politician, was the one to choose the American architect for the project of the Palazzo dei Congressi on behalf of the Venice tourist office to promote the idea of Venice as a cultural meeting place, a place where West meets East.

The visit ends on the third and last floor, with the focus on Kahn’s project and the plans clearly show the different building elements, the references to Venice, the dialog with the context and its feasibility in the meeting/clash with the engineer August Komendant.  

The project and its anecdotes

The project reveals not only the goal to create a meeting point: shaped as a bridge, a theater inside and a square outside, but also a conflicting project. A journey made of screeching halts and sudden changes, both in the composition aspects and mainly in the shifting political intentions, which first moved the project site from the Giardini  to the Arsenal (1972), before stopping the entire operation.

Kahn and Venice: the modern architect and the lagoon city

Going down the stairs which lead to the entrance one cannot but rethink about the exhibition, about the different relations put in place by the exhibition and its layout. The result is a diptych, or even better a series: Kahn and Venice, the modern architect and the lagoon city, the American architect and the other modern architects who passed through Venice, apparently without leaving any trace. If you broaden this interpretation, what emerges is a dichotomy which opposes the profession and teaching, the relationship between Kahn and Botta, not only the theater “in the round” of the Palazzo dei Congressi with the “anatomical” theater designed by Botta for USI, the teacher and the student (Botta will cooperate with Kahn on the Venetian project). The common mark is the idea of architecture seen as a laboratory and an occasion for comparison, not only of what could have been and was not.

What remains is the memory and the past in their encounter with a different idea of future.  

Dichotomies: Louis Kahn and Venice

The project for the Palazzo dei Congressi on display in Mendrisio The exhibition “Louis Kahn and Venice” opened at the Theater of Architecture in Mendrisio, examining closely, or rather revealing the relationship between the American architect and the city of Venice. It spans the three floors of the Theater of Architecture by Botta, thoroughly investigating the project and opening up to new interpretations.  


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