Henry, Venice

Your story – at least its essential moments


I was born in Padua, we’ve moved here (Venice) when I was still a kid going at scuole medie: my family is from Trentino region. I’ve been lucky in having the parents I had, they were two very keen and culturally engaged people – the father a doctor, the mother an history of art teacher at Liceo Artistico and at the Fine Arts Academy.

They were upbringing us – me and my brothers – with the values of the intellectual curiosity.


My mother was such a symbol emanating the joy of learning, as I recently recalled at her laic funeral. That aptitude to the intellectual profession, to the research and the study I see in me is coming from there.


The choice to enrol in architecture university is a bit tied to the personal interests I focused on while time passing. The great opportunity of being in Venice was embodied by the architecture school I found in town, maybe it was at its climax in the years I was a student. Great teachers were working here – as philosophers and historians or architects – and it was sounding as an excellence all around the world.


Beside the architecture school in Venice there was also an urban planning one that was the first in Italy, with its headquarter in a stunning XVIII Cent. Mansion, called Villa Franchetti (Preganziol, Treviso) that at the time the local government loaned to the faculty. Those were the years of Bernini, an old Socialist Party member.

When this school was shaped, it was immediately greeted as the first of a kind in Italy, an unicum where they were teaching ecology, the study of the territory together with social sciences, anthropology and also history of photography. Many great masters went to teach there.



What about your preferred master or masters?


They were two: when I was a student, and then graduated, my master was Bernardo Secchi (seminal Italian architect and planner, dead in Milan on 2014). He was teaching in Venice and was dealing, at that time, with regional unbalances. He was a great academic but also a great teacher. I still recall all his lessons.

He can be compared with another great teacher of those years, Tafuri (Manfredo, dead in Venice on 1994). These are the kind of teachers able to nail you down at the lesson for two hours in a row from which you exit super tired but knowing that was always worth. I still remember my final dissertation written with him.


My other great master, with whom I also worked, has been Giorgio Lombardi, architect and professor at IUAV University in Venice. It was with Lombardi, now unfortunately dead, that I started my actual research path and with him we crisscrossed also thanks to the common passion for art history (especially old art).

It is with Lombard that I focus on historical city centres and on the urban safeguard: this is the sole knowledge the Italian urban planners exported all over the world and it is still highly recognized nowadays. When it comes to urban plans, English and French professionals are very good but when we deal with ‘existing patrimonies interventions’, and especially about historical buildings, we are still the best.


Since then, I was so in this field and I was working either as researcher at the university and as consultant for international bodies (as United Nations, World Bank, European Union) with a specific focus on Latin America. This was only thanks to Giorgio Lombardi who brought me there as a ‘kid’ (i.e. when I was just a fresh graduated, I was like a kid!). All that started with a learning course for restorers (it was for the first time opened not only to mere restoration of objects but also to historical buildings in old strata of the cities) in Cuzco (Perù) where they called the Italians to teach thanks to an UNDP program (the United Nation Development Programme is a special agency of UN). From there the long liason with Latin American originated and it goes well along also today.



What they feel as emotional in the landscape might differ from what is for us.

And I’m convinced that the development strategies, especially the commercial ones, in the big cities of those countries have degrees of ‘usurpation’ of territory that also differ from ours. Am I maybe wrong, so what does it happen is absolutely the same?


It’s rather different.

We, at the time, were bringing something that was striking a lot and that sounded more or less like ‘we protect our patrimony that comprises – and is understood as – not only the monuments, as a baroque church can be, but also the minor fabric, made of raw bricks – and also some other functions of the historical city as the policies privileging the original residents.’



What do you think about architects who also deal with master plans, of the small scale (for instance to refurbish a market area that has a very important core as Miralles did for Santa Caterina in Barcelona) and of bigger ones (Koolhaas, for instance, with Sant’Elia, a district in Cagliari). Can they compete with the know-how of the planners in this field?


To compete? I do not know that, the scales are too different. But they should obviously coexist.


There is no doubt that someone gifted with a big character, as the architects you’ve quoted are, provided a good answer to a question when, indeed – and this is often unknown – there is a good local government that prepared the ‘ground’ at its best.

As for Santa Caterina: there was a very important job done by the local council that made that operation a good and successful one.


A sensitive architect is able to well translate a question and some are also able to reply in interesting ways.

Rem Koolhaas –here, now – is very popular and there was also a bit of polemics for his restoration of a Rialto Bridge nearby building, the Fondaco.

To transform that building has not been wrong, according to me. I, so, do not share that position of ‘untouchable’ being the building totally transformed and emptied of its originality before the recent restoration. If to let it host a mall, as happened, was the right answer…this I do not know.


I think that Koolhas is a provocateur but is also an architect that made the right questions on the conservation, especially a couple of Architecture Biennials ago in one of his exhibitions.

There are of course some key patrimonial values that are linked to the history and to the authorship of a building but there is also a different issue in the preservation, that is the identity and its share value. This said, a building can become ‘heritage’ even if it is not ‘old’ but is just a recognized symbol for the community hosting it.


We are also working on the same topics in our school, especially a very good young teacher (Sara Marini) who promoted, together with Pippo Ciorra (MAXXI) a new research, Re-cycle Italy: they apply the concept of recycling to architecture and to urban planning. By making it short, objects of these disciplines (especially in a period of crisis that favours the hypothesis of this research) can be radically transformed from their original use, also to economize territory. From this point of view, we can quote for instance the huge heritage of the former military compounds but also the churches that in Venice are very abundant and also quite often closed.


It must occur to be very free, we have to imagine to be enabled to transform these objects (within the protection of some values). I saw a recent project of OMA in Moscow, they transformed a bus station in a contemporary art gallery (he speaks of Dasha Zhukhova’s Garage of Contemporary Art). Why not?


The best lesson for me is always the Tadao Ando’s one, he was able to transform Punta della Dogana in a quintessential way. By valorising the few elements of what was a big warehouse in past times. He was also able to open up to us some views from the thermal windows that were, before, only used by the local workers when they’re there to load: now all of us enjoy that stunning view.



Waterfronts of some port cities but also of non port ones, and especially some work places, have been transformed because of the crisis. And when the traditional professions disappear (or better have been delocalized), those places created for those working activities are often privatized. And they are actually mostly transformed in malls.

I think to the Liverpool waterfront, for instance. In this way, the interaction with the city changes and also the reason for which people go to stroll downtown. Always in Liverpool, they designed a special art biennale to mitigate this trend and also to find some other successful reasons for the city itself – once the ‘port economy’ disappeared.

How much contemporary art inspires the urban planner – either as individual and as working group?


It has such an immense power and inspires a lot. I saw and see again the great ability of arts in being predictive. Thanks to the artists’ sensibility, we are enabled to foresee a problem or a vision, sometimes also ways to be. We should use it a bit more: it has also the power to unveil places, look at what Christo did with Iseo Lake in Italy, who was going there before?

For instance, with Re-cycle we had shown what the artists do with the disposable, with the waste.


We have a deep cultural deficit – also us, people living in Venice where since a century we have the contemporary art Biennale – toward the contemporary culture and its valorisation.

We here get a negative weight back from history; with the certainty that we are sons of the Renaissance we are losing occasions to understand the propulsion of the contemporary.

We have the luck to have a teacher as Antoni Muntadas among the faculty members of Visual Arts Department of our university: he gifts us his visions and the application of creativity on urban realm.



He mainly works with language that in contemporary art is one of the hardest frontiers


He is a small lighthouse for all of us.



Urban planning is often tied with political sphere and I also remind something icing as the red pencil used by Stalin or other weird calculations. The relation with cubic meters, the urban plans…Is that a scientific or a social role?


It is a very fragile social-cultural task. Until the 80ies, at least in this country but not exclusively, the urban planner was facing a political sphere acting as mediator with social motions (and also as their interpreter). Majors and councillors were representing those requests via the democratic vote. So the motions were coming from the social body, not from the technician, the urban planner, called to put them in practice.

Nowadays urban planners often dialogue directly with the social realities. A strong element of their balance is the general interest, the ‘public city’, while dealing with the change of the existing fabrics.



What about participatory planning practices and the change they get more institutionalised?

I have now in mind works of artists and carpenters as Assemble Studio (awarded at Turner Prize) who work with urban spaces and collect motions of citizen that are transformed in designing performances producing real changes given their inner nature, sometimes also producing political shifts. And, further, the work of artist Atelier Van Lieshout, who some years ago created an autonomous, temporary republic in the harbour of Rotterdam that was provided also of a currency and a constitution. It dwelled few months before being discovered and of course shut down. When arts create an urban function…


It is exactly what we focus on in our research, we call it ‘temporary function’. The ‘spontaneous’ gatherings who occupy abandoned spaces and nominate different uses are seminal – also in this city there are specific actions going on under used or deprived islands, it is also interesting what a working group is doing at San Nicoletto (Lido).

We observe these actions with keen attention because they offer solutions that quite often the urban planner does not see but more in general they give value to something currently underestimated – the design. Giving value to the potential energy of the designing invention. By also gifting new interpretation means and by giving answers to apparently irreconcilable situations.


Regarding to how to transform the contemporary world, I quote two laws that, although written in a cold and bureaucratic language, are very interesting: the European Landscape Convention that radically changed the sector by introducing the concept of ‘landscape as territory’ and ‘everyday landscape’. And the UNESCO 2011 Recommendation on the urban historical landscape, on which I work at the UNESCO teaching at IUAV.



Which is one of the books you reading now and that lies on your desk?


As you can imagine I have a series of work texts, included the ones I was quoting before. But I have also physics books: I believe very much in crossing knowledge, never as today.



What do you like to eat and drink?


If I answer to you now with something, tomorrow it will be different. I love to cook the risotto à la Lombardo-Veneta façon (for instance with radicchio or with mushrooms), I enjoy it a lot. When it comes to eat, further the risotto I like also meat and I’m very eager of eggs cooked in any variety possible.



What Venice gives to you and what do you give back to it (I cannot separate the citizen and the urban planner in this question, of course)


Venice is still giving me back, does not matter what happens, a physical and urban dimension of great relaxation and great aesthetic pleasure. It is possible, and sometime necessary, to leave it – at least for a given duration. Even if I love the act of returning to it, every time I come back from my journeys. Especially the first two weeks since I’ve returned back are honey.


I do not know what I gift back, I tried to give a lot and I tend to become a bit pessimist. I think is difficult to give something even if I do it the same in some way but…the changes occurred to Venice are so big that you can give everything you like and you’re not anymore producing a shift. Of course, I am well available to give suggestions, opinions: the fact is that the city itself does not react anymore.

The actual political situation has to reply to elective interests that are of a disheartening narrow-mindedness. Going back to the ’60 and the ‘70ies here we had a class of professionals and intellectuals who were really provided of some good ideas and the political milieu was mirroring them. The actual political class reacts to very low interests. The sole solution I envision for Venice is a military occupation by the Marines. It is very hard. I would leave the task to who is provided with more energy.



A talent you think to have and the one you would love to have


My best capacity is maybe the interaction, the attention and the dialogue, so the inclusiveness. Also with who is very different from me. I am quick to understand the cultural thinking that is diverse, that’s why I work more internationally.

The talent I would wish? It’s better to give it up. I always wished to be a baritone.



What did you learn until now?


I have to fight the fact that I tend to trust only to myself. I started to understand that doing so I lose potential realities I was not able to activate and so I have to stop it!



Venice helps a lot to trust just in ourselves…



I met Henry by chance, I ended in sitting beside him at a very interesting international meeting (of the series of LSE URBAN AGE, this one was held in Venice on July 2016 within the local Architecture Biennale). I was attending to listen to the answers of the various politicians invited.


This interview has been collected many months after – a long and light talk of very weighting themes and topics discussed with a not literate agent as me in his matters. It was taking place in a very crowded Venetian bar located in the district we both inhabit.


Enrico is an urban planner and teaches at IUAV, from 1978 he collaborates with the major international institutions and organizations. From 2006 he is pro-rettore of the university where he teaches and is the International relation officer.


To know more about Re-Cycle Italy: http://www.quodlibet.it/libro/9788874628940

Leave a Reply