December 22, 2007
It’s next time again.
One of the best parts of living here in Venice is where we actually live. If you draw a tight circle around St. Mark’s square and then concentric circles around that first one, the number of tourists (can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em) diminishes by half the further out you get. By the time you get out to the circle enclosing the church of San Sebastiano, and the Angelo Raffaele, which you overlook from our windows, the only tourists you get are curious Brits with sensible shoes and a guidebook on a quest for Veroneses. (Veronese is buried in San Sebastiano and the 500 year old church is filled with his works.) Our neighborhood, on the far western edge of the Zattere, is filled with run down fisherman’s houses and some people we know call it “the real Venice.” A “contessa” we know, who used to live in a very wonderful building up on the top floor of a palazzo on the grand canal, used to call it that. Her “sofito” (loft) was a gorgeous space, filled with books and pictures; her bed, in a low ceilinged dormer, looked out over the world famous domes of San Salute, but when the hundred or so wicked spiral stone steps, some of them with risers over a foot, got to be too much for her, she decided to move over to “the real Venice” and has become our neighbor and guide to all things authentically Venetian.
Another great thing about the neighborhood is the University and a big part of the University is the Architecture School. (see clarification below) There are lots of young people here, with their heavy backpacks and portfolios and long drafting tubes and often you see them in small groups carrying the pieces of architectural site plans to present in class. Think about it. If you had worked on your project model and it was the size of a medium sized carpet how would you get it to class without a car? You would have designed it in pieces and called up your friends to help you carry it to class on this distinctive architectural pilgrimage. After living here more than a decade, I am finally going to present one of my films about Frank Gehry and the odyssey of the Peter Lewis House to the Architecture School and it seemed like a perfect topic to write up and share as the first installment of a regular Blog. The film is all about the significant support which Peter Lewis (former CEO of Progressive Insurance and former Chairman of the Guggenheim) gave to Frank Gehry in a crucial decade of Gehry’s development. The house project was never completed but the research conducted through the patronage of Lewis found its way into built projects around the world.
The Architecture School is housed in an old cotton mill. I went over there the other day to find a bustling academic city within a gigantic building. Wayfinding signage was well done with characteristic European architectural charm. Giant letters of the alphabet mark the various sectors of the city; getting around in this hubbub is sort of like visiting an aeroporto. I came last week to make sure the technical aspect of things was going to work. We found section “F” and the proper group of teachers and entered a gigantic one story classroom under a twenty foot ceiling and broad well-designed desk platforms which stretched in rows from one side of the bare brick room to the other. The room was filled with about 50 architecture students busy with notes and books and models and drafting supplies. My film on Frank Gehry was set up to play at the front of the room off of a Dell computer that had cheap big speakers attached. I was informed this computer was the only machine that would play back an American DVD. (DVD’s come in various flavors and there are sometimes compatibility boundaries, and the inevitable hacks around them.)
They put on the film, the students looked up from their desktops and I walked to the back of the classroom to see how bad the playback audio sounded. The picture looked OK, not great and, as expected, the audio was terrible. I came back up to my welcoming committee and politely asked how many students we expected for the showing. They said, “About a hundred.” I, as diplomatically as I could, said the setup was not really up to such a big job and inquired about the possibility of an auditorium space? I had the foresight to ask the question in architectural terms. I suppose I had sort of picked up the intellectual vibes in the room. “Is there maybe a space where we could show the film which was architecturally designed for presentations to one hundred or more people?” “You mean like the auditorium?” I nodded. Lots of head bobbing, whispering, gnashing of teeth and the inevitable accompanying hand gestures. “You mean to show the film?” Another nod from me and considerably more frenetic consultation. The clouds of indecision and confusion parted, the rays of light shone from above, and in a minor miracle of inspiration, off we went to check out the auditorium! A very serious and important conference was underway but we tip-toed in to take an ochiatta (little look) and without a doubt this was the preferred way to go. Pressing my good fortune I asked if there was an actual DVD player to use for the job and miraculously one of those appeared and after the testing it was pronounced adequate for the job.The auditorium of the Architecture school is a terrible room for acoustics.
The 60-foot ceiling and the counter-intuitive reverse sloping main floor make if far from ideal, but at least it seemed professional. It was also a challenge for those outside the school to find. I provided church directions for friends who wanted to attend the screening. Church directions are always reliable and it is a part of life over here. Instead of saying, “Three blocks past the Dunkin’ Donuts” or, “You know where the Starbucks is?” You say, “Right across from the church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli. . .”San Nicolo is literally one of the oldest churches in Venice. It dates from the 7th century. (more correctly the twelfth century – see qualification below) It seems sort of shabby to ignore the first fourteen hundred years of its history and jump into the age of Hollywood but the church was more recently made famous with the horror film Don’t Look Now starring a brooding Julie Christie and a hirsute Donald Sutherland in a dreamy wonderfully scary film set in Venice by Nicholas Roeg (1974). Donald Sutherland plays an art restorer who is working on the Church of San Nicolo. The Brit organization, Venice in Peril (great name) was restoring the church and one assumes the film makers gave them a huge contribution to include their actual restoration project in the plot. Here is a Netflix link to the film, if you haven’t seen it, order it. It is moody, scary, well acted and has foggy, evocative scenes of Venice. The entire film is worth the profile shot of Julie Christie (her perfect posture never more gorgeously displayed) dressed all in black mourning clothes, standing in a funeral gondola on her way to the cemetery island of San Michele.
The lecture and film showing about Gehry was made possible by our neighbor who is a fascinating woman and seems to know everyone in Venice. She is a Venetian aristocrat, the Contessa Theodora Samartini, is known as Tudy. Tudy is a total trip and gets you in anywhere; closed churches, restricted palazzos, cloistered masterpieces in restoration. Off Limits! Vorshicht Bitte! No Access! Bring it on! Closed to the public doesn’t mean a damn thing Tudy, she’s NOT the public; she brought Bernard Berenson his tea at his Florentine villa I Tatti when she was twelve. She lived on a plantation in Africa and had a monkey named Bobo. She goes where she wants when she wants. Show Tudy a velvet rope and she gives a totally Italian shrug, combined with a gutteral “phssaug”- she waves her magic wand of a cigarette and suddenly you are inside with an astonished looking guard blinking back at you wondering what hit him.Tudy is old enough to give you anecdotes about anyone you would care to know about. Her name-dropping is as charming as it is awe-inspiring. “I don’t know where I put those sketches of a mule Le Corbusier gave to me.” “I don’t know why they asked me to pose with supermodel Suzie Parker in California.” “Where on earth did Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni find that case of peasant Calvados brandy to give to me?” You get the idea.
Tudy arranged the lecture with consummate skill. First was the gracious lunch with the prestigious retired professors in their living room with the 15th c. gothic windows overlooking the Piazza Santa Margherita. Then calls to the newspapers. Then introductions to her classmate from the Architecture school. This was a done deal before it even began. With the two large combined classes of Architecture students and the friends and guests and the curious, the auditorium was filled on both the main floor and the balcony with about 150 people.I have attended lots of lectures here in Italy for various art events and cultural gatherings. They usually involve a long table of experts who drone on and on in rapid fire Italian with bad microphone technique. See me now, bewildered, as I look up into a sea of expectant and attentive faces with the recognition I have become one of these boring droners on a dais. Thank god for the lovely and brilliant, Gilda, sitting next to me. She is a slim and attractive architecture student with close cropped dark hair who looks at me with attentive brown eyes and who has been assigned to me as a translator and speaks better English than I do.
The professors up on the dais all have long insight-filled comments about the film delivered in Italian which blurs past me like looking at scenery from the window of a high speed train. Gilda, in sotto voce whispers, only translates the last part of the long journey of their comments, as they finally slow down and pull into a question. “Do you think Gehry’s interiors feel as provocative as his curvy exteriors?” “Do you think the theatricality of Gehry’s buildings overwhelms their function?”Gilda does an amazing job with my often convoluted answers. She has no problem with difficult phrases like, “interstitial spaces” or “peripheral vision.” As I stumble along trying to find the right English word for the digitizing wand Gehry’s people use to translate his physical models into the computer, she cleverly suggests “un braccio mechanico” – a mechanical arm. Brilliant! We discuss how a Gehry building relates to the existing buildings around him (Gehry is a very good neighbor). We examine Gehry’s use of materials (more stone than you think). We discuss how an architect for a house is often making lifestyle decisions for a client (although Gehry denies this). We talk about the similarities between making a film and designing a building (the devil is in the details). It is this last question which perhaps deserves some further explanation.
There is a simpatico feeling I get working with architects. I suppose, one cannot have had the profound privilege of working with, interviewing and editing such an impressive architect as Frank Gehry and not have something rub off on you. It is one of the perks of the job to spend so much time with these people; both real time and electronic time in the edit suite. Architects and Filmmakers both have clients, they design, they create and they build. There is a similar intellectual component to the job and a whole bunch of decision making, hoping that your work creates the effect for which you are striving. Alfred Hitchcock said after he made the film in his mind actually making it was always a compromise. This got a chuckle from the students. It seems an appropriate thought for a documentary about an unbuilt house.
After sitting through an entire hour of the film with its heavy concept and horrible sounding audio, the brave audience sits and attentively asks questions for more than another hour! The professoressa is shocked. “Usually, they just get up and leave after the movie.” It reminds me of what is so darned attractive about architects and students of architecture; it is their “enthusiasmo!”, their intellectual curiosity and their marvelous attention span. Realizing I’ve stretched yours beyond my welcome . . .
Until next time, with enthusiasmo!