Death in Venice

David Chip­per­field be­queaths the city a legacy in stone with a sober ex­ten­sion of the San Michele is­land ceme­tery

Wallpaper - - Contents - pho­tog­ra­phy: Mat­tia Bal­samini writer: Christo­pher Stocks

David Chip­per­field Ar­chi­tects pare back for the post­hu­mous at San Michele

Back in 1998, David Chip­per­field Ar­chi­tects (DCA) beat 145 other con­tenders to win a global com­pe­ti­tion for an ex­ten­sion to the Vene­tian is­land ceme­tery of San Michele. Thanks to the va­garies of Ital­ian fund­ing and bu­reau­cracy, work didn’t be­gin un­til 2004. An­other 14 years on, and the sec­ond (and po­ten­tially, last) phase of a re­vised scheme – in­clud­ing a new dock to sup­ple­ment the ex­ist­ing pon­toon on the is­land’s west side, and an ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ing– is now com­plete.

San Michele has been the city’s sole burial ground since 1837, and within its wave-lapped walls lie the tombs of gen­er­a­tions of Vene­tians, as well as some il­lus­tri­ous for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing bal­let im­pre­sario Serge Di­aghilev, com­poser Igor Stravin­sky and poet Ezra Pound. Af­ter nearly 200 years of in­tern­ments, the ceme­tery was run­ning out of space, so the 1998 com­pe­ti­tion called for new colum­bar­i­ums, a chapel and a cre­ma­to­rium, plus an ad­di­tion that would have seen an en­tirely new is­land con­structed along­side the old.

Giuseppe Zampieri, de­sign di­rec­tor and part­ner of DCA Mi­lan, ex­plains the gen­e­sis of the Chip­per­field de­sign partly as a re­ac­tion to the ex­ist­ing lay­out of the site. ‘Be­ing an is­land ceme­tery in the Vene­tian la­goon, the con­di­tions of San Michele make it pretty unique,’ he says. ‘In re­cent years, how­ever, the in­creas­ingly mu­nic­i­pal char­ac­ter has be­come a con­trast to its ro­man­tic ex­te­rior. Our de­sign tried to ad­dress this im­bal­ance and re­store some of the ceme­tery’s orig­i­nal mon­u­men­tal phys­i­cal qual­i­ties. Rather than the ex­ist­ing ar­range­ment of tombs in par­al­lel rows, the scheme is a new ar­range­ment of walls en­clos­ing rec­tan­gu­lar court­yards. The walls are blind on the ex­te­rior but lined with burial re­cesses in­ter­nally to em­pha­sise this in­te­ri­or­ity and sense of in­ti­macy.’

The project was de­vel­oped in two main phases. The first el­e­ment, the Court­yard of the Four Evan­ge­lists, was com­pleted in 2007, and its de­sign – be­ing in­ter­nally sub­di­vided into smaller court­yards of dif­fer­ent sizes, with basalt walls and pave­ment in­laid with text from the four gospels – served as a pro­to­type for the sub­se­quent court­yards on the site. The sec­ond phase, com­pleted in 2017, in­cludes an os­suary in white Is­trian stone, the Court­yard of the Three Archangels, and a ser­vice build­ing in red brick. For the mo­ment, a third phase, in­clud­ing more court­yards, an os­suary and the new is­land ex­ten­sion, is still to be con­firmed, pend­ing ap­pro­pri­ate fund­ing (the city hav­ing vastly over­spent on the con­tro­ver­sial, still-un­fin­ished bar­rage that is sup­posed to pro­tect it from ma­jor floods).

Death, in Venice, has a his­tory as pic­turesque as any­thing else in this strangest and most al­lur­ing of cities. In the Mid­dle Ages, the rich were buried in

churches and the poor in campielli dei morti, or ‘lit­tle fields of the dead’, which sound deeply ro­man­tic but in re­al­ity were hellishly dank, over­crowded scraps of land. The campielli were fi­nally closed in 1837, thanks to re­forms in­tro­duced un­der the Napoleonic oc­cu­pa­tion, and the city’s de­parted be­gan to be shipped across the la­goon to San Michele, which from then on was de­voted en­tirely to the dead. Sur­rounded by high walls and shaded with cy­press trees, the is­land is a haunt­ing spot. But it’s also qui­etly lively: the pres­sure of space is such that most tombs have to be va­cated af­ter just ten to 12 years, so plots are vis­ited on a reg­u­lar ba­sis and dec­o­rated with flow­ers left by those for whom their loved ones’ mem­ory is of­ten all too fresh.

Given the re­fined mod­ernism of Chip­per­field’s de­signs, one might think that florid in­scrip­tions and flo­ral tributes would be, to use an ar­chi­tect’s cliché, un­wel­come in­ter­ven­tions. Yet Zampieri seems un­wor­ried. ‘Our de­sign is in­tended to cre­ate a gen­eral unity and a sense of dig­nity, but not to con­trol every de­tail,’ he says. ‘We have left space for in­scrip­tions and flow­ers, and we are re­laxed about how vis­i­tors will in­tro­duce their own items – though of course we hope that they find the court­yards beau­ti­ful rest­ing places that do not need too much em­bel­lish­ment.’

Chip­per­field’s clois­tered court­yards are, in­deed, dig­ni­fied and beau­ti­ful. As Zampieri points out, Venice is a city of en­closed pub­lic spa­ces, and the new build­ings on San Michele ‘of­fer a model for a se­ries of spa­ces that can be in­ter­con­nected, dif­fer­ing in size but shar­ing sim­i­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics. The is­land has been in con­stant de­vel­op­ment for 200 years, and will likely con­tinue to de­velop in the fu­ture, so it was im­por­tant to find a de­vice that can be used in vary­ing ways.’

‘Our de­sign is in­tended to cre­ate a gen­eral unity and a sense of dig­nity,’ says Zampieri

a se­ries of black con­crete colon­nades in one of the new court­yards, which are all lined with rows of burial re­cesses

left, new trees have been planted to match the rest of the is­land ceme­tery, which is dot­ted with gar­dens and cy­press treesbelow, the os­suary is made of is­trian stone, a type of non-por­ous lime­stone that is quar­ried in nearby croa­tia and has been used to build many of venice’s palaces and mon­u­ments, and line its canals

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