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Gehry/Lewis Film Shown at Venice Architecture School

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The bell tower of the church of Angelo Raffaele in Venice

Tuesday, December 11, 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.

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The Lion column in front of the church of Nicolo dei Mendicoli dates from the 7th Century. The Architecture school is in the background housed in an old cotton mill

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.

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The bridge over the canal leads over to the 7th Century church of Nicolo dei Mendicoli

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.

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The balcony of the Venice Architecture school auditorium with the 60 ft. ceiling and the acoustics of a barn

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.

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http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Don_t_Look_Now/60024023?trkid=189530&strkid=1751672936_0_0 – afternavigation

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.

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For copies of the DVD visit A Constructive Madness.com or send an email to tom@telos.tv

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!

9 Responses to “Gehry/Lewis Film Shown at Venice Architecture School”

  1. Tom,
    Thanks for this very interesting blog. I hope you keep it up.
    But just a few comments: The School of Architecture is not part of the University of Venice. They are two separate institutions. Also dating San Nicolò to the VII century is a bit misleading. The church was, indeed, founded in the VII by settlers from Padua, considerably before Venice itself was founded. Very little, if anything, is left of the original structure. The present church, however, is XII century, with some later additions. Inside the church there are a few pieces of woodwork that are thought to date from the original VII church.

  2. Thanks for the clarifications Bruce! I was a mere 500 years off on the correct dating of the church. I think the region around the church has an amazing history. Something about the Nicoleti gang or clan, and I guess they even had their own doge at one point. Anyway, it is unquestionably old, even by Venetian standards, but thank you for clarifying that almost everything you see is from the twelfth – fourteenth not the seventh century. The restoration project by Venice in Peril is described here:

    http://www.veniceinperil.org/projects/pastprojects/dorsoduro.htm

  3. Dear Tom,

    Your description of Venice, the lovely pictures, and tips for great movies like “Don’t Look Now” (don’t miss the tiny actress played by “Adelina”)brought memories of that gorgeous city where we first met Catherine. However, your portrayal of the fascinating Contessa “Tudy” and her monkey Bobo may me think that she could be the perfect hostess for a tour of Venice, filmed by you naturally…Closed doors to the public open to reveal the lucky “visitor” unseeing wonders to the viewer, while Tudy and Bobo let you in…(I guess Bobo remained in Africa, but it certainly will make an impression)..Congratulations about the film! What a great response from the audience. I was an architecture student briefly once, and felt the passion of the subject.
    Bravo!

    Juan

  4. Dear Thomas,
    We must meet Tudy next time we’re in Venice! Does she give audiences to visitors? and so what if you’re off by 500 years on a building’s age. At least in Venice they have preserved architecture long enough that you can make the mistake. As always your writing style is absorbing and captivating. Thank You!
    Your personal cartoonist,
    Alfred

  5. Tom,

    Great to have your blog to read. I hope this is the first of many. Really loved reading about the showing of your film and also about your Neighborhood and neighbors. Hope to see you back in Venice soon.

  6. Dear Tom,

    How fun that everyone (not just the chosen few) can now read your prose. Loved it as usual and thrilled that the architecture students enjoyed the film as well. It’s a great piece of work.

    Love you, Caroline T.

  7. Dear Tom,

    Happy 2008 to you and Catherine! LOVE the new blog (couldn’t have done it better myself ;) and I truly look forward to more of your colorful stories in the new year. Congrats of the successful lecture and please continue to keep us posted on the extraordinary madcap adventures of Ms. Tudy.

    acclamazioni!

  8. Tommaso -

    So happy to see your writings have become bloggified. Now, wherever we are, we can have access to a little bit of Tommaso’s Venezia. It’s always a treat when it’s next time again. Felice Nuovo Anno!

  9. Tom,

    Now I can get a touch of Tommaso whenever I need. Of course a touch is never enough. Here’s to living large. And Monica Vitti.

    XOOX, Laura