Fondaco dei Tedeschi

By Jason Dibbs

Fondaco dei Tedeschi, OMA
Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti
 

OMA’s Fondaco dei Tedeschi restoration project in Venice deftly explores the issue of material and programmatic architectural histories in one of the world’s most culturally charged arenas.

The design team, led by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and Rem Koolhaas, has rediscovered the vitality of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi — a building it believes ‘quietly embodies Venice’s secret brutality.’

From its prime position adjacent to the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi has undergone many incarnations in its turbulent architectural history. First built in the 13th century, the Fondaco — a term of Arabic origin denoting a ‘storehouse’ — was reconstructed in the 16th century after catastrophic fires, resulting in the four-floor, Italian Renaissance-style structure that largely persists to this day. Ornate porticos of classical proportions surround an impressive courtyard. Once home to Venice’s German merchants, the Tedeschi, the Fondaco’s program was historically composed of a palace, warehouses, marketplace, and 160 separate residential quarters.

Around the turn of the 19th century, the German merchants absconded with the Napoleonic occupation of Venice; under Mussolini in the 20th century, the Fondaco became the office of the Poste Italiane. During this period, large swathes of the structure were reconstructed with concrete. In 2008, the Benetton Group acquired the Fondaco; its plan to transform the historic marketplace into a 21st-century ‘shopping center’ was met with protests and controversy.

OMA’s restoration and renovation of the Fondaco have been executed in a way that reveals more than five-centuries of varied construction techniques, preserving an important ‘historical palimpsest of modern substance.’ The key to the connection and archaeological-style framing of these historical architectural moments is OMA’s eclectic circulation strategy. Much in the manner in which Venice’s labyrinthine canals, alleys, squares, and bridges provide the glue that binds the city as a bricolage of architectural objects, so too do porticos, corridors, stairwells, escalators and a piazza tie the new Fondaco together.

OMA’s oeuvre of civic projects is characterized by a careful interplay between public and private thresholds, and in this regard, the Fondaco remains true to form. Escalators create new public thoroughfares, while traditional shortcuts through the building have been retained. The internal courtyard piazza remains publicly accessible to pedestrians, as does a new rooftop area comprised of glass and steel and timber, hovering over the piazza and framing views over the ‘City of Bridges.’

While many celebrated aspects of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi have disappeared over the centuries — chief among them frescoes and artworks by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Giorgione — OMA’s restoration has resurrected other areas, such as the gallery walls, ready for contemporary artistic interpretation. Other historic elements, such as corner rooms, have been preserved in the condition they were found.

The cultural vitality and architectural history of the Fondaco has been reactivated under Laparelli’s and Koolhaas’s expert guidance, creating an architecture that is so much more than a mere ‘shopping center’ or hermetically preserved artifact. The new Fondaco embodies the very best of the living and breathing history that has enchanted visitors in Venice over the centuries.