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This project is made in collaboration with Robida and was our contribution for the Exploratorium and the Cahiers of the Dutch Research Program Who is We for the Architecture biennale.
Essay by Matteo Vianello


For the Exploratorium we have researched and investigated the possibilities for a radical new garden on the former site of the 19th century Orto Botanico di San Giobbe, in Venice. The site has long been abandoned since it has been used for various other functions, only recently witnessing the possibility of its first partial transition from private to public use. The existing condition of an enclosed and inaccessible space has been the drive for a virtual exploration, which leads us to envision contemporary contextualization of botanical garden typology according to the current landscape theories. By speculating over the content of this inaccessible space, the challenge has been to glimpse beyond the garden’s walls the future of Orto Botanico, as a contemporary public space still charged of pedagogical values for ecological and urban thoughts.

1 – From this essay’s point, the author will refer to ex orto Botanico by this expression.
2 – After Napoleonic foundation of Orto Botanico in 1810, the first spatial transformation happened in 1866, when the company Maschinenbauer Schwartkopff settled up a torpedo factory that remained in function until the beginning of 1900s. Later, the ex Orto Botanico was acquired by the Italian Electric Company (ENEL), which has kept its property for a century. During this last period a consistent part of the vegetation was inevitably compromised.
3 – Since the second half of 20th century, universities and municipality’s interest in the area brought to the production of several urban projects, with the aim to plan San Giobbe integration with the surrounding urban tissue. In 1959, the north-west side bank was chosen as a project site for the new city hospital. The project was commissioned to Le Corbusier in 1964, but after the architect’s death and the decrease of interest in the project, the whole process was aborted in 1978
4 – The early season of Venice’s industrialization affected several sides of the city, specifically on the island’s borders: Giudecca, Castello, Dorsoduro (Santa Marta). Since the building of the train bridge (1840), Cannaregio began a massive urban transformation. From a rural, partially unbuilt area, it started to host several industrial settlements, attracted by the close distance with the train station and the terraferma.
5 – In 1980, architecture historian Francesco Dal Co curated a call for projects for the area of Cannaregio Ovest, inviting notable architects from those year’s debate. Among many: John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Carlo Aymonino, Aldo Rossi, Gianugo Polesello. Dal Co’s aim was to revitalize the architectural debate related to Cannaregio Ovest leftover spaces through a series of speculative projects, able to re-caliber the relationship between the ‘constraints of reality’ and the architectural thoughts.

act one. misreading of an urban leftover

As one of the crucial objects of the Venetian political and urban debate, the ex-orto Botanico of san Giobbe is now an abandoned surface alongside the train station of Venezia Santa Lucia, in the North-West side of the Sestiere Cannaregio. Despite its name, the ex Orto Botanico1 kept its former use only for the first five decades, hence being used for industrial functions for the rest of its history2 . Differently from similar and liminal areas which were refurbished and connected to the city in different phases3 , the ex Orto Botanico remained thus detached from the urban surroundings for almost a century. Because of this, the ex Orto Botanico is considered (together with other areas in the historic center such as Ex Area Gasometri and the Arsenale) one of the last leftover spaces produced by the dismantling in the early industrial season of Venice4 . The local architectural debate started to focus on this space since the last decades of 20th century, speculating on its possible development especially at the time of its industrial dismissal5 . Whilst the majority of architectural proposals were interpreting the ex Orto Botanico as an undefined empty urban void, the former garden typology remained mainly unconsidered and forgotten until the early 2000s. The acquisition by the Venice municipality6 established a long term conversion from private to public use, by setting a series of projectual prescriptions which aimed finally at recovering the former function of the historical garden, ‘as much as possible closer to the original Orto Botanico’7 . Whilst different negotiations between the city’s institution and private investors failed8 , the municipality’s nowadays requests to raise a series of questions at the halfway between the urban policies, landscape and the ecological plans.

6 – ‘In 2003 the ENEL Company, following the dismissal of the industrial activity of ex Orto Botanico, has suggested to the City of Venice to prepare an Urban Redevelopment Plan, whose new town planning tool has allowed the valorization of the entire real estate compendium, changing the destination of use from industrial to residential, commercial and partly directional.’
7 – From the NTA Normative prescriptions VPRG/P.P.7 regarding the area of ex Orto Botanico (translation by the author):  GENERAL OBJECTIVE: Recovery of the unity of the space to be allocated to garden, possibly with the characteristics of the botanical garden nineteenth century. [...] Demolition without reconstruction of all other buildings and recovery of the botanical garden design in the resulting open space. [...]
COMPATIBLE USE DESTINATIONS: For buildings to be recovered: executive offices, educational or cultural equipment. For the open space, the destination as close as possible to the “botanical garden” function, with the possibility of total or partial public use.
8 – At the time of this writing, the Venice municipality (02.06.2020) decided to postpone the validity of the urban prescriptions for ex Orto Botanico until 2023. Although the area seems intended to remain mainly public, a private investor appeared willing to fulfill the municipality prescriptions, refurbishing the garden and building a mix of social and private housing.
9 – rom Benvenuti R., La pavimentazione nei campi: l’intervento a S. Giacomo dell’Orio (translation by the author): ‘The fields of Venice, originally were not paved. Except for the main paths, the rest was left to grass in the other areas. Before trachite the terracotta was adopted, as can be seen in some fields of the city (for example, Campo della Madonna dell’Orto, Campo dell’Abbazia della Misericordia, private courts). The paving in trachite came into use in Venice around the XVI-XVII century, for reasons of solidity and urban decoration. At first some main routes were paved, called salizade, then campi and, later, the calli.’

10 – Until the XVIII century, Venice would have appeared more ‘green’, rural and less urbanized. Several cultivated fields, usually owned by monasteries, were settled mainly in the peripheral sides of the city, which still keep nowadays the original toponymy (San Francesco della Vigna, Madonna dell’Orto). The same city’s areas were hosting as well some private gardens used by the venetian aristocracy. 
11 – By witnessing the remarkable anthropic effort to found and stabilize the native muddy islands’ terrain, any portion of ground was subjected to physical and conceptual speculation, thus shaping uses and typologies of the city’s green surfaces. That is probably why rather than a collective space, Venetian gardens are nowadays mainly private, enclosed, and thus privileged spaces.
12 – See Doria, E., Venezia “semi-capitale”. La teoria sugli “stabilimenti pubblici” e il caso dell’Orto Botanico (1806-1887), PhD dissertation in History of Arts, Università Cà Foscari-Iuav, 2015.
13 – As mentioned before, the monastery’s typology was to be ideal since it often included cultivated area.
14 – From Doria, E., Venezia “semi-capitale”. La teoria sugli “stabilimenti pubblici” e il caso dell’Orto Botanico (1806-1887) (translation by the author): ‘During the Napoleonic years, especially in the panorama of studies on France and Italy in the period of the Empire, the botanical gardens appear to refer to the artistic themes of the “picturesque” and the construction of the landscape founded on a ‘vision organique du monde’. More generally, the projects for gardens, promenades and public parks, underline the late-Enlightenment idea of the reproducibility of the ‘magnificence of nature’ in urban space.’
15 – The Orto Botanico was founded in 1807 and it was originally linked to the foundation of the Foscarini lyceum, in the Sestiere of Cannaregio. The site, formerly occupied by the monastery of San Giobbe, also included cultivated land attached to the cloister structure. 

16 – From A. de Ferrière, De la statistique, et partieulièrment de l’opération ordonnée en l’an IX sous le nom de statistique générale de la France, ms., s.d. (début 1806), in Archives Nationales de Paris, F20 101: ‘[...] Le statisticien doit s’attacher à «décrire un Etat ... comme un botaniste habile décrit une plante, dont il constate tous caractères sans les altérer» [...]. Pour composer son tableau, le territoire de la France est donc au statisticien ce qu’est au naturaliste l’espace de l’herbier, de la collection ou du jardin botanique: «l’espace où se combinent et se déploient les classements» […]’

act two. campi e giardini

The decision to recover the ex Orto Botanico implies a contemporary contextualization of its historical role as a green, public space within the city. If on one hand, Venice’s forma urbis reveals a dense constellation of small and enclosed green surfaces, on the other it is rare to find cases in which these ones are accessible to public use. It is possible to say that public parks do not belong to the deepest spatial habits and cultures of the islands, by putting in discussion the contemporary tendency to identify public spaces with green surfaces and urban landscapes. Despite the name campo (in Italian, ‘field’), Venetians meet and spend their time on the urban pavements made of trachite stones, hardly reaching a green public area.
Venetian green surfaces’ typologies in Venice belongs to two different historical chapters. Whilst the urban historical development could be addressed as one of the causes which let to the privatization of city’s gardens, the breed of the venetian public parks matched with the arrival of modernity, during the Napoleonic domination. Since the complete pavementation of calli and campi came9 alongside with the complete saturation of the historical islands around Canal Grande10 , the subsequent urban saturation gradually reduced and privatized the majority of green surfaces11 . Walls became the architectural elements which define the nature of Venetian gardens, enclosing them from the city and until nowadays avoiding its perception from the public space. A radical change of paradigms came with Napoleon’s invasion and the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, which led to a massive urban transformation which was inspired by the idea of ‘magnificenza civile’12 . With the aim to communicate through architectural interventions the cores of late-Enlightenment philosophy, Napoleon promoted the birth of new, institutionalized urban policies: the democratization of the public space, the central presence of the institution and the government in urban transformations, the abolishment of religious monasteries in favor of schools, Lyceums and theatres13.

act three. orto botanico

As other cultural places settled by the Napoleonic urban transformations, botanical gardens were loaded with a relevant political, ecological and urban meaning. Historically speaking, they were spatial consequences of positivist and colonialist thoughts, witnessing to us those year’s conceptions over the physical environment 14. Moreover, botanical gardens had as well a deep pedagogical aim in exhibiting ideas over landscape and nature. Indeed, the research and teaching of botany (mandatory in french lyceums)15 reflected the post-Enlightened approach towards reality, which was markedly encyclopedic. Intended them as tools for systematizing and rationalizing the physical environment, the taxonomic approach of herbariums were considered suitable not only in botanical sciences, but as well in the management of the city16 .

Whilst the historical conceptions behind these relationships are now evidently outdated, the botanical garden’s relevance in the socio-political and didactic context could remain valid still nowadays. Therefore, the architectural interventions which will transform the existing space of ex Orto Botanico should be alongside followed by a radical contextualization of botanical gardens’ historical socio-political meanings. Thus, the botanical garden could conserve its pedagogical task in exhibiting the evolution of our thoughts over the environment, from the past deterministic conceptions over nature until the ‘moving’ and autonomous behavior of contemporary landscape theories.
Rather than embracing the fixity and rigidity of herbariums, the ex Orto Botanico could now be a place where to learn from the precarious and ever changing attitude of the plants, becoming a conceptually innovative garden in which humans cease to have a dominant role over the physical environment.

epilogue. virtual explorations

This research has been settled from a series of physical constraints which avoided (from the beginning, until now) any possibility of physical encounter with the research object and its related historical information. Several aspects caused this impossibility, from the existing inaccessibility to the project site until the current restrictions due to Covid-19 pandemic. Despite these unquestionable limitations, we rather chose to consider them as the starting point for the project. Speaking about the historical research of the site, this current historical period has radically affected our methodologies and possibilities of investigation over the city and its spaces. If the premise behind Exploratorium was already to settle a virtual collaboration between different European realities, what happened in the last month has forced to radicalize the role of the ‘digital’ as the place of research and collective work. Indeed, since the work team was forced to be remained splitted between Amsterdam, Venice, Ljubljana and Topolò, the project development took individual trajectories which were running parallel one to each other, with the chance to meet only through skype calls and emails. Whilst we could not have access to physical archives and libraries in Venice, the research on the web led us to discover how much Orto Botanico was crucial in the political debate for the development of Venice. Unexpectedly, by collecting news articles and technical documents from the municipality, it has been possible to retrace the Orto Botanico’s history by unveiling its complex relationship with the city.

Then, the current inaccessibility to the Orto Botanico became the pretext to create a theoretical project which was able to problematize wider dynamics of the city, concerning the relationship between public and private spaces.

Regarding the physical survey to the site, we observed and graphically represented what was exclusively perceivable from a public perspective, renouncing to violate the border which was set by the fence walls. The Orto botanico’s inner space, the one that we couldn’t have surveyed, became a blank space which was suitable for narrating and speculating about possible new forms of botanical gardens.

Thus, if the wall is being represented with precise details, what is drawn beyond the wall is a fictional, metaphorical landscape where it is possible to envision a landscape theory’s manifesto for San Giobbe. Because of this, it could be said that such a radical dichotomy (between what is perceivable and what is forbidden) became a precise statement towards existing Venetian urban policies. San Giobbe is nowadays one of the biggest private properties, being almost as big as Piazza San Marco. Its relationship with the surrounding urban environment has always been embraced by its fence walls, which avoided any spatial dialogue. In the light of recent prescriptions for its spatial transformation, the partial recovering of Orto Botanico’s public functions could nowadays become a space for an innovative public park typology.

Whilst a dialogue between private investors and Venice municipality is being established, the aim of this research is to suggest new trajectories for Venetian green public spaces, by providing some theoretical hints able to underline the relevance in ecological and socio-political thoughts of botanical gardens.