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Punta della Dogana Contemporary Art Centre

Venice, Italy
Tadao Ando Architect & Associates

Tadao Ando creates a serene environment for viewing contemporary art within a centuries-old shell

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

The former customs house in Venice, the Punta della Dogana, occupies one of the city’s most prominent spots. The late-17th-century building, with its rusticated-stone and plaster-on-brick facades, sits next to Longhena’s domed basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, at the eastern tip of Dorsoduro Island, where the Grand Canal and the Lagoon converge. For hundreds of years, the Dogana received precious cargo from distant lands, but it had been vacant for about three decades when French billionaire and art collector François Pinault’s foundation won the right to transform it into a contemporary arts center. In the spring of 2007, the city selected Pinault’s proposal over a competing bid by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Punta della Dogana Contemporary Art Centre
Photo © Shigeo Ogawa

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For the design of the renovation, timed for completion last June to coincide with the opening of the Art Biennale, Pinault chose Pritzker Prize—winning architect Tadao Ando. The two had collaborated on the revamp of the Palazzo Grassi — Pinault’s first exhibition space in Venice, which opened in 2006 — and on an eventually abandoned effort to create a museum on the Île Seguin, just outside Paris.

Program

The Dogana’s structure made it well suited for conversion to a museum for contemporary art. The building’s triangular footprint is organized by nine skylit, parallel bays defined by load-bearing masonry walls and covered with gabled roofs supported by exposed heavy-timber trusses. But over the course of its history, partitions, passageways, and other modifications compromised the generous, navelike volumes, each about 33 feet wide and 23 feet tall, from floor to truss.

Solution

The renovation work included restoration of the exterior facades and the addition of a waterproofing shell to protect the valuable contents from the frequent flooding, or aqua alta, that plagues the city. Ando’s approach on the interior included removing the additions and reversing the modifications made over the years in order to return the building, as closely as possible, to its original configuration. However, the architect did make one key exception to this strategy: He retained one very large opening between two adjacent bays made during an early renovation. Here he inserted a new “central court,” open to the roof trusses and skylights above, but enclosed by four 20-foot-8-inch-tall poured-in-place concrete walls. The resulting 52-foot-6-inch-square room is ideal for large-scale pieces like the four monumental canvases by Rudolph Stingel that are part of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Mapping the Studio.

This insertion does more than define space or create large vertical surfaces for the display of art. Because Ando’s walls feature his characteristically silky concrete, with every control joint and formwork tie precisely placed, they serve as a foil to the carefully repaired, but still irregular and textured, surrounding brick. Stairs on two sides of the new volume act almost like an oversize reveal, providing breathing room between the rough existing Dogana structure and the new, pristine geometric object — an object that serves as an orientation point for guests as they travel through it, circulate around it, or peer into it from adjacent galleries.

Commentary

The central court is Ando’s most conspicuous intervention. However, other, more subtle moves help make the project a success. For example, even while working within the building’s original repetitive framework, the architect provided spatial variation. By dividing the structural bays vertically into two levels in some locations, while allowing others to extend from the ground level to the roof trusses, he created both intimate and grand galleries. These spaces are appropriately inwardly focused, but not completely divorced from the exterior environment: Many of the galleries have views over the water, toward the Piazza San Marco or the Giudecca, framed by existing openings in the historic facades. Some of the views are filtered through new woven-metal grilles inspired by the metalwork at Carlo Scarpa’s nearby Olivetti showroom, built in 1957.

The design team has also skillfully integrated potentially obtrusive infrastructure, such as lighting and ductwork, into the building’s historic fabric. These services are neatly packaged in enclosures that run the length of the galleries, just above the bottom chord of each truss.

These design decisions create an atmosphere that is both sober and serene. Although there is tension between the almost raw existing structure and Ando’s additions, the architecture does not distract from viewing the work on display. The renovation sensitively preserves an important landmark while invigorating it with a new use.

Total construction cost:
$29 million

Completion date: May 2009

Owner:
Palazzo Grassi S.p.A.
S. Samuele 3231
30124 Venice

Gross square footage:
Ground floor : 2.660 sq m / 28.632 sq. ft.
First floor : 1.515 sq m / 16.307 sq. ft.
Second floor : 120 sq m / 1.291 sq. ft.
Third floor : 36 sq m / 387 sq. ft.

Architect:
Tadao Ando Architect & Associates

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