First constructed in 1228, and located at the foot of the Rialto Bridge across from the fish market, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi is one of Venice’s largest and most recognisable buildings. It was used as a trading post for German merchants, a customs house under Napoleon and a post office under Mussolini. Depicted by Canaletto and other masters, and photographed countless times as the impressive but anonymous backdrop of the Rialto Bridge, the Fondaco stands as a mute witness of the Venetian mercantile era, its role diminished with the progressive depopulation of Venice.
Twice destroyed by fire and rebuilt (in its current form in 1506), manipulated in the 18th century, and then subject to a series of radical architectural interventions in the 20th century to accommodate the central post office under the fascist regime, the Fondaco quietly embodies Venice’s secret brutality. Almost entirely reconstructed with modern concrete technology during 1930s, the Fondaco is a historical palimpsest of modern substance, its preservation spanning five centuries of construction techniques. Regardless of the history of its adaptations (towers removed, courtyard covered with glass, windows added, structure rebuilt…) and the objective lack of authenticity of its structure, its legal status of ‘monument’ (granted in 1987) forbade almost any change.
OMA’s renovation scheme is based on a finite number of strategic interventions and vertical distribution devices that support the new program and define a sequence of public spaces and paths. Each intervention is conceived as an excavation through the existing mass, liberating new perspectives and unveiling the real substance of the building to its visitors, as an accumulation of authenticities.
The project – composed of both architecture and programming – opens the courtyard piazza to pedestrians, maintaining its historical role of covered urban campo (field). The new rooftop is created by the renovation of the existing 19th century pavilion, standing over a new steel and glass floor, which hovers above the central courtyard, and by the addition of a large wooden terrace with spectacular views over the city. The rooftop, together with the courtyard below, will become public venues, open to the city and accessible at all times.
New entrances to the building are created from the Campo San Bartolomeo and the Rialto; existing entrances into the courtyard, used by locals as a shortcut, have been retained; escalators have been added to create a new public route through the building; rooms have been consolidated in a way that respects the original sequences; crucial historic elements like the corner rooms remain untouched. Some aspects of the building, lost for centuries, have been resurrected: the walls of the gallerias will once again become a surface for frescoes, reappearing in contemporary form.
The Fondaco dei Tedeschi will unlock its potential as a major destination and vantage point for tourists and Venetians alike – a contemporary urban department store staging a diverse range of activities, from shopping to cultural events, social gatherings and everyday life. OMA’s renovation, both subtle and ambitious, continues the Fondaco’s tradition of vitality and adaptation, its preservation yet another chapter of the building’s illustrious and multilayered history. It avoids nostalgic reconstructions of the past and demystifies the ‘sacred’ image of a historical building. The project was led by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Rem Koolhaas and Silvia Sandor.
Architect’s statement – Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli
How was OMA chosen for the project?
The Fondaco was originally an Italian trading post. Basically they didn’t have a clear idea of what to do with it, so they hired us first to develop a programmatic study of potential scenarios and that led to the notion of a contemporary department store, with spaces used by civic institutions. And that led into the project. So first it was a programmatic strategy in a way and then the actual project.
What were your greatest challenges with this project, considering its ‘Monument’ status?
There were many challenges. All of the city of Venice is under UNESCO protection and it falls under several regimes of preservation. Like other buildings in Venice it was rebuilt heavily several times – until the 1930s when, during the Fascist regime, it was almost entirely reconstructed. So the challenge for us was actually to unveil all these changes and to discuss the Fondaco not as a stable frozen monument, but as a stage of an historical moment, more as a continuation of historical layers. So we had to negotiate with the city and that was a very difficult task. The idea was to convince them that we wanted to record and show all those transformations, not to bring it back to an original state that doesn’t exist any longer.
Were there other challenges not related to the building’s history and status?
The most difficult part was the design of the new escalator system. We went through several options. Eventually they were considered too extreme and the escalator was pushed inside the building and that allowed us actually to open a large vertical void. The escalator was one of the most complicated elements because it was an eruption of modernity within an historical building, so we had to [consider several] options until we found the one that was a good balance between a modern gesture and a historical building.
Were there any surprises with the waterproofing?
Like many areas in Venice, we had to basically build a waterproof basin up to approximately one metre from the ground. The majority of machines for the functioning of the building are actually stored in a chamber under the courtyard, which is sunken into water. So we were able in a way to use this chamber to hide the heavy machinery.
What was the timescale between commission, design and completion?
Seven years – 2009 to 2016.
How involved were the clients during the design and build?
A lot until we delivered an empty building. We did not have any role in the interior furniture design. That was carried out by the department store itself, by the clients. And unfortunately they did not want to have a real dialogue with us. So there is a clear fracture, a loss of quality, in the spirit of our project and in the spirit of the interior furniture design applied by the department store.
Now the project is finished, what elements do you love most and why?
The escalator has generated a surprising space and a surprising way to move through the building.
The large incision revealing the escalator is an interesting feature because it opens a mobility that it didn’t really have, a new perspective as you go on the escalator to look back into the building, to the courtyard, an unusual perspective. I’m satisfied by the overall look of the courtyard, the plasters and colours that we used, where the stone walls are cleaned (not too much!), so that it still maintains all this layering. And I’m very happy that everywhere we intervened we were able to unveil all the layers that actually made this project. So in general I’m happy about our own design and less happy about the way it was colonised by other designs.
Has there been any need to revisit the project since completion and, if so, were those issues resolved easily?
We have used a series of beautiful oxidated brass panels. Some of the panels have already aged not in the way that we were expecting, so we’ll probably have to redo part of the finishing. In general, space wise, the way the building overall works I think it’s fine.