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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Let Venice Sink

“My own solution for the problem of Venice is to let her sink,” wrote British author and onetime Venice resident Jan Morris with casual mercilessness in a 1971 essay for The Architectural Review . She reiterated the point in The New York Times four years later, hammering home her point with conviction and relish: “Let her sink.”

And yet Morris predicted that this would never be Venice’s fate, because “the world would not allow it.” That may be true. What she wasn’t right about was the time frame of the impending tragedy. She thought it would be a long time coming—“One cannot hang around for the apocalypse”—but likely didn’t envisage that only 50 years later, scientists would be able to predict that, in a worst-case scenario, Venice could be underwater by 2100. Prepare the horses; the apocalypse is here. You don’t prepare for the end of the world by battening down the hatches and staying put— you need to adapt.

“One thing we’re trying to explore in heritage practice is going beyond the impulse to save everything all the time,” says UK-based cultural geography professor Caitlin DeSilvey. In her 2017 book Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving, DeSilvey wrote about letting landscapes and landmarks transform, buffeted by the wind or eroded by waves, rather than forcing them to remain in the state in which we inherited them. “The heritage sector has a bit of a block, because when you talk about managing that kind of change, and you talk about ruination, that’s perceived to be a failure,” she adds.

But as loss and destruction of global heritage sites due to climate change becomes more commonplace, we need to change the way we think about that loss and redefine our notion of failure. Our values must shift along with our changing climate. As researchers Erin Seekamp and Eugene Jo put it in a 2020 paper, we need a “transition of values from what has been known to what can become, overcoming the tendency for continual maintenance and last-ditch efforts to prolong the inevitable.”

The situation has changed since Morris wrote about Venice, looking out from her perch on the Punta della Dogana. If Morris described the city as a problem in the ’70s, it is now a disaster, swallowed whole by both the rise of water and the rise of tourism.

Though it is well documented that Venice is sinking, its new MOSE flood barriers do an excellent job of protecting it. In November 2022, they saved Venice from its biggest tide in 50 years, which would have devastated the city. But the system was built after years of delays, a corruption scandal, and a price tag of €6.2 billion ($6.9 billion). It is set to cost a further €200,000 each time the barriers are raised, and it will need to be raised ever more frequently. Seekamp and Jo argue that preserving all World Heritage sites and their current values “in perpetuity” is “fiscally impossible.” In Venice’s case, that money could be used instead to relocate the city’s residents, and if its urban heritage is going to be lost or irrevocably changed, we could switch our focus to the protection of its natural heritage, as the lagoon is one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the whole Mediterranean basin.

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And were we to let the “Bride of the Adriatic,” as Morris calls the city, be “enfolded at last by the waters she espoused,” the angel on top of the St Mark’s bell tower poking out above the lagoon’s sandbanks, would that not be a powerful visual reminder of the ravages of climate change and our role in rising global temperatures? Imagine the scene: Boats of tourists can sail over the area as a guide explains that this is where one of the world’s greatest maritime powers used to be, before it succumbed to a most “Venetian end.”

The affront we may feel at the idea of letting the rich cultural and artistic history of Venice fall under the waves indicates the emotional attachment we have with historical sites. There’s nothing wrong with feeling emotional about old buildings. But losing a built structure does not have to mean severing our connection to the site. “We can stay connected to these places as we watch them undergo change,” DeSilvey says.

This idea of “transformative continuity” means that places that have been damaged by climate change can serve as a “memory” and even a deterrent, to prevent the same thing happening in the future. It also allows us to discover new heritage values in a site as it evolves. Seekamp and Jo use the example of the Gardens of Ninfa in southern Italy, where a beautiful garden was cultivated in the ruins of an abandoned medieval city, giving the site a “renewed living heritage” that both celebrates its history and endows it with new values of biodiversity and a flourishing ecosystem. Other studies have shown how abandoned man-made structures like harbors have proven ecologically productive, becoming unintended habitats for marine wildlife. While that it isn’t a reason to let a structure fall into ruin, it does show that there may be ancillary environmental advantages to decay.

That doesn’t mean giving up and abandoning cultural sites to climate change as soon as they are threatened. Going back to that cost argument: This isn’t the free option. It would require physical management of the site to make sure it doesn’t become dangerous, and a process of digital documentation and archiving and profound consultation with the public and other stakeholders. Technologies like augmented reality and drone imaging can create immersive experiences for visitors and provide another way of seeing heritage sites. It may not be the same experience, but heritage is capable of interpreting absence, maybe more so than other sectors. “There are a lot of people who find ruins more interesting than stable structures!” DeSilvey laughs. “And yet we shy away from the idea of creating a new ruin, because no one wants to be responsible for making the decision to let something transition.”

We also have to detach our sense of national or regional identity from our heritage sites and think outside the modern, Western framework of permanence. Seekamp, who works with the US National Parks Service, explains that the Indigenous communities she speaks to sometimes see impermanence as an integral part of their cultural sites and the landscape in general—some places are meant to alter with the seasons and climatic changes. This is why a people-centered approach is vital: It opens us up to different heritage ideologies that are better adapted to our changing world.

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If we think of heritage sites as being in a continuous process of change, rather than in their final, fixed form, then we avoid the ticking time-bomb effect of labels like “endangered,” which paint places like Venice as “last-chance destinations”—paradoxically raising the pressure of tourism as millions rush to see the city before it is submerged. “As soon as you flag a place as being at risk of loss, then you increase its value. The language used to confront this type of process automatically makes it more difficult to cope with change,” explains DeSilvey.

Venice shouldn’t be used as a sacrificial lamb to make a point. Picturing a world in which the “extraordinary architectural masterpiece” of Venice (UNESCO’s description) is abandoned is a provocation. As of June 30, there are still—according to public counters installed across the city—49,442 official residents in the city, who may not take too kindly to being turfed out of their homes, first by mass tourism and then by pontificating heritage officials. On top of that, the political weight of Venice’s position as a cash cow providing Italy with a steady flow of tourism dollars cannot be underestimated.

But these arguments for a transformative way of thinking about heritage can hold true for other places around the world. By adopting a more expansive approach, we can imagine more generative ways of managing our historical sites as they are affected by climate change. In 25, 50, or 100 years’ time, our current model of heritage protection may appear hopelessly antiquated and unable to deal with the pressures of a rapidly heating world.

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