When I was in Venice last year for the Biennale of Architecture, I was very fortunate to have the following conversation with Danish “superstarchitect” Jefe Anglesdottir (JA) and public intellectual Colin Dribbles (CD), secretary emeritus of the British Society for the Promotion of Bad Writing about Venice (BSPBWV). A generous grant from that august society paid for three Camparis (one without soda, as explained below) and an afternoon’s shoe leather and conversation.
We met under the Moet champagne billboard in Piazza San Marco. Mr. Anglesdottir wore a black t-shirt three sizes too small, pegged jeans and a bluetooth headset. My old friend Dribbles, accompanied by his two whippets, Giorgione and Titian, wore a seersucker suit with enough fabric to sail to Trieste and back.
It was an afternoon for walking and thinking.
AM: First, Jefe, thank you for talking with us. I know you’re one of the busiest people alive.
(Just how lucky was I to grace Jefe Anglesdottir’s schedule? Well here his how he spent that week:
Monday: Leave Abu Dhabi, arrive Melbourne, critique Masters students, evening lecture prolonged by stupid questions, fly to Launceston, Tasmania.
Tuesday: Ring Cycle rehearsals in Launceston, boring and takes all day.
Wednesday: Arrive Guangzhou, design new city inspect one built previous week. Fly to Mestre via secret meeting in Moscow (I have no idea what it was about).
Thursday: Arrive Mestre, present Mestreshard (described below) to Berlusconi. Afternoon walk with A. Miller and C. Dribbles. Evening lecture in Paris.
Friday: Get measured for new batch of 6 dozen black t-shirts in Place Vendôme. Arrange delivery to Dubai the following week. Fly to Boston.
Saturday: Lecture at Harvard GSD. Meeting with Phillips Exeter Academy about new squash courts. iPad runs out of juice. Client insists on right angles. Goes very badly. Almost sacked.
Sunday: Fly to Los Angeles. No luck with screenplay. Fly to Abu Dhabi.)
JA: Yeah I mean I have to be in Dubai I don’t know what in like eight hours or it might be Abu Dhabi. This crazy disjunction. I’m directing the Ring in Tasmania and you know when in Venice, be Venetian. When in Dubai, Emirati. I’m this kind of Odysseus of the Airbus.
Colin Dribbles shook his fist at the billboard.
CD: Isn’t it incredible that we arranged to meet under the champagne billboard, rather than in front of the Ala Napoleonica, itself a nineteenth century abomination.
JA: I think they are amazing but maybe not big enough.
AM: The monuments?
JA: The billboards. To me the billboards are the monuments and the monuments are the billboards.
JA: The billboards create this incredible monumentality of contemporaneity. Because of their scale and photographic quality there is this amazing sense of a transcendent contemporary time space.
CD: Moi, je suis vraiment antimoderne.
JA: I submit that is an easy pose. Have you been to the duty free mall at Dubai airport at two in the morning?
CD: Jamais, jamais.
JA: Well there is your Piazza San Marco. Between the Chanel number 5 display and the giant Toblerone bar.
We began to walk vaguely in the direction of the Accademia. The path remained wide, lined with international luxury brands, filled with milling tourists.
As his dogs demolished an abandoned gelato, Colin Dribbles asked an impertinent question.
CD: Dimmi, Mr. Anglesdottir, why do you have a girl’s name?
JA: Gå ad helvede til!
CD: C’est legitime, Big Al. You observed earlier that it is a legitimate question.
AM: I was going to ask Mr Anglesdottir why his name implies that he is an Icelandic girl. Is this a kind of Venturian ‘both-and’ proposition?
JA: When I summoned the courage to ask my parents this they said, ‘Jefe, we gave you a girl’s name because we wanted you to live in this state of creative anger. For that to be our gift to you. We wanted you to be at odds with the world.’ Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s truth against the world.
Led by the dogs of Dribbles, we ended up at a popular outdoor bar in Campo Santo Stefano. The scene was a pure vision of urban life — children kicking balls, old churches, the effortless and pleasing proportions of the past.
Dribbles and I ordered Campari and sodas. The innovative Mr. Anglesdottir ordered, in perfect Italian, just Campari, no soda. Just as Dribbles was about to say something I kicked his beefy shin under the table.
CD: Campo Santo Stefano is for me like eating a whole panettone. Too perfectly the dream of Venice. I nearly burst like poor Mr. Creosote.
AM: Jefe, you’re smirking?
JA: To me blah blah you know. The marble worn with like the thousand million footsteps it’s like OK this is a path of a certain kind of entirely nostalgic discourse but what you are advocating on an urban level is an utterly anachronistic figure-ground relationship which was already outdated in Palladio’s time.
CD: Do you think they have cheese here, Al? Feeling peckish.
JA: I’m more interested in the trajectory of butterflies.
AM: Than cheese?
JA: Than, you know, their nomenclature or what structure a scientist tries to impose on like this amazing intrinsic pattern of flight which is itself so replete with formal invention. I mean liking Campo Santo Stefano and thinking you’re having some kind of special bespoke epiphany is like wearing Levi’s jeans and thinking you’re a cowboy. It’s completely faux and dangerously naive.
CD: Al, before I take a total dislike to his young man, I want to read out something he said which I consider very beautiful and indeed very apt. Jefe here told Domus in January 2009, “when I compose a building, it is like light taken from the wind…” Now there are three things I find salutary about that statement. The first is the verb “to compose” rather than the thudding, utterly corporatized “to design.” The second is the making of a solid from two immaterial forces, light and wind, and the third is the word “taken” as though a thing is lost and not given back. Customarily we think of light and wind as somehow infinite, eh Jefe?
JA: I think that in a world of six billion, headed for nine billion that if you don’t design your personal trajectory, if you don’t monetize your narrative, that you will be basically tied for second place with the other nine billion minus one of people out there.
CD: What on earth is he talking about? Oh, would that I were still a boxer…
AM: You were a boxer, Dribbles?
CD: Ultraheavyweight champion of Leeds!
JA: What I mean, Dribbles, is that I propagated discourse about the wind and the light when I was still within that formative, early, whatever portion of my narrative. 2009 was a time when I consciously spoke about “beauty” so that I could reject it later, in favor of a more brutal cultural agenda. I planned this so that the rejection would have that kind of lapidary multiplier which characterizes architectural discourse.
CD: So if I told you that Giorgione in fact painted Concert Champêtre that the label in the Louvre is incorrect and that I, amateur, had proof gleaned from within the painting then…
JA: That would be just completely uninteresting to me. We could engage some sham discourse about that, sure. I could say ‘In 2011 Giorgione and Titian would both be shooting 3D with Red Epics’ and you could sputter and spit as called for by your own utterly designed Dribblesian personal narrative but ultimately this is why I drink Campari without soda.
AM: Campari without soda? Is that some kind of minimalist statement?
JA: Not at all. Because Campari and soda no longer has meaning as an object. It is just this straw hat and Vespa idea of globalized Italianness and cannot be anything else. The soda just extends this kind of utterly stultifying non-ness, a nothing which is less because it is only the negation of other nothings. Like spaghetti cooked for a thousand years. Venice is a city of claimed iconography. That’s worse than cliché. Always already there.
AM: And yet you have plans to save the city. Your plans had a Proustian gestation I understand?
JA: As I drank my cappuccino I suddenly realized that the steamed milk was floating on the coffee.
CD: How earth-shatteringly sagacious!
JA: And so Venice wants to be a floating city. I sent this tweet then and there and by the time I finished the coffee I had received a grant basically to do this immense project. We’re going to collect all the floating detritus of the world — styrofoam, plastic bags, mismatched flip flops and bring it to Venice. We will tie bundles of this to certain strategic points in the city and then we’ll cut the city loose from below with laser beams. Venice will be in a physical sense independent again.
CD: I’m aghast. You’re a little horror, you are!
JA: We’ll use fat dudes like you for flotation too, Dribbles. The implications are insanely interesting; if we consider Venice and Mestre like this mythically dysfunctional married couple then if Venice is floating then she can be as close or as far away from this Hundging of a husband as she likes. There will be a two hundred story skyscraper in Mestre to pay for it all. The Mestreshard — one word.
CD: But you essentially propose to use Venezia, the city of Giorgione and jolly supermarkets, as some kind of auto-reflexif experiment. It’s not on.
JA: Venice is coddled. It needs to go away to sleep away camp. To endure some kind of existential risk. Like Lehman Brothers…
CD: You rile me, young man.
AM: OK Dribbles, why don’t you tell Jefe about your own Venetian experiment?
CD: Perché non? When I first came to Venezia, My heart screamed at the magic of old stones. I lived on a narrow, essentially nameless Calle. You see I was then, as I am now, a jolly rotund fellow. When I realized how narrow was this disregarded Calle, then I hatched a plan to remain in, and, indeed, of, Venezia forever. I began to eat. I summoned the discipline required to melt a kilogram of mortadella on my breakfast cornetto. With the help of two rogue nutritionists from Wichita and Omaha I grew sleek and fat. Daily they measured me and they measured the Calle until one day I put on my new enormous strolling suit, went out the door, turned into the Calle. At first I thought I was not yet fat enough but then — tout à coup — I became as wedged in the narrow passage as subpar prosciutto ‘tween the teeth.
JA: Oh I think I read about this in the New York Times.
CD: Days passed, and all the passing traffic backed up behind and before me. There was ought to do but, for them, to avoid the obstruction, and for I, to await the thinning which would de-wedge me.
JA: That is actually just so interesting on a number of levels.
CD: Senti, it wasn’t what I expected I can tell you. The dogs were frightfully scared!
JA: That is like the paradigm of a kind of totally corporeal engagement within and counter to the prevailing hegemony of the visual city. I find it an incredibly rich problematic which completely transcends the figure-ground.
A Venetian boy kicked his soccer ball into the canal. Mr. Anglesdottir stood up, downed his shot of Campari, made a cursory gesture of helplessness toward the boy and jogged off without a word, perpetually halfway to Dubai.