Renovation of Punta della Dogana: When Old Meets New
By Von Chua
Some parts were old,
Some parts were new.
Old buildings are living buildings that leave marks behind.
Presence of history layered into space.
During a trip to Venice in 2014 to visit Fundamentals - OMA's Venice Biennale, I had the opportunity to visit Punta della Dogana, a gallery with the Pinault Collection. It is not often that a new gallery opens in Venice, and even rarer when the restoration works were carried out by Tadao Ando; the gallery left a strong impression on me. Punta della Dogana's owner, François Pinault owns one of the world's largest collections of contemporary art and designated pieces into the permanent collection of Punta della Dogana.
Prior to Punta della Dogana's restoration by Tadao Ando, the site was the Customs House of Venice, the Dogana da Mar that controlled access to the Grand Canal and the San Marco docks. The building was built by Giuseppe Benoni in 1677, then undergone various transformations in the 18th and 19th century, and later laid empty for 30 years. With an area of approximately 5,000 square meters, after an investment of 20 million euros in 2009, the design of Punta della Dogana's trapezium-shaped building complements the triangular shape of the tip of the island of Dorsoduro where the building sits.
"This building has been floating on the water since the 15th century, and my intention is to see it float into the future; it is a very old building and it was very difficult to study its history so as to preserve its original structure and innovate toward the future. I will use a 20th century material, reinforced concrete, fitting it into this historic structure."
- Tadao Ando in 2007 during a presentation of the project
With respect to the original form of the building, the design team went through a painstaking process of studying the accumulated partitions and stripping back those that were added during previous rounds of renovations; the result is a true restoration back to its original form which dates back to the year 1414. Spatially, the building's width varies from 16 meter to 75 meter and is separated into rectangular forms by parallel walls. The new galleries that we see today are as per the arrangement of the original bays. The newly introduced elements are then clearly identified, inserting and juxtaposing the new with the old within the existing building. For example, a key introduction by Ando is a new concrete cube inserted in the centre of the trapezium-shaped floor plan of the gallery space, organizing the space around it in Ando's signature use of concrete.
Within the new concrete volume, the selection of the interior flooring was intentionally inspired by traditional Venetian flooring, a masegni flooring; a quiet nod to Venetian craftsmanship from Ando. Flooring elsewhere were designed and specified to Ando's understated elegance in cement and linoleum.
The exterior facade of the building was restored to its original design, with the exception of openings such as doors and windows which were replaced. The new doors and windows were replaced by reinterpreting traditional Venetian craft in a modern weave pattern. The exterior walls were approached by eliminating decay risks, then using the traditional scuci cuci technique, translated as a stitching unstitching technique, replacing damaged bricks with intact bricks using the same type of mortar to restore the building as close as possible to preserve the heritage of the original building. This repair approach instead of replacing fixes the defective parts, to prolong the life of the existing façade is an approach that is altruistic in nature; it is certainly not the way all architects approach renovation projects, this consideration has to come from a deep consideration and respect for old buildings.
Besides that, parts of the building's structure were structurally reinforced using various methods as necessary such as steel bars, tie-beams and injection of lime-mortar. Other major parts of the restoration involved the building's roofing whereby the original roofing was completely restored, including the recovery of the original 130 trusses.
After visiting the building, I ended up reading more about the restoration process and any articles I could find. More impressively, the restoration also took into consideration of Venice's flooding issue, installing a water hold-up tank that is able to withstand up to 210 cm high water, increasing the building's protection against the increasingly urgent flooding crisis in Venice.
Visiting architectural projects that is a renovation of an old building often excites me. There is a story there, a part of history exists; this richness, I observed, is not something that can be replicated in a new built. Seeing Punta della Dogana's successful restoration which subtly carries out the conservation, preservation, as well as bringing in the new elements to inject new life into the building, is inspirational as it creates a strong link between the present and the future years of the building. Ando artfully dealt with the challenges, not only of the spatial requirements of a gallery, structural issues, meeting the client's brief, but also addressing the wider issue in Venice - flooding to build the paths for the future years of the building. As I write this article, I remember seeing the news about Venice's flooding in November 2019, which was reported to submerge over 80% of the city at a level of 187cm, second to the worst incident at 194cm in 1966. If the building was left disused as it is, without intelligent measures to prevent the flooding crisis that is only worsening rapidly due to climate change, our future generations will unlikely be able to experience this building in a mere number of years.
"Renovation" actually refers to the process "to repair and improve something, especially a building". When architects carry out renovation projects, it refers to the process to improve and modernise an old, existing building. There are two other terms "retrofitting" and "refurbishing" which respectively means "to provide with a part that did not originally have when built" and "to make a building look new again by doing work such as painting, repairing, and cleaning". At times, part of the old building is demolished, on other times, they are preserved or even celebrated within the newly completed building. When old meets new in a respectful and completely integrated manner, the end result is more than space, but rather, forming a new harmony for the next part of history. These qualities, I found at the Punta della Dogana in Venice.
Extending the working relationship with the Pinault Collection since working on the re-opening of Palazzo Grassi, Tadao Ando then worked on Punta della Dogana that opened in 2009. In January 2021, a new project between Tadao Ando and the Pinault Collection is due to complete at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris. Seeing and experiencing the result of the renovation is on the top of my list once it is safe to travel.