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Venice: The Branded City

Venice is a city that has a unique collection of geographic and urban qualities. It is a manufactured island in an enclosed lagoon, a bay of the Adriatic Sea. Water is the primary reason for its existence, and its only method of logistical circulation.

The city of Venice is unique. It is the result of centuries of human interaction with the land and sea, emerging slowly from the remnants of early fishing and saltmining communities. The founding inhabitants of Venice encircled pockets of higher land revealed by low tides using wooden piles, known as a palisade. Compacted debris was then used to solidify and raise the islands to create a solid foundation for the construction of housing and stores.

As time progressed these man made island communities expanded and were linked together with pedestrian quays, fondamente, and bridges. Reinforced embankment walls were continually maintained to prevent the sea from reclaiming the islands. Over time, the land became denser. Saltmining was replaced by sea trading as the economic reason for its existence and growth. By turn of the first millennium the island had become interconnected and dense enough to be described as a functioning city. Amongst the canals (canale) and bridges (ponti), wooden churches (chiesa), grand houses for wealthy residents (palazzi), narrow streets (calli) and squares (campi), provided the initial forms that provided the base for the contemporary Venetian urban brand. And over time the dirt floor surfaces of the original islands were replaced with brick paving in the middle ages, and then stone paving during the rise of the merchants.

A popular published plan of Venice was printed from a woodcut by Jacapo de Barbari in 1500. It is the image of a wealthy island city made of stone. Clearly defined are many of the structures that identify the city today. Church bell towers and palazzi rise up either side of the Grand Canal. Piaza San Marco is visible to the south of the Island, and the Arsenale to the east.

Map of Venice c1500, Jacapo Barabari

Water is the brand medium

Venice’s reason for being is water. Its situation in the salt marshes and mud flats of the lagoon has defined its early development and construction, and it’s advantageous location influenced its success as a merchant city state. It was the trading gateway to Europe from the Adriatic and Asia, and hence developed considerable naval forces, both merchant and military.

The Arsenale, to the east of the city, acted as the creative and industrial hub for shipbuilding in Venice. It was rigourously protected by high castle like walls that bordered the laguna, not surprisingly as it was a treasured area of the city. Where the fleet of Venice was constructed to which it owes its economic success.

The canals of Venice have remained an important way of travelling around Venice. A variety of different canal boat typologies have evolved - each serving a different purpose for a different section of Venetian population. Culturally, the gondala is the most well known. Historically they were used to transport nobleman and ladies moving from one house to another. One of the most common boats found on the canals are the small kayak like sandalos, a small transport boat used by everyday Venetians. In addition there were caorlinas, a small transportation boat for food and other domestic goods, and larger peate for construction materials.

The branded block

Brand as an urban concept, is something that can be illustrated schematically. The ‘branded block’ presents a series of identifiers which conceptualise the key elements of the urban brand of Venice: form, face, activiation, entourage, and symbolism.

The illustrative 'branded block' has been designed as tool to represent elements of the urban brand of Venice. A typical block plan was drawn, with heights extruded as a simple block. Building heights were then variated to represent typical Venetian building typologies. Lastly a representational roofscape was created with notional window reveals and entrances to buildings


Formal relationships to the city are found at every corner you turn. Venice is a kaleidoscope of formal arrangements that speak the same language but communicate in different accents. This is the foundation of the city brand.


The urban form of Venice is a key indicator of its identity. It has many brand monikers: ‘City of Water’, ‘City of Bridges’, and ‘The Floating City’, which refer directly to its urban components. But in addition to the prevalence of canals and bridges in the minds of visitors to the city, there are many other indicating factors such as small squares with wells (campi), larger town squares (campo), very narrow passageways (calli), large tripartite houses (palazzi), churches (chiesa) and a vast quantity of vernacular buildings: predominantly densely compacted housing units which crush against the calli and canals.

Heights of buildings are irregular, but not widely variable across the city, except for the belltowers (campanile) and larger chiesa and institutional buildings. Some areas of Venice contain warehousing at the border with the sea, the most celebrated being the salt warehouse at Dogana del Mar, which is recently been converted into an art gallery by Tadao Ando.

The canals of Venice have the affect of mirroring the surrounding built forms, creating a double image of the city which increases the perceived density of the city. Intensifying the urban identity of the brand.

When one thinks of Venice, one instantly refers to a number of iconic structures that have become branded symbols for the city. Plazza San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, Ponte Di Rialto and the Grand Canal. The images of these formal structures have been replicated many times to communicate the formal qualities of the Venetian brand to travellers to the city. They have been referenced in literature, artworks, architectural theory and film. And now on trinkets and souvenirs throughout the city.

Whilst these buildings are rooted in the historic development of Venice, the Biennale has been a focus for modern and contemporary urban interventions. The result has been an input of contemporary ideas into the medieval cityscape. Although few and far between, 20th Century Architects, often under the torchlight of the Biennale, have engaged in formal dialogue with the city, resulting in a number of important modern and contemporary buildings throughout the city.


Surface in Venice is rich, layered and varied. Although the facade details of Venice are typically of a similar style and treatment, there is rich variety of appearance. This diversity comes through changes in age, condition, colour, material and use.


Facade treatments range from very structured formal patterns, such as the serial facades of Piazza San Marco, designed by Jacobo Sansovino, to the defined tripartate facades of the palazzi to a rough palimpsest of materials, patterns and openings in the vernacular buildings of the working class quarters of the city.

Materials are often a combination of brick, stone, render, paint and wood. It is very typical, even on the formal buildings, for facades to be adapted and changed over time. Layers upon layers of additions, adaptations are often revealed through historic degradation of the building fabric. To the point where some areas of Venice feel like a lived in ruin.


Like all cities, the people of Venice, those that you come across in the shops, squares and calli, define the city as much as the built form.


The resident population of Venice has declined significantly from its peak in 1951 of 175,000. Now there are a mere 60,000 permanent residents in the city, which frees up a lot of accommodation for visitors. allogi, are places in Venice which provide short-term residence for tourists, In 2009, the city provided beds for 22,000 people in hotels, hostels and boarding houses. The popularity of AirBnB has provided another 6,000 properties for rental.

Venice is now a city which is designed to serve visitors. On any one day, there are almost an equal amount of visitors to the city as there are permanent residents.

However the character of the Venetian people is strong, resolute and proud. Their interaction with the crowds of visitors of the city, on a daily basis, is an essential conduit for the communication of the urban brand. And the culture of Venice has been distilled into a series of marketable customs and activities that are easily consumable to visitors.


Commercial and public activity lies at the heart of Venice. It uses it’s unique historic position to communicate the cultural wealth of the city to visitors. It is an essential element of the brand, though not one that is without a negative side effects.


Historically Venice has been the focus of a very active commercial and political regional and global force. And these activities would have found an expression in its streets. Crafts, boat making, commerce, fine arts, religion, culture and politics each have their own places, and they would have spilled out and crossed over in the urban fabric of the city. Today this brand still exists, but often on a way primarily designed to serve the interests of visitors to the city. This fact has enraged and infuriated some Venetians and there is a movement within the city to minimise the impact of tourism.

On one occasion in 2009, an organised protest was held against the rising cost of living in the city and congestion caused by tourism. For some locals the activities of the city have lost their authenticity, merely becoming theme park show pieces, with the residents a cast of supporting characters.

Matteo Secchi, a spokesperson for the group explains: “Venice has become an entertainment park for the 20 million tourists that benevolently invade us every year.....All we can do now is hold a party and inaugurate the ‘Veniceland’ theme park. It’s an ironic provocation for the city administration, which appears not to be able to reverse the tendency,”
The Protesters paraded along the grand canal wearing costumes for the benefit of crest-fallen tourists.

The mayor of the city, Giorgio Orsoni, understood the issues raised: “I hope your demonstration will use joy, playfulness and good humour to raise the questions that this administration must deal with”.


Representation of symbols is prominent in Venice. From political graffiti scrawled on walls, to the promotion of cultural events such as the Biennale, the historic symbology of the Venetian state.


The Lion of Saint Mark, a winged lion with one front paw on the the gospel, is the recognisable symbol of Venice. It appears in countless ways. Embedded into stone motifs on humble residential buildings, or on a grand scale above municipal buildings. It is sold to tourists as trinkets and ornaments.

According to traditional folklore, when the apostle Saint Mark was embarking on his European travels, he visited the Venetian Laguna, where an angel appeared to him to let him know that this will be his final resting place. Perhaps this was merely a post-rationalised account to justify the removal of his remains from a grave in Alexandria to there current position in the Basilica of Saint Mark.

The Venetian lion often appears in two ways. Sometimes standing on water, representing the cities seafaring dominance. And sometimes with its wings above its head as if it is a crab emerging from the water. This is said to represent the Venetian territory around the Laguna and the Mediterranean. Occasionally the Lion is also carrying a sword which represents Venetian justice.

One the surprising things about Venice is the quantity of graffiti that is prevalent through the City. These range from pieces of art, to cryptic and not so cryptic political slogans relating to the city, or hastily provided directions, presumably applied by locals who are fed up with giving directions to tourists. One thing is for sure, Venetians do not treat the fabric of their city as precious artefacts that should be preserved. It is a surface for potential symbology and communication.

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