FIRMNESS, COMMODITY & DELIGHT
A story of Venice and the New Georgian Era
First published in Perspectives Magazine Spring 2014 edition and in the new Perspectives Anthology book
The sirens had sounded early in the morning signalling the impending aqua alta, and he’d put his wellies on just in case. He’d been on Accedemia Bridge when the Vaporetto loudspeakers gave the general evacuation order in four languages. A group of giddy art students from Prague left the dry arch of the bridge onboard a garbage scow, plastic bags taped over their shoes. They’d implored him to join them. He declined, waved, and smiled.
The water was now almost a metre high on the palazzo walls, and rising as twilight fell. Fish from the Adriatic were already exploring new avenues through the cafes of Piazza San Marco, coursing through emptied jewelry cases, hovering above upturned chairs in the squares of Venice.
The sky was growing angry again and it would soon start raining. It was only going to get worse: the confluence of extreme high tide and record rainfall. Was this how it ended? Not with a bang but a splutter? George flipped the page in his journal and started another sketch.
Like many men his age, George, had been born the same year as the British prince and then named after him. He’d hated his name as a child; it mocked him from check-out line tabloids and celebrity hoopla. But it grew on him and he grew into it: a solid, old-fashioned name. There were three Georges in his final year at architecture school. The other two were more serious than he was, and maybe more talented, but they became a brotherhood of sorts and eventually formed a partnership: George3 Architecture.
George3 made a name for itself landing a plum commission as the designers of Ikea’s new line of flat-pack houses. They were the go-to firm for plug-and-play country houses and George would sometimes even co-pilot the helicopters that delivered the injection-moulded creations to sites in the hills north of the city. It all had an envigorating Brave New World feel to it and the partners of George3 were riding the wave of success. They drank Manitoba Merlot and joked about the coming of the New Georgian Era.
George called in some favours and finally found a position with a skyscraper demolition firm in Toronto. He read and interpreted the old plans and charted strategies for pulling down crumbling 50-storey liabilities, relics of the heyday of the high-rise. Faded paper drawings cluttered his desk. He loved the line work, the cross-hatching, the deft hand of the twentieth century architects. It was all hieroglyphics to the technicians, adept as they were at animated hologram presentations and 3D printing suites, but to George the drawings were a link to a golden age.
He papered the galley of his wedge-plan condo with old vellums of foundation details and side elevations. He became a minor authority on traditional drafting techniques of the late twentieth century, amassing a collection that read like the DNA of Canadian Architecture. His drawn records were often all that remained of buildings that were largely forgotten. An exhibition at the AGO followed. And then, as he entered his fiftieth year, he was asked to curate the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Borrowing from Vitruvius, he’d named the show “Firmness, Commodity and Delight: The Legacy of Architectural Drawing in Canada.” Archives had opened for him, rare drawings arrived by courier, foam-core models in crates. Old architects who had practised back in the 2020s and even earlier sent him hard-copy gems from their files. Using these curious old tools – models and drawings – George and his team put the raw seeds of his country’s built legacy on display for the world.
The newly crowned King, just turned fifty himself, was slated to open the British Pavilion and tour Canada’s show. George would meet George.
The king was architecture savvy as his grandfather Charles had been. He’d studied under Zaha Hadid’s daughter at Cambridge, campaigned for brownfield development, given lectures at the RIBA.
After the coronation, Neo-Georgian Architecture became the style-du-jour. Columns and pediments adorned re-charge stations along the Western Ontario Beltway. There was the usual righteous backlash by architects, but at least architecture was in the press.
King George was slated to visit the Canadian pavilion and review the legacy exhibition. As curator, George hoped he’d have a chance for a bit of royal small talk, maybe compare notes on their common first name. Could you ask a king for an autograph?
But that was before the most relentless scirocco in history started to pound the Venetian lagoon from the southeast. The Moses flood defense system, which had worked for the first half of the century, was overwhelmed. No one had predicted this.
The Biennale district was flooded and evacuated before the exhibition could be dismantled. There would be no opening ceremonies, no king, no autographs.
George stood on Accademia Bridge, looking east along the Grand Canal. An exodus of boats and barges streamed below him, a parade no one had ever wanted, heading for higher ground on mainland. The water rose so fast he could follow its progress up the facades of the ancient palazzi, drowning pilasters and pediments. George ignored orders from a passing fireboat to leave the bridge. He waved them on and they yelled something frantic in Italian, leaving him alone in the centre of the arch which now sprang from a turbulent urban sea.
The invading waters now lapped the tops of the ground floor windows, still rising. The twinkling lights of the Jewel of Adriatic went dark as the power grid finally gave out, sparking and fizzling into oblivion. George gripped his pencil tightly in a shaky hand. In the dim twilight he kept drawing, as if he could somehow hold back the water by recording things as they had always been: architecture as frozen music: firm, commodious, delightful – and immovable. But the Venice he’d known, the architecture the world had treasured, died quickly into darkness, wrapped in a mist of hissing rain and wind.