Modernism contested: Frank Lloyd Wright in Venice and the Masieri Memorial debate
Ainsworth, Troy M.
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Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design a residence in Venice, Italy, in 1951 by Angelo and Savina Masieri. Angelo, a young Italian architect from Udine, admired Wright’s work, and he asked the American architect to design a house for himself and his wife in place of a vernacular house they owned along the Grand Canal. In the summer of 1952, the Masieris traveled to the United States to discuss the project with Wright. During the trip, however, they were involved in an automobile accident, and Angelo was killed. Upon her return to Italy, Savina Masieri wrote Wright with the news and asked that he continue with the project under different circumstances. Wright designed a four-story residence and library for architecture students at the Istituto Universario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV) according to Savina Masieri’s wishes. The building was to serve a social purpose as well as function as the seat of a foundation in Angelo’s honor, the Fondazione Masieri. Wright exhibited the design in New York City in May 1953 prior to receiving building permission in Venice. His misstep precipitated an international controversy that lasted into 1955. Traditionalists and modernists argued whether contemporary architecture was appropriate for the historic waterway through Venice. City officials in Venice ultimately rejected the project on the grounds that Wright’s design was aesthetically incompatible with the surrounding architectural environment. The debate surrounding the Masieri Memorial ostensibly may have focused on Wright’s project, but in the larger view it addressed the issue of preserving and maintaining historic urban environments. Although several contemporary buildings had been constructed in Venice prior to the Masieri Memorial debate, traditionalists were able to prevent many new constructions in the main urban areas of Venice. This conservative attitude toward the city’s preservation began to change in the 1970s, but in the 1950s Wright’s project was too progressive for many Venetians to consent to its construction. The legacy of the Masieri Memorial debate centers on the procedure contemporary architects and planners must take when designing buildings in historic urban environments, such as Venice, in numerous cities throughout the world.