Venice: A Testament to Resilient Architecture

Civilizations have historically been built along water bodies. Venice however is one of the few examples of a city built in a water body. Venice is built in the middle of a lagoon. This means it is not exactly in the sea, but a shallow water body separated by the sea by thin strips of land. The lagoon is built with inlets – three in the case of Venice – which drain and fill up with new seawater twice a day.  

Venice however is not an island, but a cluster of 124 islands connected by around 183 canals and 438 bridges. Which in itself is no easy feat. Unlike in a city like Bombay which was an archipelago of seven 7 islands and was then coalesced to connect the spaces for public use. Venice used the water bodies as a mode of transport itself, which is praiseworthy. It stands as a testament to the ingenuity of human civilization, epitomising the concept of resilient architecture amidst challenging environments

Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet1
Venice Map _©Jitesh-Patel

Evolution of Construction Techniques in Venice

These islands of Venice were gradually populated starting in the 7th century. It did not grow out of a centre that grew outward over time, but out of a series of settlements that coalesced over time. Originally the main islands were independent settlements. 

The people of Venice have always had to conquer land from the lagoon and defend it. This need for the hour has brought about an ever-evolving method of construction and maintenance of urban and built spaces. 

The edges of the canals have always been built with brick. These spaces exposed to the water are not plastered, to allow the structure to breathe. However, humidity and capillary rise are major concerns like most coastal areas. In capillary rise the salt water seeps into the brickwork and through the mortar, the water evaporates while the salt crystallises. Once it is crystalised its volume increases up to 12 times, disintegrating the bricks. 

The traditional antidote was to add blocks of Istrian stone which acted as a barrier from capillary rise. Today however the water level has risen well over what it was centuries ago, and the water laps against the masonry above the stone lining. As a result, the water penetrates above the istrian stone barrier.

Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet2
Istrain stone on canal edges _©Insula Spa
Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet3
Water rises over stone barriers _©Insula Spa

Modern problems have modern solutions to have a more resilient architecture.  One solution is called cutting. The cut is usually physical and allows for a waterproof membrane to be inserted into the wall to stop the moisture from rising. 

Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet4
Waterproofing membrane inserted _©Insula Spa

Another construction method used is the adding of resins into the mortar, to saturate the priority in the masonry. Reducing permeability or even making the wall waterproof. 

Adapting to Environmental Challenges

Sometimes as land to build on was so scarce circulation paths had to be built under the buildings or borrow spaces from the streets without reducing their widths. 

Some streets called salizada were among the few to be paved in ancient times. After the 17th century streets in Venice were paved with stones made of trachyte called masegno. Trachyte is a compact and durable stone. It has one great advantage, even as it wears down, it stays rough. Even the paving in Venice has historical value. 

Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet5
Streets of Venice _© Randy D. Bosch

In the face of recurring challenges like acqua-alta flooding, Venetians have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to resilient architecture. A higher-than-average tide is enough to flood entire areas. This is why when the paving is restored in the lowest zones, it is raised to a higher level by a few centimetres each time. 

Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet6
Flooding during high tide _© Luca Bruno

Infrastructure Innovation: Connecting Venice’s Modern Needs

Venice is an ancient city, but a modern one. Like all global cities, it needs electricity, gas, plumbing and phone connectivity. But with the constant barriers of water, how are these cables connected? The same way the pedestrians are – by streets and bridges.

The 438 bridges of Venice are crucial to pedestrian circulation as they connect the various islands of which the city is composed. Until the end of the 18th century, there were not many bridges, and Venetians used boats and canals as the preferred mode of transport. However, with the rise in population and traffic, bridges became a necessity. As Venice embraces modern amenities while preserving its historical charm, it exemplifies the symbiosis between tradition and innovation in urban resilience.

Resilient Architecture- Learnings from examples-Sheet7
Bridges in Venice_Conde Nast Traveller

If the land that supports the foundation of the bridges could not be consolidated then a wooden bridge was constructed. Which is much lighter than a stone bridge, although it does require more frequent maintenance. Hence in spaces with larger spans stone bridges are preferred. 

Venice: A Beacon of Resilient Urban Landscape

Humidity, erosion and the yielding terrain are major concerns that the city of Venice has had to deal with since historic times. To continue living in such a changing environment they have been capable of adapting and responding to the inevitable detriment with constant restoration and maintenance. It has been and remains a symbol of the constant transformation of its urban landscape. The city continues to defy the odds, standing as a beacon of resilient architecture amidst the ebb and flow of time.


Aiman Ansari is an architect currently working and residing in Bombay. She completed her B.Arch 2021 and has gone on to work on projects varying from low-cost housing, to educational institutes and in the hospitality industry. She’s fascinated by the power architecture has to not only tell a story but also create them. She draws inspiration from the idea that the spaces we occupy guide a large part of our individual stories Social responsibility plays a large part in her life. Aiman co-authored the publication ‘Rising Beyond the Ceiling – Karnataka’. A book that looks to break the stereotype of Indian Muslim Women.