Mestre, to borrow an architectural metaphor, is the Brick House to Venice’s Glass House. Just as Philip Johnson’s workaday masonry structure houses all the support systems that allow his minimalist crystal box to function, so the municipality of Mestre and its neighboring mainland boroughs—which are officially part of the Comune di Venezia—contain all the gritty bits that permit a major modern port to operate: passenger and container docks, Marco Polo international airport, oil refineries and other industry, not to mention the majority of Venice’s 260,000 inhabitants. But it is of course to the historic center—home to just 51,000 people at the last count—that all the tourists flock: 4.4 million of them in 2017. It was partly to redress this imbalance that the Fondazione di Venezia, which supports cultural initiatives in the city, decided to devote $126 million to creating a new museum district in Mestre, the Museo del Novecento, meaning Museum of the 20th Century but abbreviated M9, for novecento, which also means 900. Unveiled in December, it is billed as Italy’s first museum with entirely virtual displays. It is housed in a startlingly polychrome building by Berlin-based architects Sauerbruch Hutton (SH), who beat David Chipperfield, Mansilla+Tuñón, and Eduardo Souto de Moura in a 2010 competition for the commission. Its construction cost $40 million (with the rest of the funds covering exhibitions and operations).
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Occupying the site of a 16th-century convent, which later became a military barracks, the M9 development is located just across a canal from Mestre’s Piazza Ferretto, the historic heart of what was still a village of just 9,900 souls toward the end of the 19th century. Over the next century, Mestre’s population exploded (it now stands at 88,000), resulting in rapid and uncontrolled development that produced a chaotic urban landscape of different styles, periods, and scales, with city blocks crisscrossed by pedestrian alleys and walkways. “I think one reason we won the competition is that ours was the only scheme to open up the site,” explains Matthias Sauerbruch. “There are two pedestrian routes,” continues Louisa Hutton, “which intersect at a little piazzetta. In Mestre there are a lot of these small paths, which prompted us to restore the small-scale texture of the site, to give it back to the Mestrinos.”
Because of this fractioning, SH’s scheme comprises not one but five buildings, all realized to LEED Gold standard and linked by a main diagonal thoroughfare through the site that connects to Piazza Ferretto. To the southeast is the main museum; opposite it, in the same polychrome cladding, is a smaller building containing administration and other services; behind that are two 19th-century stable blocks rebuilt by the architects in concrete to house retail and office space; and finally the convent’s old cloister to the northwest, which they carefully renovated to contain a mix of shops, restaurants, and coworking space. Elegantly detailed, the cloister conversion includes a new courtyard canopy that is emblematic of SH’s sophistication and lightness of touch: mounted on the slenderest of steel poles, which are arranged to emphasize the main diagonal path, the polyester membrane hovers just above the surrounding roofs, forming a diaphanous umbrella that provides milky daylight in winter and shade in summer, avoiding the harsh acoustics of glass and allowing the courtyard to be used year-round for public concerts and events.
Comprising five stories, four above grade and one below, the main museum building groups the usual ticket desk, coatrooms, bookshop, café, and auditorium/cinema—which the Fondazione plans to link up to the Venice Film Festival—on its lower two levels, followed by two stories of black-box space for M9’s permanent displays, and a final floor of white-box space for temporary exhibitions.
Generously glazed at ground level, the building is largely windowless above, its wedge-shaped plan a result of the diagonal path through the site, whose oblique course is echoed by a dramatic cutaway along the museum’s bravura main staircase. But what is most immediately striking about the exterior of M9’s new buildings is their ceramic facade cladding, whose 18 different hues, seemingly arranged randomly, are intended to reflect the cacophony of colors in the cityscape. Months of trial and error went into getting exactly the desired shades of burnt sienna, terra-cotta, chocolate brown, gray, and dirty white, which are made up of transparent glazes laid down on either gray or red clay. Their composition was also the result of a long, iterative process that involved manipulating computer simulations, to produce what is, perhaps, the digital-age architectural equivalent of a Jackson Pollock.
Inside the M9, SH’s detailing diligence is once more everywhere apparent, from the laminated-beech walls, ceilings, and shelves on the lower levels and the traditional trachyte paving used for public walkways throughout the complex, to the board-formed concrete lining the main stair, whose 83-foot-long diagonal window is a minor feat of engineering, as is the top-floor gallery—a 12,650-square-foot, column-free space, daylit by long expanses of glazing in its sawtooth roof. While a multimedia virtual museum might sound gimmicky, the immersive installations put together by the curatorial team—which cover everything from politics (the rise of Mussolini, for example), human geography (population growth, immigration, the 20th-century transport revolution), to culture and consumerism (Italian disco or changes in domestic living patterns)—engage both young and old with intelligence and wit, effortlessly fulfilling the informative role one expects of a serious museum. Interviewed at the time of its opening, Fondazione di Venezia president Giampietro Brunello declared: “Mestre lacks an identity and has never had a sense of autonomy. We’re using cultural investment to develop and enhance the commercial center.” Since many of those 4.4 million tourists use Mestre as a cheaper dormitory than central Venice itself, the bet may well pay off.
Sauerbruch Hutton—Matthias Sauerbruch, Louisa Hutton, Juan Lucas Young, partners; Bettina Magistretti, project architect
Architect of record:
SCE Project (structural);
Tomaselli Engineering (HVAC);
Studio Tecnico Giorgio Destefani (electrical)
Ambiente Italia (energy);
GAE Engineering (fire protection)