Experience The Past, Present, And Future Of Venice Through Jamie Fobert's Design Inside T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi


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Jamie Fobert, the award-winning architect with an expertise in transforming retails spaces into masterful experiences, took the helm of all design and interior restoration of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Hailing from Canada, he has immersed himself in the intricacies of city life through urban dwelling across the globe, and has developed a keen eye for optimizing unique spaces for those that occupy them. He opts for ease and simplicity, and works with the deepest respect for each building’s history and purpose. His urban acumen balances perfectly with traditional Venetian style and the historic details of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

In this exclusive interview, Fobert shares the innovative ways he combined Venitan tradition and contemporary design in the interior of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

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What intrigued you most about working on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi interiors?
The Fondaco dei Tedeschi is an extraordinary building with a rich history. It is one of the largest historical buildings in Venice. It was built as a warehouse and inn for German traders, but its use has altered frequently over time.  It was never intended to be a Palazzo, so its interiors are simple and robust, not the ornate interiors one thinks of as Venetian.  Its majestic rooms and galleries held great promise as the setting for an amazing retail journey. Responding to such a place was indeed exciting.

How did you approach the project from an architectural and design perspective?
Our vision was to create a wonderful journey through the Fondaco dei Tedeschi; each level bringing new images and materials that respond to its historic context, its product range, and Venice itself. There should be a constant dialogue between the historic setting and the inserted new works, a kind of conversation between old and new. We wanted to create something playful and exploratory, with variation and surprise on all levels. References that are inherent to the city, like its architecture, colours and textures, are designed to sit at ease with the medieval building and OMA’s bold invention.

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What makes the Fondaco dei Tedeschi unique in Venice’s architectural landscape? 
First of all is size. Compared to most Venetian buildings, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi is vast. Equally amazing is its location on the Grand Canal right next to the Rialto Bridge. It is as central to Venice as you could possibly be. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi’s galleried courtyard is the size of a small urban piazza. Although now indoors, it was originally open to the elements.  Its robust yet elegant galleries are the elevations to this piazza and walking their wide promenade while looking out over the courtyard is a unique architectural experience.

Tell us something about the architecture or interiors that we may not know from looking at the building.
Despite the historic appearance of the building, the majority of the existing structure is in fact, very modern.  In 1929 the Italian authorities decided to rebuild the Fondaco dei Tedeschi’s internal framework entirely in reinforced concrete. This must have been an incredible process; preserving its external façade and internal stonework while recasting the entire building in concrete, then re-plastering all surfaces so that they looked just as they had before. One great advantage of this rebuilding is that the Fondaco dei Tedeschi today has a very strong structure. It is able to carry as much furniture and as many activities as its new life as a department store could bring.

Were there any design elements that you found particularly interesting or peculiar?
On the broad stone balustrades of the galleries we found a curious geometric pattern carved in a number of locations. We were told these were most likely part of some kind of game played by the Germanic traders as they waited for custom. Only recently did I come across the same geometric pattern in an English country house. I was informed that this was a game called Muhlespiel in German, and Nine Men’s Morris in English. I now have it at home.

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Tell us something interesting that you’ve learnt about the building.
The building’s connection with great painters is a wonderful story. In 1494 the 23-year-old painter, Albrecht Durer, lodged with his fellow Germans in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi for a few months, immersing himself in the artistic life of Venice. He later returned to Venice and painted an altarpiece for the German Chapel in the near-by Church of San Bartolomeo at Rialto. This first Fondaco dei Tedeschi burned down in 1505 and was rebuilt soon after in the form we see today.  A young Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) was commissioned to paint a small fresco over the side entrance. The citizens of Venice noticed his talents and Titian grew to become the greatest Venetian painter of all time.

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How have you preserved the spirit and history of commerce and cultural exchange in the design of the interiors? 
Since its early inception, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi was always intended to be a trading center for worldly goods. Now 2016 brings it back to its original status and the customer can explore and navigate much more of the building than before. Almost all the rooms are historic and therefore fixed in size. Many are much smaller than you would expect in a department store. Our task was to find ways to make these spaces flow and feel inviting.  Each room needed careful consideration to ensure the movement of people and staff remained smooth and comfortable. The cellular typology of trading quarters has opened up since the 13th century, and the customer has much more access to product and information. What remain consistent are the inherent design features of the building. The viewing platforms and balconies overlooking the Grand Canal and the remnants of artworks and frescoes are still intact.

Is your creative process different when you’re working with historic buildings as opposed to new ones? 
Designing with the customer’s perspective in mind is always prominent in our process. We explore how one would navigate through the building and what would enhance the shopper’s experience. We aim never to recreate old interiors but to reference or acknowledge them in a contemporary interpretation, be that a particular craft or style that is reflected in the furniture we have designed.

Is there one design element that’s particularly showcases this?
The marble tables in the shoe department are unique examples of bespoke craftsmanship inspired by Italian renaissance painters’ obsession with folds of fabric and the veil sculptures of the Baroque. The technique of carving folds of fabric three-dimensionally took years of skilled and complex craftsmanship. We aimed to create three tables carved from solid blocks of Carrera marble using advanced computer software that scans preformed fabric draped plinths and machine carves the intricate details. This process relied on the involvement of stonemasons from the Veneto. For me, the final result is as dramatic and impactful as an artwork itself.

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How has Italy, and specifically the city of Venice, inspired the interiors?
Venice has a rich history of craftsmanship from glass blowing and furniture making to the carving of Gondolas.  Its palazzos are teeming with fabrics and carpets.  We looked to draw on this rich history and to make innovative and bold contemporary pieces grounded in Venetian craft. Small details, like the geometric pattern that surrounds Venetian doorways or the weathered stonework of ancient churches inspiring surfaces of table, have been reinterpreted in the furniture.

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What were some of the biggest design challenges you faced while working on this project?
The Venetian style is often replicated for its grandiose appearance of luxury. We felt this was the wrong approach for the austere nature of the Fondaco and for ourselves as contemporary designers. We did, however, want to create warmth and luxury through the use of traditional materials and crafts that are typical to Venice. Weathered marbles, Murano glass, and polished plaster sit comfortably in the spaces as a subdued backdrop to the luxury products that are on offer.

Describe Venice in a few words. 
I would call it the ultimate Ethereal City. It’s extremely delicate and light in a way that seems not to be of this world.

What have you learned about Venice while working on this project?
To work in Venice, to see the city over a few years in every season, has been a great privilege. I’ve come across musical processions in the evening, seen an incredible lightning storm across the lagoon, and eaten many wonderful meals in hidden locations, taken there by the many wonderful people we have worked with. I’ve learned that beyond the sometimes frantic tourist destination there lays a charming city. You just need to wander off the tourist trail to find it. 

How have your travels helped shape your work as an architect?
Travel is one of the architect’s most important tools for learning. Through travel we experience the physical reality of city, place, and detail. While we are bombarded with images in our modern world, travel allows us to understand all the aspects of architecture that a photo cannot: the tactile nature of materials, the shifting presence of light, and most importantly, architecture’s physical relationship to the human body itself.