There’s a sequence of scenes in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Death in Venice in which Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach, who has traveled to Venice for palliative reasons, shadows a fourteen-year-old boy and his family as they weave through the campo and calle around the Piazza San Marco. The night before, von Aschenbach had clumsily refused the advances of a bemused prostitute in a plump boudoir at the Grand Hôtel des Bains, his hotel on the Lido. An accomplished composer—in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig of 1912, he’s an author—he has a wife and, one assumes, a family. But Tadzio—a beguiling, effeminate adolescent and the uneasy object of his uneasy obsession—stirs in him something hitherto suppressed.
Spotting Tadzio in the piazza, von Aschenbach is compelled to follow him. He slinks behind a column as Tadzio descends a bridge, so as not to be seen. Torn between shame and incorrigible curiosity, he tails the boy until they eventually catch each other’s eye. This moment of connection, charged by something that neither can articulate, is broken by the passage of a Venetian official pouring a white watery fluid over the street. Distracted, and having lost Tadzio to the indistinguishable ebb and flow of the city, von Aschenbach interrogates a nearby street merchant: “What is this filthy smell?” Ignored by the merchant, who is himself in apparent denial, his fears are soon confirmed by an empathetic bank clerk. It is disinfectant. A cholera epidemic—which no one will openly speak of or accept—has gripped the city.
Across its long history as a point of convergence between Europe, North Africa, and Asia, Venice has been known as the city of the seamy assignation. Death in Venice explores beauty and disreputable desire against the backdrop of a place that has, on more than one occasion, yielded to its louche reputation. From Casanova to Caravaggio, the islands have been hotbeds for venereal disease—syphilis, most famously—and the finest courtesans in the known world. (The mid-sixteenth-century Catalogo de tutte le principal et più honorate cortigiane di Venetia [Catalogue of All the Principal and Most Honoured Courtesans in Venice] was a best-seller in its day.)
Like one vast scenographic envelope, Venice is a city of superficial image and hidden depths—of showing only your best side, often requiring the disguise of a powdered face, a carnival mask, or a gold-studded mosaic to support a crumbling palazzo. I lived in Cannaregio for a little over a year, and would often snake my way home under the pall of night for what felt like hours contemplating how, in the guise of darkness, Venice appears to be at its most real. Imagine, for instance, the midnight voyages of pre-Napoleonic times. No rumble of outboard motors on the Grand Canal, no floodlights or bustling terrace restaurants—nothing but anonymous gondole, lacquered black and gliding silently across the water like shadows. In this sense, Venice is, and always has been, an oscillating choreography of flagrant spectacle and the great unseen.
A new exhibition, opened to coincide with the vernissage of FREESPACE, the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, explores this latent dynamic through a revelatory study of the history and architecture of dissident sexual practices. Located at Spazio Punch on Giudecca, the Cruising Pavilion—a self-initiated, independent project among the critics, curators, artists, and architects Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Charles Teyssou, Rasmus Myrup, and Octave Perrault—tackles the aesthetic and architecture of cruising spaces.
Its presence in Venice is not coincidental. The Giudecca, a long, slender island south of the city, is one of the few remaining Venetian bastions comparatively undiluted by the fake restaurants and retail outlets that are bleeding through the islands to its north. It is also the site of the Garden of Eden, a once unpromising six-acre artichoke garden with adjacent villa bought in 1884 and then transformed by Frederic Eden—a great-uncle of Anthony Eden—and his wife Caroline, the sister of the British horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll. (The garden was later presided over by Aspasia Manos, consort to Alexander I of Greece, and their daughter, Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia, before the Austrian architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser purchased the property in 1979.) Abandoned in 2000, the garden is now closed and concealed, offering little more than a gated view of a once-vibrant expat scene. Under the Edens the likes of Marcel Proust, Henry Sickert, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Henry James frequented the garden. Around 1908, a moment in which the polymath and open homosexual Jean Cocteau often visited, the garden became a well-known gay cruising spot.
Against this backdrop, the curators of the Cruising Pavilion have revealed an opportunity amid a void in mainstream architectural discourse. They state that cruising, which usually describes the quest for sexual encounters between homosexual men in public spaces, cannot be reduced to either men or homosexuals. Often taking place in public sites such as parks, toilets, and parking lots, or in dedicated establishments like bathhouses and sex clubs, the historical model of cruising is both evolving and fading in the face of “Grindr, urban development, and the commodification of LGBT culture.” In this way, the exhibition examines the conflictual architecture of cruising: “Somewhere between anti-architecture and vernacular, the spatial and aesthetic logic of cruising is inseparable from the one of the proper metropolis,” the organizers argue.
Much like the early ideas put forward by Mann and, later, Visconti in Death in Venice, the curators observe that cruising is no less than “the illegitimate child of hygienist morality.” It has been and remains “relegated to the realm of depravity, feeding off its most structuring disciplinary features.” In bathrooms with wipe-clean surfaces and public parks (or bushy English gardens in Venice, for that matter) designed for peaceful weekend walks, “the modern city is cruised, dismantled, and made into a drag of itself.” In the words of the artist and anthropologist Shaka McGlotten, if a public toilet is a public space for private functions, then “it is also a place for private sex that becomes public because it takes place out in the city.” Cruising requires total invisibility in the most visible of places, while sexual encounters must disappear in plain sight.
Explored at length in the exhibition through a series of works by a collection of artists and architects, this dynamic is made self-evident. Underlining that cruising not only exists in every neighborhood of every city in the world, but that it permeates all discourses, the curators put forward a wide range of projects and proposals that are also firmly in the architectural realm. Paris-based Studio Odile Decq and New York–based practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro have each contributed schemas that present work and ideas on the scales of both rooms and cities. In the realm of landscape architecture, Pascal Cribier and Louis Benech’s subversive drawings of their 1994 redevelopment of the Tuileries in Paris depict public urinals and a penis-shaped topiary in a children’s playground. A design for a sex club by Los Angeles–based artist and landscape designer Alison Veit sits near to a film by Andrés Jaque examining the urban experience of the digitally augmented urban sex life. With regard to the latter, a key aim for the curators is to study new forms of sexual spatiality made available by geosocial smartphone apps. For them, the likes of Grindr have generated “a new psychosexual geography spreading across a vast architectonic of digitally interconnected bedrooms, disrupting the intersectional idealism that was at play in former versions of cruising.” (The exhibition also features a 1982 French Alcatel Minitel terminal, a device that accommodated electronic communication and kickstarted digitally connected cruising.)
While the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, the great global condenser of architectural discourse, is just twenty minutes away from the Guidecca, they may as well be worlds apart. The Cruising Pavilion has commandeered its audience—and rightly so—highlighting the event’s failure to consider its own call to action without questioning the heteronormative production of space itself. Having made “a few urgent revisions” to the creative directors’ “FREESPACE” manifesto, the curators of the Cruising Pavilion have made a radical step toward new ways of mainstream thinking, asserting that architecture is a sexual practice and that “cruising is one of the most crucial acts of dissidence”:
FREESPACEfocuses on architecture’s ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers.