Venice's new screening venue embraces the future

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ROME -- Venice officials have been talking about the need for an alternative to the Lido's storied but crumbling Palazzo del Cinema for most of the past generation. Finally, the festival is doing something about it.

The need to refurbish or replace the Fascist-era Palazzo del Cinema was first brought up in the late 1980s, and the first official plan -- which would have knocked down most of the existing building, except for the main hall, with a new structure rising up around it -- was drawn up in 1991. But initiatives were invariably pushed aside because of budgetary restraints or issues about feasibility.

Venice artistic director Marco Mueller made a new building a permanent issue ever since he was named to his post in 2004. Mueller argued that with its aging infrastructure, it would eventually become impossible for Venice to remain a top-level festival. Soon after Mueller signed on for a second mandate two years ago, €70 million ($100 million) in funding for the new building was secured. Work started late last year.

"It's not as much fun to talk about as the latest films, but once it is completed the new Palazzo del Cinema will profoundly change the kind of festival Venice will be," Mueller says. "It would be difficult to understate its importance."

The new building will be ready for business in 2011, the 20th anniversary of the first plans for a new building, and the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy and the founding of the Italian republic. Once completed, it will be referred to as the Nuovo Palazzo del Cinema, with the original building retaining the simpler "Palazzo del Cinema" moniker.

Plans reveal a futuristic looking gold-leaf shell-like structure made of glass and stone designed by Algerian-born French architect Rudy Ricciotti. Once completed, it is sure to spark heated debate over the appropriateness of such a provocative building in one of Italy's oldest and most traditional cities.

The building will include a total of 2,700 seats split among three main halls, in a structure covering nearly 3,600 square meters (about 39,000 square feet) -- roughly the size of the Roman Coliseum. More than half of the structure, including space for a cinema market long conspicuous in its absence from Venice, will be underground.

Visitors to the Lido this year will not see evidence of the soon-to-be born structure unless they know where to look. Work has already started on the foundation of the building, with a massive pit dug up in front of the Casino. But the pit will be covered by a new temporary building, Perla 2, which will seat 450 for screenings. With Perla 2 limiting access to the front of the Casino, the neglected back of the building with its own boat dock and grand entrance has been cleaned up and will be used for new arrivals.

"No project of this size is ever easy, but in this case the big challenges are to create something that will not hinder the festival for the two years it will be under construction and to finish with something compatible with both the nostalgia of the Venice Lido and with the future," says Alfonso Femia, one of the architects with 5+1AA, the firm working with Ricciotti on the project. "I think we're managing that pretty well so far."
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