Philippe Starck has imagined a solar powered and sustainable gondola as part of an initiative to encourage Venetians to use design as a tool for innovation. His “Dream of Winter Gondola” is a contemporary take on the traditional flat-bottomed rowing vessels which are so much part of the Venice charm.
The illustrious French designer is known for his industrial products, domestic objects, furniture and numerous interiors for hotels and restaurants around the world. His is a unique signature with a design approach that is courageous, mostly rebellious, a touch playful and increasingly ethical.
The gondola project was commissioned by Venezia Capitale Mondiale della Sostenibilità, the branch of Ca’ Foscari University which develops business ideas and technology solutions to combat climate change — something that is being acutely felt in a sinking city facing an imminent environmental crisis. The initiative also has the support of the region of Veneto and the Italian government.
Starck has designed his visionary vessel as a winter gondola with a small room at its center. The concept isn’t meant to be realistic, but rather an exploration into new ways of constructing and powering the gondola. All the considered materials are therefore durable, hi-tech and sustainable. For instance, the fórcola (the traditional oarpost) is crafted from compressed bamboo, while the hull and oar are of black arachnid laminated seaweed bio-resin. Meanwhile, the gondola is propelled ecologically through a mini electric turbine powered by solar energy and hydro-generator.
Intrigued to understand this rather unusual project in more detail, I contacted the designer.
Nargess Banks: Why did you take on the gondola?
Philippe Starck: I have a lot of admiration and respect for the gondola. It is one of the most complex boats in the world as its design is completely asymmetric but nevertheless its weight is perfectly balanced and can go straight even in the hardest conditions. It’s magic; it’s pure magic.
How did you decide on these unusual sustainable materials and textures? And do they help create a unique experience for passengers on-board the winter gondola?
The experience will be unique as it shall reflect the elegance of intelligence. Every material here serves a purpose. I have used ecological materials such as arachnid because it is the strongest as well as the lightest material on earth. This can help the gondolier in the practice of his art. The bio resin made of seaweed is the link for the arachnid.
And the bamboo?
The laminated compressed bamboo for the fórcola was chosen for the material’s extreme strength and rigidity, as well as its absolute indifference to humidity which allows no maintenance and a lifetime durability. Also, bamboo is the most ecological wood as it grows very fast without doing any harm (to the planet).
Have you challenged the overall construction of the gondola, or respected the traditional asymmetric shape?
The heel of the gondola is naturally twisted and unstable, which gives the necessary maneuverability in the narrow canals of Venice. But this same positive instability may not be very comfortable for the passengers. So, in order to provide comfort when passengers get in and out of the gondola, I decided to add a small gyroscope, which is an easy way to control stability without adding weight. This gyroscope is powered by a mixture of solar energy and a rotating turbine — if the gondolier so wishes. At the same time, it allows for the possibility to propel the gondola and, when the gondola is not in use, to create tidal energy.
Oh I like that it has multiple functions. With Venice experiencing the impacts of climate change more urgently than some other cities, how do you see concepts such as “Dream of Winter Gondola” helping designers find solutions?
I have always tried to propose solutions, but I don’t always find them. Most of my life has been lived in a materialistic society that can only give birth to the materialistic — solutions that are obviously obsolete and doomed as the future is about dematerialization.
Is there hope?
It is in our DNA to create and build. It would be philosophically and biologically unacceptable to stop our creativity. But today we are faced with a paradox and we must act to save our planet: decrease when our nature obliges us to increase. The solution is positive degrowth, which means decreasing our production but developing our creativity. We must find ways to consume less; to grow in our own way. We need to lift the debate, understand our evolution and try to see further ahead.
I’m interested to hear of your desires and hopes as we emerge from this pandemic and begin to have more open conversations around climate change?
I have great confidence in the human being. The human being is an absolute genius. We always find solutions, but not always with the perfect timing. I hope that the generation of the day after tomorrow, which will grow up in a dematerialized world and face even more ecological urgency, will be totally dedicated to these solutions.
The 3D drawing of Philippe Starck’s “Dream of Winter Gondola” is now on display at Ca’ Foscari University.
See Pininfarina’s Oceanco Kairos, a yacht designed for meditation and contemplation and — on the opposite side of the spectrum but offering possibly an even more meditative experience — drift away on the old-school hand-built wooden Adirondack Guideboat. Also see what the yacht designers Bannenberg & Rowell say about the post hedonistic future of yachts.