St. Mark's Basilica with the eponymous Piazza San Marco fronting it


What St. Mark’s Basilica taught me about sustainability

4,240 square meters of golden mosaics in an old Byzantine church bring sustainability to light

  • August 1, 2018

  • Written and photographed by Angel Yulo

We were in Venice last May to cover the country’s second participation in the Architecture Biennale. On our first morning, before marching to the Arsenale where a full schedule awaited us, we decided to attend mass at St. Mark’s Basilica. We entered through Porta dei Fiori (Door of Flowers) on the north side of the church marked by an arch cascading with reliefs framing the birth of Christ.

Not knowing where to proceed and with barely no one in the basilica that early in the day, we sat first in the chapel to the right of the altar. Lawrence lit a candle, while I let my eyes wander around the glistening interior. From dome peak to floor—gold leafing, marble inlay, religious scene—nothing was left to chance or abandoned to filler pieces. Then we heard the singing. It was in Italian.

We were ushered to the source of the singing—five elderly priests were reading from leather books on the wooden choir chairs around the high altar. I knew then that the mass would be in Italian too and that I will not understand a single word. Nevertheless, the upcoming hour was not going to be wasted on me for we were to experience the space as its users did when the basilica was rebuilt in 1063—4,240 square meters of mosaics illuminating and bouncing song on the mysteries of faith. The architects and artisans of St. Mark’s were committed to the call of their time: connect man to God, and they submitted every detail to the weight of that.

Today, mankind has a new calling, in addition to many ones we already have: to keep our planet alive. The heavy rainfall from typhoon Henry just subsided as of this writing and front pages are bombarding us with the back-flow of garbage on the breakwaters of Manila Bay. Climate change is real. We are its agents. And we must atone for the carbon sins of our industrial age. One way many leaders have taken on that mission is signing the Paris Agreement in 2015: “to keep global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.”

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2°C is our boiling point. It will make freshwater less available, drop crop yields, make sea levels rise by 10 centimeters, and spur conflict for the dwindling, non-renewable resources. Climate research outfit Carbon Brief reports that at our current rate of emissions, we will reach the 1.5°C mark in four years. For the best case scenario, in which the Earth ends up in a repairable state, global carbon emissions must reach zero by 2050.

Architects, urbanists, and designers have  great roles to play in the creation of low-carbon environments and economies. The European Commission has already listed ways in which the different sectors’ should reduce their footprint. They have called on the building industry to drastically improve energy efficiency through passive housing technology in new buildings, refurbishing old buildings to improve energy efficiency, and substituting fossil fuels in heating, cooling, and cooking, noting that investments can be recovered through reduced energy bills. It is my hope that the stories in BluPrint’s August issue serve as inspiration for the many ways we can take part in this, despite not being a European state. Sustainability knows no borders. And just as the blights we have caused our environment are felt overseas, so should our steps of remedy.

If the builders and, later, the stewards of St. Mark’s Basilica spared no detail and leveraged every technology (and glittering trophy) gained from a new conquest in furbishing that which they considered the greatest call of man—a subjective relationship with the supernatural, meaningful yet invisible, today’s architect should give it all he or she has in solving a problem as urgent and palpable as climate change.

Although our zeitgeist is no longer of the Middle Ages, I’d like to think humankind remains and will remain sacred. Our crusade, however, will need to evolve.

BluPrint Volume 3 2018 is available in digital format via Flip100, and in newsstands and bookstores.

This article was originally published as the Editor’s Note of BluPrint Volume 3 2018 entitled “Sustainable epiphanies at San Marco.” Edits were made for BluPrint online.