The early morning October sunlight cuts through the mist over the Laguna, and the cream-colored silhouette of Santa Maria Della Salute breaks the skyline above Dorsoduro. Cats’ paws dance across the calm water and brush against the bare skin of Charles Ray’s Boy with Frog at the island’s eastern promontory. The sculpture marks the point inhabited by the renovated Punta della Dogana, Venice’s 17th century customs house.

Charles Ray, Boy with Frog, 2005-2007. Painted steel, cm 247 x 91 x 96.5.

Charles Ray, Boy with Frog, 2005-2007. Painted steel, cm 247 x 91 x 96.5. © Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery; © Palazzo Grassi

Boy with Frog has become the icon of Francois Pinault’s new museum, housed in the low, triangular brick building. Located at the intersection of the Giudecca and Grand Canals, the customs house is crowned with a gold globe and weather vane and guards access to the heart of Venice.

The Fran├žois Pinault Foundation's Punta della Dogana Contemporary Art Centre, Venice, Italy, sits at the entry to the Grand Canal. Tadao Ando architect. Photo: Thomas Mayer

The François Pinault Foundation's Punta della Dogana Contemporary Art Centre, Venice, Italy, sits at the entry to the Grand Canal. Tadao Ando architect. Photo: Thomas Mayer

Punta della Dogana is a 38,000 square-foot tour de force. The renovated building – put back together brick by brick using the traditional “scuci-cuci” method – is a raw, aged container for the younger museum, a powerful insertion of glass, concrete and artwork subtly orchestrated by Tadao Ando in a sequence of rectangular day-lit spaces. The preexisting building of wood, brick and stone feels as if it were lovingly touched and restored with integrity and care. The silky, smooth Tadao concrete yields to the meter-thick brick walls, holding clear of their surfaces.* The two-story, central cube-room defined by concrete planes creates the building’s inward-focused center of gravity. The double-layered shell foundation creates a waterproof bowl three-feet higher than the typical aqua alta. Twenty glazed water-gates, located uniformly along the two long facades, are covered with new, woven-metal grills, a reference to Carlo Scarpa’s Olivetti showroom on San Marco Square. Old and new float separately with a sense of deference, permanence and weight in a city that is more like a mirage on the Laguna than a physical place.

It is rare for architecture to express emotion, but this building conveys a deep caring for time, past and future. The sequence of rooms with their height, proportion and materials demands study. You move through the space, constantly aware of the artwork, its juxtaposition with the rich, simple materials of the building, the contrast of an introspective meditative space with framed views of a city once the gateway between East and West. The sense of an old, valued landmark laden with history, protected and renewed, brings tears to the eyes. It is a building of great humanity.

The museum’s inaugural exhibit, Mapping the Studio, curated by Francesco Bonami and Alison Gingeras, is profoundly demanding and in many cases deeply disturbing. The first gallery includes Maurizio Cattelan’s headless stuffed horse (Untitled, 2007) leaping through the wall and Rachel Whiteread’s One Hundred Spaces, 1995, multi-hued cast structures that create a grid across the gallery floor. This is quickly followed by the mind-blowing Fucking Hell, 2008, by Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Paul McCarthy’s Train, Pig, Island, 2007, among the work of 60 artists from the Francois Pinault collection. Described by some as the “usual suspects” and a showing of “greatest hits,” the collection includes works by Cy Twombly, Mike Kelley, Takashi Murakami, Cindy Sherman, Richard Price and emerging artists such as Matthew Day Jackson, Adel Abdessemed, Wilhelm Sasnal, Rob Pruitt, Richard Hughes, Nate Lowman, Mark Bradford and Kai Althoff. The exhibit has an impact, holds its own with the building and leaves you with visions of the sublime, surreal and horrifying. This is not a tourist experience, easy in its message. This is a complex cultural experience.

There are places in the world to be seen and experienced. Some are relatively straightforward and separated from their context. The Punta della Dogana Contemporary Art Centre is the opposite. This space encompasses complexity, integration, elegance and serene simplicity at its most elevated. When the art collection is added, the layers of contrast become stunning. It is good to experience places that leave you challenged, that still resonate two years later.

*Tadao Ando sees concrete as this era’s stone, and your hand automatically lifts to touch and stroke the crisp satiny surfaces. Here, rigor of craftsmanship takes the liquid mix of cement, aggregate and water to create stone’s solid equal. This is not the sloppy solid that looks like a cube of partially melted cheese pushed back into line with a knife. If Ando’s is the stone of our time, we need to do better—have tighter forms that limit the water bleed, limit the vibration to avoid stratification of material, use low slump mixes and value the craft. Lovers of good concrete debate the differences between Ando and Kahn. In an age focusing on smart long-term resource use, either is better than the poorly crafted walls and slabs found everywhere today and accepted as good enough. We devalue ourselves when we devalue our materials.

Interior gallery at Punta della Dogana with windows looking out over Venice. Photo: Thomas Mayer

Interior gallery at Punta della Dogana with windows looking out over Venice. Photo: Thomas Mayer