Today starts a new episode of The Funambulist. From now on, if everything goes well, you should be able to read every week a 1500 words essay by a guest writer I have been asking to write exclusively for the blog.
The first author to achieve this assignment is Danielle Willems, who is a designer and producer currently living, working and teaching Architecture in New York. Her practice and academic works continuously test the thresholds between the moving image and architecture.
Her essay explores via the specific examples of the Casa Malaparte and Jean-Luc Godard‘s movie Le mépris (Contempt), the perception of architecture through the cinematographic lens: (more documents in the video at the end of the text)
Cinematic Catalysts: Contempt+Casa Malaparte
by Danielle Willems
There is no question that at this point in time the method in which we view the world is through the cinematic lens. The way we move and perceive space, time and the landscape is most certainly through this lens. How can this method be harnessed to become a methodology that is generative rather than just representational? Can this method be developed through a narrative feeding back onto the form expanding and creating space and time around the sequence of events? This case study of Casa Malaparte has its own interesting story as well as the many events and narratives that weave themselves through and around this space. The film Le Mepris (Contempt) produced in 1963 is certainly one of Godard’s most seductive productions. The main event or catalyzing moment between the two characters in the film is solidified through the formal performance of the architecture of Casa Malaparte. This catalyzing moment will become the focus of this essay, and will attempt to investigate the series of memories surrounding and forming this exception house.
Beginning with a writer, the question arises; can memory, material and vernacular craftsmanship produce one of the most revered forms of rationalist architecture? The narrative of Curzio Malaparte’s house originated much before the formation began in 1937 on the island of Capri, with a memory that would become the predominant generative component to its becoming. Encapsulating this memory was a character that operated within dueling peripheries in his life, literature, politics and culture. This bold outspoken methodology caused him to spend most of his adult life either in prison or exiled. These events in his life become very relevant to the formation of Casa Malaparte, because they contain the cognition of the spatial manifestations of the house as they relate to past environments, forms and space. One of the main points of contention surrounding the creation of the house arose between the two protagonists the architect, Adalberto Liberia, and the owner Curzio Malaparte. Mardia Talamona has produced extensive research on this dialogue between the two characters. Prior to her research most of the houses history had been speculative and did not capture the true narrative. She writes, “Prior research… yields what one wishes to see in the house instead of yielding what the house really represented. Excessive emphasis has been placed on the “modern” image of the house, while its vernacular value – that of a building being invented day by day following the “expertise” of a local master builder- has been ignored.”1 The house’s exceptional sensitivity to the landscape and contradictory boldness makes it very easy for architectural critics to delineate this house as a product of the architect Libera, who at that time was perceived as a prominent figure in the Italian Realist movement. What Talamona traces is the volatile relationship between these two characters through a series of letters, which index an exchange that concluded before the house began construction. This predominate memory to the conception and spatial creation of the house for Malaparte, was imprinted while he was imprisoned in Lampari and visited the church Annunziata. The central element of the stairs can be traced back to the cognition of this church, in which this process begins to notate the generative translations potential of memories. This is further solidified when Malaparte states, “It became clear to me from the beginning that not only the outline of the house, its architecture, but also the building materials, had to fit that wild and delicate landscape. I was the first to build such a house, and it was with reverential trepidation that I set myself to the task, helped not by architects or engineers, but by a simple master builder…For months and months, teams of masons worked on that farthest balcony of Capri, until the house began slowly to emerge from the rock to which it was married, and as it took shape, it revealed itself as the most daring and intelligent and modern house in Capri.” 2 What becomes even more incredible is the transformation of the house as it was in the process of construction, visible through Curzio and the master craftsman/builder Adolfo Amitriano working together on the site. The roofscape becomes the register of experimentation, as the form of the house progresses through several iterations. There was at one point in its formation an entrance piercing through the center of the exterior stair and roof, which was later, filled in before the house completion. This process, of an ever-evolving form is progressive as a methodology of creating space. Curzio’s larger event narrative, that of operation on the margin, being imprisoned and excelled, memories of redemption, all permeate the formation of this house. It is isolated from the rest of civilization, and has the emotive qualities of a prison and a church that is drifting within the shifting, expansive seascape. This narrative generated a form full of contradictions and exceptional experiences, which continues to inspire. “Casa Come Me – A house like me” 1938-present
Continuing with a filmmaker, the question is posed, can cinema the act of seeing and the cinematic event be used as a generative method of creating space and form? Through the development of a method of digesting all previous cinematic manifestations, Jean-Luc Godard solidifies centering cinema itself as focal point of investigation. This becomes the broader exploration of Le Mempri, where the narrative traces a film being produced within a film. The formal structure also mirrors the narrative of the Story of the Odyssey, which is organized as a three-part tragedy. “Contempt marked the first time that Godard went beyond the jolie-laide poetry of cities and revealed his romantic, un-ironic love of landscapes.”3 The catalyzing moment in this film involves the divergence of the two main characters relationship; the staircase on the roof becomes the stage of this unraveling event. The characters trace the thresholds of the roof and call into the landscape, only to be confronted with their own boundaries. This event is facilitated through the form and space of Casa Malaparte and in many ways the house becomes an expression of their relationship, as a temple and a prison. It becomes very visible the grasp to which Godard as a filmmaker understood the house, as he weaves a new narrative through and around this profound consciousness to which it was created. In the film this is perceived in moments when the character, Paul (Michel Piccoli) traces with his gestures the remnants of previous iteration of the stair that was later filled upon completion. (see image below) This is also shown as Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is looking from her prison like window up to her husband on the roof. Godard has created a new conception of the house, using the gestures in the sequence of cinematic events to create plasticity within form. This concept of indexing layered narrative is not found in conventional architectural representation, but it has the generative potential to become a proposition and an opening to the complex relationships between space and narrative, forms and events.
Allowing the written word to manifest form becomes the craftsmanship of cinema, which is very similar to the process of allowing the diagram to manifest architectural space. The critical moment of this becomes, giving the narrative a physical entity or space: concept to form. The sequence of images then manifest the construction of a reality; which does not just reduce images to an illustrative/representation role rather something “other” can occur beyond the dialectic. Thus allowing the narrative to develop in a neutral and pure space where the form can emerge unimpeded by the dialectic. The images then become performative, and within this act of displacement become generative.
Casa Malaparte, part memory, part fiction is the narrative solidification and personification of the famed writer and artist Curzio Malaparte. It is a vernacular Zeitgeist realized through a master craftsman. The merging of the cinematic onto the production and design of space has the potential to yield the formal plasticity and the defining momentum of our time. Beyond the theater perspective, the static view of movement, into the generative potential of cinematic perspective, the moment image, where time and space are plastic, there is the potential to create novel forms.
1. Casa Malaparte by Marida Talamona page 23
2. Ritratto di Pietra (stone portrait) by Curzio Malaparte 1940
3. Totally, Tenderly, Tragically by Phillip Lopate Essay collection, published by Anchor Books 1998