The Storytelling Trappings of Villa Marittima |
I. EXTREME COMFORT
The Seaside Villa is not a building type. The term cannot hold its own as a scientific category. Its inclusion of comparable structures and functions of habitation is as fluid and tentative as the congruence of terms like Seasonal Goods or Casual Ware: very few items belong to them exclusively: they are more about a vague sense of time or style, about atmosphere, rather than content. Likewise vague in its description of architectural characteristics, the Seaside Villa as a term evokes a series of potent impressions and associations about the practices of habitation and of leisure. Those are widely recognizable by a non-scientific audience: an audience that most probably never entered a Seaside Villa, but certainly fantasized about living in one.
Descriptions of houses by the sea tend to attract metaphor: they are said to be like bunkers, piers, bridges, towers, islands, cliffs, caves, refuges, palaces, chapels, hamlets, huts and, more often than not, ships. Such attraction speaks to the archetypal nature of the Seaside Villa: its persistence not as a building type, but as a mythic structure.
“The basic program of the villa has remained unchanged for more than two thousand years… because it fills a need that never alters, a need which, because it is not material but psychological and ideological, is not subject to the influences of evolving societies and technologies. The villa accommodates a fantasy which is impervious to reality.” (1)
The most remarkable Seaside Villas resist being just houses. Because leisure—their program—is as vague, indirectly described and ubiquitously fantastic as the architecture that accommodates it, Seaside Villas, since their invention by the Roman patricians, have challenged basic principles of domesticity: family, city and countryside, privacy and publicity, leisure and work, nature and artifice, orientation and disorientation, shelter, even weatherproofing. Their mythical status, their function as surplus commodity, the double life they afford to city life (2) entitle them to functional, formal, programmatic and semantic leeway. At their most exceptional, Seaside Villas are radical architecture posing as an eccentricity. (3)
In the island of Capri, Casa Malaparte’s living room does not have the best view of its dramatic setting (a-b): it looks, through a sequence of medium windows, to the side of the promontory on which the long box of the house is built. The best view of the building is saved for a small room lodged at its cliff-edge: Curzio Malaparte’s writing room, where a desk is set against another small window. This interior privileges work over leisure; the individual over the communal.
Likewise, the sequence of entry and circulation in Eileen Gray’s E-1027 cliff house at Roquebrune Cap Martin (c-d) effects the radical separation of the house’s bedroom suites from its main living space, though they belong to the same building volume. One enters the living room through a sliding window and the bedroom suites through doors and staircases directly connecting them to the exterior. Get from the suites to the living room is a different story: one has to cross through partitions, doors, back rooms, an elliptical staircase, and more doors. Here privacy is achieved at the expense of movement; the spine of the house, its utility core, is a complex piece of furniture.
The holiday house designed by Yiannis Xenakis in the island of Amorgos (e-g) takes the separation of spaces to the level of an architectural event. (4) The house volumes are broken up into independent pavilions, forming a settlement of alcoves. Those, in the original plan, were a bathroom, two guest rooms, a living room and a master bedroom as well as a cistern for rain water collection (5). Only four of those buildings were eventually realized, connected through an exterior base, specifically oriented to mediate between sea-view and sheltered terraces. These produce a multiplicity of paths among and around the pavilions: one cannot circle the house, and therefore perceive it as a unit rather than an agglomeration of spaces, without entering the landscape. The Xenakis house challenges the distinction between the natural and the artificial.
In the above examples the combination of leisure with domesticity produces hybrids of extreme comfort: certain types of leisure dominating over others end up challenging the standard structure of a house. This notion of extreme comfort is one of the generators of the inherently radical architecture of a house by the sea.
Casa Malaparte, E1027 and the House in Amorgos, both as parts of a single category and as individual architectural assemblies raise another issue: one of incongruous internal and external order.
“There is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite; …in such a state, things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all.” (6)
The seemingly coherent attribute of the Seaside Villa category—more than program, form, type and meaning—is its site: the sea. Yet nearness to the water is relative. How far from the coastline can a villa be in order to be included in this category? Is location in an island more ‘seaside’ than a seaview from the main land? The edge condition that the Seaside Villa inhabits is an atmospheric zone, rather than a crisp line. This atmosphere is an extension of the sea itself: a Protean landscape of ebb, flow and weather effects, placeless between inland and deep water. This landscape, including reefs, shallows, beaches, promontories, cliffs and plateaus, is neither geographical nor meteorological, but imaginary. It is perceived, measured, inhabited, by the mind. It fulfills and complements the ideological mission of the villa, grounding a psychological need that never alters to a mental landscape that keeps changing. The Seaside Villa is radical because of the vagueness of its site: not what it is, but where it is.
III. THE INVENTION OF LEISURE
According to Jean Didier Urbain, the coastal landscape of leisure is an invention of the late 18th Century: before that the beach was a dark, wild, dangerous place, inhabited by debris, marginal groups and fantastic monsters. Romantic poets and artists started constructing the beach as an aesthetic invention. In paintings by Friedrich, Turner and some of the early Impressionists one follows a progressive cleanup of the landscape and atmosphere of the coast. No longer confined, with its core fragmented, the beach is divested of content: it becomes empty space.
The artists’ gaze is followed by bare feet on the clean sand. By the mid 19th Century the beach is fully reinvented: not as a place but as a use. Mass transport and mass holiday bring the practice of holidays-by-the-sea to the Atlantic Coast of Western Europe. The littoral is transformed from dangerous to salubrious terrain. Site-specific rituals and structures are invented: amphibious cabins, tents, piers, bathing costumes of decreasing cover, the practice of bathing. (7)
The end of the Second World War directly redefines the practice of seaside leisure in the Mediterranean. Gerard Blitz, the founder of Club Med, takes the structure of his previous enterprise—the social rehabilitation, in a therapeutic hotel, of survivors of concentration camps—and creates a holiday village in Calvi, France: the first institutional form of mass leisure. (8)
The tourist and the vacationer are two completely different people. The former is sea-bound; the latter is sea-stranded. The tourist is a utopian creature: unable to change the world, she constantly changes her whereabouts, attempting to access situations that are usually outside social norms. The tourist thus engages in mimesis: she imitates lifestyles and places, always keeping her distance. Her holidays are experimental. Her mental landscape is her means of transportation.
The vacationer, on the other hand, installs himself to a specific location: he settles in and inhabits it. The vacationer is linked to place rather than movement. His holidays are ritualistic not experimental, containing routines and repetitions. His mode of existence is simulation: he immerses himself in a theatrical lifestyle complete with props, body language and a plot. (9) The vacationer inhabits a heterotopia.
IV. BUNKERS, GARDENS AND VIDEO
“There are also, probably in every culture … real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites… are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.” (10)
Heterotopias, according to Michel Foucault, are governed by a series of principles: they are compensatory or illusional to social practices, accommodating their crises and abnormalities, or recreating their myths. They have precise users, are governed by distinct time principles, systems of entry and egress and create montage juxtapositions of space and views of space. (11)
The 20th Century produced an impressive confluence of such spaces on the European littoral: prisons, bunkers, barracks, theme-parks, hotels, holiday villages, ships and some vacation homes. In his meditation and recording exercise of the remains of the Atlantic Wall—the most extensive fortification project of the Second World War—titled “Bunker Archaeology”, Paul Virilio points to the deep disconnection experienced in the coexistence of abandoned fortifications at the fringes of sunny holiday beaches: (h)
“The conflict between the summer of seaside bathing and the summer of combat would never cease. For me the organization of space would now go hand in hand with the manifestations of time.” (12)
Heterotopias offer as vague and problematic a definition as that of the Seaside Villa category. In the end, almost anything and anywhere can be labeled a heterotopia. Most of the metaphors attracted by a house by the sea are heterotopias. The heterotopia is more useful as a paradigm rather than a definition. It connects the practice of leisure accommodated by the Seaside Villa with the state of conflict and constant disconnection effected by extreme comfort. The house by the sea, in other words, does not necessarily look like a bunker, but it may founded on the same principles and effect the same conflicted disconnection that Virilio experiences near a bunker.
Diller + Scofidio’s unrealized Slow House project, far from looking like a bunker, is a prime example of such effected disconnection. (i-k) The house, a vacation home in Long Island, is conceived and literally designed as a structure lying between a door and a window. Its landside façade is a 1.2×5.5 m front door; its seaside façade is entirely taken by a much larger picture window overlooking the ocean. Between those lies the body of the house. Upon entry one faces two bifurcated paths leading to respective ground floor and mezzanine levels. The sectional arrangement of these levels effects the simultaneity of work and leisure, vacation and domesticity programs. The Slow House is designed for a character somewhere between a tourist and a vacationer: someone in constant motion who is settled. This person is in conflicted disconnection to both his surroundings and his state of mind. This becomes obvious in the framing of the ocean view.
“This vista, a much-desired and commodified feature of domestic architecture, is held tantalizingly from direct view until one reaches the end of the structure’s 100-foot curving walls: the Slow House, ultimately, is the passage to the view. A camera perched on one of two stacks projecting from either side of the picture window provides a live video feed of the ocean to a monitor inside. Positioned directly in front of the window, the monitor displays an electronically mediated landscape where horizon is always out of register with that of the “real” landscape visible through and mediated by the window. The camera can pan or zoom by remote control, or should the view become undesirable due to weather or hour, a prerecorded image may be played. As the image is manipulated and changed, nature becomes a slow form of entertainment.” (13)
The Slow House is a compensatory and illusional building, creating its own time-principles as both routine and atmosphere, held by a distinct system of entry and egress, offering montage views of the world:  these are Foucault’s principles. In its monitor vs. picture window views the Slow House also incorporates the most distinctive characteristic of heterotopias—and fundamental representational technique of many Seaside Villas: the creation of spaces doubling up and juxtaposed with their representations.
Foucault’s own example for this doubling is the Persian garden: a sacred space containing, simultaneously, a natural and artificial microcosm of the world itself. The garden is at once a space and (much like a carpet) the representation of a space, experienced as both a sensual and mental landscape. (14)
V. VILLA MARITTIMA
To fully understand the notion of a space doubling up with its representation we need to briefly consider the earliest documented origins of the Seaside Villa. These fall in the late Republic and early Empire of Rome and coincide, like most periods of villa building, with a flourishing in villa literature. It is the texts of Cato, Varro, Virgil, Pliny the Younger and Vitruvious that coin the term—Villa Marittima—and offer extensive descriptions of houses by the sea. (15) The other solid description of these houses is found in wall paintings.
Wall paintings in the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis and the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompey feature different Villae Marittimae. These paintings take the place of windows, using a technique of collapsing space that is one of the earliest precursors to perspectival drawing. They show a series of porticoes and colonnades flanking small central buildings, sitting at the edge of an artificial coast. Other murals contain stronger illusions: Seaside Villas are depicted as standing in the middle of marine gardens, flanked by nereids, fruit, fish and sea-beasts. These themes of abundance surrounding the Villa are further developed in Nilotic Mosaics in Piazza Armerina and Western Africa. (16) (l-m)
Around the same time, Vellius Paterculus criticizes Lucullus’ Seaside Villa as a bad example of luxury. He speaks about the massive earthworks conducted in order to bring the sea in land and land out to sea, so that the owner can literally fish out of his living room. This is the one in a series of letters contesting the Roman notion of otium—peace, relaxation, isolation, and the engagement in worthwhile physical and mental activities—in a dialectic of scarcity vs. excess (17).
Then there is a famous description, by Pliny the Younger, of his Seaside Villa at Laurentum. He writes about a rather disordered, expansive building as a sequence of views (picture windows) and colonnades connecting those views. (18) The effect is that of the picturesque but the method is that of the periplous: a seaside navigation of a space connecting landmarks to places, collapsing the in-between.
Villae Marittimae flourished during the Early Roman Empire, then started becoming abandoned as economic and geopolitical changes ended the Pax Romana and brought seaborne danger. Villas were transformed into fortresses and, on occasion, monasteries. Two late descendants of the Villa Marittima are the Monastery of Cassiodorus in Scyllacium, Sicily, that remembers the model of the house by the sea as cultivating a maritime garden; (19) and, by a phenomenological stretch, Quasr Amra, an Umayadd Palace in the middle of the Syrian Desert, inheriting the plan and different building elements of the Roman Villa, and enhancing them with an exceptional series of murals that present maps of the known world, its rulers and of the sky as orientation tools to the palace visitors. (20)
Palladio, Alberti, and their descendants did not build houses near the sea. It took until the mid-18th Century, the taming of the coast and the invention of leisure for houses by the sea to pick up where the late Romans had left them.
The most remarkable thing about the previous accounts and depictions of ancient and medieval Seaside Villas is their representation. They are either shown as the center of a marine garden (a sustainable, self-contained map of the world), or as part of a strategy of locating (self-orienting) oneself in one’s immediate or greater context—one’s mental landscape. The collapse of spaces between landmarks of a coastal landscape, or of important architectural elements of a house by the sea, leads to framed, important views of the landscape, or of oneself within it. Situated at the fluid edge zone of the coastline, the house by the sea operates as an physical and existential compass. They also point to another proclivity of the Seaside Villa category, perhaps the strongest generator of its radical architecture: its capacity as a storytelling machine.
VI. ERRONEOUS FOUNDATIONS
The Seaside Villa thus seeks a footing in the constantly changing mental landscape it inhabits. By anchoring itself it allows this landscape to continue changing; or it alters it. It activates its own spaces through the sea’s fluidity. It controls views, regenerates atmosphere, juxtaposes spaces and representations of those spaces and produces extreme comfort through its breaking down of architectural order. Any house by the sea is an intervention.
Piers, columns, floating plinths, bases; frames, thresholds, stairs and paths, cooridors, doors and picture windows, and their intersections; those are the architectural elements and methods of anchoring in the placeless site that is the sea.
A case study of anchoring is provided by Rudolph Schindler’s Lovell Beach House in Los Angeles. (m-n) The design and organizational structure of the entire house are driven by this method of anchoring. Built on a skeleton of “five free-standing reinforced concrete frames, cast in the form of square figure eights,” the house makes the most of the clement weather of Southern California through a series of open spaces. The frames go into the ground as columns, raising the building above the public beach and allowing the continuation of the landscape on either side of it. This is a skeleton solid and flexible enough to withstand earthquakes. (22)
This structural system allows for a split level volumetric differentiation on the inside and the outside of the house, creating a double height living space on its seaside and gallery space living quarters on its landside. It embodies the new California Style invented by European Architects in the ‘20s and ‘30s and holds the pedestal of a Masterpiece; with the exception of one small detail.
The bottom part of the second frame of the Lovel House—looking to the right from the landside of the building—is clumsily intersected by a staircase volume running perpendicular to it. This is a major design error; we have little commentary on how it came about. It upsets the organizational structure of the house and presents yet another example of problematic circulation clashing with a tremendously dramatic and symbolic Seaside Villa assembly.
Interestingly enough, the same type of error takes place at the foundations of Casa Malaparte and, as previously discussed, at the core of House E1027. In Capri, a clumsily constructed staircase leads from the level of the living room downstairs, to the lower level of the rooms; and then, through a door out to the perimeter slab of the building and again upstairs, through an external staircase, to the processional, foreshortened staircase that finally takes one to the majestic terrace. If the lower staircase of the Lovell House was an error, this is a design blunder. The interior movement of E1027 has similar problems: it runs through partitions, doors, a narrow staircase and more doors, as if through a convoluted piece of furniture. The blunder in Casa Malaparte is a documented result of the client, Curzio Malaparte, parting ways with his architect before the completion of the house; and of an initial plan with an entry born through the foreshortened staircase scrapped so as to maintain its pure form. The convolution in E1027 is an intended one, by Eileen Gray, creating ship-like conditions of cramming so as to maximize individual privacy.
“Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they … destroy ‘syntax’ in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also the less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite to one another) to ‘hold together’… they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.” (23)
The previous design shortcomings are inherent in the construction of the Seaside Villa: they occur at the points where their material and mental systems of organization try and almost achieve to fit together, anchor themselves and coexist. They are the result a programmatic, formal and structural erosion, due to the overwhelmingly fluid nature of the landscape that the Seaside Villa inhabits.
VII. THE STORY INSIDE THE WALLS
Pliny the Younger’s rather lyrical description spawned countless reproductions of his Villa Marittima at Laurentium. The resulting drawings, paintings, scale models and actual buildings, produced by generations of architects, have nothing in common. They are inevitably divergent attempts to materialize “a fantasy impervious to reality.” (1)
If tens of different buildings can spawn from a single story, then each Seaside Villa is founded on at least one story. Casa Malaparte, E1027, the House in Amorgos, Slow House and the Lovell Beach House are mythic structures straddling a fluid edge zone, built heterotopias that are not quite heterotopias, extreme comfort homes founded on small errors. They have one more thing in common: a fundamental design organization as narrative machines. They are designed to tell stories without words.
Thus Casa Malaparte is designed by a writer as the collage of a village square, a stage and a palace at the edge of a vertiginous cliff; E1027 is designed by a furniture maker, its title resolving to the numerology of its owners’ names and the building entirely structured as a massive piece of furniture; the House in Amorgos is designed by one of the most influential composers of the 20th Century as a system of variations of a potato volume in plan and of notation in elevation; Slow House is devised by two architects and media artists as a commentary on the impossibilities of vacation and the conflict and disjunction they produce; the client of the Lovell Beach House, a health guru intent on enjoying the climate of Southern California, is given a house whose unique structure makes it be all about atmosphere.
The myth of these 5 houses persists undissolved by their heterotopic dryness. It causes the spawning of other cultural myths—Le Corbusier’s fascination with E1027 and his subsequent mural interventions to its blank walls, Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mepris. These buildings are first and foremost Villa-Narratives. They present sequential arguments and stories, haphazardly put together by their owners and designers, breaking a series of rules, effecting their storytelling design through both structure and decoration-as-atmosphere (24), the imperfect lock of a material and a mental construction, in the placeless, fluid edge condition that is the seaside.
Published in DOMES Magazine 07/09 (2009): 44-59.
(1) James Ackerman, The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses, pp9. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
(2) Ackerman, pp14-15.
(3) Terence Riley, The Unprivate House, Introduction to Exhibition Catalogue. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002.
(4) Elina Loukou, Alkistis Rodi, Panayiotis Tournikiotis, Greekness Revisited. Docomomo n.36: Other Modernisms, pp55.
(5) Sven Sterken, Doctoral Thesis, Iannis Xenakis, Ingénieur et Architecte. Gent, Belgium: Universiteit Gent, 2004.
(6) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, ppxvii. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994
(7) Ζαν Ντιντιέ Ουρμπαίν, Στην Ακροθαλασσιά. Η μεταμόρφωση του ταξιδιώτη σε παραθεριστή,
(8) Ουρμπαίν, σ. 171, 211, 427
(9) Ουρμπαίν, σ. 245, 337
(10) Michel Foucault, trans. Jay Miskowiec, Of Other Spaces. Diacritics, v.16 n.1. pp 24. Spring 1986.
(11) Foucault, pp. 25-26.
(12) Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
(13) Diller + Scofidio, Scanning: the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio, pp103. New York, NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2003.
(14) Foucault, pp. 25.
(15) Ackerman, pp10.
(16) Ackerman, pp18.
(17) Joseph D’Arms, The Origins of the Villa, pp40.
(18) Pliny, ed. Helen Tanzer, The Letters of Pliny the Younger, The Laurentine Villa. New York, NY: Columbia University Press,1923.
(19) Cesslie Weber Jones, The Monastery of Cassiodorus
(20) Thomas Leisten, Quasr Amra
(21) Ricardo Scofidio, Elizabeth Diller, Back to the Front: Tourisms of War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Archtiectureal Press, 1996.
(22) Esther McCoy, Five California Architects, pp165. Los Angeles, CA: Henessey & Ingalls, 1975.
(23) Foucault, pp xviii.
(24) Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Atmosphere. Daidalos 68, 1998.
 The Club Med is a theatrical stage of simulation: its vacationer participates in a ritual of exchange, communal life and routine where money is replaced by beads, interaction by games and shelter by pacific, indigenous huts.
 The Slow House also expresses some of Diller + Scofidio’s own preoccupations about and personal research into tourism and war (21). Understanding the connection between seaside structures and the invention of leisure necessarily includes a history of war. The inhabitation of the coastline, the occupation of and landing on the edge zone, are strategic process. They are, both structurally and anthropologically speaking, about visual control and establishing a strong footing.
 Casa Malaparte sits on a concrete base built and fitted directly on a promontory rock. A very narrow path leads to it through a dramatic bridging of two rocks: and then continuing and widening this path, the promenade becomes a foreshortened staircase leading to the most dramatic open terrace in the Mediterranean. The actual house is lodged between natural rock and terrace-staircase. House E1027 is half-born into the cliff and half-raised on columns, led to by a walking path. Its terrace is reached by a narrow staircase and stylistically achieves, more than any modernist house, the Modernist ideal of a house -ship. The House in Amorgos, also reachable by walking path, sits on a concrete base in such a manner so that this base becomes part of the natural ground. The base of the Slow House floats on a promontory.