by Keith Evan GREEN
“The house is never finished” – Gio Ponti’s architectural fables An ‘architect-artist’ true to his name, Gio Ponti (1891-1979, Milan) created connections between architecture, culture and industry, both inside and outside Italy. In bridging various expressive tendencies, Ponti assumed a number of roles himself: architect, industrial designer, set designer, painter, editor, academic and organizer of the Milan triennial exhibitions. Although Ponti developed a sympathetic rapport with creative individuals like Carlo Mollino and Giorgio de Chirico, his expression, freely drawn from far-reaching sources, was personal, pluralistic and poetic.
Ponti’s most exemplary achievement remains, perhaps, his butterfly-like residence for the Planchart family (Caracas, 1955). Ponti envisioned this house to be like his life: an encompassing artistic project containing and transforming fundamental life-lessons. Architecture nevertheless remained for Ponti an unrequited love, an unfinished house, a dream yet to be realized.
Ponti’s statement that “The house is never finished” implies that the house he designed was never fully that vital and encompassing home, that domus he tirelessly sought and desired. Living in a state of impermanence, the architect, being human, could only accomplish so much. In a letter to Anala Planchart, written by Ponti more than ten years after the completion of the Villa Planchart, the architect confessed, “I am trying to write a book called ‘All I have is my life’. This will be a book of thanksgiving and acknowledgment. […] For my part, I have done what I could; […] I have offered [my architecture] with sincerity.”1 In Ponti’s sensitive adaptation of the Villa Planchart to the lightness of a Caracas hill-top lies a deeper understanding of the human condition, for which, as Ponti described, “there is no solution… the future renews the problem.”2 And so, as Ponti wrote in ‘Amate l’Architettura – Love Architecture’ – “the moment of architecture awaits us still.”
For Ponti, the problem of defining domus reflected the difficulties inherent in human existence, in everyday living. Particularly after the devastation of World War II, such assuring architectural references as formal rules and historical forms failed to provide architecture with a proper foundation.3 Such antiquated concepts as architectural “Beauty” must be supplanted by a “beauty” defined by the sensibility of the individual, a “beauty” that, as Ponti suggested, now came “with effort, with sorrow, with pain, and with uncertainty.”4
For Ponti, the only meaningful domus human beings are capable of attaining is the fable we tell ourselves. Ponti communicated his fable with a language that strained at the limits of the expressible, employing infinitely precise tactics to make “ecstatic” (to use a favorite word of Ponti) the mingled miracles of architecture and our impossible expectations for it. In the same years that Ponti wandered through a yet realized Villa Planchart, Gaston Bachelard pondered whether, “in this dynamic rivalry between house and universe […] can this transposition of the being of a house into human values be considered as an activity of metaphor? Isn’t this merely a matter of linguistic imagery?”5 Bachelard, himself, answered no: “the imagination cannot be content with a reduction which would make the image a subordinate means of expressions: it demands on the contrary, that images be lived directly, that they be taken as sudden events in life.”6
Bachelard’s words imply that the architectural “fables” that Ponti envisioned were fantasies that must not only be dreamt but lived. In this way, the “fabulous” architecture of the Villa Planchart and countless other works by Gio Ponti was constructed by the architect with figures drawn from life, destined to suggest something of a “miracle” in the course of the everyday. Given the challenges and opportunities of living today, there is much to discover from dwelling, a moment or two, in Gio Ponti’s timeless abode.
1 G. Ponti (“Ponti, Lisa Licitra”), letter to Anala Planchart (August 30, 1974), quoted in Fulvio Irace, “Corrispondenze: La villa Planchart di Gio Ponti a Caracas,” Lotus 60 (1988) p. 85.
2 Ibid., p. 235.
3 Ibid., p. 93.
4 G. Ponti (“Ponti, Lisa Licitra”), In Praise of Architecture, trans. G. Seppina and M. Salvadori (New York: F. W. Dodge, 1960) p. 186.
5 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. M. Jolas. (Boston: Beacon: 1969) p. 47.
6 Ibid., p. 47.
About the Author
Keith Evan Green is “Creativity Professor” of Architecture and Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Clemson University (USA). He earned B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and an M.Arch. degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is author of the monograph Gio Ponti and Carlo Mollino (Mellen Press, 2006; Japanese translation by Kajima Press, 2011).