Places you see in your dreams

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I chanced upon this drawing and I swear I could not believe this thing really existed:

Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily – IV century.

It is the plan of a late Roman villa that is very famous because of its amazing mosaic decoration (exceptional both in terms of quality, and of quantity). I knew very well the mosaics but I had never seen the plan of the complex. And maybe it’s just me (sue me, I’m an architect…), but I find the plan even more incredible than the decorations. The way the central courtyard becomes the hinge of a dazzling array of secondary spaces, each more flamboyantly shaped than the previous, is just stunning. It is a textbook Roman-villa-solution and at the same time it is interpreted in such an exuberant fashion that the whole thing looks made of the stuff of dreams: it seems a capriccio, a fantasy building, an analogical architecture à la Piranesi (see below).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ichnographia of the Campo Marzio, 1762

I am an ‘elevation-minimalist’: few materials, no colors, horror of surplus decorations. I’m a die-hard miesian with a dash of loosian angst, all shaken, not stirred, in the shaker of Swiss rationalism. But I totally love these plans. I love them because although they are complex, they also have a logic of their own, and altough they create messy spaces, there is always a hierarchy, and although they seem the epitome of camp, it does not take much to understand that in 3-d they could actually give rise both to crazy palaces and to spaces that are actually manageable for everyday use – as the villa of Piazza Armerina was.

And, however, I do like a dash of camp. As Susan Sontag wrote:

Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.

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