Casa Malaparte’s Enigmatic Legacy Continues

Event: The Curious Case of Casa Malaparte: Literal Deconstruction and the Surrealist Building Enclosure
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.10.09
Speaker: Michael McDonough, AIA — Author, Casa Malaparte: A House Like Me (Clarkson-Potter)

Courtesy michaelmcdonough.com

“Who is this guy riding a bike around on a roof with no railing in a cliffside dwelling in the middle of the Bay of Naples,” asked Michael McDonough, AIA, pointing to a black-and-white photograph. McDonough is equally fascinated with Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) — an Italian who was variously a journalist in London, a collaborator with the Surrealists in Paris, and a war correspondent on the Russian front during World War II — and Casa Malaparte, the fortress-like villa he designed for himself on the Isle of Capri. After 10 years studying the house and the man, and three years writing and editing, McDonough’s book Malaparte: A House Like Me was published in 1999.

“Casa come me,” or “house like me” is what Malaparte called his deep terracotta-colored masonry villa that was realized in 1939. Located on a promontory 32 meters above the sea, the house is surrounded by natural beauty on land steeped in Roman history. The outline of the building follows the course of the cliffs and is built on three levels. A large roof terrace stretching out towards the sea can be reached solely by a reverse pyramid staircase that fits in perfectly with the shape of the rocks. The idea for the steps comes from a church in Lipari, where Malaparte worshiped during his imprisonment. Access to the property is either by foot from the town of Capri or by boat and then a hike up a staircase cut into the cliff. “It’s inaccessibility,” says McDonough, “is extraordinary.”

One question that continues to mystify architects and historians is who really designed Casa Malaparte? Italian rationalist architect Adalberto Libera designed one scheme. Malaparte, who, according to McDonough, felt “architects are basically engineers,” worked with Libera’s plan, adapting it and building it with a local stonemason. The house has no steel components — rather, it is built of limestone, concrete, and stucco, materials found onsite. Terrific storms would cause windows to be blown out and the salty wind would blow completely through the house. In addition, the salt water in the in the two-foot-thick limestone walls migrated to the outside causing the stucco to fall off. An audience member questioned the color of the house. Yes, it was originally white, which was the color of the fascists, but after Malaparte became interested in communism, he painted it red. McDonough surmised that through time, even if people couldn’t read words, they could “read” materials and color.

The house was abandoned after Malaparte’s death in 1957 and became a victim of vandalism and neglect. Malaparte had willed the house to the People’s Republic of China — it is said he admired Chairman Mao — but his wish was contested and now the Casa Malaparte Foundation is its steward, making it available to architecture students. Malaparte’s great-nephew, Nicolo Rositani, is primarily responsible for restoring the house to a livable state. However, due to the building materials and the elements, Casa Malaparte is in a state of perpetual restoration.