Nicola Navone: From 1969 to the early 1980s my father, Milo Navone, was a partner in the office of the architect Franco Ponti in Viganello. As a child I spent afternoons in their studio and from adolescence I lived in a house they designed and built.
I have chosen to speak about Casa Graf today, because it is the outcome of the research that Franco Ponti began in the 1950s in Villaggio San Michele at Caslano and represents a sort of a paradigm of his architecture. What has always impressed me, is the richness of its internal space and, at the same time, the simplicity of its layout, which can be described in a few words and condensed into a few signs. All this in a building that is small yet extremely generous. It conveys an idea of a domestic space that, I believe, played a crucial role in encouraging me to study architecture.
HOW DID YOUR FATHER MEET FRANCO PONTI AND WHAT IS THE STORY OF THEIR COLLABORATION?
My father got a position in Tita Carloni’s office in 1955. He recalled that every morning young architects (among them my father and a very young Mario Botta) had the duty to turn on the stoves and wake up Franco Ponti, who was usually found sleeping on three chairs (designed by Carloni) tied together.
He was a bit of a Bohemian. He used to go to night clubs where, apart from just having a good time, he also got to know his clients. In fact, he was always broke, not just because of the night life, but he was also very generous. Tita Carloni often put him up, and this is how my father and Ponti got to know each other. Their real collaboration, however, started later, in 1969, after a period spent by my father in Turin in Leonardo Mosso’s studio.
During their years in practice together, my father contributed to the design and supervision of building sites as well as organising the workflow, to avoid the unwelcome effects of Ponti’s sometimes unpredictable conduct. I should stress that Franco’s character did not imply professional negligence. On the contrary, he was very rigorous and passionate about his work, but he followed his moods and curiosity wherever they took him, and he was unrestrained by conventions. One effect of this was that he tended to spin out the time he spent working on his houses, and he would often return to lavish further care on them afterwards.
THOSE WERE INTERESTING TIMES IN TICINO.
From the 50s, many Ticinese architects, starting from Rino Tami and passing to the younger generation, for instance Tita Carloni, expressed a special interest in what was called organicism. But they also shared a fascination with Ticinese rural houses, especially in the Alpine region, for the outstanding force of their elementary geometry, the masterly execution of the magnificent stone masonry, and the extreme precision with which these archaic prisms were placed in the landscape. On the other hand, their ambition was to achieve a modern spatial quality, and they looked for ways to relate their buildings harmoniously to the context. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture provided a crucial frame of reference.
In Ticino, Wrightian models came from two sides: from Italy, through the work of Bruno Zevi as a critic and publicist who enjoyed great influence and prestige in the subalpine canton, and from Zurich, for instance through the monograph by Werner Moser. He had worked in Taliesin and published that successful volume in 1952 on the occasion of the Swiss leg of the travelling exhibition “Sixty years of Living Architecture: the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright”.
The Wrightian model made it possible to be contemporary while giving buildings roots, embedding them firmly in a particular region, understood not just geographically but also historically and culturally. What is surprising and worth noticing, however, is the originality with which Ticinese architects interpreted FLW’s work, each in their own way. Although Franco Ponti’s oeuvre most closely resembles the Wrightian model, it would be superficial to see it only in terms of similarities. Ponti’s work was an original reinterpretation, not an imitation. I feel its most important feature is the investigation of a personal and rigorous grammar of forms and spaces, an idea which he borrowed from Peppo Brivio, a master of Ticinese architecture (and much else), whom Ponti worked with in the early stages of his career and who had a profound influence on him.
This research was difficult, and I believe this was also one of the reasons why Ponti decided to focus only on single-family houses. Limiting the field of investigation enabled him to focus on fundamental architectural topics and bring them to perfection.
HIS RESEARCH IS EXTREMELY INDIVIDUAL, AIMED AT PRODUCING PERSONAL, AUTONOMOUS, EVEN MYSTERIOUS OBJECTS. HOW DID PONTI’S POSITION COEXIST WITH OTHER IMPORTANT MOVEMENTS STRESSING THE NEED TO BUILD THE ARCHITECTURE OF A CITY?
The architects of this period in Ticino had substantially diverse approaches. Ponti had a radical “anti-urban” position, fundamentally different from Luigi Snozzi’s, for instance. Snozzi was born in 1932 (hence 11 years younger than Ponti).
He looked at the organicist model in the very early stages of his work. Soon, however, he was no longer satisfied with architecture that accepted the reality of Ticino as it had been – essentially a rural region – and began to direct his interests towards the construction of urban space, understood in the broadest sense, bringing urban themes to places where they were not yet articulated. Ponti, by contrast, was not deeply interested in this kind of operation. He worked as if guided by the idea of an “alpine arcadia”, trying to keep up a dialogue with local and rural building traditions.
In fact, Ponti was an individualist, who believed in individuals, not the collective. At the centre of Ponti’s interest was always a specific person, with his or her personality and needs. At the same time, he placed the emphasis on creative independence and sought ways to achieve it. For this reason, he also borrowed from FLW the very efficient metaphor of a house as a portrait of the client. A portrait grasps the soul of the subject painted, but the artist always paints it in his or her own way, and the architect aspires to do the same by designing.
Ponti’s search for an architectural grammar, however, was not an irrational obsession engaged in for its own sake. Consider Villaggio San Michele in Caslano. It was a far-sighted operation originated by the cultivated building contractor Eligio Boni. He asked Augusto Jäggli, an excellent architect from the generation of Tami and Camenzind, to draft a parcelling project for a plot on the lakeside, and Jäggli diligently presented him with a decent proposal, which nevertheless sought to make the most profit from the plot of land. Shortly after this, Boni decided to entrust Ponti with the design of only 6 houses there (in the end they became 8), temporarily giving up the idea of building on most of the land. Ponti’s ambition, shared by Boni, was an ensemble consisting of houses with a strong individual character, yet sharing a common vocabulary that would create a dialogue between them.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE RECEPTION OF HIS ARCHITECTURE BY HIS CONTEMPORARIES?
Ponti’s research was so personal that in the Ticinese panorama his work has always been appreciated, but seen as an exception, perhaps stimulating but isolated. Then his career came at the time when young architects wanted to move away from organic models and were looking at other sources like Le Corbusier. I don’t want to recall here the caricatural dichotomy between organic and rational architecture, since there was – on the contrary – a fruitful dialogue between these two positions, as in the work of Tita Carloni. All the same, this may have contributed to Ponti’s work being underrated. He was always considered a good architect, an extraordinary craftsman, yet without any particular influence on his colleagues.
WHAT WERE THE FUNDAMENTAL COMPONENTS OF HIS METHOD?
I think that in Ponti’s work the concept of the ‘type’ plays an important part. Now, you may ask what can be less related to the idea of “individuality” than the idea of “type”? But, in fact, this concept is also central to Wright’s architecture, as was perceptively shown by Jean Castex in Le printemps de la Prairie House (1986).
Starting from a series of basic schemes, which Ponti crystallised as he gained experience, and using a rigorous grammar based on a limited number of rules and characterised by a clear geometry, he was able to find solutions that were perfectly suited to the constraints of the brief and the features of the site. Ponti was not interested in inventing something completely new in every case.
The coherence of the formal grammar, and, as I have said, the decision to deal almost exclusively with the theme of the single-family house, make it possible to devise a taxonomic classification of his work, in which each building acquires a value by virtue of what it has in common with other buildings in the same series or what distinguishes it from them. This means (as a corollary not unwelcome to an architect) that his houses are immediately recognisable, manifesting a peculiar “style” (a critical category abhorred by the most radical Modernists, but not without a certain usefulness).
WHY WAS ORTHOGONAL GEOMETRY SO IMPORTANT?
Geometry was a way of designing modern architecture that cares for the landscape without indulging in mimesis. There is no imitation of the vernacular in Ponti’s work, there is a reinterpretation, which is quite different. His houses do not stand out from a distance. Only as you get closer does the geometry slowly reveal their presence. This was a common concern for many architects in Ticino in this period. Let’s take Casa Balmelli by Tita Carloni first. Geometry here is closely related to the landforms of a specific place, the sloping terrain. It is very difficult to make out the house from a distance. It might seem that because of its radical geometrical order it ought to be visible, standing out from its setting. The opposite is true. Its presence emerges clearly only when you come closer to it, thanks to its materials (mainly wood and stone). I find it interesting that he was able to make something that is not mimetic, that achieves formal independence and clarity of language, but which only becomes a distinct presence when seen fairly close up, while establishing a delicate dialogue with its surroundings from a distance. This is a profound and precious lesson that we can learn a lot from. In this way the region would end up being populated by buildings engaged in a dialogue, not by architecture that tries to mask its poverty by shouting louder than the others.
THE SIMPLICITY AND RICHNESS OF FRANCO PONTI’S HOUSES IS STRIKING. CASA GRAF MANAGES TO EMBODY THE PRIMITIVE CHARACTER OF PRIMORDIAL ALPINE HUTS: A ROOF RESTING ON VOLUMES MADE OF STONE.
I agree, but we need to be careful, as it is not exactly as you describe it. I chose this house also because of very precise architectural decisions that make a big difference. You said “a roof resting on volumes made of stone”. That’s not precisely true. The steeply sloping planes of the roof that define the volume housing the rooms overlap the granite masonry of the basement, generating the image of interlocked volumes: a true figure of Ponti’s architectural discourse, which recurs from the volumetric articulation to the design of the smallest details of his houses.
We can see that there is a whole constructional research here aimed at reaching a precise formal result. Ponti possessed significant constructional knowledge that enabled him to develop surprising solutions underlined by carefully designed details.
I would like to direct your attention to another important feature of this house: the fireplace, whose volume is set slightly off the central axis. Through this device the atrium of the entrance is defined, and an unexpected and extremely strong visual diagonal is created between two opposite corner windows, capable of linking the space of the dining room with the garden. It is clearly a space with a modern character, having nothing to do with vernacular models.
It is astonishing how strong a very simple gesture can become if one works to reduce it to essentials, not impoverishing or trivialising but striving to achieve an extraordinary spatial quality with very limited means.
Take a closer look at the facade and the point where the chimney projects from the pitched roof. It’s thicker in its lower part. This emphasises the idea of an element tapering towards the top, literally as if the chimney was growing out of the ground and rooting it to the land, becoming a peg anchoring the house to the place and symbolically marking its centre. If you look carefully at the section drawings, you realise that this is a formal trick. There are two consoles of reinforced concrete on the roof supporting the stones. It shows that in Ponti’s architecture there are often decisions driven rather by the search for visual comfort or semiotic features that add another level of complexity to the project.
Another component of Ponti’s modern grammar is the principle, taken from Peppo Brivio (who borrowed it from Neoplastic architecture), of never piercing a wall. Tita Carloni, for instance, never cared about this rule. In vernacular architecture the wall is always pierced by apertures, and no such principle of this kind exists. But in Franco Ponti’s architecture the apertures are always the spaces left between clearly recognisable elements which, by their arrangement, determine a precise relationship with the exterior, whether they are walls, slabs, or roofs. And Ponti is always extremely attentive to the syntactic coherence of his architecture.
THE DICHOTOMY OF A HEAVY STONE BLOCK GROWING OUT OF THE GROUND AND A LIGHT WOODEN STRUCTURE SITTING ON TOP OF IT IS COMMON TO A NUMBER OF PONTI’S BUILDINGS. WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF THIS FORMAL STRATEGY?
There is the idea of a mass embedded in the ground (or, as Wright used to say, growing out of the site) and standing firmly in place, and an idea of something hanging, detached, of lightness. This is very evident when we look at the houses in the Villaggio San Michele.
Ponti made a study of contrasts. The granite walls of exceptionally fine quality with concealed mortar to simulate a dry-stone wall heighten the impression of weight. In the carpentry work, by contrast, he sought to convey an impression of dematerialisation, even using metal profiles to reduce the sections. There are beautiful photos from the construction site showing the roofs like the wings of a butterfly resting delicately on the heavy blocks. It is an artificial topography, a modified terrain on which the light structures have landed. The beauty of this artificial topography together with the birches surrounding it, is striking. It also recalls Auguste Perret’s famous dictum, “Architecture is what makes beautiful ruins.” In Ponti’s architecture everything that is permanent seems to aspire to the status of a beautiful ruin. It is designed with such precision and care that in some future time, when the houses come to the end of their lives, it will appear an anthropised landscape and return to the idea of topography. What defines the space of human life could be temporary, built with extreme precision but liable to disappear one day. I find this contrast very poetic.
IN A SENSE, THE MOST RADICAL WAY TO BE AN INDIVIDUALIST WOULD BE TO LIVE IN A HOUSE THAT HAS NO FORMAL LINK TO CONVENTIONAL FORMS AND IS MORE LIKE AN ABSTRACT STRUCTURE OR COMPOSITION, ALLOWING ITS FULL APPROPRIATION BY THE USER. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE INTRINSIC “DOMESTICITY” OF THE SPACE OF A HOUSE?
I grew up in a specific environment, that definitely formed my basic understanding of a domestic space. To my sensibility, it’s not a problem of the semantic recognisability of a house, because many incredibly domestic spaces don’t even look like houses from outside.
In Casa Graf it is immediately readable, because of the shape of the roof. But not all Ponti’s houses are like that. My parents’ house, for instance, is more abstract. It is not about returning to the imagery that we associate with the idea of a house. What I find interesting is the variety of spaces that we find in Ponti’s houses. They often have open plans where you have a filtered view of everything, yet their space is articulated through precise and subtle changes, that amplify the general spatial quality: unexpected shifts in the floor and ceiling heights, and most of all through the way natural light is brought indoors. These features help expand the perception of the dimensions of a house. Ponti’s buildings all look much larger than you expect them to be judging just from their external presence. And I believe this is a very interesting quality. They feel larger because each portion of space is tailored to the needs of a precise action, moment or view, yet without being purely functional. Each space has its own character created by its relationship with the landscape, the type of aperture, degree of illumination and the way they relate to the other spaces.
Casa Graf, for instance, constantly switches between very bright and shaded or darker areas, just like the difference between intimate spaces and ones projected towards the landscape. I find this generosity very important, and I believe in the necessity of this kind of richness. It’s wonderful that a house can offer an array of different spatial experiences, atmospheres and variable qualities of light.
In the house where I grew up there was a large, strongly articulated space, with a winter and a summer living room, each with a fixed sofa. The former was placed facing the fireplace and the latter looking out over the landscape. I remember that I could choose one of these two spaces depending on my mood or what I meant to do. I never felt that the fact of having these two spaces diminished my freedom. I treated it as a musical score on which I could play an ever-changing melody. A musical score has rules, but I play the music the way I want to. It is not necessarily a constraint; in this kind of space everyone is free to live as they please.
IF YOU HAD TO ESTABLISH A CONNECTION BETWEEN CASA GRAF AND OTHER WORKS OF ARCHITECTURE APART FROM ORGANICISM, WHAT WOULD YOU THINK OF?
The reference to Wright is so strong that it’s hard to connect it with other sources. But, in addition to the reference, in the materials used, to the architecture of the alpine regions of Ticino, we could mention the culture of the English dwelling at the end of the 19th century (I am thinking of the Arts & Crafts movement), which also nurtured Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and was spread in the German area, as we know, by Hermann Muthesius (preparing the field, so to speak, for the reception of Wright’s work through the magnificent Wasmuth portfolio in 1910, on the occasion of the American master’s European trip). In general, I would say that Ponti looked at those examples of domestic space characterised by a great variety of sensory experiences, alternating bright and shadowy spaces and reconciling a sense of protection and at the same time openness to the landscape.