Federico Rossi, Francesca Gagliardi (Fondamenta): We found out about Luigi Moretti through Spazio, the architectural magazine he founded during the 1950s. Moretti was a great connoisseur of Michelangelo and Borromini who studied and reworked the Baroque in his own way, for the modern era. His buildings are full of metaphors, analogies and references and the more we study his writings and his architecture, the more we understand the complexity and importance of his work. There is not a lot written on La Saracena and when we first visited the house four years ago, we found it in a state of degradation. Fortunately, last year we had the opportunity to go back to Santa Marinella and see the house after its complete restoration.
FROM OUTSIDE, THE HOUSE HAS A CHARACTER AKIN TO A PUBLIC BUILDING OR POSSIBLY EVEN A CHURCH AND UPON ENTERING, FEELS MORE LIKE AN INSTITUTIONAL PROMENADE THAN A HOME. GIVEN THESE SENTIMENTS, FOR YOU, WHAT MAKES IT A HOUSE?
The domesticity of this house is given by the way the spaces are related to each other, passing smoothly from a monumental scale to measures deeply related to the human body.
There are several similarities between, for instance Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel and La Saracena. The surprising structure, the primordial heaviness and the thick, rough type of plaster are definitely present in both. What’s more, at no point are you able to see into the buildings before entering and, at least from the outside, both are a composition of volumes.
What’s relevant in La Saracena is how these themes somehow protect and emphasise the human scale. A good example of this contradiction is the entrance, marked by a large mass that hovers above the front door. Thanks to the complete lack of any dimensional reference, the fact that it is actually the thin parapet of the above terrace is totally concealed.
The promenade, considered monumental at the first glance, connects many small moments: places where you can either eat, sit at a fireplace, or simply stroll. Taken individually, these areas are very welcoming and dense. The living room - even though it is enhanced by the external wooden roof projected towards the sea, in reality, in spite of its exposure it keeps a domestic scale.
Compared to architects like John Lautner, who takes tectonics and the difference between the individual parts of a building to a limit, Moretti does not try to be spectacular. He manages to compress and decompress spaces in a very natural way. In La Saracena the complexity arises exactly from highly targeted and well-proportioned solutions. And this is something extremely beautiful.
LA SARACENA IS MADE UP OF DIFFERENT SHAPES AND GEOMETRIES. WHAT POTENTIAL DOES THE USE OF THIS COMBINATION OF SHAPES, STRAIGHT LINES, AND CURVED LINES HAVE?
As far as we are concerned it is very difficult to explain it rationally. I don’t know what the meaning of this mixture of forms is, but we are profoundly attracted to them. One explanation would be that, Moretti often took direct references from other fields. Lucio Fontana and Caravaggio for instance reoccur very often in his work. The latter, in his paintings marked the moment of maximum tension of a scene through contrasting light.
Moretti takes this theme and translates it in his architecture using it in various ways to reach the same effect. There are many cuts in La Saracena that open unexpected glimpses. However, despite this fragmentation, when inside everything makes sense. It seems that he was very adept at conceiving and breaking systems. He both manipulated and deconstructed the principles he created at the same time. Although he was a mathematical connoisseur, he was not satisfied with mathematical schemes. That is why, there is no rational way of learning something from his approach. It might be that it needs to remain at the level of intuition. Paolo Portoghesi, for instance started from the same references, but he somehow got stuck in forms, in contrast to Moretti who managed to remain free.
La Saracena is a building that needs to be experienced in motion. It has more to do with kinetic sequences than static images or formulas. However, we are attracted not only by movement within this house, but by the very fact that through moving you experience totally different situations. If you cannot visit La Saracena, you only need to look at the section - to see the interplay of different spaces and understand much more than the floor plan reveals.
IS THERE SOMETHING THAT NEEDS TO BE UNDERSTOOD IN ORDER TO APPRECIATE LA SARACENA?
If you take the de-constructivists for example, they also mix forms and geometries, but their experiments have often no relation to human scale and human activities. They are just academic exercises. La Saracena is not an exercise. This house brings abstract concepts to the extreme but with the human figure in constant focus. It makes a big difference.
Moretti studied the issue of human scale in a coherent and profound way. The analytic models of the Michelangelo’s and Borromini’s buildings that Moretti constructed and published in Spazio, were aimed at understanding the relationship between you, the void and the building.
Another topic would be contradiction, something that is evident in most of Moretti’s buildings. It is also very important for us in our own practice, and we are constantly asking ourselves how to unite elements from different families. Some architecture attempts to do it through materiality. In contrast, Moretti never talked about physical matter, his buildings are too abstract to do so, instead he used light. Solely through the modulation of light and shadow, he was able to manage the co-existence of both pure spaces and absolute tectonic systems, which had the effect of merging many individual, distinct realms into one.
It is an example of what we try to do: we research precise moments for which it is difficult to give a rational explanation of what is happening. We also use rigid principles, often strongly related to structural themes, but the magic happens when we manage to break free from them – letting in surrealism.
ARE THERE ANY DETAILS THAT DRAW PARTICULAR ATTENTION?
Yes. The house is directed towards the sea and, yet despite this, it’s not actually the main idea. In reality the main theme is your relationship to the wider context and not specifically „the sea” or „the house”. The horizon and the waves are treated as part of the context, not as an absolute protagonist.
At the end of the promenade to the sea there is a point where you find a cut running from the ground to the ceiling in the wall facing the garden. That incidental cut makes you turn your back and face a new and secret view of the garden. Light enters the scene between two beams that almost touch each other. It’s a moment of extreme complexity where you are able to simultanously see four different parts of a system that you were not previously conscious of. The light allows you to understand where you are, what you can see, and creates an unexpected break in the experience of the house. This detail is not necessary for the house to work well but, when you are there you perceive the strong impact it generates on the space. Incredibly, it does not break the perception of the continuity of the wall but when you pass from one space to another, thanks to the change of light, you really feel its presence.
MORETTI UNDERLINED IN HIS WRITINGS THAT AN IMPORTANT QUALITY HE STROVE FOR WAS A SENSE OF ADVENTURE. CAN A SENSE OF ADVENTURE EXIST IN TODAY’S ARCHITECTURE AND IF SO, ARE THE ELEMENTS CURRENT 50 YEARS AGO STILL INTERESTING?
In our office, at the moment, we are mainly working on private houses. What we have noticed is that adventure is not strongly linked to an era but, in the case of a house, it is more tied to the lived experience of an architect. A house has no time, it is linked to the values of those who commission and design it are striving for.
Would it make sense to conceive La Saracena today? Could we use Moretti’s ideas on adventure, in overcoming our limits? Yes. Moretti’s ideas and intentions behind how to live in this villa are still extremely appealing. We find his research on adventure universal and still valid today.
50 years ago, perhaps society was more cultured, with more characters similar to Moretti, who at the age of 23 wrote his first text on Borromini. There was a deeper curiosity and attention given to culture. Nowadays, in a less involved and more utilitarian society, it is more difficult to apply adventurous ideas to projects.
ARE THERE MORE ECONOMIC OR CULTURAL CRITERIA THAT MAKE IT DIFFICULT?
Time, unlike money, is a variable that is difficult to negotiate today. From our experience - the higher the budget, the shorter the time. The opposite of what you would logically expect. However, even today a private house remains a fertile ground to research themes with a great degree of freedom. A single-family house is the main topic of architecture. It is where an architect always has an opportunity to push his or her language radically, whatever it may be. Functionality in a house is a completely subjective topic. Negotiation with the client on what it means to live in a domestic sphere is part of the success. The ability of an architect is also to educate a client that a 300 m2 promenade can be a living room and not a useless space. Each time we start a project for a house, we accept the program and the budget, but we refuse to accept that a client already knows how he or she wants to live. We believe architects have the responsibility to decide what it means to live in a building and for the sake of the project, a client needs to engage with this belief and be open to the results. Moretti had great skill in engaging his clients and bringing forward radical ideas of living.