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Gio Ponti pictured dreaming fixed elements of the vacation house project - most of them remained unconstructed

It is that time of the year. Summer break is rapidly approaching and, after years, the lifetime wish for an itinerary tour across the lower regions of the Italian peninsula is now materializing. 

I’ll leave to look for the newest sights while seeking childhood core memories, such as views of natural cliffs filled with greenery, standing high above crystal-clear frozen seas, and whole pine forests overflowing with noisy cicadas. And somewhere, accessible by unpaved paths, I’ll seek isolated houses that are nestled in the maritime pines, colored in white or covered in tiles.

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Those pictures are vivid impressions of a timeless landscape featuring a kind of archetypical Italian summer living, on the border between reality and dream, common culture, and intimate reminiscing.

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Capri island coast, Naples

"The Italian house is not a garnished shelter of the inhabitants against the harshness of the weather, as it is of the dwellings beyond the Alps where life seeks a refuge from the inclement nature, for long months: the Italian house is like the place we have chosen to enjoy, with happy possession, the beauties that our lands and our skies give us in long seasons”: those are the words that Gio Ponti wrote in the very first edition of Domus, in -an apparently far- 1928.

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Gio Ponti’s portrait

Architect, designer, and inventor: Gio Ponti (1891-1979) is among others the most eclectic and prolific figure of the 20th century.

As a multifaceted intellectual and a tireless creator, Ponti contributed to shaping the Italian environment of many cities, interiors, and the overall imagery of the ‘Italianness’, regarding the buildings, the landscapes, and the habits of the middle class, while ensuring that his taste would also become the taste of the masses.

From the iconic Pirelli skyscraper which he defined as ‘a perfect crystal in the skyline of Milan’, passing through the unprecedented use of specially designed three-dimensional ceramics for the outer walls of the buildings of a rainy city like Milan, to generate 'the effect of wonder’, and again, from the foundation of the magazine Domus up to the imagination of the holiday house’s archetype, Ponti enjoyed creating lifestyles, by designing outside of the box of the pure functionalism, while confirming the genuineness of a genius applicable to every sphere.

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Gio Ponti: Mediterranean law. Everything by the sea must be colourful (Aria d'Italia, 1954).

The vacation house

"What is needed is not a new way of building, but a new way of living," wrote Bernard Rudofsky, the Austrian architect who inaugurated the debate on the 'Mediterranean house' within the pages of Domus, in 1938. 

During those years, Domus, the monthly architecture and design magazine founded by Ponti for disseminating new ideas on the home and furnishing themes, rapidly became the main arena for the international debate around new possible ways of living.

It was precisely on that occasion that the impressions provided by his friend and enthusiast of the 'Architecture Without Architecture' (Bernard Rudofsky, 1964) laid the foundations for the design of the seaside villas.

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Small ideal house: perspective view, plan, paths and views (Domus no. 138, June 1939)

In the same magazine’s edition, the Milanese architect questioned the modernist idea of the Machine à habiter, by approaching a type of domesticity far from the functionalist rhetoric of the 'International style' and, instead, embracing the comfort theme as a guiding way to build and nourish the soul of the modern man.

In the Mediterranean house project, the life of the inhabitants becomes the measure of space, under the banner of complete adherence to a simple and natural lifestyle for the man enjoying his escape from everyday life.

There are no design schemes, no rules for layout, just continuous communication between the outside and inside where the interpenetration between the two must be continuous, as in Ponti’s Italian residential house typology, a house that takes care of its inhabitants, which is flexible and adapting to the needs of the man who becomes its protagonist.

The Mediterranean taught Rudofsky and Rudofsky taught me. 

[We] were friends, designed a great deal together, and built nothing.

Gio Ponti

Even if the project was never realized, in 1938 Ponti and Rudofsky worked out a project for Hotel San Michele, a ‘hotel in the wood’ that should have been built on the slopes of Mount Solaro, between Capri e Anacapri, and which was then re-proposed in August 1941 by Ponti into the magazine Stile, where he presented a variant of the project, as the ideal solution for the design of tourist facilities along the Dalmatian coast. 

The basic idea was to connect the exploded building not by actual corridors, as normally happens inside a hotel building, but by way of paths designed among the trees and shrubs of the forest.

In this regard, the ‘hotel in the wood’ has been a game-changer project for the future of the seaside villas for Gio Ponti, marking his vision of the houses that belong to the places. 

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Hotel in the wood: project variant for the Dalmatian coast, view from the sea (Stile, 1941).

The desire to pursue a vision that explicitly confronts the lifestyle inextricably linked to the places and their inhabitants reiterates the centrality of the reflection on the theme of spontaneous architecture, that it does not take the form of second-hand architecture; on the contrary, it makes the inhabitant the real protagonist in the design act of an intimate space, which cannot be objectively modeled through standards.

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Small ideal house (Domus no. 138, June 1939).

"Italian nature," says Ponti, "is sacred, and in order to respect it, it is necessary to understand it in all its components, only at that point we will be able to build architectures that belong to it, to build 'walls that, on the seashore, will be sisters of the pines, of the palms, of the agaves, of the olive trees and at the same time will represent an abstract play of the imagination.’ ('Let us have a national awareness of Mediterranean architecture’, Stile, no. 7, Ponti)

By addressing readers and friends of Domus, Ponti offers them some ideas for the seaside house: these are simple ideas that can easily be implemented - writes the architect - according to environmental needs and circumstances; houses to be built among the olive trees, or among some cypresses, or under the maritime pines or on the rocks. These are houses that a good local builder can easily build at a low price, all of them very simple [...] they are above all houses that form a natural landscape […].

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Small ideal house: perspective view, plan, paths and views (Domus no. 138, June 1939)

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Gio Ponti: …. the maiolica floor offers the most joyous color sources: would’t you love this “harlequin”?
Small ideal house: perspective view, plan, paths and views
(Domus no. 138, June 1939)

Let’s dream, my readers, of small, happy houses like these, and let’s build them. [...] You will also draw the walls. You will trace the wall of the patio, imprinting a pine or an olive tree: you will decide where the dining table will be placed, or a sofa or the bed, and from there you will arrange where a window or a door will open, framing an enchanting landscape (Ponti 1941, p. 23).

The simplicity of the methods employed for the construction is counterbalanced by the sophistication surfaces’ purity, the 'freshness' of the colored tiled floors, and the suggestion and essentiality of the spaces. Ponti does not stop at clumsiness but suggests fixed elements as the white-walled buildings, built among the trees or overlooking the sea, houses as natural as traditional rural dwellings, with no stylistic vagueness.

The emphasis placed on the material choice as well as on the system of gestures and rituals is evident.

The living functions are continually invented and transformed to retrace the best way to experience the interiors. The project of the interiors becomes a way to best experience the outside.

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For instance, on the lower corner in the right he writes: “whoever lies on this outdoor dining bench sees the beach, the bathing basin and the sea beyond the patio window” or just above
“here’s the entrance and you can see the painted cupboard doors, the sea beyond the patio window, the kitchen window, the niche in the bottom”.
Small ideal house: perspective view, plan, paths and views (Domus no. 138, June 1939)

The project of the seaside living, imagined by Gio Ponti during the 1930s, is not a typology model - he never specifies square meters, proportions, or volumes - but is a manifesto of the Italian way to nourish spaces with daily ethereal contact with beauty, whether in the form of great or small art, whether natural or artificial. 

The seaside villa is an unexpected result of the rationalism culture: within the architectural debate raised in Domus, Gio Ponti pictured dreaming fixed elements of the vacation house project - most of them remained unconstructed-.

What Gio Ponti dreamed about the model he proposed hasn't surprisingly changed in what we perceive and consider as the Italian seaside house, after almost 100 years.