ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “ANTONIONI’S COSTA PARADISO”

Posted in Discurso-Conversaciones, ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on enero 18, 2017

dante bini antonioni 01

Conversation between Dante Bini and ARQUITECTURA-G about the villa he built for Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti on Sardinia’s Costa Paradiso

Published in Apartamento Magazine #17

Imagery from the archive of Dante Bini

Intro:

On the afternoon of the 14th of July 1964, a young reporter was driving from Bologna to Crespellano to cover a beauty contest. On his way home around midnight, he saw a UFO-like grey mass nearly six metres high on the side of the road. He had no idea what it was, but he knew one thing for sure: it hadn’t been there in the afternoon. He stopped the car, lit up the form with the car’s headlights, and cautiously approached it. He touched it, only to find it was made from concrete. He was so surprised that he drove to a nearby farm to ask what had happened. How could this thing have appeared out of nowhere in such a short period of time? According to the farmer, an architect from Bologna had come earlier in the day. He’d made his concrete ‘shell’ and he had gone home. The farmer didn’t know the architect’s name, but the journalist would end up finding it out. It was Dante Bini. Until we went to Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, we weren’t so familiar with Mr Bini’s work. There, we learnt about the villa he built for Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti on Sardinia’s Costa Paradiso. We immediately realised that this concrete shell, with its organic interior layout, was one of-a-kind. We were so drawn to its exceptional beauty and uniquenes that
we had to know the story behind it.

Michelangelo Antonioni discovered Sardinia’s beaches while filming the movie Il Deserto Rosso. The pink sand and transparent water seduced him and Monica Vitti—his partner at the time—to the point of deciding to build their own house there. Although they knew what they wanted, they couldn’t find the appropriate architect until they crossed paths with Dante Bini. We contacted Mr Bini to have discuss his relationship with the pair and the story of their house. He kindly agreed.

5

A concrete shell (built in 1969 by Dante Bini for Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti) forming
part of the wind-sculptued landsacpe of Sardinia’s Costa Paradiso. Photographer unknown.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

As we understand it, the journalist that came across your dome came to see you in your office in search of an explanation.

Dante Bini:

Yes, he came to see me, introduced himself, and asked what the thing was and how on earth I’d managed to do it! I told him everything, and he was so shocked he wanted to publish it in the papers and magazines. I convinced him not to publish until I had a patent! We made a gentleman’s agreement, so, once I had made the official patent filling, I called him authorising him to make the story public. He published an article about this ‘concrete igloo’ in a journal that fell into the hands of Mario Salvadori, a professor of civil engineering and architecture at Columbia University. He read that I’d invented a system that made it possible to erect a dome measuring 12m in diameter and six metres in height in 60 minutes, and he found it hard to believe. He came to Italy to see it with his own eyes.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

You come from a family of entrepreneurs and winemakers, and you contributed successfully to the winemaking industry with your packaging designs before you graduated from college. That was before your passion for domes drove you in another direction. You’ve mentioned the Pantheon and Santa Maria del Fiore several times as a reference, and we’ve read that even your thesis work during your architecture studies was about domes. How and when did you become interested in domes?

dante bini antonioni

Dante Bini:

Well, it was not only the influence of classic architecture. Back in the ‘60s, it was very fashionable to work with ancient structures like domes or tensile structures— in general, efficient structures that use little material. Traditional domes are built using very complicated formwork underneath, with an enormous carpentry effort and very complex scheduling. I realised that the cost of the formwork, a structure that disappears after the dome is completed, was sometimes higher than the cost of the dome itself. I started wondering how I could solve this problem and studied the work of Eduardo Torroja, Félix Candela, and other architects and engineers.

Besides the cost issue, I also decided to focus on the problem of scheduling. Building domes used to take lots of time. In 1961 I was finally granted my degree in architecture, and I decided to start working on my own. It wasn’t that easy to find clients, so I started a construction company with a friend of mine. I wanted to be an architect of my time, and I was thinking about thin-shell domes and vaults. One day, something extraordinary happened. I was playing tennis at a club in Bologna. It was winter and the weather was bad, and a large green-and-white balloon, inflated at low pressure, was set up to cover the playing courts. It was an inflatable roof. The match was intense and long, and at the end of the game we were unable to get out through the door, since in those few hours the area had been covered by a thick layer of snow. Finally we were able to get out by shovelling, and I wondered why we hadn’t noticed the increased pressure inside the balloon caused by the heavy mass of snow that had accumulated on the outer skin. I did a quick calculation of the approximate weight of the snow on the surface, and I realised that inflated even at low pressure the structure was able to support tons of weight! The entire weight of the reinforced-concrete dome I had designed for my university thesis could have been lifted with not much more pressure. At that moment it was very clear to me that a system based on that principle could allow a revolution in building vaults and domes in a cheap and rapid way; an inflatable formwork! I started with the first prototypes of what I called binishells, improving the system each time. The basic principle is to pour concrete over a circular membrane, where the reinforcing steel has already been placed. Then the membrane is inflated with a blower until it reaches the desired height, keeping the air pressure constant until the concrete sets hard enough. When that happens you stop the blower.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

When did Michelangelo Antonioni become interested in your system? How did he end up commissioning a summer house?

dante bini antonioni models

A scale model of the house displaying its dynamic and varying interior landscapes.

Dante Bini:

Actually it was Monica Vitti who introduced me to Michelangelo Antonioni. I was part of the Italian university skiing club at the time. One day, at the end of a run, I was going to have a drink in a little hut with several friends of mine. A woman named Doris Pignatelli approached me; she was well known and a very good skier. Actually, besides being in my ski club, she was the Italian waterskiing champion. She was there with Monica Vitti and introduced us. Monica and I started chatting, and she asked me what I did. I told her that I was an architect and that I was developing a new system to reduce the construction time of a reinforced-concrete dome to about an hour. She said to me, ‘What are you talking about?’ I explained to her the whole process, and she could not believe what I was saying, so I showed her some pictures. She was so impressed that she immediately invited me to go to Rome. She promised me a good lunch and told me that she would introduce me to Michelangelo Antonioni, who was then living with her—on a different level of the house, but at the same address.

a-minor-architecture

hole

A 30m-wide concrete dome built by Bini as proof for Mario Salvadori, a professor at Columbia University who did not believe it was possible. Below, a hole is cut into the shell to explore possibiliites for doors and windows.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

So they lived together, but not in the usual way—each had a ‘house’ inside the very same one. That was perhaps an introduction to the strong personality of the pair.

Dante Bini:

It was, indeed. When I went there, we had a fantastic meal—Monica was an extraordinary cook—and I started to discover Antonioni’s incredible personality. He liked what I told him about the domes, and he said he wanted me as his personal architect. Nevertheless, he said he would only hire me on one condition: the contract had to have a nondisclosure clause that kept the location of the villa private and prevented any pictures from being published. Therefore, I couldn’t publicise the villa for as long as the property was in the hands of the director and Monica Vitti. I accepted.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

As far as we know, Antonioni never left anything to chance. What was the brief like given the special conditions?

Dante Bini:

First of all, before telling me what kind of house he needed, he wanted to show me the place where he’d decided to build his vacation house. He’d fallen in love with Sardinia when he was filming Il Deserto Rosso. There’s a scene where Giuliana—played by Monica Vitti—tells her son a story about a little girl. The footage of the little girl was filmed on a deserted beach on a small island just off Sardinia called Budelli, a splendid place with pink sand and crystalline water.
Antonioni decided to build a house there. The beach was privately owned by a Milanese contractor, and building was not allowed. But this man took Antonioni to see another area and asked him to
pick out a plot of land. The contractor gave him the plot as a gift. We went there two days after our meeting; the place was in Costa Paradiso, in Sardinia. He wanted me to be there the entire day, from dawn to dusk, so I could fully understand the plot. While we were there, he picked dry herbs for me and asked me to smell them, and we listened to the sound of the sea. He told me things like, ‘I want my house to be surrounded by the environment; even from my house I want to hear the sound of the sea, and I also want to hear the wind inside the house. I do not want to live in a bidimensional environment; I want to live in a sculptural environment, like your domes. I want to smell the smell of the rocks’. At that moment, I didn’t understand him. Do rocks really smell? He told me to go with him the next morning so I could understand what he was talking about. But first he said, ‘Stay here, feel the sunset and try to understand. We’re not here only for one day’. So we spent several days there. We talked about everything but architecture. We talked about philosophy, about life. At the end of our time there, I realised I was clearly listening to someone that had an incredible ability to understand this special place. He enchanted me. The day after we went back home, he asked some people to cut a piece of granite, which was totally pink, beautiful. Then he put my nose on top of that broken piece of rock; I smelled and I understood. It was incredible. I told him that I hadn’t been paying attention to nature before, and that he was teaching me what nature meant.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

That is very nice. Usually when you receive a brief from a client, they focus more on the functional aspect of the program and don’t give much importance to the poetics of the place. In that house you designed—a house that goes way further than the regular summer house—we can almost see a small manifesto. In films like Zabriskie Point Antonioni proposes a kind of new beginning after the explosion of a building. What way of living does this house propose?

Dante Bini:

This question is very interesting. In fact, one of my ideas is that you can use the same shell structure, empty, and it can be filled up by any owner, using only furniture. So it’s about freedom. When I was asked to design a number of those shells for the Soviet Union and other countries, they told me they liked my approach to the use of air as an energy to build buildings and the fact that it was an empty shell. This was philosophically connected with Antonioni’s idea that a space can be sculptured by the person who lives in it. The brief was about philosophy and a way of living.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

It seems he wanted a house that would encapsulate the very essence of the Mediterranean— the smell of the herbs, the presence of the sea and the wind, the colour and aroma of the rocks. But he also wanted to avoid any clichés of what an archetypal Mediterranean house is supposed to be in terms of form. In other words, he wanted to include the free spirit of nature but not the folklore.

dante bini summer house antionioni

Dante Bini:

Yes, as a matter of fact, he encouraged me to be free and natural in my architecture, too. For example, I made a very large hole on top of the dome, to create a central patio so they could actually feel the sun, hear the rain, and smell the wind. I normally would have made a central circular hole, like the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome. That’s what engineering and common sense tells you. But I don’t know why, the hole I did wasn’t circular but a free shape. Antonioni also wanted to have a garden inside, in the middle of the house. The garden was full of flowers and plants from the region; it was not something that any school of architecture or engineering was able to teach at the time. Although the shape of the house was alien to its surroundings, I tried to tie it to the site, to integrate it. For instance, I increased the amount of local granite aggregate in the cement mix so the resulting shape would take the colour of the surrounding rocks. From a distance, it blends with nature. These decisions were undoubtedly influenced by the brief I received.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

How was the concept-development process? The idea of the dome was like an a priori for both of you, but how did you agree on the layout of the house? We can see in the pictures that you used local granite in the interior, as well, with roughly cut pieces of rock in the steps.

Dante Bini:

When Antonioni and I visited the stone workshop, I saw how the workers cut the stone in rectangular segments in order to use it. The outer edges of a large piece are irregular, and the portions without straight edges were discarded and thrown away. I wanted to use all this waste and picked some beautiful pieces along with Antonioni. Regarding the development process, I went back to my office and started drawing the project, including the stone slabs. I thought about the wind, the light at sunset, the perfume of the air, and everything we talked about. In about a month, I showed Antonioni the plans. We went to the plot and he looked at the drawings for about an hour without saying anything. Then he took the drawings and threw them away! The wind dropped some of the drawings in the water. I was very disappointed because I had not ben able to express my idea. He wanted to have a model. I don’t think they understood exactly what I wanted to do. So he said, ‘Go on, make the model, and when you have it ready come to Rome and we’ll come back’. So I made the model, and we went to the site; we put the model, which was quite a big one, exactly where he wanted it to be oriented, on top of the piece of rock that was there. After that, he was silent again for about an hour. It was a little frustrating, because when I tried to say something he stopped me. After an hour, he said, ‘I won’t change anything here, I only suggest you consider one small change’. I have to say that the dome had a heating system; the heating system had a chimney that burned firewood, because he was also going to use the house in winter. The heating system unfortunately needed a pipe that stuck out of the roof, and that is why I put a chimney on my dome. Looking at this he said, ‘How can you put a chimney like this on your dome? It is ugly. You have to change it’. Soon after he added, ‘The typical wind here goes from the sea to the mountain. Therefore, instead of having a chimney sticking out of the house, you must make a pipe that follows the dome’s curve, and works in the opposite direction of the wind. That way you could use a type of vacuum at the end of the pipe’. It was a very clever suggestion. I used this principle, and the fireplace worked perfectly. Instead of going upwards, the final exit is in the opposite direction of the wind and it worked both functionally and aesthetically.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

What was Ms Vitti’s opinion and influence during this process? It seems like the house was mostly for him—or, at least, he led the creation process.

campari

Award-winning and innovative packaging designs invented by Dante Bini for his comapny Unipack.

Dante Bini:

Monica never complained about the house. She was extremely happy with the project—that is what she told me after her first visit to the house. There was a problem, though, and it was transportation. She did not want to go from Rome to Sardinia on a plane, but didn’t want to take the ship either. I was with her once on a ship, and she convinced the captain to stop the ship and go back, because she did not feel comfortable. You can imagine how all the people onboard reacted. Apart from that, she was enchanted by the environment that Michelangelo offered her. He was totally in love with her. She was a very strange person, but somehow she was a fantastic, beautiful woman, with a very sexy mouth and beautiful eyes. She was a fun person to deal with, but not in a plane or boat! She was a fantastic cook, and we had fantastic meals in there many times. She was happy, but she did not want to go up and down from Rome to Sardinia all the time. This was one of the reasons she did not go so often.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

We are very interested in the formal particularities of the villa. Once you have the exterior shell, which is the starting point, you have a perfect and disciplined shape. The interior layout could follow the geometric purity or a more organic approach, which is what you chose. For example, there are no corners or right angles anywhere. We see that Mr Antonioni encouraged you to be free in forms, but we see as well that, back then, there was a tendency to imagine the future with organic interiors, such as the House of the Future, by the Smithsons. We also see references to a number of primitive tribal huts from around the world, from Laponia to Mongolia or Africa, which use lightweight materials and circular domes. A kind of primitive future.

Dante Bini:

The interior of this house is totally organic, there are no straight lines, unless you count the vertical partition walls. There might be something of that trend you mention, but, above all, it was about Antonioni’s intentions and goals. He wanted a house with nothing hanging on the walls, with only a few white pieces of furniture. The house is arranged on two levels, with access through the top part of the house. You enter through a suspended bridge with a free shape. Once you’re inside, you can see the huge space of the living room, which is double height, and views of the open sea. The bridge goes from the main entrance to the entrance of Antonioni’s room. From Antonioni’s bedroom, you could go to a terrace, and you can go from the entrance to a little internal bridge. The garden at the core had exactly the same shape as the hole I mentioned before. Antonioni said all the time, ‘I don’t want to cross a room and see the same volume all the time, again and again and again, when I’m walking through’. He said that when you go to a garden or a park, you walk through and the environment is moving around you, it’s not stable, it’s not static—it is dynamic. That is what he wanted. We talked a lot about that before the first drawings and the first model had been made.

04-plan

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plan

Below: The upper and lower floor plans.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

In addition to the perception of dynamics you mention, we observe that because it’s a dome, there’s no specific moment when the wall becomes the roof and vice versa. It’s a continuous line, which helps to achieve that goal.

Dante Bini:

Exactly.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

How was the construction process? Did you make decisions along the way or did you start construction only when everything was decided? What was your day-to-day relationship with the
pair during that period?

Dante Bini:

We didn’t have a daily relationship actually, because I was in Bologna at the time and they were in Rome. Both of us found each other in Sardinia from time to time. We were very close friends; in the end, our relationship was more about friendship than the usual client–architect relationship. The actual construction of the villa turned out to be incredibly difficult. The blowing system for fabricating the structure needed a power supply in a place without any electricity supply, and it also required materials that the narrow streets of the island made very hard to deliver. Everything had to be carefully planned, down to the smallest detail. We didn’t improvise that much.

01bini-and-antonioni-copy

Dante Bini (left) and Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed for the Italian magazine Novella 2000, circa 1970.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Mr Antonioni is one of our favourite filmmakers, and we weren’t aware of the degree of influence he had in the design. We can see that what is said about his strong character was true.

Dante Bini:

Yes, he was very strong—not only in hispersonality but also physically. Once we fought for about 10 minutes and the contractor had to separate us. He didn’t want me to publish any pictures of the house for reasons of privacy. He didn’t want anybody to know where he was or to see him there. In addition to that, he said that he would pay me only for my expenses—he wouldn’t pay me any fees, because ‘my work was priceless’. So, overall, he would not pay me. Instead, he said he would give me the opportunity to build a large number of houses after his dome was completed. He was able to convince a large number of people to have me as an architect, so I accepted the idea. Some time after his house was built he told me, and this is why we fought, that his former wife wanted a house in the same place, but it was not to be a dome because he didn’t want there to be any dome but his. So he said that he’d given his former wife permission to build a house next to him, but with one condition: he didn’t want to see the new house from his dome. Moreover, he didn’t want his view of the sea to be hidden in any way. I accepted the conditions once again, and I designed a house for this woman. I covered it with herbs, soil, and grass. A sort of camouflage. The house had a double roof, and one day I went there and saw the double roof was cut away. The contrast created something like a flat area. I was shocked. I asked the contractor what the hell was wrong with him, and he told me it was Antonioni who said the roof had to be modified. When I heard that, I went mad. I went to see Antonioni at his house. I said to him, ‘How dare you ask the contractor without my knowledge to cut the top off the house, which was made for a client that especially wanted this type of roof!’ And, yes, we fought! After the contractor separated us, Antonioni responded, ‘I told you the view shouldn’t be blocked from any window of my house’. But not only had I prevented this, I had even covered everything with grass so he couldn’t see it! Antonioni said, ‘Come with me. Sit down on the toilet’. So, sitting on the toilet in his bathroom, looking out the window, there was a little island and the top of the house was hiding it. If you stood up you could see it, but not if you were sitting. As a result, the house is still there with the top of the roof cut, in line with his conditions.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Unfortunately, Antonioni and Vitti’s house is abandoned at the moment. Maybe it actually makes sense to end up like that; being a house so related to its occupants, it only made sense with them around.

Dante Bini:

It could be. Anyhow, Antonioni kept the house almost until his death. He used the it even when Monica decided to stop being his lover. I met him at a festival years after we made the house. He came to me, he embraced me, and he started crying in front of the whole audience. It was a very touching moment for me. I went to live in America, and I believe he sold the house a few years before he died, when he was very sick. My experience with this house, and especially my experience with Antonioni, has truly guided me in my professional life.

stairs

 Offcuts of red granite slabs salvaged from the local quarry and reinterpreted as an irregular staircase.

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