ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “THE CRYSTAL AND THE FLAME”

Posted in ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on marzo 28, 2019

Conversation between Alberto Ponis and ARQUITECTURA-G

Published in Apartamento Magazine #22

Photography courtesy of Alberto Ponis

 

On a flight from Barcelona to Olbia early in the morning, we catch the sunrise over the northern part of Sardinia, the island’s astonishingly vivid peachy-pink granite reflecting the sun’s early-morning rays. Touching down, we then drive to Palau, where the Italian architect Alberto Ponis and his wife, AnnaRita Zalaffi, receive us at their home. Alberto was born in Nervi, a fishing village near Genoa. His father was the mind behind MITA, a company that manufactured artistic rugs, tapestries, and fabrics in a Bauhaus-esque factory. Alberto studied architecture and later had the opportunity to design a house in Sardinia. From there, he never left. Instead of talking about a specific house, this time we would like to talk about Ponis’ work as a whole. He built more than 200 houses, each with their own characteristics, but all sharing the same spirit—seeming to belong to the ground, deeply rooted in the landscape. His decision to stay in a specific place, and the process by which he came to profoundly understand that place and dedicate a whole career to it is especially attractive to us. We like to understand his work as a continuum, where he experiments with the same ideas over and over again: the organic shapes, the pure geometries, the imposing granite rocks, the vernacularity, the roofs made of large tile sheets, or the vegetation. Everything contrasts and coexists, defining an architecture that seems always to have been there. That is why talking about a single house would be missing an opportunity to better understand the origins and motivations behind such a personal body of work. Once we arrive, they take us to the dining room for breakfast. From there we’re taken into Alberto’s studio, a room one-tenth the size of the architecture studio next door, which he maintained until 2008. It’s stuffed full with 60 years’ worth of drawings, photographs, books, and magazines. After some chatting, breakfast gives way to lunch, and the extreme generosity of our hosts turns a one-hour interview into an entire day dedicated to our visit.

 

Arquitectura-G:

Your work is impossible to understand without Sardinia. How did your relationship with the island start?

 

Alberto Ponis:

Well, I was working in London back then. After I finished my studies I went to London and worked there as an architect for a few years, in the offices of Erno Goldfinger and Denys Lasdun. I had this friend, an interior designer, who asked me to assist him with a ‘sample’ house project for a new tourist development that was taking shape in Sardinia. I would be the architect and he had to do the interior work. I didn’t know very much about the island, and I wondered how I could begin the project given that I lacked lots of information—what the site was like, who the clients were, and so on. It was quite difficult to give an answer without having the question. I decided the house shouldn’t be too large or too complicated. My idea was that the form should be compact, with a structure that was as simple as possible. It had to be fast, and so I came up with the plans and drawings and also made a scale model. I did everything in the space of two nights.

He gets up and takes a balsa-wood model from a shelf. It’s a cube-shaped house that doesn’t have much to do with the architecture he would subsequently develop over the years.

 

Alberto Ponis:

This is the model I did. I brought it with me, and the developer was very pleased with the project. So everything started well: I finished the plans and travelled to Sardinia, where I signed the contract and marked out the house on the ground so that construction could begin. Then I left for a month, and when I returned the house had progressed to the roofline. The problem was that the builder had decided to turn the house around, so the main window was facing the mountain behind it, instead of looking towards the sea. He thought it was better to protect the house from the wind, and that this was the best way to do it! The whole thing had to be torn down and built again.

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

So you ended up in Sardinia almost by chance! What was Palau like in the ‘60s?

 

Alberto Ponis:

Absolutely, it was by chance. But it just so happened that I was in the right place at the right moment. When we arrived here in Sardinia in March 1963, there was barely anyone else around. Everything was very calm and you could feel it in the air. Here, in Palau, you had this tiny ferry that connected it with La Maddalena Island, but there was not much more activity. Even the roads were unpaved back then! The town was a village with only a few houses. It’s incredible how things have changed; I came right before everything started to change. To me, it was unlike almost anything else in the world. After three years in London I found in Sardinia exactly the opposite way of living. There were some advantages though in having fewer people around. There was a lot of elbow room, a lot of space in town in which to work. And then you had that stimulating energy that comes from exploring and discovering a new place, kind of like being born again.

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

Looking at this first project, we can see that it comes from a very smart way of thinking: I don’t know who the inhabitant will be and I don’t know the place where it will be built, so I’ll make a versatile product. It’s a kind of cubic UFO that could land anywhere, while the projects that came later were just the opposite. They almost appear to emerge from the ground. We guess there was a process of learning from Sardinia itself.

 

 

Alberto Ponis:

Absolutely. That house was designed from London. After it was built I started to receive some more commissions, and that is when I started to really know the island and to apply this knowledge in my architecture. This was back before I had a family, and so, on weekends, I was able to travel freely all around the island. The roads were quite bad, and there weren’t many places to sleep at night. But I’d take two cameras with me, one for negatives and one for slides, and you could say that I ended up creating a photographic portrait of the island. He gets up again and takes a bag hanging from his chair. He pulls out a set of cameras with worn leather cases; among them, a beautiful Hasselblad stands out. Without taking his eyes off the cameras, he continues talking. I think this picture archive was essential to my work; certainly it was useful. I was looking at everything around me, at all of Sardinia’s component parts. I tried to understand the nature, the landscape, the power of the wind, and also the traditional local architecture, which was influenced by all these factors. I was already thinking about what my architecture could be or what it should be. I spent a year travelling between Sardinia and London and then eventually moved here. I found a single-storey old house and I made a little project. The house was very simple, like the traditional stazzi. The stazzi are the basic traditional type of building located across northern Sardinia. They have stone walls and are made up of one or more cubes, measuring around 4x4x4m. People start with one of these cubes and then they add more units depending on their needs. What I liked about my own house was the fact that it didn’t really stand out, there was nothing special about it. Nobody designed it on a drawing board; it was built by a regular builder and it looked like any other house that had been built in the villages dotted across Sardinia. The house we are in right now came later. We found ourselves enough space here to get some peace. It used to be a big vineyard by the shore.

 

Arquitectura-G:

Who were your first clients back then?

 

 

Alberto Ponis:

In the beginning, I came with this group of English people, from London. And in fact there were so few of us at the time that we would all have dinner together or go swimming together. There weren’t many people here, and when the number is so small it’s easier to make friends and do business together. In addition, I always explained to them the value of these rocks, which are thousands of years old. I would say that they needed to be respected and that they would add something to their houses rather than being an impediment. Everybody was very sensitive and understood this idea. It was easy for me to build the way I like to build. There was no commercial interest or incentive to build bigger or sell more or anything like that; that came later. This was in the ‘60s and the early ‘70s. Suddenly it got more populated in the mid ‘70s. And after a while, more people started coming to my office because they’d seen the houses I’d built.

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

A very steep or rocky plot may sound like an impediment for some people. How did your projects start dealing with the rocky, hilly orography of the island?

 

Alberto Ponis:

It was a process of learning by doing. Most of Sardinia is on a slope. I didn’t want the houses to be tall, and if I kind of buried the back of a house into the ground, the part of the house that was on the lower side of the hill was still not very tall. The groundfloor level could sit at the level of the natural ground. However, I thought we could go even further; I wanted to integrate my houses with the landscape as much as possible, not only taking the ground and rocks into consideration, but also the vegetation. The macchia, for example, is a type of shrub— a dense grouping of plants that grow very closely together to resist the wind and soil conditions. Locals often use it to mark the boundary between their fields or their properties. It grows in the wild—meaning it doesn’t cost anything—and it’s also very resistant to drought and wind. I remember that one time, with my brother, we heard about a fire that was threatening one of my building sites. We rushed straight over to try and extinguish the fire and protect the macchia, because for me it was inseparable from the rest of the design. As for the boulders, these rock formations are the oldest in Europe. They were shaped by the wind and the sea hundreds of thousands of years ago and are so warm in their colours and so reassuring to the touch. Before I’d begin the construction process for my houses, I was very strict about protecting all the rocks—inside and outside or close to the house—from the cement and mortar. The rocks are porous, and so, if damaged, the mark never goes away. You’d ruin them. Practically speaking as well, when the ground was difficult and expensive to excavate because it was too hard, I’d try to find some special, beautiful boulder to somehow anchor the house to the site. These interior boulders also connect the inhabitants with the surrounding environment. When they touch the rocks inside the house, they feel what happens outside it.

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

Looking at your work, the rocks seem to be almost spiritual, as if—

 

 

Alberto suddenly interrupts the question as he gets up and invites us to follow him. ‘Come, I’ll show you something’. He takes us to the living room of his house, and next to the staircase that leads to an attic full of his paintings there is a rounded rock.

 

 

Alberto Ponis:

Now, if I had to save one object in this house, it would be that stone. It’s a perfect natural piece of stone that I found. It’s perfect all around; it hasn’t got a flat bottom, there’s not a broken part underneath. It’s just been on the bottom of the sea rolling and rolling around; it looks like a Brancusi sculpture. Every time I go up or down the stairs I touch it. It’s incredible.

 

Arquitectura-G:

How did you find it?

 

Alberto Ponis:

Every now and then a lorry would come and bring a lot of stones to one of my building sites. One time—about 40 years ago, when I still had good sight—I saw it and said, ‘This stone, what is it?’ It was a miracle, and surely if I hadn’t said something they would have cut it to use in the building. I came down and said, ‘This is a beautiful thing’. If I were in Egypt I would put it in my tomb, in the pyramid with me, ready for the afterlife—alongside my cameras!

 

Arquitectura-G:

You talked before about the journey to understand how people here used to build. What was your relationship like with the builders and contractors? Did they understand what you wanted to do?

 

Alberto Ponis:

It was absolutely perfect, absolutely simple. I found that Sardinians didn’t have that sort of false education, looking only for money. In a way, the people I found were primitive, in the good sense of the word—like children. They loved their country, and they could understand the privilege of inhabiting the oldest land on the Mediterranean, so they could also understand my architecture.

 

This spread and previous spread: Studio di Yasmin, Porto Ulisee, 1971. Opposite page: Photography by Gion von Albertini.

 

Arquitectura-G:

When thinking about your work and its close relationship to the boulders and the landscape, the word that comes to our mind is precision. For us, the architecture of precision is not that of high-tech architecture; it’s about knowing precisely what to do, having a deep knowledge of the environment and its physical reality. How do you go about your work once you have a plot?

 

Alberto Ponis:

To take a concrete example that also exemplifies how builders here worked back then, I’ll tell you about the path I built to the Yacht Club, a former bunker that was built in Napoleon’s era. I started work in May 1964. The weather was beautiful. Apart from the house I’d designed in London, this was one of my first projects here in Sardinia. Every morning I’d wake up very early to go to the Yacht Club. There, at 6am, I’d meet a young mason, who was about 18, and we’d work together until 10 or 11am, when the sun started to hit too hard. We were working just the two of us, every day in that deserted place, and it was like a dream. The seawater was crystal clear. I’d essentially make the design onsite, tracing the pathway with wooden stakes and string, and I’d take note of the reference points. For around 20 days, we were laying down beams to bridge holes, cutting pieces of stone, and deciding how to proceed, depending on what we felt was correct. Only after everything was finished could I draw the real plan for the project.

 

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

When seeing the houses that you built, one can feel this extreme attention to detail based on extensive site visits, almost as if you were designing onsite, as you say.

 

Alberto Ponis:

My aim was to build houses that were firmly rooted in the landscape. More than that, I wanted them to appear as part of the landscape, as if they were emerging from it. It was important that the houses look solid, well built, and have a firm connection with the earth they were built on. This of course required attention to detail, a knowledge of the specific site, otherwise we ran the risk of creating flimsy structures that rested on the surface of the landscape—the opposite of what we were after. I would start by outlining the house on the ground, either by hammering wooden stakes into the ground or by marking it out with paint if the ground was especially rocky. Then I’d use a very old construction technique—manual triangulation—to create a sort of ‘spider’s web’ that connected all the different points that I had previously marked on the ground. This was like a first draft for the plans that would come after, when I went back to my studio and could work out more precise shapes and measurements. There was a constant back and forth. This is to say that my houses were not only designed in the studio—that’s where I drew up the information I had already collected onsite, and in fact, like I said before with the Yacht Club, the final design only really appeared once the house had been built, as a final survey. Then, when construction begins, there is a very special moment when the load-bearing walls have just started to be constructed but are still low. All the house is there in front of you, everything is defined—the orientation, the contours—like a real scale floorplan. It’s like the birth of the house, which is not yet a house but is still somehow inhabitable. This all disappears rapidly as the walls keep growing.

 

Arquitectura-G:

What we also find interesting about your work is that you were designing very avantgarde houses but using traditional, ancient techniques and materials to build and anchor them to their environment.

 

Alberto Ponis:

The houses were made by local builders who knew how to work with simple materials: brick, wood, stone, tiles, cement, and plaster. That was all we needed. But absolutely, the houses were designed not to age. Their main ingredients have existed since Antiquity, so everything has been more than tested. I never felt the need to innovate in that way.

 

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

Something that is clear in your work is that a lot of the houses are probably summer residences. But even so, they are not villas; they are houses. They are comfortable but not in a bourgeois way. The luxury is in the quality of the space itself. There are several examples in your houses where a sequence of visually connected platforms basically descend towards the sea under a single roof; space-wise, they are just pure beauty.

 

Alberto Ponis:

Well, the houses were not for showing off. The first thing I’d do when starting with the clients was to go to the site and explain the enormous value of the vegetation and the rocks. Also, I’d explain to them that in order to create a sense of being on holiday, it was OK if they couldn’t reach the door of the house directly by car, that it was fine if they had to walk for a while. Then, design-wise, none of the houses were very big—like a bourgeois house, as you say; they never had more than one floor. These descending designs are simply the consequence of the shape of the ground itself, something that was already there, and the roof just follows the same slope.

 

Arquitectura-G:

Your drawings are extremely expressive and personal. They have an almost abstract quality. Loose, organic lines that contrast with the straight, perfect lines of a wall or a roof. Can you tell us more about your drawings and their significance in your work?

 

 

 

 

Alberto Ponis:

I enjoy painting and drawing, and not all of my subjects are architectural. In these pieces I’m able to combine both geometric and informal lines—what Italo Calvino calls the crystal and the flame, or the straight line and the free one. You often see these two elements in the Sardinian landscape. The rocks and vegetation are very informal, dramatic even, as opposed to the only straight line in nature: the horizon over the sea. By combining these elements you create the possibility of drawing something with structure that nevertheless retains a certain free form. It’s a partnership between the formal and the informal. When you look at my drawings, it’s as if the dramatic shape of the house rock is the crystal; it’s become crystallised like the inside of a geode. The flame and the crystal are two things that play together; that’s at the base of all design and it’s something I discovered in Sardinia, from living and working here. In any case, I don’t make very informal houses; they’re usually more crystal. You can’t make an artificial rock anyway—an artificial informal. You can play a little bit with some elements, but there’s no way of competing with the real thing. But from a formal point of view, the two principal elements are the free line and the fixed line. As I was saying, the only straight line in the wild is the horizon. It’s true that you can also find it in small surfaces—for example, in crystals—but when humans build, they also build in straight lines, bigger and longer. Yet the natural landscape can also be a straight line because the eye sees it as a line. If you go to the desert or a lake or the sea, it’s like this—or like with music lines, notes on the pentagram.

 

Arquitectura-G:

We see the straight line of the sea, the horizon, in many of your works. But you have also worked with pools, additional flat surfaces of water closer to the house. How do you understand water in relation to the way of life that your houses propose?

 

Alberto Ponis:

I have built some pools, but not many. At the beginning of my career the coast was so deserted that people didn’t feel the need to build a pool. I think that was the reason, because in a way the pool is a surrogate for the sea. If you have a little bay next to your house, you don’t need a pool. If the coast is difficult to reach and overcrowded with people, as it is now, then you build a pool. I don’t think it’s a matter of having sympathy for or antipathy to swimming pools. Anyhow, I always tried to build pools that didn’t look like the archetypical idea of a pool. I don’t like a house that has a pool right next to it, like this idea in the American suburban landscape, where there are 200 houses and 200 pools. They look more like bathtubs than part of the architecture. And that’s the key: the pools have to be part of the architecture. For instance, in the Gostner House, the position of the house was decided together with the position of the pool. It’s next to the house, but it’s part of the architecture. Both the house and the pool are close to the rocks and are in dialogue with the rocks. Besides, there was only one possibility between two points of rock for building a pool. Beyond that rock, there was a cliff! I always tried to design pools that had a strict relationship with the house, like an extension of the interior architecture. Certainly I don’t care for a pool that has no connection with the house—a glorified bathtub. So my answer is: pools, yes. When they don’t look like pools.

 

 

 

Arquitectura-G:

One could say that your houses are nothing but a roof on top of the landscape. A kind of cloak made out of ceramic rooftiles that defines where the shaded areas begin and end. The boundaries of the exterior and interior are pretty blurred, not only due to the presence of boulders under the roof but also the use of strategic exterior walls that define rooms without a roof, or the wise positioning of large doors that connect open-air and shaded areas, as well as the small windows that frame the view of a specific place. It looks like you never really designed a façade as if you were thinking from the outside, in terms of composition, but that all key decisions were made by thinking from inside the house.

 

Alberto Ponis:

Absolutely. Windows express the interior needs of a house; they’re like its eyes. These eyes can open up to a wide view, like the horizon or a landscape, and they can also connect the interior and the exterior spaces. Small windows can also frame a specific view that has a special meaning for the inhabitant. The window is a device that defines the way the inhabitant relates to the exterior space. So yes, absolutely, they are always designed from the inside, without caring too much about the exterior image of the façade. I’ll show you something!

 

Alberto gets up and starts opening drawers in a flat file cabinet, looking for a specific plan. He places some very detailed drawings on top of the table, hand-drawn with a technical pen and beautifully coloured with Pantone markers.

 

Alberto Ponis:

Here it is. You can see this set of houses here, but the reason I’m taking out this plan is because I traced the plots. There was a group of people that knew each other, and they wanted to build their houses here. I was in a very fortunate situation because they wanted me to design their houses. But the issue is that I could first design the houses, and then do the plotting later on. That way all the houses could have a view and the illusion of being alone in the middle of the landscape. All these other plans that you see, this also has a lot to do with the position of the windows. I drew them myself. I used to spend up to 10 hours a day drawing, stressing my eyes. Now I only have the last reserves of my eyesight left, but the damage was made then—drawing until midnight. Anyway, no complaints. I would do it again!

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