Designed by Adalberto Libera, completed 1963 Island of Capri
The Casa Malaparte is a villa on the island of Capri designed by the Italian rationalist architect Adalberto Libera (1903–63) for the writer and journalist Curzio Malaparte (1898–1957). The building’s dominant position on its rocky outcrop reflect its expressive and outward-looking spirit. Its bold volumetric form and symmetrical planning reflects Libera’s desire for “sin cerity, order, logic and clarity above all” (Malaparte, 1989). All in all, it is a textbook example of modernist 20th-century architecture. At first glance, this might seem to be an accurate description of the Casa Malaparte. However, a closer examination reveals these seemingly uncontestable facts as increasingly problematic.
The Casa Malaparte is actually a curious and contradictory work that directly reflects the nature of its curious and contradictory client: Curzio Malaparte. Born Kurt Erich Suckert into a Protestant family, Malaparte denounced these roots when beginning his writing career by taking his mother’s maiden name and then later, on his deathbed, converting to Catholicism. Malaparte is best known for his writings that glorified Mussolini and the Fascist Party, yet he was jailed by that same party between 1933 and 1935. While he subsequently tried to become a member of the Communist Party, Malaparte also served as a liaison officer for the U.S. Army after World War II. These examples are only the more concrete ones illustrating a soul who functioned in extremes and was always torn between opposites.
The architect Adalberto Libera, a member of the rationalist Gruppo 7, is best known for his works that helped advertise Fascist Italy: the staging of the Exhibition of the Tenth Anniversary of the Fascist Revolution (1932), and the Italian Pavilions at the World Expositions of Chicago (1933) and Brussels (1935). It is through these works that Malaparte most likely became familiar with Libera. Sometime in early 1938, Malaparte approached Libera to design a small villa on the island of Capri. The resulting design, which was submitted for approval to the Capri authorities in March 1938, was never built. For this reason, the attribution of the Casa Malaparte to Adalberto Libera can be questioned. However, Libera’s initial design, although different from what was actually built, can be seen as the “foundation” of the eventual building.
Libera proposed a two-story, elongated rectangular building with rooms on one side and a corridor on the other. The linearity of the project took advantage of the linearity of its site: the Massullo promontory. The project stepped up in section toward the sea, using the lower portion’s roof as a sheltered terrace. The external ground-floor walls of the project consisted of rough stone, presumably from the site, with the upper portion of the walls plastered smooth. These characteristics of the project can be seen in the building as built. However, this is where the similarity ends. Sometime during 1939, Libera and Malaparte lost touch concerning the villa. Without an architect, Malaparte, however, continued building, acting on advice from his builder, Adolfo Amitriano, and his circle of artist friends as well as on his own thoughts and inspirations.
The most significant change to Libera’s initial project made by Malaparte is perhaps the defining element of the Casa Malaparte: the curious wedge-shaped staircase to the roof that extends for about one-third of the entire structure and gives the building its unique silhouette. This form has been attributed to Malaparte’s memory of the Church of the Annunziata, experienced during his exile imposed by the Fascists on the island of Lipari. The staircase is a strange form, perhaps one that would never be designed by an architect, yet it solved several problems for Malaparte once he began to deviate from Libera’s project. First, although oversized, the staircase provided access to the roof terrace, which Malaparte now placed on the very top of the building. Second, it unified the mass of the building into a single, streamlined whole instead of a series of awkward jumps, as Libera had proposed.
This unified mass, isolated on the rocky heights of a Mediterranean cliff, is what gives the building its heroic and romantic appeal. However, these same characteristics also strangely make the building belong to its natural surroundings: the building’s linearity and the gradual slope of the staircase seem to echo the linearity of the site with its gradual ups and downs. In addition, the color of the building, often described as “Pompeian red,” is also subject to this paradox: on the one hand, it is not the typical Mediterranean (and modernist) white, which would make it stand out from its natural surroundings of sea, rock, and low shrubs; on the other hand, the deep red is completely foreign to an island setting of natural blue, brown, and green tones.
Other changes that Malaparte made to Libera’s original design were less noticeable than the staircase. Windows on the southwest facade were framed with a “braid of tufa stone,” and iron security bars were installed on the ground floor. It is theorized that Malaparte did this to make the house seem more like a prison, again evoking memories of his exile. Yet, unlike a prison, the entire rooftop was to be used for sunbathing, with a sweeping modesty wall to protect Malaparte from prying eyes.
Libera’s proposed interior configuration was completely changed by Malaparte from a single-loaded corridor to a sym metrical layout, with the principal room consisting of a large temple-like salon the entire width of the building. The building’s entrance, however, was still located on the southwest elevation, and the resulting circulation pattern is clumsy: once one is inside the principal entrance, an awkward L-shaped stair leads upstairs to another awkward antechamber before the salon. In addition, to access the new basement accommodation below the external staircase, a secondary external entrance also exists on the southwest elevation. Although Malaparte masterfully reorganized the building into a symmetrical layout that more accurately reflects the linearity of the scheme, he was unable to follow this through to the circulation through the building.
In the end, the Casa Malaparte is an accurate reflection of the unusual “both/and” character of its client: it is a combined product of its architect, client, and builder; an example of both heroic modernism and humble vernacular traditions; an architectural work that both dominates and engages its natural surroundings; and a house that is both a prison and a temple. Indeed, Malaparte, on completion of the building, is known to have described his Capri villa as a “house like me” and “a selfportrait in stone.”
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1 (A-F). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2004.