New Realism implies a Realism just as Neo-rationalism implies a Rationalism, or Post Modernism a Modernism that once was. They’re all moveable feasts. Neorealism we know from Italian cinema, the most widely-known films being Obsessione (1943), Rome, Open City (1945) and Bicycle Theives (1948).
Neorealism kept it real and gritty but, as the memory and reality of WWII faded, it came to be too real and too gritty for the Italian people who began to hanker for more ‘optimistic’ American movies such as Singin’ In The Rain. Be that as it may, New Realism as a term came at least fifteen years after the event. Post-Rationalisationism?
Pietro Lingeri first enters our architectural memory with his 1927-1931 head office building for the Italian Motorboat Association of Lario (AMILA), Lario referring to Lake Lario, the other name for Lake Como.
I falsely remembered it appearing in Hitchcock & Johnson’s The International Style. Perhaps it didn’t make the final edit for failing Hitchcock’s exacting standards for signage?
Or perhaps, for a boathouse, it was taking the boat/building thing too literally when buildings were supposed to allude to stuff maritime? But no, they had no qualms about that.
“The marine character of the design is justified by site and purpose.” Essentially, this makes Post Modernism the new Modernism, resplendent with meaning in 1929 and identified as such in 1932. One learns something new every day.
Leaving aside my conjectural history of architecture and returning to my conjectural history of events, it wouldn’t have been that hard for Johnson to swing by Lake Como on his way down to Cortona and check out Lingeri’s boathouse if he’d wanted to. The trains were running on time.
As he was more or less in the area, he could have nipped across and visited Eileen Gray at E1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Maybe she didn’t answer the door.
If AMILA and E1027 were missing from The International Style then we must either doubt Hitchcock & Johnson’s editorial judgment or conclude they had some agenda these buildings didn’t support. With E1027 it may have been something as simple as the blue canvas and life preserver.
There is an excuse however for him not including Pietro Lingeri’s Houses for Artists on Lake Como’s only island of Isola Comacina. They weren’t yet designed.
The three houses were part of an effort to develop the island as a centre for the arts. There are less inspiring places an artist could be.
Lingeri was a contemporary of Terragni’s so the 1933 designs were Rationalist but the project didn’t get approved until 1939. When they were, they were built within a year.
The speedy construction is said to result from Lingeri mixing the local Larian vernacular of timber and open galleries with sensible construction and Rationalist tropes such as glass blocks and horizontal windows. Even his horizontal windows are more rational in that they don’t force rock or concrete across long lintels. The three houses were rationally named A, B and C.
The houses had a period of neglect but were fully restored in 2009-2010 by Rebecca Fant Architect. Their current lack of grittiness may be due to too loving a restoration.
The walls are built from Moltrasio stone blocks, plastered with lime on the inside and with a glossy stucco in bathrooms and kitchens. The upper floors, the inside stairs, the doors and windows are made from chestnut wood, while the load bearing structure and the roof frame (with reversed pitches and covered with slate) are made of pine. The composition, which juxtaposes the stone planes of the walls against the inside volume of wood, is most evident at the points of contact.
Lingeri’s artists’ houses are said to have been influenced by a Le Corbusier vacation house which must be Le Sextant (1935) in Les Mathes (on the coast, downstream from Bordeaux) where he attempted to recreate the loose-fit of E1027.
The only problem with this theory is that Lingeri’s houses predate Le Sextant, so it must have been Corbusier’s 1929 De Mandrot Villa which is generally omitted from the accepted history that has one believe he only discovered the rough stuff with the 1959 Maisons Jaoul.
We’ve no way of knowing if Le Corbusier was serious about rock. He’d been in trouble with local stonemasons’ associations before for not using enough of it – hence the huge rock wall in the 1929 Les Maisons Loucheur.
Despairingly, all this gesture to appease the local stonemasons has left us with is an architectural legacy of technical boxes on rock walls.
We simply don’t know if the use of rock in 1929 was a result of skills and labour shortages, responding to the local vernacular or appeasing the local masons, or whether this sudden penchant for rock, timber and simple construction meant anything more than a quaint rusticity to city folk. We should be careful of extrapolating, particularly in the case of Le Corbusier where, like a true Post Modernist, simplicity often only represents simplicity rather than actually being a simple way of doing things.
If Corbusian Modernism is really just proto-Post Modernism, then Lingeri’s New Realism now starts to look a bit too sweet as well. At least Lingeri’s roof is rationally framed.
In a 1959 article, The Italian Retreat From Modern Architecture* Reyner Banham questioned the Italians’ ‘commitment’ to ‘The Modernist Project’.
The article continues, railing against Italian architecture for its historic willingness to cater to the borghese. Banham wouldn’t have warmed to Lingeri’s Villa Leoni for being on Lake Como to start with but he’d also have objected to it being designed for quite well-off people to use as a weekend summer house, although I don’t see what makes a weekend summer house in Como any different from a weekend summer house in Poissy or a weekend summer house in Bear Run.
Villa Leoni is situated on the western side of Lake Como, close to the Strada Regina. The villa dominates the basin of the Comacina Island and the neighbouring complex of Saint Maria Maddalena of Ospitaletto and its famous bell tower. The villa, commissioned to the architect Pietro Lingeri by Raffaele Leoni and his wife Diana Peduzzi, was built for the family Leoni Malacrida, manufacturers in the confectionery field, who settled their summer residence right by the shore of Lake Como. Projected in the same years of the artists’ houses on the Comacina Island, Villa Leoni represents for Pietro Lingeri one more step in the study of a rational and mediterranean architecture, which is the common feature of the italian architecture between the two World Wars. In 1941 Alberto Sartoris described Villa Leoni in the first edition of the “Encyclopédie de l’architecure nouvelle”, to attest the rationalism vocation to be mediator between abstraction and nature. Commissioned in 1938, Villa Leoni was built between 1941 and 1944, the years of Rationalism.
Villa Leoni is another of these houses the history of architecture has no need for. You’ll try in vain to find a plan other than this one you can buy and download. Even deliberate obfuscation can’t hide its clarity of organisation.
In line with the house’s current incarnation as a backdrop within a backdrop, the current landscaping is overly dramatic.
Similarly, the contemporary exterior illumination is artfully and dramatically designed for added ambience at evening events.
There’s not much New Realism on display today but, to be honest, there wasn’t that much to begin with. Rock was no longer roughly hewn and laid but shaped and smoothed and, importantly, back outside where it belonged.
Inside you’ll find no grittiness or grim reminders of the inescapable unpleasantness and unfairness of life.
The New Realism quickly became the New Unrealism. Despite this, Villa Leoni still has a rational plan and organisation of space, sensible finishes and that ever-solid Italian construction. All these things exist in a dimension isolated from style. These things can never be fashionable to start with and so they never go out of fashion. It’s often said Italian buildings age well. It’s also said that true style is an attitude, not a look.
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- Reyner Banham_Neoliberty The Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture, The Architectural Review AR 125, April 1959, pp 230-235