The history of Modern Architecture has still many formidable stories to tell. New illuminations reach 20th-Century´s quarry of episodes and life experiences, even the most classical, willing to recreate them. Old-new stories come out to light to be read again and throw revealing new data. Such is the case of El Cerrito, a name that speaks for the most sensible work of Milan architect Gio Ponti since 1957, located in Caracas, Venezuela.
One of 20th-century Architecture´s most extraordinary figures, Ponti (Milan 1891-1979), today emerges as the anti-maestro who graciously defied the Modern Movement with his creative impulse. In the year 2002, an important exhibition, “Gio Ponti: A World”, organized by London's Design Museum, embraced the vast Pontian universe, and his oeuvre, detached from all the clouds that weighed upon Ponti´s lifetime –when he was considered “impure”-, could finally shine free. Today, the spirit of times understands better the nature of those creators who resisted modernist taboos. Along with the rediscovering of Ponti´s work, an epoch that feels at ease among history, ornament, tradition, hybridization, memory and ambiguity, is unveiling. And best of all, is also modern. Taschen´s recent luxury retrospective re-edition of Domus magazine tells greatly about this newly renovated international interest in the Pontian saga.
The London show had two highlights, both works from Ponti, and both built in Caracas: the Villa Diamantina (1955), the exhibition's centrepiece, demolished in 1994, and Villa Planchart (a.k.a El Cerrito, 1957). This next 8th of December (2007) Villa Planchart will be fifty years old, and to celebrate this anniversary, the Fundación Anala y Armando Planchart, owner of this distinctively modern icon, is posting from Caracas a good-will message for modern architecture, art and culture, as well as for the cause of preservation. Being Ponti´s greatest Latin American work, the maestro's Caribbean villa is now welcoming a new and important role as a cultural symbol for the region.
Without a professionally-conceived conservation project, for half a century Armando Planchart Franklin and Ana Luisa (Anala) Braun de Planchart, took care personally, a cuore, of their great modern villa. Tireless travellers in their lives, in order to do so they simply followed the Italian school of restauro´s classic motto: they preserved their house “com´era e dov ´era” (as it was and where it was). And thus Villa Planchart rested as a remarkable exception in a non-preservationist country.
For fifty years, each marble piece that was damaged was replaced by other similar, each glass mosaic that would fall from the facades was lovingly restored with its pair, each bronze fitting was polished and re-polished again until it would shine anew, each furniture re-upholstered in the original fabric, each wall retouched to regain its original splendour, each mechanism repaired and put back to work. The modernist house that the Milan architect, Domus editor and promoter of the Triennale de Milano came to build entirely in distant Caracas as a real “Casa all´ítaliana” – the Pontian dream formulated in Domus´ first editorial back in 1928-, summing up the project of an Italian architect, of Italian artisans, of the Italian industry and of Italian Art, survived spotlessly thanks to the incomparable loyalty and love of Venezuelan clients. Ideal clients that made him sight one day amid the magazine's pages: “Oh, if all clients were like these!” And because they were like this, since 1975 they gave their house and its gardens to the Fundación Planchart. Villa Planchart, an enduring prodigy, has turned out to be a paradigm within the Latin American context, where the fight for the conservation of Modern Architecture only begins. A tropicalized Italian modern lighthouse, it stands in all the beauty of its crystalline architecture, ruling from its peak above the Caracas valley.
Anyone who visits the house for the first time is surprised by its quality as a total work of art. It is striking to find at the door gates of the Caribbean sea so many epoch-related Italian design and art together. And many visitors ask themselves: Would it be that the plan charts gave Ponti carte blanche letting him work ad libitum, forced by the difficulties brought by their distance? But it wasn't so. The story of Villa Planchart is not that of a “carte blanche”. In fact, there's no other chapter in Modern Architecture with fewer “white” letters than this, being the Villa Planchart maybe the mid-20th-Century domestic architecture's case most thoroughly documented in the world: in the recently created Archivo Gio Ponti Caracas (named after its homonymous, the Archivo Gio Ponti Parma, keeper of the rest of the architect's huge legacy), lay four volumes of correspondence, consisting in 499 letters, 63 of which were illustrated by Ponti. There the entire design, construction and furnishing project of this work is told in detail, from its conception to the acquisition of the last object.
To read the correspondence that for decades was established between the architect in Milan and his Caraquenian clients on the other side of the ocean, is to enjoy the accurate description of a remarkable architectural relationship, but also to witness the unfolding of a beautiful friendship. A friendship that hasn't come to an end, and for this year's (2007) anniversary, members of the Ponti family will be in Caracas, like they were back on inauguration day, December 8th, 1957, to toast for the work of architecture that once upon a time united Caracas and Milan. And, like in 1957, they will enjoy the view of the city from the magnificent belvedere atop El Cerrito's hill, stretching from east to west on its longitudinal valley dominated by the monumental Avila. And that night they will remember that it was exactly the view of that mountain the first request Ms. Planchart made to Gio Ponti one June morning, in 1953, when, after the arrangements made by the Venezuelan consul in Milan, she was able to go with her husband to Via Dezza N. 29 (a building still standing) to meet Domus´ famous editor. The architect's potential clients at that moment only knew about him from the magazine issues that punctually arrived monthly to them in Caracas. Cultured Venezuelans living in a city in transit to modernity due to their country's increasing oil income, they didn't hesitate a second after they succeeded in acquiring their incomparable property. They knew there was an opportunity for good architecture.
And so they met: by appointment only. Right after after walking through the door of the garage that housed Ponti´s studio, they were immediately marveled with the sight of the drafting tables covered with projects, models hanging from the ceiling, furniture prototypes, materials and objects all over the place, ceramic pieces crowding the floors, and Domus headquarters dispatching in a corner. And, marveled as they were, they decided that nothing would stand between them and their goal of having a Gio Ponti's original in El Cerrito.
Ponti was cautious: Latin America was too far. But his clients´ genuine bewitchment gradually dispersed his doubts. From this first meeting, out stands how the first idea that would shape Villa Planchart actually came out. Once seated in the studio, Ponti opened a a big roll of tracing paper and drew a first sketch of a house with arches. And he asked Ms. Planchart: “Li piace?” But Ms. Planchart hurried to respond, iteratively: “No, non mi piace”. Why?, asked the architect. And she answered with a phrase that's is already legendary in Venezuela's architectural history: “Because I want a Modern house”. The second sketch that he traced, already depicted the image of how Villa Planchart would look like three years later: a closed form, a clean two-story volume placed on the lot facing North, with a long and perforated “facade to Caracas” and a more serene service Southern facade, a clear expression of the internal spaces functional layout.
When Ponti agreed to develop this idea in a preliminary project, started what has been called El Cerrito's “endless letter”. The Plancharts departed on a trip while he remained designing in Milan. Mail communication was not to be interrupted not even if they were on board on a ship, or far from Caracas. Ponti, to save language's distance, writes first in French, then in English, then in Spanish, helped by his daughter Tita, and finally in Italian. But additionally, in order to explain the forthcoming storm of fantastic ideas that from then on he won't stop producing for his newly “prediletta” villa, he stands by his drawing skills, and draws everything. A phrase of his in a 1954 letter announces it: “the bombardment of designs is begins”.
These fantastic ideas consist on a collection of special designs that Ponti is producing while he delicately polishes the rough diamond of the villa's massive initial geometry. Outside, while he deconstructs the elevations in floating walls and open corners, sets neon threads in the house's junctions so it can be turned-on by night and read from afar in the nocturnal cityscape; inside, while he improves an spatial promenade in a Neobarroque manner, where spaces pour one into the other, displays sliding doors, installs harlequin-patterned marble floors, devices floating stair flights, commissions ceramic murals with a cascade running over them, sets lightweight bridges and balconies to populate the big sala padronale, opens flag-like windows, and, outdoing himself, comes out with the most fantastic invention: six mechanically-activated rotating niches, made in the built-in wood cabinetry of the Studio-library to hide the Mr. Planchart´s hunting trophies that the architect disliked so much.
It is wonderful to visit the house hand-on-hand with Ponti, who soiled tensions and vistas in the space to conduct the visitor and shape up the space. In the project plans, we “see” them in the many drawn eyes that indicate the views he wanted, and which defined the width or height of a window, the length of the partitions, the walls angles. But Ponti, in his various visits to Caracas during the building process, kept moving all things, the windows included, always seeking to improve the effects of what he was imagining, looking for the ideal composition of all parts. This is so much so that the final architecture of Villa Planchart is not the one expressed in its plans. Because the definitive horizontal and vertical layout composition was finished “by hand”, in situ.
In El Cerrito, one has the impression that the design stories are infinite. There is one about the superb orchid collection that as an additional passion to architecture, had the Plancharts, and which is so present throughout the building. When Ponti asked Mr. Planchart in 1953 what he wanted for the house, he answered: “I want to show inside of it my orchid collection”. Therefore, the light Italian house that Ponti delicately landed on a tropical hill, “as a butterfly”, is also a greenhouse for orchids. But, while in cold weathers greenhouses serve to prevent the tropical plants from the harming effects of the cold, here Ponti had to do a tropical greenhouse where blossoming orchids don't “hibernate”, but are exhibited. Such was his success, and so many plants can be exposed altogether with their flowers, that sometimes the perfume captured by the house is so intense that steals the first applauses from the visitors.
Ponti chose everything for his clients, from the palette of colours (white, yellow, grey) ruling over the interior décor, to every single piece of furniture (Cassina, Altamira, M. Singer & Sons, Giordano Chiesa Arredamento, Casa & Giardino), each lamp (Arredoluce, Fontana Arte), each building material, including the textiles (Zucchi, Ferrari), arriving to select the decorative objects and even the spot where they were to be placed, to the many of the works of art, being this the reason why the collection gathers such important pieces of many of the Italian masters praised by Ponti: Giorgio Morandi, Massimo Campigli, Romano Rui, Piero Fornasetti, Fausto Melotti. The decorative art collection from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that the villa treasures, has, in this way, also an author. Beginning with the three sets of custom flatwares that he did exclusively for his clients, made by the Italian ceramic company of Richard Ginori (1960), one of which is decorated with the house's first elevation sketch, to the “Diamond” silverware the Boston's house of Reed & Barton commissioned Ponti in 1955, and the coffee set also by Ponti for the Orfevrerie Parissiène Cristoffle, to the exquisite array of solifleurs and flower vases in Murano glass – naturally abundant in the residence of an orchid collector-, with Flavio Poli´s signature for Vetri de Seguso and Ponti´s for Vetri di Paolo Venini. At the time of the couple's moving, the house was so completely furnished, and they were so thrilled to go modern, that they came to live in it just with their suitcases filled with their closest belongings…
The Villa Planchart is related to the forms and aspirations of the elegant Pirelli Tower in Milan (1958), sharing its diamond-shaped plan and vertical side openings. It is known that the architect worked on both projects, that he kept side by side on parallel drafting tables in his studio. But the Venezuelan house is also linked to his remaining architectural production, evoking L´Ange Volant (Garches, 1926) great staircase, Villa Arata´s (Naples, 1952) sculptural chimney, his Hotel Parco dei Principi (Sorrento, 1962) Salerno ceramic floors, to mention a few. Equally, in it he brings back many of the dreams he published in Domus, and with which the Plancharts, undoubtedly, as his regular readers, had also dreamt for years. In the same way, the house also has an “offspring”: it enabled Ponti to do three other projects in Caracas, two of which effectively achieved construction: Villa Gorrondona (1956, unbuilt), Villa Diamantina and Villa Guzmán Blanco (1958). None, whatsoever, had the importance of El Cerrito, that with the passing of time has naturally become an authentic embassy for modern architecture and design.
Gio Ponti earned in Caracas and with his friendship with the Plancharts many years of happiness. Already at the beginning of the house's construction, in 1954, when he began to call it “my jewel”, it seems like he had also planned its civilizing destiny. Today, his “Florentine” villa awaits the construction of a half-buried auditorium in the hill, that will broaden its performance as an Italy-related cultural centre. Gio Ponti´s “prediletta villa” is about to live a new chapter of its wonderful story.
Portada del número de Modernism magazine.
Publicado en: Modernism magazine, New York City, 2007, pp- 54-63.