Architecture, Travel

The house on the wrong side: Casa Malaparte


[Ian Macready]

A weekend in Capri sir? I don’t mind if I do. One of the advantages of getting older is that some of your friends are getting older and richer, and suggest taking you away to fancy places that would not otherwise be within budget for a weekend.
So a friend’s 50th birthday party weekend allowed me to catch sight of one of those symbols of twentieth century architecture – such as Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, Paimio Sanatorium by Aalto, Falling Water by Lloyd Wright – that you might only see in pictures. The author of the design for Casa Malaparte is not clear: Adalberto Libera, the Italian rationalist, started the design but was soon thrown off the project and the owner himself finished off the project by 1940.

Part of the mysterious beauty of this icon is its location, a red box perched some 30 metres above the blue sea on a rocky promontory, that does not exactly encourage the neighbours to drop in for an espresso and a biscotto (me getting all Italian on you).
It is akin to a container ship that has been stranded there after the tide has gone out. The exterior is painted blood red with a few large picture windows but also some windows that would be more suited to a prison. A huge wedge of a staircase at the land end of the house leads up to the flat roof with its bizarre white painted 3-D apostrophe on top as a wind and sun screen: it’s hardly the most inviting roof terrace for a picnic. You get the feeling it was not used often, although film buffs amongst you will be familiar with Brigitte Bardot up there in the Godard movie Le Mepris. It is a lonely and strange place and apparently very suited to its original owner, the maverick writer and film maker Curzio Malaparte (a name adopted by him in 1925 which means the wrong side, as opposed to Napolean’s Bonaparte) who fell out with the fascists (something to do with writing about Hitler as a woman?) and was sent into exile on another island, which clearly gave him a taste for isolated places. He died a communist in the 1950s, with a last minute conversion to Catholicism, and strangely left the house to the regime in China. His family and the Italian government got on to that straight away and successfully contested that bit of the will.

The house fell into disrepair until renovation began during the 1980s. The casual visitor can’t get in, which is a great shame, unless you can afford to hire the place for an advertising photo shoot (the current owner, Malaparte’s great nephew, needs to raise money for its expensive upkeep) or are a lucky student of architecture on a scholarship trip. But it is still a great draw for any visitor to the island who walk along the cliff paths above to catch a glimpse (I was following a large group of young German students) or as seen from a boat on a circuit of the island on your way to the equally extraordinary natural phenomena of the blue grotto.

The outline as seen from a boat.
An interior drawing and plan from Domus magazine
That crazy sun screen or wind screen or gesture?
Another view from the boat
Apparently this villa just up the coast, now hotel, where Churchill and Eisenhower stayed, was designed at least in part, by Le Corbusier
Inside the Blue Grotto