Antonino Cardillo is a lone warrior — though the term warrior is already misleading. His weapons are a game of illusion and reality, of form and fantasy. One thing always takes centre stage for the young Italian planner: architecture.
It is no easy endeavour to measure the success of an architect — and drawing comparisons is even less fruitful. Do you take the number of completed projects or the size of the team as a yardstick for success? Or perhaps the number of competitions and prizes won? The number of publications? There are always certain to be differing opinions as to how well regarded, aspiring or successful an architectural firm really is. In the case of young Italian architect Antonino Cardillo, however, there is one point on which everyone agrees: he is a fraud.
Cardillo has neither a fixed office address, nor even an office in the classic sense. And he has no employees: the Sicilian designs and plans all his projects alone. The young architect also ignores all forms of competition — he acquires his clients and principals himself, in part from his own circle of friends and acquaintances. His completed projects can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the major part of these concern interior design for existing buildings. The only finished house that Antonino Cardillo has built to date is the Nomura House in the Japanese city of Takarazuka; a second residential property is due to follow this summer on Lake Garda. One might, therefore, suppose that Cardillo is one of a number of minor, lesser-known architects. But that isn’t the case. Very few architects outside the three superstars of the industry (Libeskind, Hadid and Koolhaas) have attracted as much attention from the international press and trade magazines as Antonino Cardillo. And here again, there is more than one explanation. But first and foremost is the media scandal surrounding his imaginary houses: Seven Houses for No One.
Flight from Milan to Palermo, Sicily: Antonino Cardillo’s native island. His name is well known. At least it once was. Some may now have forgotten him. After all, a whole five years have passed since journalist Susanne Beyer polemically exposed the young Italian architect as an imposter in German news magazine Der Spiegel (Roman Ruins / Römische Ruinen, issue 27/2012), thereby penning the dramatic climax to a story of truth, deception and ambition.
Cardillo had enchanted international critics and their readers with his imaginary architecture, displayed in artfully rendered Photoshop images. His seven Imagined Houses (beginning with Ellipse 1501 House in Rome in March 2007, Vaulted House in Parma, House of Convexities in Barcelona and Max’s House in the French city of Nîmes in 2008, Concrete Moon House and House of Twelve in Melbourne 2009, and finishing with Purple House in Wales from October 2011), which were conceived of from the start as a series, were not only convincing through perfect illusion. Their exceptional architecture, colour palette and fine details are so pleasing that perhaps the question of authenticity was not one that should ever have been raised. Their existence relates to their design. And they served exactly what everyone wants. That the international press is not willing to publish designs and visualisations of good designs, but only constructed reality, is something that Antonino Cardillo does not want to accept, and thus his work spans the divide between dream and reality, truth and fiction.
In order, therefore, to understand the work of this 42 year-old architect, his ideas, his origins, we are on our way to Sicily, landing in Palermo and continuing the journey to Trapani by car — without any real idea of what awaits us there. Why did he move back to Trapani from Rome in 2014? Tentative doubts also remain in our minds as to whether his Four Grottos quartet exists in reality — or whether these projects are also merely hyper-realistic computer images. Is the architect pursuing a clever strategy designed to keep him a media talking point? Who is this Antonino Cardillo that Wallpaper magazine selected as one of the 30 most important architects worldwide in 2009? And how did it all transpire?
A wall, two doors. Left or right — which door do you choose? Antonino Cardillo grins and points to the right-hand one. Concealed behind it is a small, low room with a ceiling height of around two metres.
Our meeting point is the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo in Trapani. And there he is, looking pleased to see us. And yes, only five steps around the corner in a narrow alleyway, he opens a small green door — the door to his latest project: Specus Corallii. Welcome to the reality of Cardillo!
The Specus Corallii or coral cave, the fourth grotto in the architect’s series and a safe haven cloistered away from the world and reality, embodies the built idea of a mysterious architecture. Despite that, or perhaps precisely because of it, the spaces that Cardillo creates play with familiar and trusted parameters. The architect sees the small doors leading from the corridor to the room as a reference to the world of Alice in Wonderland. This image is intensified by the low doorknob, set at a height of only 80 centimetres and made from pink Murano glass (these are two of only twelve knobs that Cardillo found at an antiques market; he finds them kitschy and thus a perfect fit). The four doors are positioned in two walls, and thus one is confronted with the decision of which door to open, especially when standing at the short end.
Antonino Cardillo returned from London to his home city of Trapani two years ago to work on this carefully developed project. He continued working for several months in parallel on a shop design in London’s Dover Street for British perfume label Illuminum Fragrance, whose most prestigious customer is Kate Middleton. The architect knew the space in Trapani’s cathedral from his childhood when it was used for the nativity scene. “But the place was very run down and had stood empty for years”, Cardillo recalls. “When I heard that the church intended to renovate the place, but had no idea what to do with it, I developed Specus Corallii and offered the design on a pro bono basis.” In the beginning was an image, a rendering, which he used to convince the principal, the head priest of the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo. “He liked it and they gave me the commission.” The result is a low-budget project that looks nothing like low budget.
This is down to Cardillo’s meticulous planning as well as the materials he uses: the stone slabs come from Trapani, as does the sandstone in the lower wall sections, while the plaster above is made from volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius, as was also the case in his three previous grottos in Rome and London. Because pozzolana is so light, the coarse plaster also adheres to the ceiling. Its siliceous and lime hydrate content must be combined with water for the natural stone to bind, and thus pozzolana was used in antiquity to make Roman cement. Cardillo dyes his pozzolana plaster in a later stage, thereby creating a new spatial impression. And because the material is relatively cheap (four tonnes cost less than 800 euros), it was worth shipping puzzolanic volcanic ash from the 2015 Vesuvian eruption from Naples to London. Antonino Cardillo chooses this particular building material not only for its lightness or for reasons of economy. It is also a material that has a structure that cannot be rendered. But more on that later.
Incidentally, the architect uses the two doors as a subtle reference to church doctrine — the building principal in this particular project. It is the decision between right or left, between good or evil: God or the Devil. And the floor is also divided into two halves: the pattern of stone slabs reflects an invisible central axis. Symmetry, archetypal forms and arches are elements that can be encountered again and again in Cardillo’s architecture.
Antonino Cardillo works in series. This involves taking a particular aspect and working through it step by step to build a kind of manifesto — albeit not always set in stone. In the case of Imagined Houses, it is about the geometry and composition of a building, inspired by Roman ruins or the curves of history. That his architecture possesses a dimension beyond that of external reality is something he has already explicitly elaborated in his first series — perhaps the only thing missing was an indication of whether the images were photos or the architect’s visualisations. The boundaries between reality and virtual spaces become blurred in every house. Cardillo did, however, situate the building plots in seven areas around Trapani (though the place names on his website give a different message). They are historical sites from the Odyssey, which, according to the theories of British scholar Samuel Butler (1835–1902), are not to be found in Greece, but around Trapani (Latin: Drepanum). According to Wikipedia, Butler even reasoned that Homer’s Ithaca, the home of Odysseus, more usually equated with the Greek island of Ithaca or one of the neighbouring Ionian islands, was to be found in the region of Trapani. For Cardillo, such myths and facts are proof that history itself is little more than a rendering. Too many events have been erased from the history books: reality doesn’t exist. And so the architect lives and works in his own reality, building the images he needs himself.
Before studying in Palermo in the mid-nineties, Antonino Cardillo programmed computer games and discovered architecture as a constructed reality. Later, in Rome, he produced visualisations for less technologically adept architects and earned a living in this way (he wrote no doctoral theses as is claimed in the Der Spiegel article amongst other things). When Antonino Cardillo thinks back on this time, a dark shadow crosses his face. Back then, he was one of only a handful who could produce such good representations, but he never enjoyed the act of visualising other people’s designs. “I wanted to concentrate on my architecture”, he relates.
— And the computer games?
Yes, I played a great deal and very intensely when I was young. Back then the graphics were of a poor quality, but the stories behind the games all the more powerful. Today it’s exactly the other way around: the more realistic gaming graphics have become, the more the stories have lost out. That doesn’t interest me anymore.
Cardillo is a perfectionist. “A rendering does not look like a photo: it always clearly remains a rendering”, he says. “I always saw my pictures as renderings.” His first contact with the press came via World Architecture News back in 2007. Five years later, Susanne Beyer wrote the much-cited article in Der Spiegel in July 2012. The piece was based on another article that architecture critic Peter Reischer had previously published in Austrian news magazine Falter (Schöner Klonen, Falter, 9 May 2012): “The only place architect Antonino Cardillo builds is on the internet. He fools the international press with his fake houses” is how Reischer begins his savage attack, which was published without Cardillo’s consent. “Peter Reischer is still so angry with me”, laughs Cardillo, who acknowledges no blame in the matter.
Honestly, I can’t remember quite what happened, it was all so long ago. And for me it plays no role whatsoever.
— Where were the imaginary houses first published then?
The Cool Hunter published an article about Ellipse House, which conveyed the impression that it had already been built. That was in 2007.
— But it’s actually quite easy to see that these are visualisations and not photos.
Computer monitors were not as good back then, perhaps the renderings looked more like photos ten years ago? The terrible thing was that many other magazines simply copied the first article. When Wallpaper contacted me, because they wanted to photograph Ellipse House for a publication, I explained to them that the building did not exist. So they didn’t publish it.
— What happened next?
From a certain point I found the way in which the story was unfolding entertaining: I had little choice in the matter! This made many people angry — Peter Reischer, for example. Unbelievable! From a certain point I decided to stop replying to anyone and to keep out of it entirely. It was no longer possible for me to act in this story. There were so many different levels of manipulation!
— At least it was all mainly restricted to the German-speaking media ...
To be honest, the debate in Italy was much worse than in Germany — La Stampa wrote a whole page on me. And because the Italian journalists translated the German articles and worked with these translations, a great deal of further misunderstandings and lies arose. It was an obfuscation of obfuscations.
Cardillo deems many of the articles to be manipulated, because most of them copied from Falter or Der Spiegel. “The reality is very complex, it is difficult to amalgamate everything and understand it all. Today many magazines ignore my work, especially Wallpaper.” What is real and what is fake? A philosophical question no doubt. Illusions can be stronger than reality, depending on your imagination and invested interest. Architecture manipulates people. Manipulation is human. And both architects and the press are out to sell themselves.
When Cardillo talks about his imaginary houses today, he becomes thoughtful, he weighs his words carefully — he is on guard. The fact that many no longer believe him, calling the Sicilian a liar and a fraud, is something that hurts him. Even the Italian press and many architects from Palermo and Rome were outraged by Cardillo and his seven houses: houses that inspired so many, but had not even been built.
“My truth is not the truth: that is the problem”, says Antonino Cardillo. “It frustrated me that I couldn’t communicate my architecture unless it had been built.” The young architect didn’t have the necessary references to reach potential clients — a question of acquisition. “I had no other option”, he says. Even Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier wrote more and built less. There is no reality. Greek culture is also a corruption, says Cardillo.
Classicism is not Greek! And the sculptures of Classicism were not white! In the early 19th century they discovered that the elements and stucco of the original Greek temples must have been coloured. So classicism was not white — on the contrary, it was brightly painted. In a strange kind of way it was probably even too colourful.
— What role does this play?
If you consider how Modernist movements such as Bauhaus honed in on this idea of pure classicism, even Le Corbusier, you realise that this interpretation of the pure white classical period is but a singular projection of the past. For me this aspect carries great importance, because this attitude of purity is not unambiguous. It is certainly strange that Minimalism and other representatives that support this idea of a pure architecture still exist today.
— But Bauhaus and Le Corbusier were also colourful — even more colourful perhaps than today.
Yes, perhaps. But it’s more about a statement. What Le Corbusier said in his writings differs hugely from his constructed projects. He celebrated the idea of white as something new, in a positive sense. What is strange is that Maison La Roche wasn’t white at all, but beige. But when the Fondation Le Corbusier renovated the building in the seventies, they painted the façade white. Because Le Corbusier celebrated white in his books!
— If there is no reality, what do you believe in?
What I believe is that we humans cannot control anything. It is an illusion. We destroy everything through our assumption that we can control and influence it. Therefore the failure of Modernism is based on the arrogant assumption that man can resolve these irrational forces. But that isn’t possible!
— Which irrational forces do you mean?
I believe in accepting irrational forces, which also includes love. Which is why I’m interested in the works of Richard Wagner: because of the paradigm of power and love. Love is defeated, because you choose power in its place. This is also the paradigm of Modernism: love is an irrational force. The White Cube is a consequence of power.
— And what about the power of love?
That’s just a song! (laughs) If you have power, you can influence other people. If you love, you destroy yourself. From a psychological point of view, love is a very dangerous disease. Love is merely an illusion. Just like architecture: merely an illusion! But at the same time, love is more real than reality.
The architect, who was denounced a fraud by the media, now works where other people holiday. While tourists spend the summer soaking up the Sicilian sun on the beach at Trapani, Antonino Cardillo thinks and sketches his buildings — he makes all his most important decisions in his office. Office — didn’t he say he doesn’t have an office? He grins: “I’m happy to show you my office, but we’ll have to go by car.” Ten minutes later we park directly at the sea, a little outside the old town of Trapani. We walk along the beach where a lonely hotel tower gazes forlornly out to sea and slowly crumbles away. On the little headland behind it, a few walls and arches still stand: the ruins of a former tuna factory from the 18th century. In one of the two towers, which now consist of little more than knee-high remains, Cardillo has his office. It is true that he comes here every afternoon for a while, to stand in the wind and focus his mind on his thoughts. Sometimes he decides on using a particular colour. Another time he considers a project request to design a shop — and declines it.
Flight from Palermo to Rome: a city that feels as if it has reached an end and is waiting for a fresh beginning. Too many monuments, too much history, too many tourists. Massimiliano Beffa, client and owner of the apartment with the poetic name House of Dust, has invited us to his apartment so we can convince ourselves of the existence of this Cardillo project with our own eyes. Our host remains unseen (he works as a notary and has little time), however a female concierge with no foreign language ability, but all the more cheerful for it, opens the apartment door on the fifth floor in the Via Piemonte. We step into a picture that becomes reality. The upper wall sections and the ceilings are finished in greyish-pink pozzolana. Pink neon tubes shine in designated channels in the entrance hall. A thick wall reveals itself to be the kitchen door; it revolves upon light pressure at its centre, exposing a concealed kitchen. All in all, it feels as if one were standing in the Roman residence of James Bond.
Following the great scandal of 2012, Antonino Cardillo wanted to create something that is very tactile, very physical. “I didn’t want to build a rendering — a visualisation is nothing more than a medium to me”, the architect recalls as we sit in a trattoria at Trapani beach on the evening before our departure. “I wanted to develop an architecture that ties in with the past and takes it further. But it must also provoke. The idea of dust is completely contrary to the idea of a rendering. The most difficult part of any rendering is representing texture in high quality.” So that is the story behind House of Dust: a project that cannot be rendered. And no visualisations of this project were ever published — though many believed otherwise. Reality is paradoxical. Poetry and reality are often inverted.
In this, the first project in his second series, Cardillo addressed the question of whether the obscure can be visualised in architecture — and created the constructed antithesis to a rendering. “So in a sense it’s really sad that almost no journalist understood this”, he comments looking back. “For some reason no one linked the project to the Der Spiegel controversy, except for Tim Berge — perhaps because he too is an architect.”
According to Antonino Cardillo, everything was far more complex in the past. Making the stories that the visualisations and the photos of his constructed projects tell all the more intense. The architect spins tales with his projects (whether real or fiction) that build upon one another. He is no planner, but rather a wanderer, whose journey so far has taken him from Palermo to Milan, then on to Rome, to London and back again to Sicily and his native city of Trapani. Apart from these physical places, which Cardillo has undoubtedly influenced, the past and the history of culture and of humanity of the last 3,000 years play a considerably more decisive role.
— Why is the past of such great importance to you? What about the present?
An investigation of the past is an investigation of life.
There is no mistaking that someone like Antonino Cardillo has no conception of architecture as a business. For him, building is a quest. But what is he in search of? Ana Araujo, lecturer at the AA School in London and a personal friend of Cardillo, writes to us: “I think Antonino is a designer trying to work in his own terms, and refusing to comply with the way designers tend to operate today.” The name House of Dust derives from her; she is an expert in the field of image perception. “I think he relies on an idea of what it meant to be an architect in the past to shape his professional attitude. The Houses for No One exist in this context, I believe, as an attempt to express a vision of an architecture that is, to a degree, autonomous. And that tries to set a standard rather than following a standard.”
Cardillo has created a labyrinth of truths and illusions. It is a novella with multiple layers. The house in Japan remains a bizarre chapter in all of this — does it exist? What is behind the two photos, we will never discover. There is no one truth — reality: it doesn’t exist. Antonino Cardillo has built it.