We treated architecture as if it was a human being, like an Other through whom our own eroticism is mirrored. This Other calls us to know them, seeks to converse with us; yet the limits are lost. Who is the Other and who are we? Suddenly an amorous episode emerges through inexplicable reasons and impaired solutions. We want to comprehend. We converse. What we seek to know is the very substance we employ in order to speak. Concepts such as continuity-discontinuity, transgression, death, religion, transcendence, power, seduction, appear as symbolic covering materials on the walls of the buildings that we came across in our wandering. Images of the imaginary resonated in the form of these spaces:
- Villa Karma by Adolf Loos, Montreux, Switzerland
- Le Cylindre Sonore by Bernhard Leitner, Paris, France
- Specus Corallii by Antonino Cardillo, Trapani, Italy
- Pavilion in the Pond by Philip Johnson, New Canaan, Connecticut
- Rothko Chapel by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, Eugene Aubry, and Mark Rothko, Houston, Texas
The Italian architect Antonino Cardillo designed Specus Corallii in 2016, in Trapani of Sicily, as part of remodeling a chapel belonging to the region’s Cathedral. The part of the building we study is the transitional space between the exterior and the interior, which is used to house lectures, chamber music and occasionally as a ballroom. Its design is inspired by the images of corals and shells, images which are closely related to the city of Trapani.
The feeling of wetness is intensified without the presence of water. This is due to the colors and the reflectivity of the floor. We can make an admission here. We cannot decide whether Specus Corallii looks more like emerging from the depths of the ocean or whether it is the image of the ocean itself which on the distant horizon coincides with the sky as if they are reaching their love-making peak. The colors change in succession, smoothly, with the floor always remaining an unchanged constant, irrespectively of the illusion created by the reflection of the color of the walls on its surface. Our legs are always in touch with the green color of the floor which comes up to our knees. This is the representation of the coward stasis we all do more or less, spontaneously, when we allow the water to reach only our knees before we make the decision to sink into it. Unlike the illusion of color changes of the floor, the walls are painted in a gradient from green to cold gray. All this color transition looks like an overture, as Antonino Cardillo himself says. By experiencing this tranquility, the idea of a sudden tide will soon cross our minds like a flare so the space will become “the space of transgression.”
The reflectivity is due to the terrazzo tiles which are located on the floor and on a strip that surrounds the walls. However, the intensity of reflectivity changes along the path. The clarity on the first part is replaced by turbidity, as the tiles following the first arch are less polished. As the architect himself says, this strategy amplifies the idea that things beyond the first arch are less physical, almost dreamy or foggy. For an instant we will think that we are walking on the water and maybe that we are submerging in it. We may feel that we are floating. The space grows and deepens interminably as we observe the outlines of the openings; it grows but also narrows. The structure of the building is distorted, thus man becomes part of this distortion, just like a material. The walls are reflected in the floor’s surface giving him the impression that he can ‘step’ on the walls and become one of them. And supposing that he is not alone in this wandering, he can step on, touch and observe the visitor without him realizing it!
Like countless others, our poet is sitting dreaming at the window. But he discovers in the glass itself a slight deformation, which spreads deformation throughout the universe. “Come nearer the window,” Mandiargues tells his reader, “while you force yourself not to allow your attention to be too much attracted by the out-of-doors. Until you have seen one of these kernels that are like cysts in the glass, at times transparent little knucklebones, but more often, befogged or very vaguely translucent, and so long in shape that they make you think of the pupils of a cat’s eyes.” But what happens to the outside world, when it is seen through this little glazed lune, this pupil of a cat’s eye? “Does the nature of the world change, or is it real nature that triumphs over appearances? In any event, the experimental fact is that the introduction of the nucleus into the landscape sufficed to make it look limp … Walls, rocks, tree-trunks, metal constructions, lost all rigidity in the area surrounding the mobile nucleus.” Here the poet makes images surge up on all sides, he presents us with an atom universe in the process of multiplication. Under his guidance, the dreamer can renew his own world, merely by moving his face. From the miniature of the glass cyst, he can call forth an entire world and oblige it to make “the most unwonted contortions.” The dreamer sends waves of unreality over what was formerly the real world. “The outside world in its entirety is transformed into a milieu as malleable as could be desired, by the presence of this single, hard, piercing object, this veritable philosophical ovum which the slightest twitch of my face sets moving all through space.”
Reflection here leaves the door open for our imagination …
Passing through the entrance door we face a narrow, long corridor and on the top a series of incessant arches. Geometry is used as another tool of transition narrative; a transition from life to death, from the outside to the inside, from evil to virtuous. All this feeling is intensified by the changing of the level, the floor and the protrusions along the corridor which form new arches. There is an obvious underlying of the arch through the repetition and the lighting that we will examine below. The curvature of the roof extends the end; it is on the verge and resembles a semicolon. If we give in to the intimacy of the curve and to the warmth of the closed areas, the building unfolds in front of us like a forgotten cave waiting to be explored.
But a being who desires to live underground is able to dominate commonplace fears. In his daydreams, Bernard Palissy was a hero of subterranean life. In his imagination he derived pleasure-so he said-from the fear manifested by a dog barking at the entrance of a cave; and the same thing was true of the hesitation, on the part of a visitor, to enter further into the tortuous labyrinth. Here the shell-cave is also a ‘fortress city’ for a man alone, a man who loves complete solitude, and who knows how to defend and protect himself with simple images. There’s no need of a gate, no need of an iron-trimmed door; people are afraid to come in.
Architecture is not a tool to simply serve functionality, efficiency and physical comfort. But rather it is a revelation of enigmatic depth, intensity and uncertainty, a disclosure of the unfamiliar in the old, and of the familiar in novelty. Specus Corallii is maybe this — deep erotic — architecture.
The alternation of materials — wood, plaster, pozzolanic ash, polished and semi-polished terrazzo tiles — is achieves the change of textures. Their contrasts, soft-rough, hot-cold, glossy-dull, trigger our senses. We consider the space as a body that wants to keep us alert, wants to converse with us. During our analysis of the reflectivity we treated the human body as a material and here we treat the material as a living being through a transcendental narration.
The wooden doors of Specus Corallii open. The smooth surfaces of the walls round us up. Polished terrazzo tiles follow us up to the step. Going up, the tiles blur and the walls get rough. They beg us for a touch. As we move on the smooth surfaces appear again, but the blurry tiles still accompany us. At the end of the corridor the floor invites us to penetrate it, to get into it.
Open the curtains of your being
Clothe you in a further nudity
Uncover the bodies of your body
Invent another body for your body
— Octavio Paz, ‘Touch’
It could be acceptable to say that symmetry is often associated with perfection or even with what human nature perceives as perfect. The corridor develops symmetrically. The axis of symmetry emphasizes its linearity, invites us to cross it. Visualizing it, the corridor is a stretched rope that forces us to walk along it. We are compelled to balance. However, as much as we desire to be in harmony with space, its order, its symmetry, our existence alone will disrupt the balance of its detailed geometry. Our bodies create new and unexpected spaces through fluid and unpredictable movements. These new spaces deviate far from what we define as symmetry; they are experienced as an invasion. Until now, we have referred to the symmetry that arises from the structure of the building but there is also an illusory image, the one that emerges from the reflection of the floor’s material. The continuous mirroring, left, right, up, down, merges reality and imagination.
The scale here looks unfamiliar. In comparison with the height we are small. In comparison to the width we are big. The space is very tall and narrow. We feel the walls attempting to touch our body and the ceiling fending off, keeping a distance from this contact. We feel that if we stand in the centre of the corridor and stretch our hands, the end of our fingers will touch the walls. The path stretches a lot like an underground tunnel. The changes made to the openings make us believe that we are in a network of underground arcades that often lead to dead ends.
The human eye is most perfectly tuned for twilight rather than bright daylight. It is possible that the dim light is more familiar to man, considering that it gives room to his imagination, thought and movements. We distinguish the sections but their boundaries become vague and our imagination complements what our eyes cannot perceive. In the light it is all clear, we can even discern the prying eyes that invade our privacy. Light is identified with the sun, transparency, truth, control and power. On the other hand, the darkness is interwoven with chaos, mystery, drama, with the unknown.
Minimum natural light enters the hallway from a circular window above the entrance. Across the way, at the end of the route, there is another bright spot. The architect treats artificial light wisely between the two extreme points. There are four sources of light which do not bother and distract us from our course as they are mostly placed at a low height. Depending on the location of our body the space is transformed. The shadows are tricking us. They create arches where they do not exist; they emphasize the existing ones and give spatial inklings. The constant movement of our bodies between light and shadow turns us sometime into a protagonist and others into a mere passerby.
Rhythm is interwoven with human existence, and an example of this is the very thread of life, that is, breath. Architecture follows its own breathing. We enjoy the flow of a musical piece as we enjoy the spatial changes we perceive with our hearing, our skin and our body. We have the feeling that all the architectural elements that we have analyzed follow a rhythm. Color gradations, diminishing of reflection, scale changes, arch repetition, different textures and light gradations call us to become part of their rhythm. We believe that we are part of the rhythm and choose to follow it because it overwhelms us, but is it perhaps another attempt of the space to ‘manipulate’ us? Is that a seduction? Or is it us who are fascinated to seek after it? A loop is created in the corridor or rather the corridor is created through this loop. This persistent array of arches makes the space look ceaseless, with endless depths.
- Overture is an autonomous musical composition that is usually heard before the curtain rises to an opera or an oratorio. Its purpose is to prepare us for the tragic or joyful mood of the play to follow. It is the introductory part that precedes the stage action.
- Georges Bataille, Erotism Death and Sensuality, San Francisco, City Lights Publishers, 1986, p. 16.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston, Beacon Press, 1994, pp. 156–157.
- Gaston Bachelard, ibid., p. 146.
- Gaston Bachelard, ibid., p. 132.
- Alberto Perez-Gomez, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2008, p. 65.
- Octavio Paz, Sunstone/Piedra de Sol, El. Trad. Tasos Denegris, Athens, Ikaros, 1993.
- Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1994, p. 123.
- Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2012, p. 50.