A clifftop house overlooking the Bay of Naples provides a lesson in site-specific design, says Melbourne architect Rodney Eggleston.
Casa Malaparte is a private house made from the same stone on which it sits. It was built in the late 1930s on top of a rocky outcrop. What jumps out first is the way the house reacts to the site. Second is the staircase and the idea of standing on the rooftop and looking to the horizon forever. Finding a simple, elegant idea is sometimes the hardest thing to do and I often go back to this design for inspiration. I haven’t seen it in person; the best view you can get is at a distance from a boat.
I first saw the house in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris. That film and the house were the reason I wanted to become an architect. There’s this fabulous scene where Brigitte Bardot is walking up the stairs to the rooftop with this dramatic, long panning shot that captures the essence of what architecture can be. It shows the cinematic nature of the building and the way in which views are framed through its windows.
The interiors are pared back and they’re all about the placement of the windows. Some are there for ventilation so they don’t have to be enormous and they become larger as you get to the living areas. The views have been consciously chosen by the client and architect and modest windows frame the headlands and other incredible vistas of Capri. They’re about the view out rather than the interiors and offer the landscapes up as pieces of art.
The rooftop terrace is essentially the only outdoor space. It’s taking a site that’s difficult to build on and trying to solve that problem using architecture, allowing an outdoor area to exist and be as efficient as possible. If it was built today by someone else, you’d probably see a huge deck wrapped around the side of it, whereas the idea to put a terrace on top and define the architecture through the staircase is special.
There’s a theory that the client designed the house, more so than the architect. The client was German-Italian writer Curzio Malaparte and in the book Casa Malaparte, Marida Talamona outlines this theory and includes a fascinating early design by the architect, Adalberto Libera, which looks nothing like the house that was built. I find that collaboration between architect and client to produce a unique result intriguing. And there’s nothing in the world that looks like this building.
Rodney Eggleston is a founding director of March Studio, a collective of architects and designers in Melbourne. He won the Australian Institute of Architects’ Victorian Emerging Architect Prize in 2019.