Interview with
Valerio Paolo Mosco



Villa Magazine No.15, Villas in Itlay

Mr. Mosco, with your distinguished background as an Associate Professor of Architectural Design and Theory of Architecture at the IUAV University of Venice and your current role as a faculty member at Cornell University in Rome, specializing in the “Analysis and Theory” course, I would like to delve into an intriguing topic. Could you provide insights into how the notions of otium and negotium shaped the design and purpose of ancient villas? Furthermore, how do these historical influences connect to our contemporary appreciation of the significance of restorative environments?
The great novelty of these times, especially after the Covid epidemic, is the coexistence within the same walls of a villa or any dwelling, of otium and negotium. Like all revolutions that transition from the social to the domestic, this entails both advantages and disadvantages. The major drawback of having otium and negotium coexist within the domestic sphere is the devaluation of public space as a place for negotium, social life, and collective interactions.

What is your assessment of the evolution of the villa tradition throughout history, and how do you perceive their role within the realm of contemporary architecture?
The most beautiful book ever written about villas is still James Ackerman’s, which clearly shows the periods of peak development and decline of these architectural wonders. I have the impression that we are currently going through a phase of decline.
There are only a few villas being published, and even fewer of them hold real value, capable of influencing other architectural themes. This is probably due to the fact that we are experiencing a period of stagnation in the evolution of architectural forms as a whole, and the villa, which has always been a place of architectural invention, is clearly affected by it.

Mr. Mosco, renowned for your profound expertise in architectural history and theory, we are captivated by your unique insights into the concept of “Architectural Inventions” and its intrinsic connection to the realm of villa design and construction. We eagerly anticipate your enlightening exploration of notable instances throughout history where visionary and pioneering villa designs embody this concept.
In architecture, there are genuine innovations and others that I wouldn’t hesitate to call false. An example of a true innovation was made by Frank Lloyd Wright, over a century ago, when he rebelled against domestic female segregation by directly integrating the kitchen with the dining room and living area. False innovations, driven by pure formalism, have been observed in many deconstructivist villas mere design objects disconnected from real life. However, there’s an exception: Rem Koolhaas’ Villa in Bordeaux, which stands as a true essay on an alternative functionalist hypothesis.

Could you provide an elaborate analysis of the distinctive aspects of Palladio’s approach to villa design that set him apart from his contemporaries, and expound upon the subsequent impact of his approach on the field of architecture? Within the realm of architectural theory and practice, what lasting impact do you believe Andrea Palladio’s focus on practicality, specifically in the context of villas, had during his lifetime and its enduring influence on subsequent periods?
In the book dedicated to villas, James Ackerman narrates the magnificence of Palladio’s villas. Palladio had grasped the profound needs of the Venetian nobility, specifically their desire to reaffirm their connection to the agricultural world. Thus, through his architecture, or rather, his own architectural style, Palladio succeeded in celebrating the marriages of Venetian nobles not to the sea anymore, but to the land. This explains why Palladio fearlessly merged agricultural barns with the pediment of a Greek temple in his villas. A highly meaningful assembly, indeed.

What distinguishes Palladio’s design process in villa projects is the transformative power of the “depiction” as a tool of knowledge, preceding the act of “build.” The interplay between image, form, and their intentional formation aligns with architectural theory, practice, and the projection of architectural knowledge. Did Andrea Palladio essentially popularise the “depiction” in architecture?
The inclination towards architecture in Italy has always been theatrical. Without going back to the times of ancient Romans, architecture and the city have been regarded as votive objects, at least since the medieval era. Numerous representations in Italy depict a saint offering an architectural creation or a city model to the divinity. It’s like a theatrical scene, or rather, a scene where the representation becomes a theater itself. This sense of theatricality is also present in Palladio: one can easily imagine a saint presenting the model of the Rotonda to the Madonna even today.

Did villas play a role in this?
Definitely, villas, at least until the pre-modern liberty villas, have fulfilled this role. However, with modernity, things changed, and there was a certain fear concerning the representational values of architecture. Yet, with the postmodern era, things changed again, and in a radical way: some villas by Paolo Portoghesi or Aldo Rossi even indulge in an excessive display of representativeness.

Did this subsequently establish a platform for pioneer architects to articulate architectural theories?
I don’t think so; it’s becoming ever more difficult to turn a villa into a theoretical manifesto. Nowadays, the client is increasingly involved in the design and construction process, which quite limits what we might call the ‘theory of the villa.’ This theory still finds its exponent in Palladio, even today.

What are a few of the most groundbreaking design concepts that you have explored in the realm of villa design, and in what ways have these concepts shaped your approach to future projects?
Earlier, I was talking about Rem Koolhaas’ Villa in Bordeaux, undoubtedly one of the rare examples of a villa capable of establishing its choices on a theoretical basis. In the Villa in Bordeaux, Koolhaas brings together a unique program’s development with avant-garde inventions such as collage and estrangement. The villa, more than just a villa, stands as a theoretical manifesto, which adds to its charm. If we compare Koolhaas’ villa with the many built by an architect like Richard Neutra, who was quite fashionable in the 1950s, we witness an example of undoubtedly impressive skill on Neutra’s part, but at the same time, the theoretical limitations of his work are evident. Perhaps that is why Richard Neutra is no longer a topic of discussion these days.

Mr. Mosco, with your esteemed authorship of various monographs, including “Giuseppe Terragni,” “Italian Architecture,” “From Postmodern to Today,” “Why Now Italian Architecture and Other Writings,” and “Steven Holl,” we are eager to delve into your insights regarding the evolution of the villa concept across different cultures and historical epochs. Could you elaborate on how the concept of the villa has transformed over time and the diverse influences it has garnered?
Answering this question would require at least a book. However, if we focus on the contemporary context, it seems that the current situation for villas is critical. There is a sense of general difficulty in responding to the overall quest for spaces capable of creating an atmosphere, spaces that ultimately let us daydream with our eyes wide open. Villa Bianca by Giuseppe Terragni is a humble building, in some ways conventional, yet it possesses the ability to shape an atmosphere in this case, a rational and lyrical atmosphere simultaneously. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that significant economic resources are needed to create an atmosphere, to make architecture that is hard to forget. This is also applicable to villas. Regarding this, I think of Niemeyer’s villas, with an unforgettable atmosphere but relying on an elementary, even childlike architectural syntax. Hence, their charm.

Mr. Mosco, Drawing upon your exceptional expertise in architecture and art history, we invite you to explore the intricate journey of the ideological construct of villa life throughout history. Unveil for us the profound influence this concept has exerted on the artistic and architectural expressions of villas, weaving together a captivating narrative that transcends time.
The ideology of the villa has always varied over time, but consistently within a spectrum defined by polarity. This polarity involves the hypothesis of the ‘buen retiro,’ or the isolated villa to escape from the world, at one extreme. At the opposite end, we find what we could call the ‘social villa,’ one that is designed in its forms and spaces to be lived in by multiple individuals. An example of a social villa, to which I am quite fond of, is that of the Californian villas from the 1950s.

How do you view the connection between the psychological aspects of villa design and construction and their impact on the overall architectural style and functionality, drawing from your deep understanding and insights?
It could be argued that considering only individual aspects of a phenomenon may not fully capture its essence. Villas should be seen as a unified phenomenon, as a symbolic expression of precise social and individual inclinations that materialize in individual architectural forms. This approach, advocated by James Ackerman, continues to enhance his work.

Mr. Mosco, We would love to hear your perspective on a Villa project that has left an indelible mark on modern architecture in Italy. Which Villa project, in your opinion, has had the most profound influence, and what sets it apart in terms of its significance? Your insightful analysis will enlighten our readers, offering them a deeper understanding of the pivotal role this remarkable Villa project has played in shaping the landscape of contemporary Italian architecture.
The most intense experience I’ve had with a villa was at Villa Maillard in the vicinity of Los Angeles. The villa is small and compact, with enveloping and compact spaces. What’s truly astonishing is how Wright interweaves the villa seamlessly with the garden around it. One can envision the villa as a tranquil retreat or as a perfect setting for a celebration a versatility granted to only a few villas. Moreover, this intense and intimate architecture of Wright has a unique characteristic: although it has well-defined and distinct volumes, due to the skillful use of textile block, it seems to merge into the vegetation, as if it were a lush and vibrant ruin, full of life.

You have in 2022 published a book entitled, in Frugality in Architecture. Personally, I have conceptualized and organsied an International Competition on the Frugality in Architecture in early 90s. And I have eyewitnessed ever since an array of tendencies in so-called developed countries as well as in the so-called global south. Considering your valuable insights on Frugality in Architecture, I would greatly appreciate your perspective on the connection between frugality and the practice of “fare l’architettura” (making architecture) in Italy, particularly within the context of villa design. How do you perceive the role of frugality in shaping the Italian architectural landscape?
An Italian art and architecture critic, Cesare Brandi, used to reiterate that Italian art is at its greatest when it maintains a direct relationship with the land, preserving a sense of rural dwelling. I spend a significant portion of my time in Tuscany, where there remains, despite wealth and in defiance of it, a profound connection with the earth. In Tuscany, I know individuals who face no economic hardships and hold high-level jobs, yet they do not forgo their Sundays in the countryside, cultivating and caring for their own gardens. Frugality is a way of life: fundamentally a way of life still tied to the land.

In your recent book published in April 2023, you discuss KITSCH an aesthetic associated with low artistic value or taste. Kitsch encompasses objects, artworks, and designs perceived as excessively garish, sentimental, or inauthentic. It features exaggerated, sometimes tacky qualities and often incorporates clichéd themes. The term originated in the art world and gained popularity in the 20th century, being linked to popular culture, mass-produced items, and consumer goods. Kitsch objects often display sentimental or nostalgic themes, excessive ornamentation, bright colors, and a lack of subtlety. While critics dismiss kitsch’s artistic integrity, it can be appreciated for its campy or ironic value. The perception of kitsch is subjective, and what is considered kitschy varies from person to person. Kitsch can be found in art, interior design, fashion, music, and pop culture. In your book, you highlight the clash between the avant-garde and traditional art forms like Pompier and eclecticism, with the avant-garde employing abstractionism as a weapon against kitsch. However, the rise of mass society saw kitsch shamelessly appropriating the avant-garde’s innovations, solidifying its influence. Today, we encounter two distinct manifestations of kitsch: the familiar classic version and a new, insidious variant that cleverly masquerades as refined taste. Considering the Italian architectural scene, how would you succinctly describe these contrasting kitsch aesthetics to our readers?
Considering the Italian architectural scene, how would you succinctly describe these contrasting kitsch aesthetics to our readers? Italy is regarded as the homeland of good taste, a place where kitsch has not taken root. However, this interpretation doesn’t entirely match reality. Italy can be, and has been, kitsch, but always on a smaller scale, ultimately in a less intrusive manner. Italian culture, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, has often provocatively played with kitsch. Think of the theoretical works of Gillo Dorfles and Umberto Eco, as well as the “deliberately kitsch” designs by Ettore Sottsass Jr and Alessandro Mendini, or more recently, the sophisticated architecture of Italo Rota or Cherubino Gambardella. Reflecting on these experiences, it appears that some Italians have managed to provide a cold, detached interpretation of kitsch, devoid of sentimentality or easy allure. The result, perfectly embodied by Italian design, has been a kind of kitsch we might label as non-kitsch, where kitsch has been employed as a tool for reflecting on mass society.

You have recently been curating a series of talks titled “Quando l’Architettura è Poesia” (When Architecture is Poetry), where you emphasise the artistic essence of architectural projects. Could you kindly provide insights to the readers of Villa Magazine about the motivations behind initiating this talk series? Additionally, it would be fascinating to hear about your personal experiences and any noteworthy outcomes that have emerged from these discussions (chuckles). Feel free to share your thoughts, including any humorous anecdotes, with us.
The distinction between an architecture in prose and one in poetry comes from Bruno Zevi, who, in turn, derives it from Benedetto Croce. The definition of what constitutes an architecture in prose is not particularly difficult, as we can refer to the concept of decorum, whereby architecture has the duty to express itself, always and in any case, by engaging with its context and the diverse needs of its clients. More challenging is the definition of poetry in architecture,
of when a work can be deemed poetic. In this case, the ideology of the evaluator plays a decisive role. The judgment will vary significantly based on whether the evaluator is an idealist, a Marxist, a phenomenologist, and so forth. I was precisely interested in the confrontation among these different interpretations, interested in the fact that we are still bound, much more than we perceive, to ideologies that frame our judgment criteria. Thus, poetic judgment becomes an instrument of critical understanding.
As an esteemed director of the online magazine Viceversa Magazine and editor of the renowned “Viaggio in Italia” column for The Plan magazine, would like to hear your thoughts on Villa Magazine, both in print and online, which delves into the world of villa types and serves as an ideal platform for exploring the realm of “Architectural Inventions.” What is your personal opinion on Villa Magazine and its role in fostering meaningful conversations and highlighting innovative narratives within the field of architectural design?
My statement is not a judgment but rather a wish to continue developing the theme of villas and delving into their theoretical and historical aspects, as it is the theory that ultimately endures. However, theory finds its legitimacy in history. In this, my perspective aligns with Benedetto Croce, who repeatedly emphasised that everything is history, nothing but history.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts in our interview, and we’re grateful for your contribution.
You’re welcome, with pleasure.


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