The Villa, perched at the river’s edge, rose into the white Italian sunlight like an immense stone eagle with folded wings. Reflected in the rippling surface of the Brenta, its famous hulk, crowned by chimneys in the form of Arabian minarets and fronted by a massive six-columned Greek portico, recalled the romantic tale the locals told about the origin of the villa’s name, La Malcontenta—the Unhappy Lady. The damsel in question, a member of the powerful Foscari family, is rumored to have been imprisoned in the villa by her jealous husband. “She starved to death they say,” muttered a middle-aged woman, with therapeutic shoes and a generous application of lipstick, to her companion. “And every day, she would sit at the window and cry.” The rain-streaked limestone seemed to bear testimony to those tears. But it was not this that held my attention as I surveyed the house, set among manicured acres of lawn and lemon groves. What struck me was that, for perhaps the first time, I had encountered a piece of architecture that transcended practical intent. Here was stone and wood and glass subordinated to the workings of a single mind—a manifestation of pure thought in which generations of Foscaris had lived and fought; in which Henri III, king of France, had slept; in which hundreds of wounded during the first World War recovered or died. These people and events had passed. But the idea—and in some sense, the mind that created it—remained.
Since this first brush with the intellect of Andrea Palladio, I have come to regard all houses differently. La Malcontenta, despite its dolorous sobriquet, is not romantic at all. The villa’s lines do not emulate the contours of the river or the wild, geese-filled marshes of the Venetian countryside. Instead, they remain as remote as the revolution of planets, yet as much a part of the fabric of being as arrangements of molecules. A complex equation, the house’s design is based on exacting proportions derived from Pythagoras’ theory of the numerical structure of music, in which the triangle represents the number 10, with 4 as its base and 1 as its apex—a configuration the Greek mathematician believed to be the formula of universal harmony.
Not all ideas, however, are so universal or so harmonious—particularly for the purpose of habitation. Contemplate for a moment the constructs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Celebrated though they are, for all their Wagnerian heroics, homes such as Fallingwater (Wright’s masterpiece, designed for a Pittsburgh department store magnate) impose upon their inhabitants the same sort of dictatorial rigidity we associate with the now-discarded political ideologies of the 1930s. With unswerving authority, Wright’s rooms determine the tone, style, and placement of the furnishings with little sympathy for the lives (or lifestyles) of the poor occupants. The only chair genuinely suited to a Wright home is one conceived by Wright—or by his endless students and imitators. In a man so widely admired for his individualism, Wright’s designs often leave scant space in their Orwellian quarters for lowly individuals, who are apt to feel themselves the victims of an indifferent, totalitarian aesthetic.
At the opposite extreme, structures by Rem Koolhaas, progenitor of New York’s recently opened Prada store, embody contemporary notions of relativism, wherein nothing—whether social stratum or staircase—has inherent value beyond that which the individual interpretation confers. Hence, the visitor to a Koolhaas creation will float through fun house halls as if in zero gravity, baffled by a wall that proves to be a canvas hanging, by a window mistaken for an archway. In the latter case, it seems a Prada executive, choosing unwisely, suffered a humiliating collision.
Fortunately, faulty ideologies outgrow their usefulness; we take from them their lessons, and we set them aside. So it is with houses, particularly for those of us who are not confined to the precincts of one. Each of our homes, eccentricities and all, defines a phase of existence, a distinct attitude that contributes to the series of separate selves that make up our personalities. No single one will do. Much as I still admire La Malcontenta, its Olympian rooms, precisely aligned with the axis of the gardens, are no place for mortals to linger long; perhaps like the heavens, they are best appreciated from afar.