The ‘dangerous erotomaniac’ Carlo Mollino’s architecture formed the backdrop to his increasingly bizarre photographic fantasies
What to make of Mollino, architect, designer, engineer, photographer, stunt pilot, professor, author …? Marginalised in architectural history as ‘enigmatic’, ‘erotomaniac’, and ‘dangerous’, Mollino can never be pinned down and there is an irreducible sense of the illicit.
Even Mollino’s strongest supporters seem embarrassed. Bruno Zevi, who acknowledged Mollino’s work only after his death, called his designs ‘turbulent’ and his photographs ‘blasphemous’ in an otherwise laudatory obituary. While chastising Zevi for not having noticed Mollino earlier, Manfredo Tafuri dedicates just a few lines to this ‘caso único’ in his book History of Italian Architecture 1944-1985 (1982), the first time that he himself ever mentioned his name. Recent work on Mollino continues the litany, describing him as ‘a genius obsessed with sex, drugs, superstitions’, while enthusiastically celebrating his work.
And what of Mollino, the eternal bachelor living in his father’s house, developing his photographs in the darkroom his father had built in the attic when Carlo was only seven years old, sharing even an office with him and eventually dying in that very room in 9 Via Cordero de Pamparato, Turin, the afternoon of 27 August 1973, the plate ‘Eugenio Mollino, Engineer’ still by the door despite the fact that Eugenio had died 20 years earlier? Mollino never took down the plate. He preferred to work under his father’s name in the same way he preferred to live under his father’s roof, even if his father strongly disapproved of his, in his own words, ‘feckless, good-for nothing’, son. It is as if Mollino preferred to live with the person in whose eyes he could never do any good, as if he found this reassuring.
At the age of 31, Mollino staged for the first time a departure from his father’s house by creating a dream interior of his own, at Casa Miller, 43 Via Talucchi, Turin (1936- 42). But Casa Miller doesn’t house Mollino in the traditional sense. He never lived, slept or entertained there. Casa Miller, an ordinary two-room apartment, was a stage set for Mollino’s photography. It is nothing but a single set of 43 black and white prints carefully developed over five years, and published in Domus in 1937 and 38.
The article includes a plan of the apartment by Mollino crisscrossed with arrows, recalling drawings of rational movements in the efficient modern house. But what the arrows indicate is not movement inside the apartment, but the angle of the photographs taken, the inefficient zigzagging of the photographer in search of himself. Amputated body parts become interchangeable with architectural elements. A mirror has the shape of the Venus de Milo, while disembodied heads, arms, and feet appear throughout other images. The surface of a table is covered by a full-size photo of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave. The head of a horse resting on the carpet of the bedroom stares directly into the bed.
Casa Miller, Via Talucchi 43, Turin (1936-42)
Casa Devalle, Turin (1939)
Casa Minola, Turin (1944)
Casa Orengo, Turin (1949)
Casa Pistoi, Turin (1968)
‘Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic’
In a series of ‘Ritratti ambientati’, photographic portraits carefully staged in Casa Miller, and published in Occhio magico 4, 1945, the figure of the woman emerges as the central element, a figure that Mollino argues in Message from the Darkroom only exists for the camera. The women in these staged portraits are all women Mollino knew, clients such as Ada Minola, or Lina Suwarowski, his presumed girlfriend at the time, but the women don’t appear as themselves. They are figures in a fantasy, leading actresses in a film.
By the end of the war, Casa Miller had been dismantled and Mollino built a new space to stage his fantasies. The Mollino apartment of 1946 is again completely cut off from the outside. The space is sparse, other than a writing desk, a day bed, a three-legged chair with a ‘spine-shaped’ back, and a statue without head, arms or feet. The primary function is again photographic. The furniture becomes props for fantasy scenes. But the scenario is now explicitly sexual. In a remarkable photo of around 1950, a woman kneels on a cushion facing the wall. She wears a tight black corset. Her arms are seemingly cut off and the letters C M appear imprinted on her bare buttocks. An Olivetti Lexicon 80 typewriter on a small table, a bottle of champagne and a freshly poured glass on a silvery tray complete the scene. Anything is possible here. But the literal imprint of Mollino’s initials in typeface on the bare ass, the branding, is the irresistible focal point. We don’t see the woman’s face. We don’t know who she is and we don’t know if Mollino knew who she was. As Mollino’s photos became steadily more erotic, he preferred to photograph strangers.
Casa Mollino, 2 Via Napione, Turin (1960), is the ultimate interior, a secret apartment in an 18th-century house on a bank of the river Po. The design was completed in 1968 but never really inhabited. Mollino never told even his closest friends about its existence. The surrealist details of the house are more complex, the itineraries more labyrinthine, the eroticism more explicit, the photographs more secret. Mollino had no intention to publish the images, assembling them instead into albums, like family pictures, for his private viewing. The glamour and precision of Hollywood cinema give way to a more blurry sense of amateur porn. Instead of the 43 carefully chosen images of Casa Miller, more than 2,000 Polaroid photos were found in Casa Mollino at his death. These images were not meant to be published but to accompany him to his afterlife, in a kind of ‘book of the dead’.
Mollino acquired a Polaroid camera around the same time he started working on the interior in Via Napione. The model for Mollino’s Polaroid scenarios is no longer Man Ray and Surrealism. If in the 1930s Mollino bought the whole run of Minotaure, in the 1950s he bought Playboy. He turned the fantasy of the girl next door into a darker one of the encounter with a stranger.
But Mollino is not a playboy. While the models for the photos of Casa Miller were women that Mollino knew well, in the secret houses of the 1960s, Mollino was interested in women he had never seen before and will never see again. He cruised the streets of Turin looking for models and then retired to his apartment. Mollino’s chauffeur in a rented limo would approach the women offering a large fee for the encounter.
Mollino is both participant and observer. It is not by chance that we sometimes see him reflected in the mirror taking the photo; the voyeur superimposed on the scene itself.
They say that Mollino died without any friends and that the funeral was attended only by prostitutes. Did they love him? These women who had seen him once and only to let themselves be dressed and undressed, photographed in a mysterious interior of exotic chairs, animal furs, mirrors and reflected surfaces? Are they like the male character in Anaïs Nin’s story The Veiled Woman, forever haunted by an experience they can never repeat, an evening in which a gentleman had approached them to satisfy the desires of another gentlemen not to make love but to photograph them, to make love with them with a ‘prosthesis with its own sentiments’? Or were they simply getting paid to take part in Mollino’s ultimate performance, the carefully staged funeral, with professional mourners dressed in outfits designed or chosen by Mollino.
Fortunately, as with everything about Mollino, we will never know.