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Rocks and a Hard Place: The Work of Alberto Ponis

After a career of over 50 years and 300 buildings, Alberto Ponis is the subject of a part biography, part monograph study

Alberto Ponis has been building holiday houses in Sardinia since the mid-’60s and only now, after a career of more than 50 years and 300 or so buildings, has a substantial volume dedicated to his architecture finally come along. Given the work’s evident quality, the lack of attention is peculiar; its physical isolation might explain it, but then, as this book demonstrates, Ponis’s architecture and personality don’t seek attention.

Born near Genoa and having studied architecture in Florence, Ponis first worked in London for Ernö Goldfinger and later for Denys Lasdun. In 1963, the same year in which Lasdun began designing the National Theatre, Ponis executed a commission for a holiday house in Sardinia, a place he had never visited, in what would become the resort town of Porto Rafael. This fortuitous start ensured his career coincided with Sardinia’s emerging tourist trade, as Anglo-Italian holidaymakers flocked to its new resorts, transforming the harsh (and hence relatively untouched) coastline from a moderately adventurous destination into today’s playground of the ultra-rich and powerful.

PonisFire

Fireplace and chimney of Studio di Yasmin, whose rugged forms were inspired by traditional Sardinian structures

Thankfully, given his vast output, The Inhabited Pathway isn’t so much a monograph cataloguing Ponis’s oeuvre as a thesis expounding his architectural process. It is assembled in five parts: ‘Biography’, outlining his education and time in London; ‘Early Projects’, touching on the challenges and evolution of the initial houses; ‘Sardinia’, a series of essays and photographs by Ponis surveying the history, climate, geology, flora and traditional rural architecture of the island; ‘Eight Houses’, works that make up the bulk of the book; and ‘Thoughts and Form’, a series of reflections on his approach to design. Bookending this are essays by editor Sebastiano Brandolini and Jonathan Sergison (of Sergison Bates). Perhaps it’s the uncomplicated presentation of the images, or the utter lack of a didactic tone to the texts, but the book manages to avoid the usual clichés of ‘place-based’ architecture while making a compelling case for its pertinence (if only on ground as wild as the Sardinian coast).

Though only eight houses are selected as case studies, they span Ponis’s entire career and display a strikingly consistent architectural language. This may owe as much to the tight sites and budgets of the early work, as to Ponis’s engagement with the materiality and site-consciousness of New Brutalism. His work has the rare quality of seeming as if each building is an iteration of the same house, adjusted to suit each new site, bringing to mind the work of Rudolf Olgiati and Glenn Murcutt.

The houses are presented in much the same way. Hand-drawn plans and sections supplement photographs that follow a processional route along the pathway (often little more than a faint, narrow way, or a toehold scraped into granite bedrock), then around and through the houses themselves. The photographs give an impression the houses have ossified: almost all signs of habitation have been filtered out. This can be put down to Ponis’s masterful control of forms, to material weathering, and to the flora pushing in on all sides (none of the houses, sensibly, has a garden) which suggest the buildings belong to the landscape far more than to the owners, who may visit for only a few months each year.

Ponis

Merging with the rocky landscape, the Casa Hartley looks out to the Mediterranean

Ponis’s work is animated by a tension between the imported architectural styles and urban patterns of the coastal resorts and the established building types of inland Sardinia (which remain virtually unspoiled to this day), especially the traditional structures for shelter and farming − the stazzo − that he studied and reuses in his architecture as a kind of elemental unit of composition. Resort developments are ultra low-density: small houses on large sites. Yet Ponis seeks the most difficult land to build on − between granite boulders, against wind-bent shrubbery, perched on cliff edges, straddling ridge-lines − and marks out the house using wooden stakes and string. Consequently there is hardly a right-angle in any of the plans.

It remains for others to piece together Alberto Ponis’s place in the history of modern Sardinian architecture (or how his retreats came to be sited near Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties), but his significance to world architecture is suggested in the concluding essay by Jonathan Sergison which favourably compares Ponis’s awesome Casa Scalesciani to Jørn Utzon’s Can Lis in Majorca as one of the seminal houses of postwar southern Europe; a case that could be made for two or three of Ponis’s other buildings.

It’s somewhat difficult to characterise The Inhabited Pathway − part biography, personal thesis, monograph − but careful editing binds it tightly; its success residing less in the presentation of any individual house than in the sensitive distillation and representation of a lifetime’s work. This handsome book makes a powerful introduction to an architect whose work deserves to be widely appreciated.

The Inhabited Pathway

Editor: Sebastiano Brandolini

Publisher: Park Books

 

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