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New Zealand Institute of Architects









La Malcontenta

This essay by Joseph Lyth was highly commended in the open category of of the 2017 Warren trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

I stepped off the bus onto the broken tarmac and looked around, fumbling the creased map that showed the way. The road was baked by the late morning sun, but willow trees in full leaf caressed the river below while green fields spread beyond. As I wandered down the road, buildings, in various states of repair, peered through the trees. Their forms had a faded grandeur; a place that once bustled with boats, carts and cries was now quiet.

I had travelled to the Riviera del Brenta, an area outside Venice that is rich in history and architectural heritage. My destination was Villa Foscari, nicknamed La Malcontenta, one of the masterpieces of architect Andrea Palladio.

A world away was a sterile corridor, dimly lit. A tinny tannoy issuing orders, intrusive beeps from invisible machines and muffled footsteps from unseen feet invaded my thoughts as I sat on a cold plastic seat. Brightly coloured walls attempted to lift the mood, but we’d spent enough time in hospitals over the years to recognise their underlying, lingering sadness. Losing a loved one is unfathomably hard, but the road to that loss is often harder still. The slow, inevitable process that you are forced to watch, helpless in the knowledge that nothing you can do will make any difference.

On that hot June day on the Brenta, I traced my journey back to the previous September. Then, classical architecture was little known to me; it was, I thought, a concoction of ornament, columns and history, elusive of meaning. The very term is almost taboo in many studios and lecture halls; ‘classical architecture’ conjures up visions of pastiche reprisals, and faint memories of a style long out of use and fashion. I was intrigued, though, and had taken the opportunity to study classicism during my second year at university. I wanted to understand the foundation that modern architecture is built upon.

Eight months later I emerged with a new awareness and appreciation for the order and proportion that permeated the built environment. I had no wish to recreate visions of the past but was fascinated by the underlying concepts that dictated the spaces and buildings that were fashioned by them. Rooms to which I hadn’t given a second glance suddenly had proportion lurking in the background of perception, and simple brick patterns leapt from façades as covert ornamentation. When choosing a topic for my dissertation, I felt I had little choice but to delve into this world further, and so I immersed myself in the works of Palladio.

My sister had always been ill. Born with a genetic condition, she was given few years at first, but advances in care and her stubborn spirit had seen her far surpass expectation. Nevertheless, all strength has limits, and her twenty-sixth year had been dogged with steadily worsening news. Study and work had slowly receded into the background as we diligently attended appointments, operations and bedsides. Despite all this, we were powerless.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Palladio was the architect of choice for the nobility of the Venetian Republic. Inspired by the writings of Vitruvius and Alberti on Roman classical architecture, Palladio based his buildings on his own explorations of antiquity, which he set out in The Four Books on Architecture. These books, and Palladio’s works, had a huge impact on generation after generation of architects; Palladio is perhaps the most influential figure in the history of western architecture. Palladianism pervaded the western tradition with its manipulation of classical style and proportion. 

La Malcontenta is a perfect example of Palladian synthesis. Commissioned in 1558 by brothers Luigi and Nicolo Foscari, the house was occupied by ambassadors and diplomats until its abandonment in 1797 with the fall of the Venetian Republic. When it was inhabited again in 1925, the new owners began to restore the villa to Palladio’s original vision. The success of the restoration was acknowledged in 1994 when La Malcontenta was included in the UNESCO world heritage site of Venice, cementing the building’s stature and importance.

Our family weighed the options, made difficult choices and continued to hope. Father donated to daughter, but a successful transplant in the end made little difference. The human body is endlessly complex, each part inextricably interwoven with the rest. For all of our illusions of control, we’re far from understanding the whole.

I passed through the gates of the villa and followed the curve of the shady tree-lined drive. Slowly, through the branches, the building’s form emerged. I left the driveway as it led towards the rear of the building and instead followed the river, seeking the porticoed façade I had glimpsed from the road. Entering a lawn at the water’s edge, I turned to take in the scene. A stuccoed, three-storey cube stood encircled by landscaped gardens. Cornices and architraves and general rustication softened the severity of the form, with the portico protruding from the façade before me. The rendered walls were accented by bands of warm red brick that continued up the portico’s Ionic columns, integrating the building into the landscape.

As I gazed at the building, I became aware of the hold it had over the eye. Sweeping staircases either side of the entrance impel you towards the central shaded loggia, while the rhythm and entasis of the columns creates a vertical symmetry that draws you further in. Pulling my gaze away, I took in the exterior as a whole. While the building is formed of simple shapes and volumes, small details are composed across the façades, and the pediment of the portico is a detailed composition that engenders an impressive palatial air.

Ascending one of the sweeping staircases, I halted beneath the portico, enjoying the blurring of interior and exterior within the columns. Gazing over the surrounding gardens, the majesty of the setting was evident to me, yet across the river, where fields once were, modern developments crept into view, reaffirming the unfailing passing of time.

Each time, she was wearier, if that were possible, yet she was still my immutable, tenacious sister. Typically, she insisted I make my visit to La Malcontenta, and I left her propped up in a hospital bed, her eyes slowly closing in sleep. We had been to Italy when we were younger; I hoped she was remembering those times, looking back at what she’d seen instead of forward at what she was going to miss.

Turning my back on the view, I entered through a domestically scaled opening in the oversized wooden door. In the sudden shade, I was immediately drawn to the bright full-height window ahead. As my eyes adjusted, they were drawn to where the top of the window met the curves of the roof, which
continued the journey to the peak of the dome above. The light from the window emphasised the lines of the space, forcing you to appreciate it, and revealing a large cruciform room. I was aware of glimpses into other spaces to both sides and began to pick out the extensive ornamentation on the walls before suddenly perceiving that the detail was created entirely by frescos, elegant depictions framed by painted architraves and surrounds, with perceptible three-dimensional angles that seemed correct to every eye in the room.

Moving left, I entered a second smaller space. Without the distraction of the window, the frescos were more apparent, and the proportion gave the space a more intimate feel. Continuing onwards, I passed through an ante-room, equally tall but lesser in plan, before entering a final space, smaller, with a low ceiling further emphasising the change in scale. Each of the rooms led onto the central hall unifying the building, while the differing proportions gave each a character of its own.

After several days returning to absorb the building and grounds, my time had ended, and I found myself back on the riverside lawn. I contemplated the symmetry and balance of the building that was revealed both internally and externally, the way its form was skilfully dissected by ratios found in nature and musical harmony, each piece proportional within itself and as part of the whole.

I realised that losing myself in the spaces and proportions of the villa had helped me find the time to meditate on the preceding months, to seek an order in the ruin of dashed hopes and emotions. Allowing myself to contemplate the even harder months ahead, I had accepted that everything changes.
Views would transform and frescoes fade, but the experience of the building, the feel of each space and the light and shade that revealed them endured.

Lying back on the grass, the trees rustled beside me and the water gently lapped behind. I watched the sun slowly creeping across the weathered stucco of La Malcontenta’s stoic form and sensed that moments and experiences were what truly mattered. You share them while you can.

Naomi: 6/1/1985 – 7/8/2011

Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 3 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop