Rare Bird

A Modernist house ruffles feathers in the Italian countryside.

Nicola De Risi, founding secretary of Italy’s National Institute of Architecture, wanted to mark his retirement by sponsoring the building of an artists’ retreat in Bellegra, a small town 40 miles southeast of Rome. In 2000 the organization held an international competition, which the young Italian architect Sergio Bianchi won with an idea for a Modernist villa designed according to the principles of organic architecture, set on a ridge with a panorama of the surrounding mountains. The design was simple, but because of the country’s archaic building laws, which are predisposed against contemporary architecture, the approval and construction process became a six-year-long nightmare.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the villa is made from glass, steel, and native limestone. It stays within the small footprint of an abandoned stone house that once sat on the site, rising 2,045 square feet over three levels. But although the villa—which has a biological sewage system and a roof fitted for solar panels—is more visually and environmentally harmonious with the landscape than its neighbors, a group of squat clay-tile-roof stucco homes, it provoked strong resistance from local authorities. “When the mayor and government engineer saw it, they said it was too much like science fiction,” Bianchi says. Regulations for the region are still geared toward farming, even as the economy has changed from agriculture to industry. Local country villas are built with thick walls and tiny windows, whereas the transparent Bellegra house looks like it might take flight on slatted brise-soleil wings.

In Italy government officials are personally liable if anything goes wrong with a project they approve, encouraging the proliferation of monotonous cement eyesores. According to Amedeo Schiattarella, president of the Architects Association of Rome, “A country house has a different function than before, but people are afraid of moving ahead. They are not prepared to consider modern architecture because it is a language they don’t know.”

Before De Risi and Bianchi could persuade Mayor Luigi Tucci, he was leaving office. “Most things in Italy are political in the worst sense, so they wanted to wait for the election, and then we had to start again with the new administration,” Bianchi says. In addition to structural approval, there was a rash of inspections by the office of hydrogeology, the health department, and the office of soil use, along with a tax for fencing off now nonexistent shepherds’ flocks. Mean­while, rising iron prices added about $70,000 to the estimate, and a year was wasted in court with a dishonest contractor who demanded more money.

Despite the hurdles, De Risi realizes how fortunate they were to have built the villa at all. “We were lucky because we had influential people behind us, but many projects are presented and immediately killed.” With construction nearly finished, he is casting around for a foreign cultural institution to take over the house, which is getting a somewhat warmer reception from the locals than from officials. The neighbor across the way admits, “It is a very beautiful house,” though he adds, “perhaps inserted in a strange context.”

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