Villa Rotunda Redux & The New Originals

Nigel: And then we looked at each other and says well we might as well join up you know and uh….
David: So we became The Originals.
Nigel: Right.
David: And we had to change our name actually….
Nigel: Well there was, there was another group in the east end called The Originals and we had to rename ourselves.
David: The New Originals.
Nigel: The New Originals and then, uh, they became….
David: The Regulars, they changed their name back to The Regulars and we thought well, we could go back to The Originals but what’s the point?

Spinal Tap

I’m posting this while assembling FAT’s contribution to the Venice Biennale which centres around a piece called the Villa Rotunda Redux.

Left to Right: Villa Rotunda, Chiswick House, Monticello, Beit Falastin

The Villa Rotunda Redux is a copy of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. But it’s really an exploration of what happens when you try to make a copy that just happens to use the Villa Rotunda as its subject. Though of course, as a subject, the Villa is architecture steeped in the culture of the copy. So the Villa Redux subject, giant size and process are all attempts to exaggerate the copy-ness of the copy.

Auditing Authorship

In a copy-led design process, the project doesn’t start with an original sketch. It starts instead with a thing, an already existing object. Our origin was not in Vicenza, not the ‘original’ Villa Rotunda but Google Warehouse. Here we found a bunch of Sketchup files of Palladio’s Villa, each made, we imagine by amateur enthusiasts. These models range in detail from blocky approximations to texture-wrapped detail.

This file, originally authored by Arrigo Silva was chosen because it occupied a sweet spot of detail and abstraction.

How many other copies of this file exist, how many downloads on to how many hard drives? As of now, the file has been downloaded 16728 times. What has happened to all of these copies of a copy of the Villa Rotunda?

In our case, after downloading, the file was edited: Statues and steps were deleted, other details simplified and so on.

This file was emailed to the fabricators, who in turn sent it to the mould making subcontractor who then converted the file to Rhino, and made other changes that

So we have at least 3 authors of the 3D file, and that’s not counting Palladio, the original author: 1st. The Google Warehouse original copy; 2nd. My version, an edited original copy; 3rd, the mould makers iteration which I suppose is a re-make of an edited original copy.

Legally, I wonder who might be able to claim copyright of this work, or infringement of creative commons license in our appropriation of the file. In the artistic sense, we are the authors. But our authorship relies entirely on the work of an anonymous author. There are similarities to the argument that EL James’s 50 Shades of Grey is a post-copyright novel.

For the intents of contracts, insurance, exhibition captions and other artifacts that attempt to attribute authorship, FAT is the author. And if you should want to buy it, you should contact me. But equally, it couldn’t have come into the world without multiple authors.

This might be an extreme form of the normal condition of architecture. Due to myths of authorship, and the medias desire to simplify and personalise the design process buildings are often attributed to a single person. The cast assembled for even the smallest of projects can be legion. Not only project architects, architects, assistants, interns, engineers and other design team members, contractors, subcontractors, authors of standard details, of code-compliant layouts and so on. All of this labour is folded into what appears to a single hand.

Copy Upon Copy (or the Presents of the Past)

Back to the Villa Rotunda Redux. Of course, it is a copy of the Villa Rotunda, or at least a copy of someones copy of the Villa Rotunda. But it’s also a copy of many other projects. Perhaps even, it copies these other projects even more than the Villa Rotunda. It is, for example a copy of – and these are only the ones that I am conscious of – Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo (The abstract massing of the moulds exterior);

David Greene’s Spray Plastic House (the polyurethane spraying into a negative, the synthetic cave of the interior of the cast);

Mario Bottas milled wooden section of San Carlino (the negative space of the building);

Ungers negative column from the Presence of the Past Venice Biennale (the inverted column, or rather the absence of a column, or column as the opposite of structure). There are elements of Venturi’s Queen Anne front, Mary-Anne behind, but all mixed up so that front and back switchback between each other. The arrangement of cast and mould also presents a half-section, half-elevation view of the building that recalls Palladio’s own drawings of the Villa, the impossible-eyed view of architecture that only drawings allow. And it’s also got a lot in common with souvenir buildings, sharing something of their simplified monolithic quality, an entire building made out of one material, all blind windows and doors.

The Reproductive System

The chosen process of fabrication is intrinsically linked to the idea of the copy. The digital file originates the mould. The mould originates the cast. Each is a copy of the other, transformed by the process of fabrication. First, elements of the original Villa had to be altered to accommodate the casting process. No undercuts, porticos filled in and so on. The process of reproduction impacts what it is possible to reproduce.

Each stage of fabrication leaves its own mark on the thing that is produced. The size of the bit used in routing the mould differs from the abstract precision of the Rhino file. The sprayed foam introduces imperfections as it falls onto the surface of the mould. As the mould is prepared for the casting process, other interventions interrupt its surface. Drill bits puncture it providing air holes ready for casting. As the polyurethane is sprayed into the mould, it cures sometimes a little too fast for it to fully take up the space of the mould. Air bubbles get trapped. Seams at the joints between the sections of mould appear to interrupt surfaces in ways that contradict their architectural logic. While each step of the process tries to be faithful to the last inevitable transformations occur in transmission.

The process of reproduction also resonates with the multiple iterations of the Villa Rotunda across time and space – all those versions from Lord Burlington, Jefferson and so on. We could think of the Villas linage in that Biblical so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat-so-and-so. It suggests there is a procreative relationship between copies. Mould as parent, cast as child.

In fact, the idea of the copy as a form of fertility is suggested by the idea of Cornucopia. Its image of boundless plenty is derived from the mythical horn of the goat Amalthea that nurtured the infant Zeus. From its Latin root cornu copiae, the copy can be thought of a form of plenty, as an endless flow of nourishing goodness.

Black Mirror

Corner Mirror With Coral / Robert Smithson

There is a relationship between the Villa’s own logics of symmetries and the process of manufacturing this replica. We could read its bi-lateral symmetry as architecture reflecting itself, that the villa repeats a quarter three times to construct the whole. In a way that might remind us of Robert Smithson’s mirror corners. Except, in Palladio’s case, there is no way of distinguishing the original (or the real, physical substance) and the reflected image. The Villa Rotunda Redux is formed from one quarter mould, and one quarter cast. This inverts the symmetrical relationships of the original and creates an oppositional symmetry. In this symmetry, things become opposite: solid becomes void, interior becomes exterior, negative becomes positive.

The New Originals

Maybe we should leave it to David St. Hubbins, that respected cultural critic, to sum up: “we could go back to The Originals but what’s the point?”

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  1. [...] Notes from Sam Jacob, Director, FAT Architecture on the project can be found here. [...]

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