The (Hi)Stories of the Casa Sperimentale

This is one of the first images we took of the Casa Sperimentale during our first visit in 2015. At the time the building was largely open. Very little of the building had been vandalised or covered in graffiti.

Over the last couple of years, we have managed to uncover and collect fragments of the diverse history of the Casa Sperimentale. We are still at the beginning of our journey to discover the many (hi)stories behind this amazing building.

Located in a pine grove on the fringes of Fregene, a seaside town near Rome now directly under the flightpath of Rome Fiumicino Airport, lies the Casa Sperimentale, also known as the Casa Albero or ‘the Treehouse’. Construction started in 1968 led by a family of Italian architects, Giuseppe Perugini (1914–1995), his wife Uga de Plaisant (1917–2004) and their son Raynaldo Perugini (1950–). Giuseppe Perugini was a significant figure in the architecture of post-World War II Italy. Very early on in his career, he collaborated with fellow architect Mario Fiorentino and artist Mirko Basaldella on the Monument of Fosse Ardeatine in Rome. From that time onwards, he spent the majority of his career teaching architectural composition at Rome Sapienza University.

Together with the architectural historian Bruno Zevi, Giuseppe Perugini was one of the founders of the Association of Organic Architecture (APAO). In trying to develop a new kind of open and democratic architecture, Zevi defined a series of seven architectural principles. In contrast to Le Corbusier’s ‘five points of architecture’, in which he defined which architectural elements should be integral to his approach, Zevi’s rules didn’t provide the same clear design advice, they didn’t define a specific way to design or build a new modern architecture. The rules described an organic approach towards an architecture that could be interpreted in many formalistically different ways.

Right from the start the Casa Sperimentale had been conceived as an experiment, a way to test out ideas of collective design, a non-compositional arrangement, and concepts of breaking up traditional spatial arrangements. Perugini’s process was inherently multidisciplinary, rooted in academia and architectural theory (composition). Amongst other fields he touched upon architectural history through his studies of Borromini’s work, early computing through his interests in cybernetic research, urban design through his competition proposals, and tectonic processes through the building of the Casa Sperimentale.

These varied disciplines helped to define a context of his practice, but the practice itself was further shaped by the sociopolitical activity of Italy post World War II, developments in Architecture, and the movements of key individuals contributing to Perugini’s approaches in this period.

All of these fields frame a diverse body of interests, connected through Perugini himself as common denominator. Each of these interests introduces its own line of study, inspiring new and more appropriate research methodologies in turn. Perugini’s interpretation of Borromini took place through a lens of geometric proportion—addressed through drawing research. His interpretations of cybernetic research were theoretical but addressed through written research and expressed in the principles of variation in his Architecture. Construction was explored through his experimentation with new tectonics, new ways of making, and new forms of connection, embodied in the materiality of the Casa Sperimentale. Each subject connects to its own research matter, and each is situated in a primary medium—drawings, documents, tectonics, and historical record. As such each medium reflects a different facet of context.

The building is an important piece of architecture in post war Italy. Still mostly overlooked by the architectural community, its obscure history is only known through a series of surviving fragments. The building it now is in a very fragile state, having been abandoned in 2004 and subject to intermittent vandalism since, it might soon pass beyond a point of recovery.

The Casa Sperimentale can be considered as a first step in a series of projects by the Perugini family exploring ideas of prefabrication and open-ended design processes, leading to a series of projects that introduced computational calculations and early cybernetic approaches into the field of architecture in the mid 1960’s. It draws reference from studies of the Baroque architectures of Francesco Borromini, especially in Perugini’s own research work on San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori in Rome. The project may be read as a response to Bruno Zevi and Perugini’s definition of an ‘organic architectural approach’, promoted in the APAO (Association of Organic Architecture).

The house which was once at the centre of an intellectual and bohemian community living in Fregene during the summers in the early 1960’s to the late 1970’s has, since its abandonment, been rediscovered by the public via social media as the perfect Instagram geo-taggable location. More critically it is used by urban subcultures as a perfect canvas for graffiti and an exercise ground for free-running – urban parkour.

The Casa Sperimentale is often categorised as a Brutalist building. However, despite its concrete form it isn’t born out of a brutalist mindset. It is rather the result of an alternative approach – a refined, considered, organic, democratic and most of all human response to architectural design.

The project consists of three independent buildings:

the Casa Sperimentale—the main house,

the Sphere—an experiment to design a self-contained living space set in a five-meter concrete sphere and,

 the Guest Houses—a set of separate buildings placed towards the rear of the site.

The project, the collection of buildings, is surrounded by a curved concrete perimeter Fence.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the Perugini family experimented with novel construction techniques and an unorthodox design method to create an extraordinary elevated house, a concrete treehouse. The story that led to the creation of the building is unique, it links into the history of early architectural computing, and connects it with an obsession for the 17th century Baroque architecture of Francesco Borromini. As a result, the architecture plays with numbers, structure and light, and sat at the heart of a movement which explored ‘organic’ human-scale architecture.

The design of the Casa Sperimentale follows the idea of a suspended object inhabiting an elevated position amongst the pine grove, echoing the forest structure—an irregular grid of tree trunk-like columns and overarching concrete branches supports an architectural canopy overhead. Several ‘trees’ merge together to create a seemingly solid body, whilst leaving narrow clearings through which the sky can be glimpsed from the pool beneath the building. In forests this aligns with a phenomenon known as ‘canopy shyness’, where trees permit a consistent narrow gap between themselves, the exact reason for which is still hypothesised.

Breaking with the traditional arrangement of floors, ceilings, and supporting walls, the house sits above a body of water—the pool—reflecting the underside of the building and creating a defined void in-between. This is repeated within the house by carefully placing openings and slits in the floors and ceilings—breaking the traditional structure of the house into elements. This new space between the elements becomes an open void without defined boundaries.

The design and construction were organic processes—starting as sketches, driven by intuition, most final design decisions were made ad-hoc on site. Whereas the design of the superstructure was developed rapidly, the placing and the nature of the enclosing walls in the grid were much debated during the building process. Perugini explored ideas of modular living in the 1967 INARCH-FINSIDER competition. These ideas were developed further in the Casa Sperimentale where they significantly informed and transformed the design.

The superstructure consists of three main concrete frames from which further building elements are suspended. Each of these modular elements are further divided into individual segments separated by a slither of glass and supported at the centre through a bespoke steel coupling. The horizontal and vertical elements are independently supported leaving the surrounding walls as non-load bearing interchangeable infill elements.

Giuseppe envisioned the house as a series of pure concrete boxes. But Uga preferred a much more perforated skin throughout, allowing visual connections between the house, the surrounding landscape, and the tree canopies. After much negotiation, individual elements were cast and placed on the concrete floor slabs following a set of strict geometric rules. Through a composition of hollow concrete framed panels and open concrete window frames, on a 500mm grid, Perugini defined a lively undulating wall elevation.

Some elements have precast markings of letters and numbers, this alludes to the exchangeable interchangeable character of the individual building blocks, and an inherent set of assembly instructions, whilst referring to the manufacturing processes behind their formation. Finally, the openings were finished with bespoke metal window frames following a similar geometric system of squares.

In striking contrast to this grid geometry are two cantilevered elliptical spheres as bathrooms. These were cast in two sections as hemispheres in the sand on-site and are separated from one another by a narrow glass strip. The bathrooms are entered through circular centrally pivoting doors with translucent infills.

The Sphere, an independent structure for a self-contained micro-house, was originally intended to be fitted out with a suspended bathroom and a circular kitchen block, however, it was used by the family in an ad-hoc state as a kitchen. It is sited on the forest floor next to the main house and its elements were also cast from a hemispherical mould in the sand. Taking reference from the Pantheon the upper hemisphere has a small oculus opening at the azimuth.

The form of the Guest House consists of three rooms and has been built in a more traditional way with concrete blockwork. The entrance doors were designed as rotating drum segments opening outwards. Each room has large portholes as windows connecting them with the site and back to the main house.

Their son, Raynaldo, refers to the house as the ‘unfinishable endless house’. Being conceived as an almost Lego like structure, all wall elements are simply bolted together. In this way, they can be removed and reconfigured to create different arrangements of spaces, enabling different connections between the space and the surrounding site. A speculative drawing by the architects shows how the structure could extend over the entire site to create an endless meandering concrete treehouse complex.

After the deaths of Giuseppe Perugini, and Uga de Plaissant, in 1998 and 2004 respectively, the house was abandoned. After some years of relative safety, an increased exposure on social media platforms—first Flickr then Instagram—led to more break-ins and illegal visits by the interested public to the site. Whereas in the beginning Angelo Bellotto attempted to halt this by opening up the house to these influx of people, recently, over the previous few years he has been unable to look after the house due to illness. As such, it has become an Instagram location, a spot for urban freerunning and the set for illegally shot music videos. All this has taken a toll on the building—windows smashed, doors broken, and concrete eroded.

July 4, 2020