Alberto Ponis: On the Cliff By the Sea

The architect Alberto Ponis has built hundreds of houses on Sardinia’s craggy coastline, integrating rocks into the design and function of these homes.

It was Jesus who said that wise men build their houses on rocks, which, if true, makes Alberto Ponis godlike. Over the past 60 years, Ponis, a prolific yet inconspicuous Italian architect, has designed more than 300 homes along Sardinia’s rocky coastline.

He signs his signature in stone. “Every house features rocks,” writes Sebastiano Brandolini, an architect and professor who has written a book on Ponis. “Whether they are inside or out, these rocks are part of a domestic choreography that turns them into something oneiric.”

“Whether they are inside or out, these rocks are part of a domestic choreography that turns them into something oneiric.” Alberto Ponis

From childhood, Ponis knew he would become an architect. He grew up near Genoa, where his father, Mario Alberto Ponis, founded MITA (Manifattura Italiana Tappeti Artistici), a company specializing in handwoven carpets and tapestries. “His factory, designed by Daneri, was also a cenacle where European architects, painters, sculptors and designers gathered and where we, my brother Aldo and I, visited from an early age, even unconsciously absorbing all this knowledge,” Ponis tells me by email. From his father, he inherited a sense of terrain, materiality and place, he has said.

After studying architecture in Florence, Ponis moved to London in 1960, speaking no English. He was soon offered a role by the influential modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger, with whom he communicated in French. Toward the end of 1961, he applied for a role at Denys Lasdun’s office, with whom he worked directly.

“The collaboration with Ernő Goldfinger and Denys Lasdun in London allowed me, from the very first moments, to design alongside them, from the birth of ideas to the creative phase,” Ponis writes. “From Goldfinger, I absorbed the importance of the grid, which followed me throughout my life, while from Lasdun, I was able to absorb not only the professional experience but above all the [importance of] environmental integration, along with the privilege of a lifelong friendship.”

Brandolini writes that Ponis’s London years were formative, and he thereafter approached design problems with a distinctly British mentality: “He learned the importance of exploring unknown places and presiding over them by colonizing them sentimentally and physically. He discovered the importance of living comfortably but without luxury. He became at once spartan and romantic.”

In 1963, Ponis was offered the chance to work on a prototype house for a new tourist project in Sardinia. At the time, the island was almost completely devoid of modern architecture. “When we flew in, there wasn’t even an airport to land into, only a field,” Ponis told the architect and professor Jonathan Sergison in a 2016 conversation. “I sat down next to a chap in the hotel bar and introduced myself: ‘Hello, I’m Ponis.’ He said, ‘Hello, I’m the mayor of Palau.’”

Soon, the Sardinian seaside began capturing the imagination of holiday-goers, drawn to its turquoise waters. The prototype’s success brought further commissions, and soon Ponis was splitting his time between London and Sardinia, designing holiday homes along the coast, mostly for English couples. “For 40 bloody years or so, I’ve been here all winter designing houses that people use in the summer,” he told Sergison. Through the hundreds of holiday homes he has designed, Ponis has forged the island’s topography.

From the beginning, Ponis understood the creative potential of the island’s rocky coastline. Rocks were never a hindrance, he tells me by email: “There were never difficulties that frustrated me. I always saw them as challenges, aids to find other solutions, to try and try again until I reached the best one.”

He doesn’t choose the characteristics of a house; rather, he lets the site’s terrain, gradient, views and elements guide him. “I always try and develop my houses around a rock or sequence of rocks. The rock is like the light or fire in the center of a tent, and all the architectural volumes then start to define themselves by fanning around it,” he told Sergison.

During construction, he visits the site at least twice a week. “My almost constant presence at the construction sites meant that the houses were born and grew like sculptures, always in harmony with the surrounding nature,” he writes in his email. “Even in the most recent houses, I never succumbed to improvisation.”

“The rock is like the light or fire in the center of a tent, and all the architectural volumes then start to define themselves by fanning around it.” Alberto Ponis

Asked whether his country’s politics influence his buildings, Ponis writes: “They are always apolitical in the sense that I do not follow preconceived ideas or fashions or impositions of the private or public client. All my projects are different, independent, if not from the individual circumstances of place and time – except for one characteristic, an intimate bond that binds them in my mind, as if they were different children of the same parent.”

Curiously, he doesn’t specify this characteristic, though he told Sergison that all of his projects have a strong connection to the ground. “That, I think, is the really fundamental thing about all of the buildings I have produced,” he said. Ponis’s work showcases that remarkable architecture is rooted in specificity: to the environment, to the client and to the architect himself.

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