IN 1972 BELLINI SET OFF WITH TWO FRIENDS AND A HASSELBLAD TO DOCUMENT THE LIVES OF AMERICANS FOR MOMA. THE PICTURES WERE LOST. NOW «AD» PUBLISHES THEM FOR THE FIRST TIME.
The impossible utopia of a new way of life. Exceptional people surrounded by ordinary furnishings. Ordinary people living in crazy places. Mobile
«ITALIAN CITIES ARE THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD, BOOKS OF STONE. AMERICAN CITIES, APART FROM NEW YORK, ARE MADE OF PAPER».
homes fastened to the ground. Gurus in tents in the living room. The naive dreams of America in the 1970s. Shot with a Hasselblad. Documentation lost and found 42 years later by Mario Bellini, architect, 80 years old. He was 37 back in 1972, Nixon was president, Italy was governed by Aldo Moro. The classic coast-to- coast, New York to California, a trip made by millions. But this one involved three men with greater curiosity, and the blessings of MoMA. Their task was to document the “American homes” of celebrities and everyday people. Bellini welcomes me into his home, almost a museum of contemporary art, just back from Qatar, one of the last heavens of architects, where there is still room and funds to create. He says he only has vague memories of his American odyssey, but it’s a little white lie: along the way he tells me precise names, places, anecdotes.
How did the idea of this tour come about?
«I was in New York. MoMA had invited me for the exhibition on the New Domestic Landscape of Italy, a great title invented by its curator Emilio Ambasz. Gaetano Pesce and I were the two young designers in the show. They asked us to create something for the occasion. I brought the Kar- a- sutra, a special car, done with Cassina. I had noticed that space wasn’t used very well in cars, so I added counters and cushions, to make it more livable».
You wanted to drive to California in that car?
«No, we were much more practical. We made a deal with a car rental company and a hotel chain. I put up half the money, Cassina added the rest. We brought Francesco Binfaré along, who was working in Cassina’s design ofce. And Davide Mosconi, an artist, photographer and flm-maker. They both had long beards. Scary. I was more normal».
What were you looking for in America?
«The rule and the exception. How ordinary people lived, but also people who could invent their own lives and homes».
Let’s start with the regular folks: what did you fnd at John Doe’s place?
«Certain constants. One was the little altar. Usually on the left, at the entrance. A wall with a lifetime in photographs: family, holidays, pets. We took cruel portraits of the homeowners in front of it. Then spaces. Everything was bigger: rooms, furniture, land, the house, because everything cost less than in Europe. With respect to the Orient there was a clear sense of horror vacui. The homes were packed with all kinds of junk ».
The comparison with Italian homes of that period?
« American kitchens were bigger, with a counter for eating. There were big closets, instead of the classic wardrobe in front of the bed, which I hated. Above all, there was the idea that a house is not forever, that you could move, to another city or another state».
And in fact the Americans also have mobile homes...
«We saw plenty! It was depressing! They bought them, but then the fear of solitude made them put them in parks, all lined up, fastened to the ground, with metal gates on the windows. End of the adventure».
The exceptions? The fantasies?
« Mostly fantasies. Allusions, more than reality. Like the house of Hugh Hefner in Chicago: look at this picture, the big circular bed, the projector, all staged. Erotic advertising. Even the bunnies, if you think about it, simply allude without doing: the essence of American Puritanism. Then there’s the studio of Andy Warhol…».
«In a way. The art revolutionary had Art Deco furniture. It was a loft, but the decor was quite traditional».
But at the time utopias were all the rage: new lifestyles in new situations...
«We saw that too, as we headed west. We visited the Arcosanti community created by Paolo Soleri, just as they were unveiling the frst arch. The sky was clear, there was a slight breeze that made all the bells ring. But that too seemed like an idea, not reality. In Los Angeles we ate in a macrobiotic restaurant, The Source. The food contained honey, and Mosconi was allergic. The owners put us up till he felt better. We found out there was a hippie commune, squatting a house abandoned by actors in Beverly Hills. Mattresses, mirrors, not much else. There was a tent in the parlor where the guru received disciples».
Did anyone refuse to let you in?
«We wanted to see the Church of Satan. We have been calling for an appointment every day, from a phone booth. But Satan never answered».
Is there a borderline between utopia and madness?
«Yes. And you have to be careful not to cross it».
What’s left of those dreams?
«Not much, but something remains. They never came true. Arcosanti decayed, the hippies vanished, but they left a mark, causing small changes. If anything has changed it is also thanks to those rather extreme attempts. To invent new cities and ways of living in them is a bit naive, even crude. In the end, we live as Ulysses did. There are only limited diferences between our houses and those of the ancient Romans. Italian cities are thousands of years old, books of stone. American cities, apart from New York, are made of paper ».
So they can die, like Detroit?
«I’m afraid so».
But why has this amazing material never been published?
«It’s a sad story. I was not supposed to document the trip. The others had that job, especially Davide Mosconi who had a movie camera and flm, as well as still cameras. When we got back he put it all in the fridge, and there it stayed. Then he passed away. We asked his wife and she said she didn’t know where the flm was. Francesco Binfaré is still alive, but he has moved too many times. So it was up to me… I had these slides stashed away. My wife Elena was the one who wanted to dig them up, to scan them and salvage them».