Artist houses, Comacina Island, Lake Como.

 Comacina Island from one of the small timber boats that ferry visitors from nearby Ossuccio.

Comacina Island from one of the small timber boats that ferry visitors from nearby Ossuccio.

It has taken a few months to get around to posting a piece on the artist buildings situated on Comacina Island on Lake Como - hopefully it will be worth the wait. Photography David Harrison.

Prior to visiting Salone del Mobile this year I was taken on a tour of Rationalist buildings in the Lake Como district by my friend Gianmatteo Romegialli from Act_Romegialli Architecture. We started the tour with Comacina Island, a short boat ride from the village of Ossuccio on the western side of the lake, about 30 minutes drive north from the city of Como. What looks like a small island with the ruins of several churches from the shore, turns out to be home to three small villas built between 1939 and 1940 by celebrated Italian modernist architect, Pietro Lingeri.

 The smallest of the three artist residences designed by Pietro Lingeri, House B.

The smallest of the three artist residences designed by Pietro Lingeri, House B.

The project of the artist houses on Comacina really dates back to when Augusto Capriani donated the island to King Albert I of Belgium in 1920. King Albert left the control of the island in the hands of Milan’s Brera Academy and in 1933 Pietro Lingeri (1894-1968) took on the project to build a group of artist residences. Lingeri’s original designs were rejected by the facist regime of the time but he persisted with his plans and came up with some new solutions that fitted well with the Italian Facist Party’s obsession with tradition (while speaking a lot about the future).

 The northern end of House B features a giant slatted timber panel with integrated entrance door.

The northern end of House B features a giant slatted timber panel with integrated entrance door.

The Comacina designs are extremely simple in form but with a deep attention to detail when it came to proportion and materials. His functionalist concepts took inspiration from local buildings and utilised local Moltrasio stone. Lingeri also chose to partner this with the type of traditional hand cut slate roofs that can be seen in numerous pre-20th century buildings in the area (this has been changed to a corrugated metal roof on the third house in the group during recent renovations). Situated on the eastern side of the island, the three buildings that were finally completed in 1940 are set back into the hillside but retain outstanding water and mountain views across the lake.

 Views of the lake and mountains beyond are softened by woodlands.

Views of the lake and mountains beyond are softened by woodlands.

LIngeri’s interpretation of functionalism is subtly blended with aspects of the local architectural vernacular – open galleries with simple post and beam construction but to this he added some popular modernist treatments such as glass brick walls and ribbon windows. While the inverted pitched roof frame was made of pine, the rest of the building's woodwork is in chestnut. Each of the three houses are based on variations of the same plan with a kitchen, small dining area and double study room on the ground floor and a bedroom and tiny bathroom on the first floor. 

 House B in its idyllic rural setting. 

House B in its idyllic rural setting. 

The houses are open to Italian and Belgian artists of all disciplines with Italian artists taking house A and Belgians being given house B and C. The artists are generally allowed to reside there for up to one month at a time. After many years of neglect in the 80's and 90's renovation of the houses began in 2009 with the work supervised by architectural restoration specialists Andrea Canziani and Rebecca Fant. They have modernised the kitchen and bathroom facilities but been totally respectful to the original materials and interior plaster colours. The feeling of absolute simplicity has been retained.

 The upper deck area accessed from the upstairs bedroom, offers shade and framed views.

The upper deck area accessed from the upstairs bedroom, offers shade and framed views.

House B is actually the first of the three houses you come to when you approach from the islands main jetty. It features a row of high windows and a double height glass brick wall that faces into the hillside for general ambient light and large shuttered windows with views across the water to the mountains beyond. It also has a spacious void at ground level with timber balcony above through which the view is beautifully framed. Entrance is by way of a door set into a massive double height wall of timber slats that run from ground level to just under the box gutter at the meeting point of the two inverted planes that for the butterfly roof. The box gutter is positioned in what you might call a ‘one third, two thirds’ position rather than in the centre – a far more poetic placement. The buildings manage to achieve a monumental character despite their relatively small size and are blessed with a restrained rural charm that allows them to sit comfortably on the wooded hillside.

 Looking through the upper deck and contained lower terrace of House C.

Looking through the upper deck and contained lower terrace of House C.

The next house you come across as you stroll north along a grassy hill is House C. It has a slightly larger open area than the other two structures and some interesting details in it’s post and beam construction – the post facing the water is square in section while the one to the north at the houses entrance is cylindrical.

 The view from the terrace of House C.

The view from the terrace of House C.

Both posts sit on a stone pad that follows the post shape but the square section pad is quite low while the cylindrical one is disproportionally high. The northern face still utilises double height timber section in roughly a one third two third ratio to the stone but these feel more colonial in style rather (most likely these are survivors of earlier renovations). 

 A wall of glass bricks showing the beautiful metal framework.

A wall of glass bricks showing the beautiful metal framework.

House A is slightly different again with no lower terrace due to its position on the hillside and the inclusion of a small window above the entrance door in the slatted timber façade. We were lucky enough to look inside all three houses to observe how the spaces differed internally.

 The interior of House B with its mottled plaster wall (left) and simple chestnut stair & mezzanine. 

The interior of House B with its mottled plaster wall (left) and simple chestnut stair & mezzanine. 

In all cases the roofing structure is left exposed and the stairs are a simple affair squeezed in between the eastern wall and a central timber column. Immediately at the top of the stairs there is a tiny bathroom with an exposed marble dividing wall that houses a shower and toilet.

 House C showing the same general layout but with internal glass doors to the the north.

House C showing the same general layout but with internal glass doors to the the north.

While the decoration is extremely spartan throughout the interior, each of the houses has a real feeling of calm - perhaps due to the carefully observed proportions but aided by a beautiful mix of soft light through the glass bricks and direct light through the high eastern windows. Views from the first floor balconies are spectacular.

Next time you visit Milan take some time out to spend a day or two on Lake Como. The towns of and Varenna and Bellagio are touristy but exquisite. Further north there are equally pretty towns that are less crowded. Car ferries criss-cross the lake so you can hire a car and move freely from one side to the other without having to go the long way around. Returning back to Como make sure you stop at Cernobbio to take a quick look at the Cattaneo museum that exists within the Casa d’affito apartment building designed by Cesare Cattaneo in 1938. The museum is run by his son, a former engineer. 

 Cesare Cattaneo's Casa d'Affito from 1938.

Cesare Cattaneo's Casa d'Affito from 1938.

The ground floor shop and entrance is unbelievably contemporary and the home of the architect on the top floor (unfortunately not accessible to the public) is an early blueprint for the type of modern apartment living developers constantly promise but rarely deliver with generous outdoor spaces established gardens and framed views.

Back in Como there are a host of Rationalist gems to look at – too many to go through here so take a look at the app developed by the Province of Como’s Department of Culture instead. Search the app store under Rationalism in the Province of Como. The app includes maps, plans photographs and commentary in four languages covering important buildings by Giuseppe Terragni, Cesare Cattaneo, Pietro Lingeri, and Gianni and Enrico Mantero in the Lake Como area.

 The facade of the Stadio G. Sinigaglia. An equally mesmerising swimming pool is housed inside.

The facade of the Stadio G. Sinigaglia. An equally mesmerising swimming pool is housed inside.

While you are in Como check out the incredible indoor swimming pool and sports centre within the Stadio G. Sinigaglia football complex built in 1927.

You can find out more on the history of Comacina Island and book tours of the artist houses here

For more on the work of Pietro Lingeri take a look at this great post on Misfits’ Architecture.