Dreamers are easy to make fun of. New ideas can be scary, and as a species we tend to like routine (wake up, scratch ass, check Internets, and so on) so it never surprises me when iconoclasm is met with incredulity.
After all, there is probably no real difference between an artist and a liar, an entrepreneur and a con man, a visionary and a raving lunatic—your average “big ideas” type is most likely a two-sided character, coffee to some and whiskey to others, at once hustling and truth-telling in a quest to realize his or her (beautiful/ugly, transparent/shady, brilliant/delusional) dream.
So what happens when a real Janus turns both of his heads? When an idea so audacious, so silly, so transformative and ridiculous becomes realized? In the case of Julian Schnabel’s condominium building, Palazzo Chupi, I am embarrassed to say, dear reader, I was among the first to scoff. As a former resident of the West Village, I remember when the building was still new, when this giant pink tribute to Schnabel’s own creative might first opened for business—and boy, did I hate it.
I was an NYU undergrad living in a cramped two bedroom (split among three people) on Christopher St and the idea
that some rich artist/filmmaker/man for all occasions could add something so jarring, harsh and palatial to an otherwise muted, modest and consistent Far West Side skyline struck me as, frankly, pretty friggin’ stupid.
Now, however, I am a fan of not only the building itself, but of Schnabel’s own rules-be-damned ingenuity. I have come around to loving this Northern Italian-inspired structure, and not simply because of its aesthetic innovations (of which it has a few), but also for its symbolic power: Palazzo Chupi is an unmistakable extension of its designer, a “big idea” made from Moroccan cement, Californian clay, and North Carolinian terra-cotta.
In re-thinking my stance on Schnabel’s modern piece of architectural “what the fuck?” I tried to figure out what might make it brilliant—I was already pretty certain the dream of constructing a palazzo on W 11th St was delusional. I scanned Wikipedia articles (I should mention here I am not an architectural writer by trade), in hopes that I might garner some insight into Schnabel’s ever churning, ever dichotomized brain, and came upon a choice quote from the New York Times’ Penelope Green. Palazzo Chupi is ultimately a “brand extension,” she wrote back in 2008, “for the omnivorous Mr. Schnabel.” And there it was, dear reader—the key I’d been looking for to unlock the mystery of this strange building and its manic maker.
The palazzo of the West Village is a bold work of art made by a bold artist; but it’s also pretty ridiculous. And that’s okay.
“I built it because I wanted more space,” Schnabel goes on to tell Green in the Times article, “…and I built it because I could.” Could he be any clearer? Could he be any crazier?
It was here that I began to see in full just how closely Schnabel’s quest to build his palazzo mirrored that of our friend Curzio Malaparte and his casa on Capri. Malaparte, a two-sided, contradictory character if ever there was one, set about building his dream house after spending five years as an exile on the island of Lipari with the help of stonemason Adolfo Amitrano and, more controversially, architect Adalberto Libera. Like Schnabel, Malaparte was something of a Renaissance man, a journalist, novelist, diplomat, and, by the end of the 1930’s, an amateur designer of seaside estates. His dichotomies could be found in his political life (he belonged to the National Fascist Party as a young man and became a communist in his late 40’s) as well as in his particular brand of contrarian journalism.
By the time he got around to building Casa Malaparte in 1937, he was ready to construct the biggest of all his “big ideas”. Tired from persecution under Mussolini’s rule, limited by the confines of writing, Malaparte arrived in Capri to offer the world a piece of his imagination on the grandest scale: an unreachable house at the end of an Isle, a tribute to the very best of mid-century Italian architecture. Sure, it rested on a perilous cliff and could only be reached by crossing the entire island—but what did that matter? Malaparte did not build his house because it made sense. He built it because he could.
The realization that Malaparte’s ambitious vision of palatial living predated Schnabel’s by nearly seventy years helped me to see the genius through the batshit crazy in “Chupi”. Schnabel’s palazzo, like Casa Malaparte before it, is meant to challenge, not comfort; a bubble-gum pink home built atop a former horse stable exists to provoke all those who look upon it, not blend in to a neighborhood long known for its cobblestone streets lined with townhouses. As an NYU student, I was right to fear that the building was a stand-in for decadence and disruption in the neighborhood—I mean, look at it! It’s gaudy, it’s strange, it’s a Dance Pop sore thumb in a Folk Rock skyline. What I failed to see, however, was how such decadence and disruption offered the eccentric “Chupi” immortality.
History has been kind to Malaparte’s creation: it starred in Godard’s Contempt, it saw serious renovations in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, and it has achieved legendary status in the eyes of both architectural enthusiasts and in-the-know tourists alike. My guess (my hope?) is that Schnabel’s building, while not as literally inaccessible as Malaparte’s midcentury masterpiece of weird, will find a similar eternal place at the table in future discussions of landmark buildings.
Schnabel, like Malaparte before him, is a real “big ideas” guy--an artist and a liar, an entrepreneur and a con man, a visionary and a raving lunatic. He built his Palazzo as a form of protestation against imaginary haters (doesn’t “because I could” sound downright Kanye West-ian?) and as a ringing endorsement of his own abilities. The palazzo celebrates his duality, his genius and his lunacy, by means of its very existence, just as Casa Malaparte synthesizes Malaparte’s multiple personas and clashing ideologies. The opulence inherent in both buildings is the mark of their makers, as is the counterintuitive placement in relation to each of their geographical neighbors. If you are looking for sensible structures free of the pains of their architects, glass and steel buildings aiming to take their place alongside other multi-storied staples of modernity, then neither the Palazzo Chupi or its predecessor across the Atlantic, Casa Malaparte, are for you. These buildings are the extensions of Schnabel and Malaparte, tributes to the combative nature between the original and the asinine, and unmistakably the work of dreamers.
Because they are beautiful, transparent and brilliant.
And, you know, also ugly, shady and delusional.
Matt Hooper, Spinning Bear Productions