It’s morning in Milwaukee; blue sky; summer relenting to fall. A typical slow Sunday drive along the lakeshore is suddenly interrupted. How many times have we admired the vast distance of the lake and not noticed the strange form high on the hill, opposite the water?
It appears strange only in contrast to the grand mansions on either side. Unlike these magnificent symbols of history and old wealth, this structure is both past, present and future. Just as a whisper can be heard above noise, the subject of our attention cannot be ignored. It appears self-aware and confident in its simplicity. It gives away nothing. The architecture beckons but the entry approach is ambiguous.
It seems we can park here and ascend the hill using subtle cuts in the slanted grade. The closer we get, the more fortified the structure becomes. It must be a castle; a contemporary castle, but it is impossible to date.
Ah, stairs. We recognize stairs along the mid-face of a very long solid wall which disappears into the slope in one direction and thrusts forward towards the water in the other. At the top of the stair is a recognizable classic sculpture standing guard near a large wooden panel. The wood signals the possibility of a door. Are we intimidated? Are we scared?
Suddenly, the wood wall pivots, straddling the thick concrete. A beautiful woman is standing on the other side. Her name is Mary. She smiles in reaction to our astonished expressions and welcomes us into a secret garden. We step in. Relief turns to amazement. Where are we? Are we inside? Are we still outside?
No matter; conventional notions of home and shelter become irrelevant.
We learn from Mary this place is called “Casa della Sfera.” I think the name is misleading because we are surrounded by unapologetic orthogonal geometry. Why an Italian reference to a sphere?
Our attention is drawn to an ethereal green light. The kind of light only reflected through translucent leaves. It is deeper into the building and balances the more direct light from the garden. In the other direction, towards the lake, further away, we notice a distinguished older gentleman facing away from us and lost in thought: lost in a view better writers have described as being the “space between heaven and earth”.
Mary invites us to follow her into an area furnished for conversation and infrequent entertainment. Above, a large circular cut out in the concrete ceiling exposes a beautiful corbeled brick boveda. At its apex, a cross-shaped sliver of light prevents its geometric completion.
We are distracted by a flickering amber glow reflecting within a recess in the heavy concrete wall. It is a familiar dancing light, typically produced by flame. The recess resembles a fireplace but we cannot see the fire: only the residual result and an occasional spark. The image is compelling, so we move into the recess. There it is; the fire hunkered even deeper into what feels primeval. We don’t ask why the traditional hearth has been re-interpreted as a feeling rather than its usual symbol of family togetherness.
Turning, we see a private stairway going up. It is not clear what it is for. It’s stark and long; walls, ceiling and floor are one material; it is dimly lit. At the top is an even longer corridor. It’s proportion’s rarely encountered in any structure, anywhere.
It occurs to us, one must walk into the fireplace to find the hidden stair.
Beyond we can see more reflected light. This time, its intensity signals a large source of daylight. We are reminded of being lost in a labyrinth of medieval hill town passageways. We search for the turn with the most daylight flowing between corner buildings indicating the location of the public square.
We proceed down the corridor toward the light and are rewarded with, not a public square, but the most private and removed area, so far. We see another garden, only this time it is an eye level landscape of tree tops. Beyond the tree tops, our confused orientation is re-set once we understand the elevated view of the lake.
We sense it is time to go. Grateful for the unique tour, we return to the secret garden. Before we pass for the last time through the concrete wall, we notice the sound of trickling water. It takes a second glance but our eyes confirm a thin slot in the pavement with water flowing towards the downhill; towards the infinity of Lake Michigan. It is coming from inside the dwelling, passing under our feet, settling in the circular pool then emerging again to disappear into the faint blue intersection of sky, horizon and water.
We say goodbye to our proud hostess. Looking past her sincere smile we see the older man still content with his thoughts and special place. He knows he’s home.
Days later, walking alone, I had not stopped thinking about that house. I was satisfied still having open questions, preferring to let the experience be a collection of memory and mystery. However, the name “Casa della Sfera” remained an unresolved riddle. The architecture had been unrelenting and severe; sharp planes with 90° corners. I recall a couple of circles but not a sphere. I supposed an architecture of this sophistication may not be literal, so maybe the namesake was hidden; maybe hidden yet appearing obvious once its secret was revealed. Maybe it’s not whole. Maybe the sphere is in separate pieces. Two pieces? Three pieces?
Yes, there could be three pieces. I think I know.
I do know!
–Eddie Jones, May 2017