remembering the overlooked and underrated

Remembering Places That Have Never Existed

In Art, Items of Singular Interest, Letters, Places on August 17, 2012 at 2:05 am

It’s settled: I need to visit the island of Menorca. Located in the Mediterranean Sea and belonging to Spain, this gorgeous island is home to about 94,000 people, three ancient megalithic monuments, one of my favorite wines, and the always delicious cow’s milk cheese called Mahon. All of which is more than reason enough to visit. But what has cemented it for me is that I just discovered there’s a hotel there inspired by — gasp! — one of my most beloved books, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

The wine is called Mantonegro. It’s made from a grape called, well, Manto Negro, which is found only on Menorca and the surrounding islands. I first had it about a year and a half ago in Brooklyn. There’s a terrific wine shop in Red Hook called The Dry Dock. The sales people there, knowing my proclivity for big red wines, insisted that I check it out while they had it. What can I say? I’m a sucker for big-flavored wines, and this one didn’t disappoint. Dark berry mixed with rough earthiness, a touch jammy, and a luscious mouth-feel to boot. Is this the bold-yet-seductive wine you’ve been looking for? Maybe. This was the 2007 vintage; I hope later vintages are equally delicious. I was so captivated by the wine at the time that I even took a picture of the bottle, lest I forget what it was called. At the time, I didn’t really think anything of the book it was sitting on. I certainly didn’t expect there to be any sort of link between them.

Have you read Invisible Cities? It was originally published in Italy in 1972 and remains one of Italo Calvino’s most highly-praised works. The premise is that Venetian explorer Marco Polo is having a conversation with the emperor Kublai Khan. Polo is telling the aging emperor about some of the wondrous and strange cities he’s visited. The main body of the book consists of descriptions of 55 of those cities. (I know 55 cities sounds like a lot, but the book is less than 200 pages.) These accounts are grouped in bunches with titles like “Cities and Memory,” “Cities and Signs,” and “Thin Cities.” Here, in William Weaver’s English translation, is a taste of Ersilia, a city included in the group “Trading Cities”:

In Ersilia, to establish relationship that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

Interspersed among these prose poem representations is the ongoing conversation between Polo and Kublai Khan. As the book progresses, the conversation becomes more and more abstract.

[T]he Khan was seized by fits of euphoria. He would rise up on his cushions, measure with long strides the carpets spread over the paths at his feet, look out from the balustrades of the terraces to survey with dazzled eye the expanse of the palace gardens lighted by the lanterns hung from the cedars.

This is aged Mahon.

“And yet I know,” he would say, “that my empire is made of the stuff of crystals, its molecules arranged in a perfect pattern. Amid the surge of the elements, a splendid hard diamond takes shape, an immense, faceted, transparent mountain. Why do your travel impressions stop at disappointing appearances, never catching this implacable process? Why do you linger over inessential melancholies? Why do you hide from the emperor the grandeur of his destiny?”

And Marco answered: “While, at a sign from you, sire, the unique and final city raises its stainless walls, I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room for it, cities that can never be rebuilt or remembered. When you know at last the residue of unhappiness for which no precious stone can compensate, you will be able to calculate the exact number of carats toward which that final diamond must strive. Otherwise, you calculations will be mistaken from the very start.”

I’ve read Invisible Cities a few times now. Each time I do, I walk away feeling I understand it both a little more and a little less. There are numerous interpretations of the book available, from learned literature professors, architects (this is required reading in many architecture programs, it turns out), and scribblers like myself. There are even artists who have tried to render Calvino’s cities in ink, charcoal, paint. Poking around the web, though, I was astonished to find an article published by Architecture Week about a hotel on the Spanish island of Menorca. It is called Tres Sants. Its eight rooms are directly inspired by Invisible Cities.


Not bad, right?

Architect Fernando Pons Vidal and designer Chiara Fabiani (her site is fun, check it out) are the brains behind the hotel’s eight stunning rooms. True, none of the photos I could find featured any Mahon cheese, but I’m betting they were just keeping it out of sight. It would probably clash with the candles. All this gets me wondering…

Are there any other buildings inspired by books?

Yes, as a matter of fact. There is a hotel in New Zealand called the Hobbit Hotel. In the Netherlands is a minimalist house with Alice in Wonderland as its inspiration. Travel to Barcelona to find an apartment block with Kafka’s The Castle as it source. There’s even a house that draws on Moby Dick for its design. FlavorWire has a fun article on all these and more. 

Now all we need is something informed by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Or a Neil Gaiman Sandman castle. Or what about a set of apartments based on Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy — each could have only one large window, and those windows, of course, could face one another and offer a view of pretty much nothing else. Just an idea.

There are plenty of famous books available to inspire architects and arguments, and probably more suitable ones than those I just named. The biggest of them all, of course, is Borges’s Library. If we can somehow combine the world’s most amazing libraries into one, then maybe we’ll come close. Until then, though, I’ll set my sets a little lower. An island off the coast of Spain will suffice. Preferably one with yummy cheese, excellent wine, and a hotel. A hotel with eight rooms. Each room different from the others. Each room built with the ashes of cities that never existed, will never exist, and cannot be remembered.


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