By Jo Ann Secor, Principal and Scott W. Briggs, Senior Associate – from an idea suggested by Marco Cellario, Project Architect
Engineering has allowed us to envision and design an amazing array of objects both big and small that have advanced human engagement with our natural environment: bridges, aircraft, high performance textiles and awe inspiring skyscrapers that soar ever higher. Yet an engineering application for a singular building, envisioned and built by its owner over 90 years ago, is still considered unusual, extraordinary and prescient. In 1929, Angelo Invernizzi, an Italian engineer, decided to create his own dream house which would rotate to ‘maximize the health properties of the sun by rotating to follow it” (1). The Villa Girasole, ‘sunflower’ in Italian, was created to do just that. Situated in the hills of northern Italy near Verona and completed in 1935, it is designed in the shape of the letter “L” with a central tower housing a staircase and elevator around which the house pivots on a drum shaped platform. Between the wings of the “L” is a central terrace for outdoor entertaining. Two diesel fueled motors move the house a full 360 degrees on roller bearings utilizing gear works based on railroad turntables with adapted railcar wheel trolley mounts moving on curved tracks at about nine inches per minute. As it rotates, the singular house catches sunlight and floods various rooms with natural light and warmth throughout the day.
Girasole was also a laboratory for Inverizzi’s experimentation with new construction methods and building materials. Its streamlined Art Moderne design reflects his fascination with machinery and his belief in the promise of progress. The house’s lightweight aluminum panel cladding reduced loading on its mechanisms and helped solve some of the problems caused by rotation due to their inherent flexibility. An earlier experiment with fiber cement panels had resulted in extensive cracks in the façade.
Today’s smart building facades and daylight harvesting systems rely on motorized shading devices and sophisticated automated lighting controls to maximize the use of natural daylighting and reduce energy consumption. But why is it that today’s creators – planners, architects, engineers – have not capitalized on this successful experiment to create housing that captures the natural sunlight to illuminate interiors and the souls of its occupants? The Villa Girasole should be an inspiration for all who work toward the betterment of our communities through the applied arts and natural resources we have readily available. This fascinating example of engineering and architecture inspires us as we seek to harness our natural resources in ways that are symbiotic, not destructive, and enhance our lives through inventive yet aesthetically pleasing and ecologically-sound practices.