April 6th, 2009


Myth and mystery of the house at Messagros

The Rodakis house at Messagros on the Greek island of Aegina has noisy curators and a silent creator. Surmounted by the figures of a pig, a clock, a snake and a pigeon -– symbolising fortune, time, evil and peace -- the house was built in about 1880 by a craftsman-sculptor-farmer, Alexandros Rodakis. Apart from his name, nobody knows much about Rodakis. There isn't even a photograph; all we have are the symbols, figures and inscriptions he built into his house.

The Rodakis house on Aegina provides a nice example of how fame works, but also how fame alone isn't enough to save something. The house currently lies in a state of semi-dereliction; the latest celebrations are a Facebook group called Save Rodakis' House and a 12-minute art video by the Berlin artist Olaf Nicolai (brother of Carsten "Alva Noto" Nicolai, the artist and minimalist electronic musician).

The Rodakis House started to get famous when the German archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler happened upon it while working on the nearby Temple of Aphaia Athena in about 1905. Furtwängler sent pictures of the Rodakis house to Munich, where Austrian architect and pro-Modernist critic Adolf Loos saw it, and slipped an approving mention into one of his essays. It was also in Munich that a Greek, Dimitris Pikionis, got interested in what we might call the house's "Shinto" aspects -- harmony with nature, implicit spiritual links between agriculture and the cosmos, "emotional topography".

Soon others were talking about the house in their architecture monographs: Siegfried Gideon and Le Corbusier, K. Frieslander, Julio Kaimi. Since the house's creator had left no trace beyond what he'd carved into the building itself, anyone could say whatever they liked about the mysterious site. Each writer brought his or her own fetishes to bear. And so the myth grew, and is still growing here under my fingertips (I'm the first, I think, to call the house "Shinto").

I caught my first glimpse of the house in Olaf Nicolai's video Rodakis, shown at the first Athens Biennial. It's a twelve minute film, a calm and beautiful pseudo-documentary. Nicolai makes a virtue of necessity; since we know nothing of the origins of this villa, the narrator in his film -- calmly authoritative yet, it soon emerges, deeply unreliable -- tells us lies, half-truths, speculations, crazy stuff.

In the tradition of Marcel Schwob's imaginary lives (pop fact: the first Momus EP announced itself as "the first in a series of immoral tales and imaginary lives", a reference to Leopardi and to Schwob), the film's narrative creates "a metaphysics of classification", a portrait of a man unknown, revealed through a lovely but spooky house-without-inhabitants. Eventually a psychic is brought in to tell us what was on Rodakis' mind. If we're to believe this psychic, the mysterious craftsman disappeared soon after finishing his house, and committed suicide.

There is one enigmatic clue to what Rodakis was really thinking. Above the fanned flagstones of the winepress, near the outhouse designed for an oven, a poem can still be read on the wall:

Better if Man
was a cold stone than
now that he possesses mediation,
he has Norms and discretion.
I learnt to live (?)
OH 1891 AH