Monday, March 19, 2012

Caffe delle Mura


A couple of years ago I was brought in to redevelop the garden and terraces of Caffe delle Mura, one of the most charming of Lucca's 19th century monuments set in a public park where thousands of people stroll every day. The above rendering shows the complex as I would have finished it for today's needs; a new restaurant with a classic-style glass addition and a wide sunny terrace for outdoor dining, plus a newly laid out gardened piazza with a fountain at the building's facade. Unfortunately, the work as I'd envisioned it, will never be completed.

It was built in 1839, right on top of the antique city walls, as a restaurant and cafe but it was also a venue for poetry readings and concerts. In the late 19th century the entire structure was dismantled and moved back several hundred feet to create a wide piazza in front of it for rallies and public celebrations.

The very beautiful neoclassical building had fallen on hard times more than once in its long life and up until just a few years ago it looked like this, the abandoned and abused victim of roving evening vandals.

This is my plan for the piazza in front, which at the time was nothing more than a sea of black asphalt but with a very good statue in its center. I would have lightened up the monument by adding an octagonal pool, about two feet high and surrounded by box hedging both inside and out. At each of the four corners were three fountain jets and the entire central planted area might have been enclosed by a simple, neoclassical iron fence (which it had once had) to protect the statue and garden from vandals and dogs. Surrounding this are four large areas of lawn (looking a bit too dark here) embellished with cone shaped evergreens. (The two square brick boxes are light shafts to the cavernous battlements beneath.)

The south facade was to have faced a wide terrace for outdoor dining in full sunshine. Beyond the Versailles boxes the city walls fall away to a height of thirty feet and so the terrace sits high above the antique battlements affording splendid views to the Pisan mountains in the distance. The large planters of Prunus lusitanica would have served to partially conceal a less than pretty view of a row of modern buildings on the city's edges. I created the neoclassical glass house, a period-style conservatory, to provide additional dining space in the cooler months in a garden context.

I'd wanted to highlight its French style of architecture by choosing Versailles boxes for the potted plants instead of terracotta and by working up something of a brasserie feel for the interior and restaurant format. The above building of the same period is the French pavilion of Madam du Barry at Louveciennes. Lucca, by the way, was French in the Napoleonic era.

For me a cafe in a park building such as this ought to have the sort of feeling that Café de Paris has in Monte Carlo, a modern take on a Paris brasserie. This is more or less what I imagined the terrace here in Lucca to look like, casual and inviting, a place where almost anyone, no matter how he might be dressed, even those who might still be a bit damp after a jog, can feel comfortable.

The interior at Cafe de Paris served as inspiration for what the dining room might be like. The belle epoch style could have been modified somewhat to be more Italian but the 19th century idea of lights upon the intimate bank seating provides warmth and atmosphere. This restaurant is a great success because it works for all types of people, dressed up or down dressed, and that's what I think a good park restaurant nowadays needs to be.

I drew this sketch to show how I might have handled the enfilade circulation space. To the left there would have been more tables and seats.

The dining room off to the side might have been done in this manner, with mirrored paneling above the seats.

Today, alas, the piazza looks like this. The work is finished and the restaurant is about to open. My garden in the piazza was rejected by the fine arts commission, not because it wouldn't have been beautiful or right, but because of politics. The local director of the fine arts commission thinks of himself as an architect and he insists on having complete control. He feels that the piazza has to be unencumbered for public gatherings. If an idea isn't his he rejects it and nothing can proceed without his approval. He rejected my glass addition because "it destroys the facade." He rejected my arrangement of the interior because it has to be "simply tables and chairs" that you can move out completely in case the local politicians want to "give a ball." There will be no outdoor dining on the rear terrace, which will not be built, because that would require umbrellas over the tables and umbrellas will interrupt the view of the building. I had devised a wooden terrace extension on two levels for a cafe area facing the piazza and garden (see below), but no such creative use of existing space was allowed.

The above, in brief, was merely a dream I had for the city, a needed revitalization that would have been appreciated and used by all, but what we're getting instead is a sea of asphalt and a stuffy old-fashioned restaurant with tablecloths "down to the floor" that no one will ever go to; I truly hope that the local politicians have a "ball" there!


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

We have, as you may readily imagine, been most fascinated to read this post and do feel, having considered your excellent concept which draws so well on the traditions of the past and yet has a contemporary edge to it, that this is yet another example of a wasted opportunity, condemned by short sighted authorities motivated in the main by self interest.

The way in which you draw out a French connection, Lucca having at one time belonged to France, is most intriguing and appropriate and we think the use of Versailles planters, as opposed to terracotta pots, adds an historical note. The overall design, which depends on classical understatement, appeals to us enormously and we are so very sorry to learn that it will never be realised for totally the wrong reasons. So much of what you write here on that subject resonates with us in Hungary. Let them have their 'ball' and, we should add, be damned!

Concrete Jungle said...

Ah, a sad story however they at least have saved the building from the really tough vandelizing that appeared to be happening before...Perhaps the next bunch of politicians will discover your plans and see the light...could have been so lovely!

Anonymous said...

What do you expect from politicians ? What they touch turns out against what people need, cherish or what makes daily life more beautiful !

Tara Dillard said...

This happens in small projects too. One spouse needing to control another.

The USA 'Southern thang' works well. Kill them with kindness, play dumb, smile, yes-yes-yes, pause-wait, repeat, voila it's all their idea!

They don't call them steel magnolias without reason. I prefer steel thistle.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

The Devoted Classicist said...

It is a fabulous building. Perhaps there will soon be a change in power and your plans can be realized after all.

Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart said...

What a tragedy and such a common one at that! They are politicians and you are not. Lucky you.
One day someone with a minimum of vision will come along.
Great project anyway; keep it well protected for ...later!

columnist said...

For some reason best known to itself, I have been experiencing technical difficulties with Blogger. Then yesterday I had my computer "man" come and reinstall my software, and the comment I wrote on your post just wouldn't publish. Today I have resorted to the iPad. Just wanted to say that anything decided by a committee is fraught with hassle. It took us nearly 3 years to get the renovation at the Palace underway, 2 of those years just arguing about whether we needed it. Anyway, persistent I am, and it has almost completed, with the usual snags that need addressing still outstanding. Just don't give up. Eventually they might just do it for peace!

Paul Gervais de Bédée said...

Devoted, You're right, the building is lovely, and tomorrow is another day!

Paul Gervais de Bédée said...

Jeanne-Aella, I'm always so happy to see you and I thank you for the encouragement.

Paul Gervais de Bédée said...

Columnest, I appreciate your persistence, even in the case of commenting!

Mark D. Ruffner said...

Isn't it interesting that the politician thinks of a public building's usage in terms of how he would personally use it? I think your plans were great, and I wouldn't discard them. Things do have a way of coming full circle.

Joseph the Butler said...

Indeed, a shame of the current look. I'm often surprised at the lack of (fore)sight of people, but then again, I'm not.

I'm glad though to read of your plans. I wish you many, more successful commissions.

Patrice said...


Your ideas would have been a 100% improvement on what has been done. Love the idea of a french cafe - very chic - yet comfortable. We also think the idea of a cafe - meeting place - should have been the thought behind the whole project as it is what Lucca does not have - an aesthetically pleasing space to take in the city and have a coffee that works year round.
Politicians are responsible for most of the world's grief and corruption, so it does not surprise me that one has ruined this project.