What happens when you ask a computer to make a fantasy retreat even more fantastical? You get a series of postcards of a sun-drenched Mediterranean island, complete with images of piazzas that don’t exist, cracks in the vine-draped walls along the winding streets that grow into inhabitable spaces, and underground caves and houses for the workers who allow the fantasy to operate. At least, that was what a group of architectural designers produced this summer during a speculative design workshop to imagine a future form of habitation on the island of Capri.
Starting with the making of old-fashioned drawings and photography to document and understand the landscape, they quickly moved to interpretation and design in collage, Photoshop, and data clouds, only to end up at the end of the summer with an almost wholescale adoption of Midjourney and other AI programs. The results are not so much proposals for a Capri 2.0 (the original prompt the Roman architect Francesco Delogu and I gave the workshop) as visions of what the island could be, or maybe already is, if we just give the computer the right inputs.
Capri, a super-high-end resort island off the coast of Naples, has been a destination for those seeking to pursue their fantasies since the emperor Tiberius made it his home. In the 19th century, it became the place where self-exiles with non-mainstream tastes in art and sensual pleasures wound up building villas. More recently, it has become a site where the superrich moor their super-yachts.
Throughout its long history of being a floating Xanadu, Capri has managed to hold onto a built fabric that, though vastly increased in recent years, maintains the image of an island untouched by modern technology or social issues. For how much longer, though? With water and electricity and most provisions brought in from the mainland, an economy dependent on a very narrow audience segment, and both environmental and political pressures threatening to overwhelm the myth of a pristine paradise, how can Capri develop in a more sustainable and diverse manner?
The City of Capri, which sponsored the workshop, asked us not to engage in sociological, economic, or scientific research (which the local governments and universities engage in on an ongoing basis). Instead, we were tasked with producing what has been the engine for Capri’s development over the centuries: images that attract, evoke, and set a model for a kind of small-scale urbanism that integrates public space and agriculture into its winding streets.
The participants immersed themselves in life on Capri in May and then discovered Midjourney. Almost all the images that AI program produces according to prompts by its users are fantastical. They tend towards the misty realms of fairytale lands, filled with landscapes and structures that evoke a familiar place yet somehow far away in time and space. That combination of distance and immediacy of recognition makes Midjourney seductive but also repetitive and predictable. It takes a good architect to be able to manipulate the kind of truly experimental work—like Cesare Battelli’s Towers of Babel and other hybrids—that I discussed in my last post. It also made it seem like a natural way to continue the paintings, novels, movies, and postcards that are as much a part of Capri’s reality as the island itself.
What the Capri 2.0 workshop produced was such strangely familiar imagery. The proposals ranged from the modest to the fairytale, although those two extremes seemed to also, courtesy of the computer’s mystical workings, become intertwined. Michele Yeeles, a designer based in Palm Springs, Calif., and Wellfleet, Mass., focused on a neglected community square and adjacent public tennis courts in the heart of the little town, evoking some of the artwork and fountains that had once been there and extending them into a system of water features. These rills and pools would make fresh water—what is on any island a precious commodity, but to which citizens here have much less access because of the cliffs that dominate Capri’s edges—central to the island’s life. Combining the impressionistic style in which the local tourist bureau likes to present the place with painter David Hockney’s vision of swimming pools in an equally mythic Southern California sybaritic landscape, Yeeles’s images make it seem as if the new scenery is already in place.
Derek Sommers, a senior associate with Populous in Kansas City, Mo., looked at this plaza and the main public piazzetta, or public square, and imagined a whole host of new open-air gathering points formed by gently reshaping, ordering, and opening up existing spaces. He managed to have the computer abstract and extend the subtly classical forms of the white-washed buildings already there and then enhanced them with a scaffolding that would allow for outdoor concerts and movie showings. Finally, the connected series of new piazzettas continued down to the shore, becoming a sometimes floating, sometimes attached walkway ringing the island and thus recapturing Capri’s edges, which are unused at the moment, for public enjoyment.
Nelson Schleiff, of the Berlin architecture firm Sauerbruch Hutton, took as his starting point the funicular that transports both tourists and locals from the main ferry, yacht, and fishing boat harbor up to the piazzetta. Ultimately eschewing Midjourney for what he calls "old school" hand-drawing techniques, he proposed several new stops along this eight-minute ride that might seduce visitors to sample local crafts and produce while providing residents with services—ranging from hardware stores to medical clinics—that are currently hard to find. These new spaces, hewn into the island’s rock, would then connect to a notional excavation of the Roman ruins that in fact exist under much of the town of Capri. Stores and bars intended only for the locals and initiates would continue the hangouts the workshop participants discovered during their stay there, hidden in back alleys or appearing in the private spaces of workers.
This underground world became vast in the imagining of Richard Quittenton, also of Sauerbruch Hutton. Taking off on the presence of caves throughout Capri, including the famous Blue Grotto, and the baths the Romans built, Quittenton prompted Midjourney to create a complete subterranean world where the equally underground population of restaurant and hotel workers, delivery people, and other seasonal staff could live and play. Accessed through the back of some of the luxury goods stores that line Capri’s main streets, this world would both accommodate those workers, who are often crammed together in bunkhouses hidden along the same back alleys Schleiff explored, and give them their own fantasy retreat.
In the work of Los Angeles–based designer Jan Sobotka, the island replicated itself completely, becoming a host of other islands that could sail around the world. Prompting Midjourney to turn the ever larger and more luxurious yachts that line the island during the summer months into composite geological structures that mimic the unstable terrain of Southern Italy, he dreamed of “peace islands” that could float around the world, promoting alternatives to conflict and developing alternate modes of sociality that would be more sustainable and just.
Not all the participants gave into the seduction of a computer-based analogy to the visions of a sun-blessed island retreat. Dylan Pero, who works alongside Schleiff and Quittenton at Sauerbruch Hutton, produced a concrete proposal to extend the colonnades that border so many gardens and porches on Capri to public spaces, providing shade and definition to the area where passengers wait for the ferry boats to arrive. He developed an intricate method of reusing trash, both on the island and off its shore, and growing columns out of native plants while finally also selling the results in postcard visions. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech assistant professor Nero Chenxuan He concentrated on the construction of the visual fantasies themselves, proposing a modern-day camera obscura, constructed out of the scaffolding that surrounds so many structures under renovation on Capri, that would let inhabitants see a reversed and perfected version of the island.
Capri is one of those places, like Southern California in the 1880s through 1920s, Aspen, Colo., or Sedona, Ariz., that sells itself as a fantasy location as much as it is an actual and particular place. Letting loose on the island Midjourney and other techniques that purvey or project images as much as they construct them based on the realities of square footage needs or structural concerns thus turned out to be a natural mode of operation. The results will be published and exhibited later this year and will then become part of the ongoing development of Capri, though I hope in a manner that might provide paths other than its continual perfection as a luxury resort for the very few living off the labor and resources imported from what we might call the real world.
This article has been updated.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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