Vertigo and Verve at Crazy House

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Nestled atop a hillside in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam stands a hotel that makes concrete one architect’s wildest dreams. The organic tumble of plaster is reminiscent of the works of Gaudi, with dripping edges and rounded corners abounding. A model giraffe’s head peers down on the courtyard, wreathed by bougainvillea, while fairy lights trace out giant spider webs in the leafy canopy. This is Crazy House.

Our stay at Crazy House – or Hang Nga Villa, as it is also known – was crazy from the hour we arrived; we knocked on the door at 5am, fresh off a night bus. As we entered the gates we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had lapsed back into the dream world, because the looming facades of the surrounding buildings were on a surreal tilt. Plaster vines radiate out from the high peak of the central building, twining themselves into dizzying bridges and collecting mosaic turrets as they ramble downwards. These perspective-denying angles are coupled with the kinds of stairs that would give an OSH inspector a heart attack, as we soon found out as we were taken for a tour of our accommodation.

The ten rooms at Crazy House are all themed to particular animals, with names like ‘The Bear Room’, ‘The Pheasant Room’ and ‘The Kangaroo Room’ apt descriptors. The latter boasts a life sized kangaroo sculpture, complete with glowing red eyes and a fireplace in its pouch. Thankfully the marsupial was unavailable, thus sparing us from Australian-inspired nightmares. Instead, the Ant Room was to be our abode for the night. Room is something of a misnomer, as the suite consists of three parts: bedroom, bathroom and a living area, complete with an ant shaped fireplace. This was not just a place to stay, but a place to really experience.

Crazy House is the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dr. Dang Viet Nga. After studying architecture in Moscow, she returned home to work for the Vietnamese government for many years before embarking on her own personal project. Started in 1990, the Crazy House is constantly evolving. The buildings are based off paintings, which are then transformed into reality by a team of local craftsmen. The project continues to have environmental concerns as a central theme, as Dr Dang Viet Nga explains: ‘with the voice of architecture I wish to lead men to come back to nature.’ At Crazy House, human habitats and natural shapes combine to create a new vision of architecture that pays close attention to organic detail, whilst setting no limits for the imagination.

Crazy House opens as a tourist attraction during the day, but daylight only reveals half the picture. By night the layered fairy lights and a symphony of frogs combine to create an other-worldly spectacle in the gardens. The chirping amphibians are a far cry from the bustling traffic noise of Ho Chi Minh City, which is just a day’s drive away, but their song lingers longer in the memory. Call me crazy, but that’s just the way I like it.

Crazy House (Hang Nga Villa) Da Lat City, Vietnam. Open Mon-Fri. www.crazyhouse.vn

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La Chascona: A poet’s eyes

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Ok, it’s now official: I am a literary groupie. Visiting Berlin to take in the sights from Theodor Fontane’s novels, I felt my heart speed up at the sight of the Liebesinsel and the (obscured) Grunewaldsee. That was just the beginning, inspiring a week-long Günter Grass Poland trip to take in the alleyways and history of Gdansk. It should not come as any surprise then that, finding myself on an overnight stopover in the capital of Chile, I am at it again. Today I made the trip through the bustling streets of Santiago to a small oasis perched on the side of a leafy hill, to explore the inner sanctum of Pablo Neruda’s ‘La Chascona’ abode.

Born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda is Chile’s most celebrated poet. Renowned for his sensuous poems, he also led a sensuous life: ‘La Chascona’ is named for his mistress – and later wife – Mathilde Urrutia, and was built as a sanctuary for her to live in and him to escape to. It is appropriate then that when it came to his house he chose to focus on the intimate interior rather than a showy façade. The white walls betray none of the inside details: courtyards overlook each other like Juliet balconies sheltered by grape vines, while twisting staircases inhabit secret passageways.

The artworks tell the story of a man who loved the ocean, with the walls adorned with galleons tossed upon wild seas. This love is evident from the first room, known as ‘The Captain’s Bar.’ The poet had a close affinity with the Ocean, calling himself a ‘Land Captain’ and filling his homes with maritime paraphernalia such as a theodolite and nautical charts. This collection also tells a personal story, and Diego Riviera’s portrait of Mathilde with two heads is fitting. The two faces hint at Neruda and Mathilde’s affair and later marriage, depicting what is seen and what is not. Those who look closely will also find Neruda’s profile painted in the waves of Mathilde’s hair.

La Chascona demonstrates the two sides of Neruda as well, with the rooms revealing insights into both the poet and the politician. While it is well known that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the importance of Neruda’s Marxist motivation is often overlooked. The numerous civic awards on display in the library serve as reminders of his successful diplomatic career. Neruda’s political interests remained strong right up until his death in 1973, which was attributed partly to stress over Salvador Allende’s loss of power following Pinochet’s military coup.

The lounge where Neruda’s wake was held is now open for visitors. The mountainous vista and eclectic collection of artworks, furniture and polished stones are welcoming, but their appearance masks a turbulent past. This is the same room in which Mathilde simultaneously mourned her husband and made a political stand, surrounded by friends and diplomats who had all picked their way across wooden beams to cross the flooded courtyard. The flooding was the result of vandalism, carried out by Neruda’s political opponents following General Augusto Pinochet’s takeover. When the people of Chile took to the streets to mourn him, they did so against direct orders, and knowing they were being watched by the brutal Pinochet regime.

Eyes still watch over the courtyard, but these days they are black and white drawings that hang from a branch and toss gently in the wind, winking over the landscape from many different angles. Having just come from Antarctica, my eyes are tuned in to relics of the Southern continent. Upstairs in the ‘French Room,’ an early map of Antarctica and a painting of a French Antarctic Expedition adorn the walls. The room is so called because it housed Neruda’s extensive collection of French poetry and literary works. It is also an insight into the poet’s unique attitude towards architecture: the room was built specifically to house Neruda’s favourite chair next to a well placed window and a picture he liked. Rather than starting with a space and filling it with details, he instead started with the details and built to accommodate them.

The result is a tangling maze of architectural moments, each its own work and, like a poem, suited to its own specific occasion. From the summer bar with its Single Malt Whisky sign, Fornasetti stools and giant pair of shoes through to the secret passageway between the dining room and Mathilde’s rooms upstairs, the house has many moods. It also inspires many moods in the visitors who come to explore, including curiosity and contemplation. I’ve come away from this excursion with a book of love poems, a better understanding of Chilean history and a definite track record for stalking literary greats.