Mario Botta says memory and history should be architects’ main sources of inspiration

Vladimir Belogolovsky travelled to Mendrisio, Switzerland, to meet Swiss architect Mario Botta to discuss his buildings, influences, and why he is more interested in the past than the future.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jul 01, 2021

Speaking one-on-one with architects and exploring their buildings and spaces at unforgettable places around the world can be a hugely gratifying experience. That practice was put on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which suddenly and fundamentally compressed, flattened, and basically reduced such engaging encounters to touchless, flavourless, not to mention often distorted on-line communications. Thankfully, this one-and-a-half-year-long routine was disrupted by an opportunity to travel to Europe to attend the XVII Venice Architecture Biennale during its opening days in late May. The occasion provoked me to undertake a few side road-trips, one of which brought me to Mendrisio, a tiny town near Lugano in Ticino, the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland, where a world-famous architect, Mario Botta (b. 1943) lives and creates.

  • Single family house, Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, 1971-73 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Single family house, Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, 1971-73 Image: Alo Zanetta
  • Single-family house (Rotonda), Stabio, Switzerland, 1980-81 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Single-family house (Rotonda), Stabio, Switzerland, 1980-81 Image: Alberto Flammer

There is a bonus for coming here, as an extensive collection of his unique buildings can be visited in this mountainous region – from a house on a slope accessed by a truss bridge in Riva San Vitale (1973) and compact cylinder of Casa Rotonda (1982) in Stabio, to gorgeous chapels San Giovanni Battista (1996) in Mogno and Santa Maria degli Angeli (1996) near the top of Mount Tamaro to an imposing Cassino (2006), a colossal castle-like structure in Campione d'Italia, tucked at the foot of a hill and reflected in Lake Lugano. Another highpoint, a mostly solid cylinder, is the Theater of Architecture. Finished in 2018, it hosts exhibitions at the Academy of Architecture of the Università della Svizzera Italiana. This world-class architecture school was founded by Mario Botta in Mendrisio in 1996. There are many other distinctive Botta-designed buildings here – villas, churches, wineries, restaurants, libraries, theatres, museums, residential blocks, office buildings, banks, and company headquarters. Once you see one of them you will want to see them all. During the two days I was in Ticino, it became a non-stop affair of following my car’s GPS from one Botta to the next.

  • Chapel Santa Maria degli Angeli, Mount Tamaro, Switzerland, 1990-96 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Chapel Santa Maria degli Angeli, Mount Tamaro, Switzerland, 1990-96 Image: Enrico Cano
  • Church San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Switzerland, 1986-96 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
    Church San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Switzerland, 1986-96 Image: Pino Musi

Being all very different, these buildings share curious features of sibling-like creatures – black and white or red and white zebra-pattern horizontal stripes; red, brown, and light yellow-brown colour brick straight and curved walls; basic geometric and predominantly symmetrical forms that are firmly grounded; deep cuts into seemingly solid cubes and cylinders; circular eye-like apertures; gable or single-slice skylights; open stairs and buttresses-like bridges; a play of solid, perforated, and sliced corners; and porous, sunlight-flooded interiors. Every building is a world in itself, with every detail designed by the master architect. In fact, Botta’s designs extend beyond buildings, ranging from urban plazas, fountains, and sculptures to chairs, light fixtures, vases, watches, and pencils. Many of these objects are very architectural, and even chairs tend to look like miniature buildings.

Building Fuoriporta (Architect’s office), Mendrisio, Switzerland, 2005-11 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Building Fuoriporta (Architect’s office), Mendrisio, Switzerland, 2005-11 Image: Enrico Cano

The 78-year-old Botta invited me to his studio, which he moved a decade ago from Lugano to Mendrisio, his birthplace. The practice occupies a large double-height space on the ground floor of the architect-designed Building Fuoriporta (2011). Facing the town’s petit train station, it also houses a furniture showroom, offices, and a medical centre. The busy practice is filled with wood and cardboard models and furniture prototypes. Current projects include commissions all over the world, including now under-construction one million square meter Campus for the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, China. The following is a condensed version of our conversation that was conducted with the help of Tommaso Botta, the architect’s middle son; all three children of Mario Botta – two sons and daughter – are architects and work at their father’s office.  

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I like your quote, “Minimalist architecture is of interest to me, even if I am myself a maximalist.” What do you mean by referring to yourself as a maximalist?

Mario Botta (MB): The minimalist attitude reduces problems to the minimum. But architecture is an emotional endeavour. So, it needs something more than a bare minimum. In any case, these two concepts are not contradictory to each other. Look at the work of Tadao Ando, for example. His architecture is both minimalist, in terms of the means of expression, and maximalist, in terms of the depth of expression. It may seem to be a paradox, but the minimum doesn’t exclude the maximum. 

VB: As a student at the University IUAV in Venice, you worked shortly with Modern masters such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Yet, it was Carlo Scarpa who you studied under and had a close contact with. Could you talk about his influence on you?

MB: Well, my work is deeply influenced by all three. So, it would be impossible to separate one from the others and focus on Scarpa only. Yet, speaking of Scarpa, he had very acute sensibility for materials. He was the best to express materials’ sensibilities. He was able to reduce a form or shape to its essence. He would find his ideas in philosophy, religion, or nature, and express them in very essential and tangible ways through materials. I would go as far as saying that he was the last humanistic architect of the renaissance.

Vases, Terracotta: matte black enamel terracotta, 1999-2001| Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Vases, Terracotta: matte black enamel terracotta, 1999-2001 Image: Marco D'Anna

VB: Speaking of your own work, you often use terms such as weight, gravity, rationality, mathematics, geometry. What other words would you use to describe your work and the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?

MB: Of course, you already mentioned the most important qualities. Expressing gravity is crucial. It is the opposite of lightness. If I wanted to achieve lightness, I would make a balloon or build an airplane, not a house. But a house should take possession of the terrain. Architecture starts with gravity. And what you absolutely must add to this list is the importance of light. It is the light that generates spaces. If there is no light, there is no space.

VB: Your buildings are often dressed in horizontal, zebra-like stripes. True, when you travel here in Ticino, you see this pattern on the facades of many historical buildings all the time. And this pattern is present in the work of Scarpa, particularly his furniture pieces. Still, I wonder if you try to express something meaningful to you personally?

MB: The reason for these horizontal strips is to declare physical presence of the materials used in the construction and to express their meaning. Sure, this is something that comes from Scarpa – the idea of expressing the structure behind every composition by emphasising forces and lines, both horizontally and vertically. Everything is important – the colour, the structure, and the materiality. It is important to express the nature of every material. I never try to minimise or hide a sense of gravity. Buildings tell stories – you can see how much work was done, such as a layer of a particular material per day. These layers show the process, which is important. 

Chair “Quarta,” 1984 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Chair “Quarta,” 1984 Image: Aldo Ballo

VB: What I noticed is that these unique means of expression you introduced from the very beginning, once you had a chance to build your first projects. There was no long search for your identity, right? 

MB: That’s true because what I do is not invented from scratch. My work is rooted in history. As you mentioned, you can see, for example, the stripes expressed in how our cathedrals used to be built here in the region. And the idea of gravity – putting one layer of material over another layer is an ancient idea. I absorbed what was here before me and I incorporated it into my own work.

Axonometric: Single-family house (Rotonda), Stabio, Switzerland, 1980-81 | Interview with Mario Botta | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Axonometric: Single-family house (Rotonda), Stabio, Switzerland, 1980-81 Image: Courtesy of Mario Botta Architetti

VB: I like the consistency of your work and I also like the reliance on fundamentals and basic materials and technology. Your projects could be built a long time ago and they could be built in the future. There is no immediate reliance on the current times and building industry innovations. As you said, “You don’t need a Moon-landing technology to make a house.”

MB: Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about technology – new materials and new building techniques. But for the most part, I don’t see why houses and some other projects can’t be built more or less the way they were built for centuries? Even if modern technology allows us to reach the Moon, why at the same time, we can’t live in a very simple house without too much sophistication? I am trying to achieve a sense of timelessness, not to reflect sophistication of only our own time. Our body is the same as in the past, our needs are basically the same as before. I think contemporary architecture often overexaggerates the importance of technology, both as far as buildings’ forms and claddings. But if you ever lived in traditional houses in Venice or Florence with thick walls, high ceiling, and small windows, you would agree that these places offer very high standard of living and the quality of life there can be very satisfactory. You ask me whether the latest technology should be a part of architecture, but I, as an architect, work in the territory of memory. Today, we often forget the past, but I am inspired by the past more than by anything else. Today critics talk about ecology, technology, biology… But many people forget about our own past.

VB: This means that when I asked you to name key words that describe your work, in addition to gravity and light, we need to add memory.

MB: In fact, memory and history should be the absolute priorities for architects as the source of inspiration for new architecture. But today so many people forget the past. It is unfortunate. I know many creative people – artists, writers, playwrights, philosophers, and others. All of them are more interested in the past, not the future.

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