Mario Botta | icon 032 | February 2006

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words Justin McGuirk

Is this Swiss architect a dinosaur on the run from modern society, or a purist building for the human spirit? Both.

Mario Botta’s buildings are potent, philosophical, wonderfully well made and, more often than not, utterly unloveable. This paradox will take some explaining, but it has something to do with history. Botta’s work reeks of history, to the point where one suspects he would rather be living in the past than in the present. Modern society, and by implication its architecture, is far too ephemeral, insubstantial and, frankly, commercial for Botta. One senses that he craves refuge from it, which must be why he has spent his career building castles.

Botta’s banks are bastions, his apartment blocks citadels and his corporate towers impenetrable keeps. He explains this solidity in terms of gravity, and a desire to root his buildings in the earth. He is appealing to man’s primitive instincts for shelter, but also hopes, as Aldo Rossi did, to make the urban environment more legible by using simple, geometric archetypes. Yet it is their very heaviness, their reductive inscrutability, that makes his buildings so unfriendly.

Having said all that, it’s time to start qualifying it. While Botta brings the same principles to bear on all his buildings, one can draw a line between his secular work and his churches. And that is just what the RIBA has done with this exhibition of his sacred spaces. The 12 churches exhibited here demonstrate that Botta’s language is far more expressive in the articulation of sacred space. This may be because there are intrinsically historical values at work, or more likely because he can do most with his manipulation of geometry and light when trying to represent the ineffable.

A couple of months ago I visited Botta at his office in Lugano, in Switzerland. He quoted Heidegger, spoke confidently about moral values in architecture and decried the fact that when we enter a shopping centre we feel lost and need arrows to point the way. More telling than his pontificating, though, was a small square window underfoot that looked through to an arrangement of inlaid triangles one floor down. This detail revealed to me Botta the neo-Renaissance architect, a man using geometry to express fundamental laws – natural or divine, depending on your point of view.

This is perhaps most succinct in the Church of San Giovanni Battista, in the tiny mountain village of Mogno. From outside it is an isolated turret – a cylinder with stone walls 2m thick, not remotely church-like, more of an observatory. On the inside, however, it is an extraordinary, lapidary space. While at their base they define a square, the walls are subtly shifting as they rise to meet a circular glass ceiling. This metamorphosis – and the attending metaphor of an earthly geometry becoming a heavenly one – is transcribed in the walls by the light from the clear rose window that slices the cylinder at a 45° angle. This space is as rich in its effect and its interpretation as anything designed by Botta’s one-time boss, Louis Kahn, or the contemporary whom he admires most, Tadao Ando.

Not all the buildings in this exhibition manage to find such perfect delicacy in their robustness. The Cymbalista Synagogue in Tel Aviv uses a similar geometrical transformation but it doesn’t attenuate the fact that it looks like a fortress. However, each of these buildings has its moment. The chapel at Monte Tamaro anchors itself to a bluff above a precipitous drop in the valley so that it can project a walkway out towards the Ticino mountains. That walk is steeped in natural, philosophical and, for the chapel’s congregation, religious drama. And it made me overcome my suspicion that Botta had nothing to contribute to the dialogue of contemporary architecture.

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