“We don’t use numberslike 1,3,5,7,”says Swiss architect Peter Märkli. “We prefer 2, 4, 8, 16 and things like that.” Smelling faintly of cigarettes and sweeping his silvery fringe away from his face, he speaks slowly and carefully of the beauty of the golden section, reeling off numbers and exuding more the qualities of a bohemian mystic than a revered architect.
We’re in the foyer of an east London hotel an hour before Märkli is due to give a lecture for the Architecture Foundation at Tate Modern. He’s just returned from a cigarette break, and despite his beige-cord, teacher-style suit and crumpled shirt, he has a kind of film star aura. He’s smaller than one would imagine, a little pouty and rather suave.
White marble floors and columns define the central space of the Novartis visitors centre
Even the air ducts are encased in gold-coloured aluminium
Märkli, 55, comes from Zurich, and like his fellow Swiss box-makers Peter Zumthor and Valerio Olgiati, he has quietly accumulated cult status. He could be accused of being boring, but he believes that the principles of classicism and proportion convey a revolutionary agenda. He despairs at young architects who are caught up in spectacle but have never learned the rules they are merrily breaking. He believes that being an architect isn’t simply an acquisition of knowledge at university – it’s a process that needs to be absorbed, a weight of history that should be observed.
“Our profession is an old language and it has a grammar,” he says in his heavy Swiss-German accent, leaning forward and clasping his hands. “And about this people don’t know anything. So how is it they can do a building if they do not know the grammar?” Märkli smiles, apologising for the flaws in his English and gently acknowledging the irony of the grammatical metaphor.
The central stairwell
“In the primary school you have a thing like an ‘A’,” he later tells his audience in an auditorium at Tate Modern. “Perhaps then you have ‘apple’. A long time later you try to write a love letter. I think you have learned the language ten or eleven years until this moment. For me it’s the same. It’s very important that you give yourself time to learn this profession from the beginning.”
This is a popular theme behind the current trend of restrained British modernism. Märkli had been introduced in awed tones by Adam Caruso of London-based architect Caruso St John. Caruso described Märkli as a maverick because he sees his role in building as a 2,500-year-old conversation with history, which is perhaps how Caruso would like to see his own practice.
The digital letters of Jenny Holzer’s installation can be made out above the ground floor Goran Potkonjak
Märkli’s buildings are slowly built, considerate pieces of architecture. His most famous is La Congiunta, a small Swiss gallery housing sculptures by Hans Josephsohn, one of Märkli’s favourite artists and now a long-term collaborator. “Some buildings are built for people,” Märkli says, describing this windowless, grey concrete box, still marked with the imprints of construction. “This is built for sculptures. There is just concrete, no electricity, no insulation, just space.” La Congiunta is a container for art, and externally it’s rough, difficult and inaccessible. The building has the qualities of both a neglected Greek ruin and a monument, making literal his interest in ancient history.
Ancient Greece was not a place of sombre sandy pillars, however, but lively colours and lashings of gold, and this hasn’t passed Märkli by. His recent building, a visitor centre at the campus of pharmaceutical company Novartis in Basel that sits alongside buildings by SANAA and Diener & Diener, is lavish and majestic, with golden cladding and a Jenny Holzer installation, LED statements buzzing around the ground-floor facade. Not only does it stand out among his work as a piece of corporate place-making, but it is luxurious in ways that his other buildings are not. And, entirely because he could, he used the most beautiful white marble and gold, beautiful wooden stairwells. Although he insists that architecture exists as background, there are episodes of richness here, moments of startling beauty that insist it cannot.
The Picassohaus is an office building in Basel’s Picassoplatz. The project was completed in March 2008
Another building in Basel, the Picassohaus, is a similar essay of Miesian proportions. Completed last month, it isn’t far from the offices of Herzog & de Meuron and a handful of other major practices. Märkli is convinced that there is something “special” about Swiss design today. “I think there is place where some people are very, very, er, very important for the moment, for the generation. And I think in Switzerland it was, er, from the Eighties until now, there’s a concentration of good architects.” The reason, he thinks, is because they have successfully shrugged off any attempt to make architecture social engineering, and focused on design, particularly the design of houses.
Swiss architects have been particularly adept at embracing both modern materials and ancient monumentality. Märkli’s entire logic is based on the idea of architecture as a continually evolving canon of law that cannot be abandoned. But in Switzerland there is a sense that it hasn’t been abandoned. Despite Switzerland’s diversity of languages and cultures, it has never had to face the explosive industrialisation, wartime destruction or social engineering experiments of the 1960s and 70s that other countries went through. The reason that the kind of young architects Märkli criticises are emerging and building so fast is because the demand is great, materials and fabrication processes are advancing quickly, and they are morphing into what their clients want.
The central stairwell
When Märkli entered architectural education at Zurich’s ETH in the 70s he found himself confronted by the kind of social and political theory that was somewhat uninteresting to him. He was uninspired by university and was more influenced by space, rigour, forms and patterns – he found solace in Le Corbusier and Rudolph Olgiati (father of Valerio).
But this fanaticism regarding proportions and golden sections poses an intriguing questions – when do you stop? Logistically, he must encounter some problems – is it just the window proportions? The squares of the carpet? The toilet cubicle? What happens if there isn’t enough room to make it work? Märkli admits with a mischievous smile that as a student he was frequently edging over the boundaries of his sites in order to emphasise his point – it didn’t go down very well with his teachers and he has had to rein himself in somewhat. “We were a little bit worried about the height of Novartis,” he confesses. “But we realised that we could divide the 22m by eight and we would have nearly the golden section.”
La Congiunta museum, 1992, among the vineyards. The layers of concrete shuttering are carefully designed to be visible inside and out Christian Richters
But he is less dogmatic than he sounds – he once described his approach as if he was designing a square in which one of the angles is slightly wrong; it’s not perfect, but perfect enough to convey everything he needs to say about the square. He strives to emulate the proportions and spaces of the classical orders and believes that rules exist for a reason. “If I do a door, it’s not only a door. I know you want to go in and out, but you also look to the measures and the meaning of the door and all these things. This is the bigger part of the profession.” Märkli offers proportions as the spatial, architectural equivalent of chords. Major or minor, it’s the same; they either feel “right”, or they do not. It’s the same rulebook that Vitruvius wrote about in the first century BC. He could have used the proportions and dimensions of a brick, which many do, but he searched for better criteria for decision-making. Märkli references architecture – not art, not plants, not society. He claims that he builds without context, and he would be happy to build in Dubai or China, as long as they gave him enough time.
The new organ of Basel Cathedral, 2003
As his talk draws to a close – he has been known to talk for fours hours at a time – he takes questions on more intrinsic qualities of designing architecture. “Let’s take Europe at the moment, look not at the inner cities but to the peripheries: you have nothing. You have no feelings, you have barbarism without end. This cannot be the future for the young generation. I think today that you cannot have enough feelings. If the human being is in the centre of your feelings and of your thoughts then you cannot have enough. It’s wonderful.”
Single family house, Hünenberg, 1999 Christian Richters