architecture : urban : visual culture

Mario Botta - the Swiss architect talks about the distinctive elements of his architecture

In this article Mario Botta talks about himself in an exclusive interview given to Realtŕ Mapei and carried out by Marco Manzoni from the Mapei SpA’s Marketing Department.

His name, which is even familiar to the public at large, is now synonymous with architecture. In a career spanning over 50 years he has designed dozens of projects all over the world, drawing inspiration from maestros like Le Corbusier and Carlo Scarpa and developing his own very personal style.

Nevertheless the Swiss architect Mario Botta deliberately shies from the spotlight and does not want to be known as an “archistar”. On the contrary, as he tells it in his delightful interview-book entitled Vivere l’architettura (Living architecture), his idea of design is more reminiscent of a process of research and knowledge, constantly interacting with both the elements forming the landscape and recollections of the past. His sober style, featuring powerful and geometric architectural spaces, is the distinctive trait of his creations from his earliest detached houses in Riva San Vitale and Ligornetto (Switzerland), now part of the history of architecture, to such prestigious projects as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (USA) and MART, the Trento and Rovereto Contemporary Art Museum (Italy).

Mario and Maria Botta with Adriana Spazzoliand Giorgio Squinzi at La Scala Theatre in Milan.

He is very closely tied to the Italian city of Milan, where he designed the modernisation project for La Scala Theatre, and he is also closely tied to Mapei, whose products contributed to the completion of this complex and prestigious building project (see the lengthy article in Realtŕ Mapei International n. 16). “An exceptional building project”, so Botta stated “that came up against objectively tricky working conditions of the greatest technical and functional complexity”. As part of the ‘Off-the-Show’ events (Fuorisalone) programme of the 2011 Milan Salone del Mobile (Furniture trade fair), Botta gave a special lecture on “Architecture and the City” at Milan State University, during which he got the chance to outline the very coherent way in which abstract thinking can be connected to concrete work, also presenting numerous projects carried out all around the globe. On that occasion, Giorgio Squinzi, CEO of the Mapei Group, emphasised his personal and professional friendship with Mario Botta, “ties that have lasted over decades based on the same vision of life”.

In this article Botta talks about himself in an exclusive interview
given to Realtŕ Mapei and carried out by Marco Manzoni from the Mapei SpA’s Marketing Department.

In your opinion what is the purpose of architecture in the modern-day world?

In the modern-day world, just as in ancient times, architecture should shape the space in which people live. This means it must create a new kind of balance between people and their surroundings.

Why do you make such frequent use of brick in your works of architecture?

Brick is a relatively cheap natural material (clay and fire), which enjoys the privilege of “ageing” well and hence of enduring over time. I also believe that being able to shape space using a material whose own expressive potential is enhanced by constant variations in sunlight is a great advantage.

What influence have projects for detached houses had in your experience as an architect?

Detached houses, which I particularly got the chance to design when I was young, have played a fundamental part in my training and development. For an architect, houses are the most important theme in the realm of living, places  that are lived in throughout the entire day and, more generally speaking, right through the year. They are permanent “shelters” that people return to after a hectic day’s work. I believe that detached houses taught me a better understanding of the need to shape spaces in relation to people’s needs.

Offices and Residential Areasin the Former Campari Plant’sSite, Sesto San GiovanniItaly (2004-2010) © Gianni Dal Magro

Can the nature of a place affect your approach to architecture? And if so, how?

Every place is unique and, just as much as technical-functional needs, dictates the data and information that must be taken into consideration in a project. It is impossible to envisage a work of architecture that does not interact very closely with the surrounding land.

How can philosophy and design coexist and why must they coexist for the future development of architectural language?

Architectural design, like every other form of human expression, must come to terms with the hopes and needs underscoring people’s lives. Consequently, every work of architecture is also a kind of response to the thinking, philosophy and expectations expressed by the community as a whole. An architect must transform all that into a suitable architectural language for embodying the stylistic expression and sensibility of their own age.

To what extent can people and the importance of our history of the past influence this narrative, particularly in relation to your most important works?

J’existe car je me souviens, (I live because I can remember) is a quote from a French poet that I agree with. Without the past there cannot even be a present. For an architect the past is a constant source of inspiration and learning. In the global world in which we live, the realm of memory takes on a fundamental role for all “creative people”. It is not a matter of expressing forms along the mannerist lines of fake history, but rather of interpreting the spirit of the past through new means of expression. Memory is something whose value lies in thought, not style.

Why is simplicity always a distinctive feature of your architecture?

Simple, primary forms are easy to read. I believe that being able to find your way around a space is also a key aspect of inhabiting it. Moreover, simple forms, backed up by geometry, enable greater control over the balances that light generates within spaces.

In your opinion what will be the most important spaces for the community as a whole in the near future?

The city is, by definition, the place where people are brought together through relational spaces between different buildings and different activities. It is likely that in the future greater attention will be devoted to the design of spaces and works of architecture capable of meeting the need to communicate and live together (squares, theatres, conference centres, auditoriums, museums, etc.).

How important is the development of materials in your projects?

Architecture take shape through the use of the various different materials available on the market at different periods in time. This means architects are expected to use the products of their own age (and own culture). Whenever I am working on a project, depending on the context in question, I try to use the best products and materials available for that particular geographical setting.

Which country has had the greatest influence and contributed most to your line of architectural thinking?

“My countries”, I think. On one hand Switzerland and on the other Italy, due to the richness of their orography and their different types of light. As I have already said, I believe that context is an integral part of architectural design.

Mario Botta, © Enrico Cano

Is there any particular country in which building has been a driving force behind growth?

I think it can safely be said that building is a key factor in the growth of every advanced nation. In relation to this, I can safely say, based on my current experience, that China teaches us how boosting the building industry can coincide with the hope to achieve a better quality of life.

46. Realtá Mapei International Magazine


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