Since designing his first house at age 16, Mario Botta has been a controversial and paradoxical figure. Christopher Kanal asks him whether his ethical architecture seeks to inspire modern society or retreat from it.
"There are no aesthetics without ethics, there are no immoral aesthetics," Mario Botta tells me. The architect behind the recent Santo Volto Church views architecture as an almost spiritual duty. Like a baroque architect, he once said: "To build is a sacred act, an action that transforms a condition of nature into a condition of culture," Yet is Botta's striving for ethics and purity in architecture a reactionary stance from a national redoubt in Lugano or a personal crusade? Probably both.
Botta's work has a real sense of paradox, making him one of the most original architectural voices of our time. He is also notoriously difficult to define.
Crowned in his earlier career by Charles Jencks as a leading genius of 'postmodern classicism', Botta has since been described as a 'neorealist' and a 'fundamentalistic classicist'.
A decade ago he declared war on post modernism and what he saw as its resultant 'global Disneyland architecture'. One of the few living architects to have worked with Le Corbusier, Botta's sense of the epic is reflected in his opinions.
"I think architecture is a civil duty that relates to mankind, a social duty that concerns society and an ethical duty, as architecture can represent values related to the way we live," Botta tells me from his office in Lugano, the Alpine town that has inspired so much of his work since he opened his practice here in 1970. Separated by the Alps from the rest of Switzerland, Lugano is a suitably lofty base for Botta.
SENSITIVE HISTORICAL DESIGN
Much of his work has an awesome appreciation of history. You only have to visit the Church of San Giovanni Battista in the tiny mountain village of Mogno, with its walkway jutting into the mountains, to see this. "Architecture is the shape of history," he tells me. "Therefore it has to portray the expectations, hopes and contradictions of its own time.
"Architecture is a discipline that gives an order to the space in our life, therefore it can give a structure to the organisation of the space," says Botta. "Heidegger once said that man can only live when he is able to orient himself in a space, that's why the buildings in our cities have to offer some reference points that enable man to know his own space. You feel more comfortable when you are able to control the space around you." Unsurprisingly, he tells me that he thinks the German philosopher would have made a great architect.
Botta addresses his philosophical and spiritual questions using geometry, yet there is a hermetic defensiveness in his designs. He describes much of modern architecture as commercial, disposable and artificial. So, does he seek refuge from society by creating churches, offices and apartments that look like citadels?
"The main idea of protection is part of architecture," he says. "Home remains in our subconscious as our shelter, our protection and these values are very important in a discipline like architecture." Does he, like Heidegger, see the natural world as separated from our eksistent essence by an abyss? "I don't think we can talk about natural world. The natural world is already modified by man's work and is constantly changing."
If anything, Botta's work seeks to improve the quality and appreciation of life. Indeed, the most important thing Botta learnt from Le Corbusier is that architecture can have a far-reaching influence on society.
"There are good examples like the Masters of Rationalism and Le Corbusier, who aimed to improve the quality of life," he says. "Then, there are others who work with rubbish."
It is not just Le Corbuisier who has had a profound influence on Botta. Between 1964 and 1969, Botta was at the Universitario di Architettura in Venice. During those years, through a combination of good luck and perseverance, he was able to make contact with three giants of the architectural world – Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa, one of his teachers and his thesis professor.
While Scarpa taught Botta the importance of a philosophical appreciation of material structure, Kahn, in particular, held a fascination for his reduction of architecture to the essentials. "He was the one who understood the limits of technological development and the need for going back to the origins," Botta explains, adding that "going back to the origins is in fact the strongest cultural element in a society that constantly focuses on the future."
Botta has strived throughout his career to merge his buildings into the landscape they exist in. His motivation stems from an almost primeval instinct to create shelter. "The primitive still exists in what's new in the society," he says. "Architecture has the ability to demonstrate these primitive values and this is something really important for me." Yet he also strives for simplicity in creating uncomplicated, expressive designs for both the metropolis and the mountains.
Ever the philosopher architect, Botta's work can be divided into the spiritual and secular. While his public buildings like the Kyobo Tower in Seoul have an almost brutal sense of purpose; his architecture for God has a playful expressiveness to it, similar to Tadao Ando, an architect he admires. Botta's religious building designs address fundamental questions of man's relationship with the divine.
He often quotes Le Corbusier's theory of how a theoretically perfectly realised architecture drives away contingent presences and achieves the 'miracle of inexpressible space', yet the solidity of his architecture, with its precise symmetry and geometry, seems to strive for control and certainty.
Despite this, his churches are less restrained in their manipulation of space and geometry. For Botta, the infinite requires space. "I like to observe the relationship between architecture and time," he reflects. "I think that spaces can represent metaphoric and symbolic values that mankind needs."
Botta's most recent piece of divine intervention is the Santo Volto Church in Turin, which was finished in December 2006. With its angled red-brick towers, Santo Volto looks like a forge, an appropriate design given the area's industrial history. Botta's church designs have long sought to address the interests of both the congregation and the wider area, being both a religious focus and an urban landmark.
SANTO VOLTO CHURCH, TURIN
The Santo Volto Church structure is formed by seven interlinked perimeter towers, which provide a huge vaulted internal space for church services. The industrial chimney was clad and reused to form a church tower with a spiral decoration and stylised thorns. The exterior of Santo Volto is a triumph of geometry over form. From the air the church looks like a star emerging from the industrial fabric of the city.
While the eccentric exterior provides the spiritual impact, there is a typical church cloister running around two sides of an elevated plaza. Inside the church your eye is drawn immediately towards the roof, yet Botta does not let scale overshadow detail. The congregation sits on pews arranged on a tilted disc of marble, the diameter of which fills the space within the paired columns. Botta even designed the solid marble altar.
The Santo Volto Church is testament to the strongest characteristics of Botta's architecture – the Renaissance-like appreciation of craftsmanship and geometry complemented by a respect for situation.
Another of Botta's most celebrated works is the chapel at Monte Tamaro which has a walkway reaching out from a bluff high above a valley. The walk along this projection towards the Ticino Mountains, high in the mist, is a profound experience that merges the supernatural with the natural.
Is Botta religious? "I never talk about religion as it's all about spirituality for me," he says describing his building designs for all three monotheistic religions. "I have designed Christian churches, I have designed a synagogue in Tel Aviv and I am currently projecting a mosque."
Botta's religious buildings have the wider purpose of drawing communities closer together. His Cymbalista Synagogue in Tel Aviv, completed in 1998, is used by both liberal and Orthodox Jews and contains two different places for worship.
PUBLIC, YET PERSONAL
Over the past decade, Botta has focused on creating major public buildings worldwide. Functional, rigorous and closely in tune with their surroundings, buildings like the monolithic Kyobo Tower in Seoul brutally assert their solidity.
Interestingly Botta's renown for designing places of worship has made him a sought-after architect by big business. However, he passionately believes he can reconcile building both churches and casinos. "They both give people a sense of control of the world," he says.
Botta's first built work after graduation was a single-family house at Cadenazzo in Ticino, in 1971. His significant house projects include Ligornetto with Martin Boesch and Pregassona with Rudy Hunziker in the 1970s, and Morbio Superiore in the early 1980s.
Many of his projects have been single-family houses, which hold a particular fascination for him. His early projects with their linear, asymmetrical structures evolved into more formal buildings. Houses might be 'mini architecture', but they have unique issues that go to the roots of design.
Home has been the one constant throughout the evolution of history. "The role of the house is present 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he says. "Modern rationalism used to focus its studies on the construction of the house, but now home is nothing but a subject of speculation for investors and this is negative for the society."
There are many paradoxes in Botta's work but there is one constant – his critical study of his surroundings. Each of his buildings aims to understand its situation and thus generate a new function. "I do think architecture lives beyond its function," he says enigmatically. "It gives shape to history."