Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

I don’t typically find myself writing about architecture anymore: its artistic impacts are above my pay grade, its history was never covered in my curriculum extra or otherwise, and I have carved out a tiny niche in the world of urbanism blogging with Radials. (If I needed to vent “artistically” [and I use that word lightly, can’t you tell by the quotes?] I would write something for Unknown Concrete, but when I realized that managing two blogs by myself was going to be a bit more challenging that expected I let the registration lapse.) I enjoy reading Paul Goldberger immensely (kudos to him for winning the Vincent Scully prize for architectural criticism recently) and Michael Sorkin and Mark Shepard are the kind of iconoclastic writers and editors we need in an increasingly mundane urban ferment—it seems like the more purely academic we have in urbanism the more stale the ideas become.

I also don’t write about architecture because it’s sort of depressing. Even really beautiful projects like the Barclays Center are marred by the addition of a dozen residential towers that look like they were gleaned from Le Corbusier’s notebooks, the sort of vertical living arrangements he would have built if the relevant design aesthetic had shifted from brick to steel and glass. (Aside: I know that readers are probably turned off by my admiration for the Vishaan Chakrabarti/SHoP designed stadium mostly because of its association with Forest City Ratner and their opaque dealings with the City administration, but I’m talking solely about the aesthetic qualities of the stadium and I think it’s a beautiful, if dangerously contemporary, piece of work.) The context of modern architecture is tipped towards the ordinary where developers want the cheapest, quickest, and plainest way to make a dollar off urban land that is getting exponentially more expensive every time I look for an apartment. On the high end, architectural quirks can turn off buyers who simply want an apartment that impresses on the inside while people in lower tax brackets—well actually the shortage of low and middle income housing in major cities and especially New York mean that there isn’t much room for scrutiny when it comes to dwellings. Either way, when it comes to urban buildings we end up with safely experimental pieces from starchitects like Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei where a flourishing twirl of titanium is simply an autograph on an otherwise plain façade letting developers sell apartments for twice or three times what they’re actually worth.

 Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

Photo Urs Homberger

Then I stumbled upon this decade old Swiss wellness center (Bergoase) designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta. (Alright, so my girlfriend actually stumbled upon it and passed it along to me—it’s always full disclosure here at Radials!). Botta—a disciple of Le Corbusier who thankfully took his cues from the bespectacled icon’s work in architecture and not urban theory—isn’t exactly a household name and has only a few buildings located outside of Switzerland including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (not the most interesting building I’ve seen) and the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. His most famous building is probably the Church of San Giovanni Battista in Mogno, Switzerland and the similarities between this stark turret of a church and the Bergoase are undeniable, especially when you view the church from profile.

The shaved cylinder in Mogno loses its sharp edging on the move north into the Alps but in calming the sides Botta has achieved something otherworldly and organic simultaneously—the quarter-and-half domes sticking out of the Bergoase look like halved tangerines or almonds from another planet. The embrace of those quasi-natural shapes is a departure from his tutelage under Le Corbusier that doesn’t quite have the escape velocity needed to completely ditch the International Style that made his idol famous, but it does represent an interesting dichotomy for an architect like Botta. Viewed from above, the Bergoase is rigid and mechanical, concepts that dominated Le Corbusier’s architectural vernacular and trickled down to his pupils, but the dorsal qualities of Bergoase in profile are closer in style to contemporary buildings Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels, architecture’s current wunderkind and 32 years Botta’s junior. (The interior of Bergoase is a vogue juxtaposition of sharp steel and glass and undulating stone, the modern and ancient side by side.)

 Mario Botta and the Lost Exceptionalism of Architecture

Photo Enrico Cano

Designing striking buildings in the Alps is an exercise in unrestrained architecture however, and in urban landscapes we are often bound by zoning, space, and developer vision. Botta could be unleashed on his project rather than chained by it, a concept that monumental projects like the Freedom Tower and West 57 (to say nothing of the absolutely repulsive design for the rest of Atlantic Yards) could glean more than a little. Architecture is getting more and more stale in this city even as the real estate prices continue to rocket upwards—you figure one or two of these developers could afford a risk or two when clients will gladly pay millions of dollars simply for the privilege of living in a brand new building. Though when our vernacular begins to shift from “how beautiful” to “how much?” maybe it’s just time to pack it in.

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