Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Where a man’s castle is his home
E. M. Farrelly
THE mythical – or, as Jung would have it, archetypal – human abode is part tree-house, part cave, airy and outward-looking on the one hand, deeply protective on the other.
Different cultures lean to different ends of this con tinuum, with houses in Old Europe emphasising the introspective cave (the very word “house” is related to “hide”), while the New World breaks free. The view-obsessed Australian house – glassy, open, and preferably beachside – tends distinctly towards the airy eyrie for reasons that are cultural as much as climatic.
The architect Mario Botta, currently showing at Artspace Gallery, in Woolloomooloo, is positively un-Australian. This should surprise no-one, since he lives and works in Ticino, high in the Italian end of Switzerland. Carved off the Duchy of Milan between 1440 and 1516, this ancient Alpine canton includes Lugano, Locarno and Bellinzona, and just fingers Como. Prime romantic territory, but it’s a long way from the beach, culturally speaking.
Ticino also boasts an architectural tradition with serious cult status, and Botta is by no means its only class act, although by far its most famous, most publishable, most mainstream. This may surprise you, since the work isn’t exactly standard Home Show material. The man is obsessed by geometry – circles and cylinders in particular – and the work is stiff, defensive, aloof. Downright snotty, by beach standards. But it does have something.
Botta leapt into the limelight in the early 1980s, with a series of extraordinary houses which owed nothing to the traditional idea of dwelling, and everything to Botta’s developing personal dogma as to the meaning of form in light. The work pays clear homage to the Modern greats – especially Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, both of whom Botta encountered personally before they shuffled off, and Carlo Scarpa, who supervised his graduate thesis.
There are also clear interrelationships with the work of some of his famous but arguably more talented compatriots – tribal elders such as Aurelio Galfetti, as well as contemporaries Luigi Snozzi and Mario Campi.
The Botta images, though, were unmistakably postmodern. Symmetrical, colourful, emphatically graphic, implicitly anthropomorphic and immensely photogenic, they claimed cover after cover of every architectural mag in Christendom.
In this, of course, the setting helped – Alpine scenics with tiny crumbling villages and the odd medieval friary, whatever. Paste Botta’s cylindrical Medici house from Stabio (1980) into down-under suburban Woop Woop and you’d lose a little something in translation, for sure. But there’s more to it than that.
Botta is a rationalist. At a time when modernity generally seemed to be losing its way, his work contrived to offer the pictorial quality that postmodernism craved, while rejecting its relativism outright. On the contrary, his use of monument al symmetry, of bold, sheer forms, and his rediscovery of brick as a decorative medium seemed to exude confidence, proclaiming an unbroken link between ancient past and limitless future. With a lineage back, through ponderous geometries of 18th-century Rationalists such as BoulleÅe and Ledoux to the romanesque and beyond, these houses presumed – nay, demanded – an equally fearless way forward.
The Stabio house is a well-known and typical example. A massive, three-storeyed brick drum with a central columnar stair on one side, and cut-out slot-glazing on the other, it resembles nothing so much as the keep of some long-vanished castle. The cylindrical form allows it to avoid facing either street or neighbours, focusing instead on the less modest but more metaphysical task of connecting earth and sky.
Other houses play the same games, sometimes within a great cube instead of a cylinder (the quite charming house in Riva San Vitale, 1973, or in Pregassona, 1979), or using circles within squares to suggest a giantised Renaissance motif (house in Origlio, 1981). There are no windows, only geometric holes in the carapace, and no signs of independent life, within or without the great encircling form. Whether in isolated alp-scape or small-town Swiss-urbia, the houses are typically photographed as single objects, icons in nature, symbolising humankind’s brave attempt to brandish permanence in the face of constant change.
Those are the buildings that brought Botta to fame. Few of them, however, are in the current exhibition, which includes three or four images each (a blown-up sketch and some large-ish black-and-white photos) of about 20 buildings. The glibness and consistency of the sketches strongly suggest execution after the event, while the photographs generally comprise a detail shot and an overall object shot. With scarcely an interior, and no plans or sections in the entire show, questions pertaining to space, light and movement – the stuff of architecture – remain vacantly conjectural.
More frustrating still is the fact that most of the buildings on show are the large buildings of Botta’s recent years – banks, museums, schools, office buildings. Goodness knows the houses are seldom small, but large buildings of this kind are not Botta’s forte.
That’s the trouble with advanced geometry depend ence. While small, bite-sized buildings can be endearingly rendered as a single cube, cylinder or dodecahedron, such thinking is more difficult to shape convincingly around a city office building or high school. The obvious response of such a mindset to a complex program is to produce either a single giant form, or multiple, repetitive small ones.
Botta tends to go for repetition when the spread is horizontal (such as the 1992 housing complex in Novazzano) and giantism when it’s vertical (the 1995 Union Bank of Switzerland in Basel). Either way, the results are less than enriching and at times difficult to distinguish from some of the apostasies of modernism.
Regrettably, one of Botta’s most interesting recent works is not in this exhibition. This is his 1996 chapel at Monte Tamaro, near the Gottard Pass. No relief here from either the geometry or the defensiveness, but both are employed to spectacular dramatic effect, with a simple, cylindrical nave approached along an attenuated, open-air promenade architecturale, 2,000 metres above the world. Not quite Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, but it’s pretty exciting, for all that. And it does confirm that geometry is most easily swallowed small. * Mario Botta 1980-1995 runs at Artspace Gallery, 43-51 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo, until January 31. Botta will give a public lecture tonight at the ABC Centre, Ultimo Road, Ultimo, at 6.30.
Two illus: Geometry lesson…The chapel of St Mary of the Angels at Mount Tamaro in Ticino.
Left: intersecting arches of a family house in Vacallo.