'Mountain man' of geometry, light, space

For renowned Swiss architect Mario Botta, architecture should respond to real needs. It should not only be beautiful, but also functional and authentic.
Ti Gong

Swiss architect Mario Botta addresses a packed hall of professionals and architecture fans in Shanghai.

The TV interview is about to begin in Shanghai. The subject, Swiss architect Mario Botta, takes a red pen from his suit pocket and holds it in his hand. It’s a talisman of sorts during interviews, he explains.

Quirky? Perhaps, but then again, his celebrated building designs around the world are also graced by idiosyncratic features that have made him one of the world’s leading architects.

“Everyone has the right to live in the space that makes them feel relaxed and happy,” he said during his recent visit in Shanghai early this week. “Architecture should respond to real needs. It should not only be beautiful, but also functional and authentic.”

Botta made appearances in Beijing and Shanghai as part of the first Sino-Swiss Architecture Dialogue under an innovation accord signed between the two countries in 2016. The theme of the symposiums was “mountain architecture and sustainability.”

Botta is a man of the mountains. He was born 74 years ago in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in Switzerland.

He designed his first building at age 16, a two-family house in Ticino. This early work showed the forms that were to evolve into his later signature style – a strong sense of geometry, natural light and volumes of space. It also showed his preference for brick as a building material.

Botta attended the Art College in Milan and then studied at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice. He was influenced by giants of modernism like Le Corbusier and Louis I. Kahn.

Geography, particularly the mountains of Switzerland, greatly contributed to his unique style.

“The vertical dimension of the mountainous region and the horizontal surface of the lakes of the region where I was born allowed me to experience a particular spatial condition since childhood,” said Botta in an interview.

Enrico Cano

Church San Giovanni Battista in Mogno, Switzerland

Indeed, speaking at the Shanghai event, Swiss Consul General Alexander Hoffet said that “the harsh natural conditions” of his country make it “a field laboratory” for sustainable architectural forms.

Botta has designed landmarks around the world, including the Church San Giovanni Battista in Mogno, Switzerland, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, the art museum and the library of Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Twelve at Hengshan boutique hotel in Shanghai.

“Botta’s works can be regarded as a conversation with nature,” says Zhi Wenjun, a Tongji University professor, editor of the journal Time+Architecture and a scholar on Botta’s work. He participated in the Shanghai seminar.

For Botta, there needs to be a harmonious balance between architecture and nature.

The Orselina-Cardada aerial cableway station in Locarno is one of Botta’s more celebrated designs. He has said it depicts the “connection between mountains and urban areas.” His Chapel Santa Maria degli Angeli in Ticino is “a bridge leading mankind to marvelous scenery.”

His Garnet Chapel in the Austrian Tyrol is a sculptural rhomboid styled as a garnet crystal. It sits starkly poised on a rock spur 2 kilometers above the Ziller Valley. To protect the structure from the extreme weather of the region, Botta used CorTen steel sheet as cladding.

“It is wrong to make the architecture blend in with nature,” says Botta, “Architecture is artificial, so I lay stress on the contrast between artificiality and nature.”

His favorite building material is red brick. “Since the very first project, I started to use bricks,” says Botta. “They are relatively economical, durable and are a natural material.”


Botta's signature design in Shanghai – Twelve at Hengshan boutique hotel

Museums have played a significant role in Botta’s oeuvre. He says he designs them not only as a space to display artworks but also as a space to satisfy the human aspects of museum-goers.

“The Tsinghua University Art Museum provides students public space where they can drink coffee, chat or take a walk together,” says Botta, “The museum brings Tsinghua, one of the top science and engineering universities in the world, closer to humanity. What’s more, the museum allows people to pay their respects to the history and culture of the university.”

Of course, architecture is heavily influenced by geography. Buildings in Shanghai would hardly be similar to those in Dubai because the environments of both cities are so starkly different, Botta says.

“For architects, appearance is a secondary consideration, while quality and localization are foremost,” he says.

Botta is planning more projects in China, including a mosque, mall and hotel in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a museum in the Shandong Province city of Jining and villas in the cities of Hangzhou and Wuxi.


The Tsinghua University Art Museum

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