Mario Botta: "I'd like to create a monastery"

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Throughout his 50-year-long career, architect Mario Botta has seen his profession undergo profound change, from the introduction of modern styles to the advent of post-modernism. He is a founder of the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture and today is proud of what sets his school apart.

Botta’s work can be found in all four corners of the globe - from Tokyo and Beijing to New Delhi, Basel, Evry and San Francisco. Born in Ticino in 1943, he studied architecture in Venice in the late 1960s and - like many architects of his generation - made a name for himself building villas for wealthy families. We spoke with him while he was on campus this November to give a talk at the " Habiter la modernité : villas de style internationales sur la Riviera vaudoise " ["Living in Modernity: International Style Villas in the Swiss Riviera"] exhibition held by EPFL’s Modern Architecture Archives Department (ACM) at the Archizoom exhibit hall.

Early on in your career, you said that a home should be a shelter, like a "mother’s womb." Is building these types of villas still feasible in Switzerland today?

It’s true that land isn’t used in the same way as it was, and we therefore can’t build villas like we used to. Lifestyles have changed and we need to pay attention to the collective values governing how land is managed. But the expression "home sweet home" is just as valid as it ever was. We all need a shelter, a safe haven where we feel at peace yet connected to a larger community. And I still believe a home should be a womb where we can rest and replenish our strength, ready to face a new day. The challenge faced by architects is finding a way to create spaces that give users greater enjoyment - while fitting those spaces within the contradictions of today’s society.

You helped found the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture in 1996 and served as its dean from 2002 to 2003 and 2011 to 2013. What makes your Academy different from other architecture schools?

First of all, we called it an "Academy" because we wanted to distinguish it from technical schools. We believe architects should be trained more in the human sciences than in technical fields, so that they can address the complicated challenges facing modern society and the rapid pace of change in land use. The human sciences should be the cornerstone of architectural work, as it was during the Italian Renaissance. We want our architectural students to be the ones who point out problems instead of providing solutions - they’ll learn how to come up with solutions later, when they start working. In our view, a school’s role is to teach students how to identify problems.

What advice would you give architecture students?

Architects need time and a lot of experience before they can master their trade. So I’d tell students to be patient. I’d also give them the advice that my mentor, Louis Kahn, gave me when I graduated with my architecture degree: there are three things you must do to become a good architect: work, work and work.

Would you say there’s a typically Swiss architectural style, like there is a French or American style?

The construction process is more complicated here than in other countries, due to Switzerland’s 26 cantons. But all Swiss buildings are built with the same two goals in mind - to be sturdy and to last. Those are important values here.

You often say that of all your work, your favorite is the San Giovanni Battista church in Mogno, in the canton of Ticino - your very first religious building.

Yes, it’s my first love! Designing this church showed me the strengths and fundamental elements of the architectural construct. Even though it’s a place of worship, I was able to explore secular themes, such as the importance of gravity, of light and of the threshold separating the interior from the exterior. Building a church helped me understand all of that.

Your portfolio of architectural work is quite impressive. Is there any kind of building you haven’t yet done but would like to do?

I’d really like to create a monastery. That’s the ideal city because every building is built in response to a spiritual need. Residents are there because it’s a life choice they have made. They need to be surrounded by the beauty, nature and landscapes that inspire study and introspection. And, just like cities, monasteries provide services and have areas for recreation. They are at once tucked away in the country and a centralized workplace. But I don’t have the main ingredient - monks!