Discussing styles and trends in mainstream architecture with Mario Botta, would be like asking one of his works to speak the labyrinthine language of a shopping mall. We’re in one of his buildings, the Campari headquarters in Sesto San Giovanni, whose style Mario Botta jokingly defines as "post-antique", in contrast with the post-modern trend. It’s the starting point from which Botta explains his anthropological approach to architecture, intended as a way of recovering essential values for the life of mankind. An architecture of simple forms that aspire to create a context marked by the contrast of natural elements.

Summarizing his entire biography in just a few lines is no small feat. Among the most noted architects on an International scale, Mario Botta (Mendrisio, 1943) is an interpreter of the lessons of the Modernist Movement, the pupil of great masters such as Le Corbusier, Louis I. Kahn and Carlo Scarpa. At only 27 years of age he opens his first studio in Lugano, Switzerland, in 1970. Since then he has undertaken an intense International scientific and didactic activity. He ideated and founded the Architecture Academy in Mendrisio (active since 1996), where he was born and still lives, teaches and works.

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Library of the science University of Tsinghua (Beijing). Photo © Fu Xing

What are the urgencies of contemporary architecture?Architecture should act in the territory of memory, because it is in this territory that the city grows. As men and citizens we feel the need to live in history, because it is an unalienable part of ourselves. The speed with which we experience events is directly proportionate to their falling into oblivion. The more we run, the more we forget.

To avoid this we have to recover a spatial model of the city, the most beautiful, intelligent, flexible and cultured model of human aggregation that history has ever created. While keeping in mind that in a society ruled by globalization, the search for a personal identity depends on a sense of belonging to one’s territory, a local history, the recognition of a landscape. With its works architecture should re-activate a contextual dimension in which the memories of man-made transformations are highlighted.

How should we mediate with the space of cities today?In our cities there’s the need for well-made things that also have an iconic value. In the past decades we have built a lot and never quite so badly. In the 70s we ruined many historical centers. I’m not complaining of the contrast with antique architectures, there are notable positive examples in this sense. The problem is the slovenliness of the expressive values that do not express anything if not property speculation.

Architecture is an ethical field before being an aesthetic one. We have to transmit values. We need to assert its own qualities. Architecture in its entirety: if I move a building 10 meters, this completely changes its entity, perspective, illumination and the relationship with the city and the territory. The instrumental, technical and functional aspects of architecture, that is protection from the elements, should not be confused with architecture in and of itself.

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Library of the science University of Tsinghua (Beijing, China). Photo © Fu Xing

Some architects have become themselves an instrument, a brand for global communication. What are your feelings with regards to this?They’re wrong. Architecture is a profoundly local line of work and to be universal you need to be profoundly local. Us architects should feed the antibodies that are able to perceive the world in its entirety, but through our filter.
People should never be pushed to interpret architecture as a personal fact, but rather as a collective one. In what I do I give an interpretation, but the real expression is always social and collective.

Do you also use this approach to collective design at the Architecture Academy in Mendrisio?Individual professors have academic liberty and their approach may graze on this subject, as it may on that of re-use and autonomous form.

You are the president of the BSI Swiss Architectural Award. In the 3 editions so far, which were the philosophies applied to design that you rewarded?We are very interested in niche forms of work with great expressive quality, that distance themselves from the productive machines of the general contractors.
In the first edition (2008), we awarded Solano Benitez. This architect used recycled materials, in a poor context such as Paraguay he managed to give expressive and poetic form of great quality to the architectural point of view.
In the second (2010), we chose Diébédo Francis Kéré, who works in Burkina Faso. His architecture is made of earth, clay and everything that is rejected by consumer society.
This year, the 3rd edition awarded Studio Mumbai for a form of craftsmanship that is disappearing from global culture.

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Library of the science University of Tsinghua (Beijing, China). Photo © Fu Xing

But today large-scale design is concentrating on the new needs of the present more than on grand narrations, the past, what is local and artisanal. In addition many great architects follow this trend in their works.I think it is important to conceive something that will survive its own fragility and reach future generations, as an example. It’s a way of believing in History. It may not be fashionable today, but those that believe only in the present, without reasoning on their roots, I doubt will go very far. Architecture is the organization of the physical space of man. If globalization repeats the same image of Hong Kong in Cesano Maderno, I would be critical because it does not exercise its profound role but rather levels everything.

How does one create an icon that lasts in time?What lasts in time is something that had a great past. The erotic force of Picasso is a primordial force, that of the bull and the flower, of mother earth. That’s why it strikes you. Picasso never thought of the future. Today the future is part of a consumer ideology. It’s the rhetoric of the Futurists, but they were the first ones not to take it seriously.

The iconic power of a sign is created with time: it’s image, matter, color, depth but especially memory. An icon is not tied to a time, it’s not ephemeral. What lasts in time has a value that cannot be immediately consumed. What is consumed falls into oblivion, whereas we need memory. Think of great creative talents. Where would Giacometti or Morandi be if they had not had lasting iconic value? Many think that if you’re creative you’re thinking about the future. But it’s not true, you’re thinking of the great past.

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Library of the science University of Tsinghua (Beijing, China). Photo © Fu Xing

You’ve stated that language is a secondary aspect for you. Yet you always use simple, primordial forms. What advantages does blending these types of forms with the life of people bring to one and the other?Though it may sound like a justification for my work, I can answer in these terms: pure, primordial, forms that are simple to grasp, allow more ease of reading. To find my bearings in a supermarket on the other hand, in which labyrinthine forms prevail, I have to read the aisle signs: something is wrong. If I enter the Pantheon in Rome all it takes is a glimpse, and I can immediately reconstruct what is behind me. The magic shape that is the circle allows the brain to see a detail and automatically envision the whole.

Architecture today often abdicates one of its primary functions: to orient us in space. Martin Heidegger said that man inhabits only when he has the possibility of orienting himself inside a space. I believe this to be a beautiful definition. Otherwise we are overwhelmed. We need reference points, to know the center and the limit of a place, two extraordinary conditions that are being forgotten these days. Our cities are in crisis because they have lost these constants that have been existing 5thousand years.

What guiding principles do you follow during the design phase?I never design with pure forms, but with forms of space. I start off from a topographical idea, of orientation, of trying to understand how light draws spatial limits. The light I have in mind generates space: it has to give me the axes of reference, concentric points for creation. The next phase is the pursuit of order. In the complex process of design (synthesis of functional and static elements, of coordinates, borders etc), the organizational chart of these spaces has to find an order. And I won’t find peace until I reach it.

Designing is a mix that stems from data we invented to embed quality in a place. In a certain sense designing means complicating our life: it means designing a void on which full volumes are formed. But in general designing entails an idea of space. In Europe we build and rebuild parts of cities that belong to an architectural and historical context with deep roots: we have to keep these in mind. Whereas in the States if for example a factory is demolished then everything is cancelled and done from scratch, rebuilding occurs without considering the context and past. This is the big difference between our culture, more erudite, more stratified as opposed to the American model, but I could also say the Asian model, which sometimes is even worse.

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisionsCampari headquarters (Sesto San Giovanni, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano

How do you work with 25 architects in a single studio?I don’t have a work station, I have 25 of them. On each I assign sketches to be made and which I continuously correct. Ours is a job of constant corrections, the opposite of the great International studies of general contractors, in which everything is schematic and defined. Each time we face different projects and problems.

80% of your work is in China? How do you relate to their way of conceiving the city?On one hand China enjoys globalization of capital, on the other it has a naïve approach that derives from their recent abandonment of Maoism. Only 30 years ago China was almost medieval, and today they find themselves in a condition of post-tertiary. They have great design hopes for transformation that we lost due to our exaggerated individualism. I like their aspiration towards good and improving the quality of life, in a perspective of collective force.

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Residences in Via Campari (Sesto San Giovanni, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano

You’ve stated that contemporary art museums have substituted cathedrals as spaces in which common spiritual values materialize. What does the SF MoMa for example have in common with the Church of Seriate?From the 60s to today we have built more museums than in the entire history of mankind, and if on one hand this is a sign of our fragility, on the other museums are places for confrontation, places of great spirituality. We visit a contemporary art museum to have a reading of the world, to see how various generations of artists interpret the contradictions of the world. I believe in man’s need for spirituality. It must therefore be an architect’s ambition to be able to design these spaces. If I could choose between a museum and a supermarket I would have no doubt: the first is a place devoted to silence and prayer, and we must respect it.

You started working in a studio when you had already accumulated noteworthy practical experience. The contrary of what happens today. What advice would you give an architecture student?To work before studying. When you work you immediately make the most of what you have studied, which no longer remains an abstract theory. Those who study art history after having learnt the art of construction can grasp not only philosophical and literary aspects, but also those intimately tied to the work. So I would suggest starting by practicing the job and then going on to understand what the underlying and hidden reasons of the work itself are.

Photos © via botta.ch

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Campari headquarters (Sesto San Giovanni, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Lobby of Campari headquarters (Sesto San Giovanni, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano


Wellness Center Tschuggen Berg Oase (Arosa, Switzerland). Photo © Urs Homberger


Wellness Center Tschuggen Berg Oase (Arosa, Switzerland). Photo © Urs Homberger

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisionsArea Appiani (Treviso, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisionsArea Appiani (Treviso, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisionsArea Appiani (Treviso, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisionsArea Appiani (Treviso, Italy). Photo © Enrico Cano


Agorà Center (Jeju Island, South Corea). Photo © Samoo Architects

Santo Volto Church (Torino, Italia). Photo © Enrico Cano


Cymbalista Synagogue (Tel Aviv, Israele). Photo © Pino Mussi

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisionsBechtler Museum (Charlotte, North Carolina, USA). Photo © Joel Lassiter

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Bechtler Museum (Charlotte, North Carolina, USA). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Bechtler Museum (Charlotte, North Carolina, USA). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Studio Mario Botta "Palazzo Fuoriporta" (Mendrisio, Switzerland). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Studio Mario Botta "Palazzo Fuoriporta" (Mendrisio, Switzerland). Photo © Enrico Cano

Mario Botta, Interview, architecture, LTVs, Lancia TrendVisions
Studio Mario Botta "Palazzo Fuoriporta" (Mendrisio, Switzerland). Photo © Enrico Cano