New York

Mario Botta

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

There appears to be a Mario Botta craze under way, a suspicion that was confirmed by this exhibition. Certain qualities in the architecture of this Swiss-born designer appeal to representatives of the most divergent esthetic encampments. Curator Stuart Wrede’s comments in the text of a wall panel introducing this exhibition may suggest why. He describes Botta’s work as “classical,” “modernistic,” and “vernacular,” and notes his fidelity to craftsmanship, axial organization, powerful symmetry, ascetic materials, and bold archetypal forms. This is an architecture so inclusive that it is guaranteed to appeal to almost everyone. Botta builds impeccable architecture and strong, memorable images, but the critical enthusiasms may have gone too far. He is an exceptional synthesizer, a consummate organizer, but he is not an inventive originator.

A concrete-brick gateway designed by Botta acted as a portal to the exhibition, which featured photographs, some drawings, and models of early houses and projects from the ’70s; large urban projects (including housing, a multiuse urban center, and a theater complex) from the ’80s; and, in the last room of the gallery, recent single-family houses. (The drawings were of recently built works, and the models were mostly of as-yet-unbuilt projects.) The documentation of the various projects set up a curious distance between the viewer and the work, and the few small, crude sketches by Botta seemed like a token. It was a reserved and cold presentation for an architect of humanism, lacking any sense of intimacy or immediacy to take the perceptual encounter beyond the academic.

Botta is most often recognized for his small, geometric houses sited in rugged, rural landscapes, but he is equally adept at the design of large urban forms. His particular architectural formula seems adjustable to a variety of scales and conditions. One example of this fluency is his 1985 design for row housing in Pregassona, Switzerland (as yet unbuilt). Botta’s concept has these houses sited on a slope, and he eliminates the most common characteristic of row houses–the party wall. Instead, each residence is separated by a narrow alley, above which is a high “greenhouse” that extends from the second floor. Semicylindrical impressions in the sidewalls suggest a community linkage in spite of the absence of shared walls. The street facades are identical, with bold, geometric incisions for the windows and patterned brick courses.

Another remarkable project is a cultural center for Chambéry, France, 1982–86. Botta’s design incorporates an existing Napoleonic barracks, with a theater/cinema addition swinging off-axis from the rectangular barracks complex. Clad in bands of concrete and beige stone, the new center is like a sliced cylinder with an attached vertical fly tower and service area. The entrance is a sawtooth cutaway flanked on the east by the triangular form of the fire stairs. Botta has created a great, silent, spartan phalange aside an existing monument. These two vividly contrasting interpretations of classicism are both comprehensible urban forms, joined together in a way that suggests the process of accretion by which cities are built. Botta’s project posits an alternative vision of contextualism.

Botta’s buildings are often poetic productions, but they do not embody mysterious or provocative ideas; they are small, articulate declarations. These concise, figural structures create a sense of place and an architecture of stunning clarity. It is an architecture of and for the ’80s, which attempts to restore old values, to confirm that there are certainties in this world, and to suggest that architecture is simply about form-building. The work communicates these messages clearly, leaving the critical viewer to question the reserved and severely reduced content of this message. In spite of the stark beauty of his buildings, Botta’s return to architecture (as it might have been in the good old days before eclecticism occurred) is not a refreshing concept, nor is it any more useful or inspiring this time around.

Patricia C. Phillips

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