Stefano Moor: My choice makes me smile a bit. I find your idea to talk about a house quite peculiar. A one family house is a very tricky topic. Luigi Snozzi never set a house as a design exercise at university because, as he claimed, a house was the most difficult topic that exists. I would even provoke you and ask: does it still make sense to design and build houses?
As an architect from Ticino, I have a specific point of view on this topic. If you spoke with someone from Tokyo it would probably be very different. There, it’s normal to have 50 cm spacing between two buildings, for they have completely different ideas on density and structure within the city. If you talk about houses in Ticino, in light of discussions about saving the free space, densification etc. you could say that it is a mistake to build them.
As young architects, we immediately started to draw our mothers’ kitchens and shortly afterwards, our first houses, each time trying to put inside everything we had learned. At the same time and, without realising it, we lost perspective of what it would become.
Lugano for instance is a disaster, a sort of Monte Carlo, built by constructors rather than architects. Now, I ask myself: is it their fault or our fault that we missed the train? We thought it was a beautiful opportunity to build houses, trying to manifest all our experiences, right to the limit of absurdity, and at the same time we were missing the occasion to collaborate somehow with the construction enterprises that we now like to criticise so much.
As a Ticinese the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me about a house is the typical suburban buildings, that are without quality and sprawl in all directions. I would call it a rotten city. In context of all the phenomena I am talking about, building a house today is a responsibility not to be underestimated.
WHAT MAKES YOU CHOOSE BAITA DEL MARIO, AN ADAPTATION OF A RURAL STONE COTTAGE IN VAL DI BLENIO?
I could have spoken about Casa Kalman even before studying at EPFL. I fell in love with architecture when I saw the drawing of that house by Luigi Snozzi. The line of trees that became the line of the house touched me deeply. But I started to ask myself if I have anything better to say about it than everything that had already been written? I thought it would be interesting to choose something else, a house non-house, a building that represents what interests me, but is not well known and not well established as a piece of architecture. Just four walls without function.
If I think about the power of a place regardless of its function (in the end that’s exactly what interests me) I need to talk about Baita del Mario Ferrari. It’s an example of the absence of architecture, and at the same time there is an incredible force when we consider the territory, the way the object sits on the slope and how it interacts with its context.
This building corresponds directly with my ultimate ambition as an architect, which is to achieve an autonomy in my architecture, linking a building harmoniously with the place where it stands, regardless of whether it is in the densest city or the vastest empty mountain landscape.
YOU MENTIONED URBAN SPRAWL, WHICH IS PARTICULARILY PROBLEMATIC IN TICINO. WHAT DO WE DO? IF WE MUST ADD ANOTHER ONE FAMILY HOUSE, HOW CAN WE AVOID ANY FURTHER DETERIORATION OF THE TERRITORY?
I believe that as architects, we cannot refrain from trying to solve the condition of urban sprawl. I know that even in this kind of context, there is still a chance and a possibility to contribute to a change.
First, if the relationship between one house and its neighbour doesn’t work, you have to transform it into a theme. It means you must accept the autonomy of separate objects as a rule and be strong enough to try and establish relationships at a bigger scale.
Second, it needs to become a non-autoreferential architecture and it must deal with the most fundamental topics that exist - orientation, structure etc., that are reduced to the bare minimum, so that the strength of the building tells a story about something else, other than the chaos of its immediate surroundings. If you do this well, you can contribute to the rebirth of that place’s character. It’s a very dangerous discourse, because you need to hope in the transformation offered by just one building and its architecture.
IS REASONING IN TERMS OF TERRITORIAL STRUCTURE AND PUBLIC SPACE IN CONFLICT WITH WORKING ON THE QUALITIES OF A SINGLE HOUSE?
I think, honestly, the first responsibility is to occupy ourselves with the city. But I don’t want to tell you lies, that if today a client called me and asked for a house, I would not be excited. I think every architect is like that.
Snozzi was always saying that for him it was enough if a building follows certain rules, as if the next step was unimportant. In fact, it was only a way of speaking. If we look how refined his constructions are, the sensitivity of his compositions, we understand that he worked a lot on elaborating the basic scheme. His most notable projects are urban projects, but when you look at his built works carefully, they are also masterpieces as separate objects.
Take for instance Casa Kalman. It took me years to understand that it wasn’t a composition of pillars and beams but rather a carved mass. At the beginning of his career, Snozzi wanted to be a sculptor. In the end, as an architect he pushed the limits of theoretical topics whilst also retaining a pleasure in designing and playing with physical composition. However, this didn’t reduce the importance of the basic idea behind every project, which was the improvement of common space.
IN A CONTEXT WHERE THERE ARE MANY SMALL HOUSES NEXT TO EACH OTHER HOW CAN YOU ESTABLISH RELATIONSHIPS WITH A VAST TERRITORIAL SCALE?
There is more than one way of doing it. If we had to build another three houses in a quarter already full of houses, I believe that by making autonomous projects, that emanate an external force, even if the houses were not in eyesight of one another, would start to create an urban dialogue. They would create a system that improves the urban tissue. Well positioned entrances, with the right relationship to the road and intelligent orientation would transform any place. Another way, and more efficient perhaps, would be to introduce a building of public importance.
In one of the last interviews, I did with Luigi Snozzi for the Meret Oppenheim Prize, he said something that touched me profoundly. He said that we shouldn’t be bothered about the topics of limited scale, we should be bothered about the fundamental issues of the structure of territory and public spaces. We should ask ourselves serious questions.
How should a public building touch the ground in a particular place? What scale of building should we introduce in order to create a public space? By answering these questions, you would have the opportunity of changing the hierarchical system of a place by rewriting it. It would be no more a quarter defined by a series of separate houses, loose, without tension and without quality, but instead a quarter defined by a public building surrounded by houses - two completely different realms. It is very much about how the new object is able to recalibrate the forces and re-establish relationships with the city.
When I see vernacular structures in the mountains, I believe they are a response to the problems of urban sprawl and manifestation of the principles I mentioned before. We have a vast territory in which there are isolated objects, sometimes in groups, sometimes completely alone. Having in mind Luigi’s aphorism „Architecture is a void, it’s up to you to define it”, I am surprised that in this case it is the solid that emanates the power and is able to define the void.
Across a large area, these small houses are almost identical and follow the same basic rules. The longitudinal section across the slope is always a result of the inclination. You entered on a certain level where it was dry, there you collected hay, downstairs you had cows. You could modify it slightly, but the rule was always there, you followed a section perpendicular to the slope.
The cross section of the hut was governed by the length of wooden beams you could get from the trees nearby. The room for the cows was subdivided in three. The cows were smaller than the ones we have today (not full of hormones and kept solely for the production of hamburgers). Therefore, it was possible to have a middle corridor and two spaces for cows. It was a perfect construction, tuned to the way of life of a society, and conditions of the territory. It wasn’t a house in the strict sense of the word. It was a combination of storage and space for animals.
Today one of them, Baita del Mario has become a house.
He (Mario) intervened in a structure that originally responded very clearly to the territory and as a result didn’t have to look for decisions that always cause plenty of doubts at the start. Do I make a plinth or not? Is it right to occupy the plinth? All these very difficult questions. He didn’t touch the room downstairs, nor the roof, which is a work of art in itself by the way. Not because the stone is beautiful, but because of the way it is built. You don’t need nails to repair it. It’s enough to move three stones and it works again. It’s perfect, so it is important not to touch, or change it.
In this structure Mario inserted a sort of a sandwich. It doesn’t have double heights; it is 220 cm if I am not wrong. It doesn’t bring questions or doubts to the table. The orientation of the space he creates is very interesting. The original building is oriented towards the valley, with the main beams following this direction. The living space instead opens up to the opposite direction, using the opening that served to load the hay as the axis of the main room. It takes a larger amount of light, while the bedrooms get small windows, where you don’t need it. All the responses to main issues of architecture, at least for me, are there for free. For instance, when you start a project you always have to confront yourself with issues like where to put double height, and you are never sure. In this sense, in their rightness and simplicity the solutions conceived by Mario are perfect.
Another aspect that I find very strong is something that connects Mario to Martino Pedrozzi and his interventions in Sceru in Val Malvaglia, is the conclusion that it is wrong to modify the space around these mountain cottages – or indeed, add something to what already exists. These structures were so intelligently put on the territory that it wasn’t necessary to make small walls, fences and occupy the free space.
The main quality of their composition is that the public space is everywhere outside, it touches the wall of the house. You could even be the owner of your plot, but nobody would know, it had no architectural manifestation.
The central problem of today’s diffuse city are the artificial limits, the perimeter metal nets. Without them it would already be very different. Why? It is because the force of open space is the infinite. The solidness of a house should be just its volume in an infinite space. The lesson of these vernacular huts is exactly this, there is a clear relationship between public and private space. The public space is an infinite territory all around.
When Martino Pedrozzi speaks about his recompositions, he underlines that the gestures he makes are to reharmonise the balance between the public and the private. To make the limit very clear. In the sense of an infinite public realm, I find this particularly interesting. Martino collects the stones, puts them inside the remnants of the cottage’s four walls, and in doing so makes a sort of a tomb. What is more important, he cleans up the public space, rendering it unoccupied again.
In today’s discourse it is rare to hear the word „limit”, but it objectively exists. There are limits everywhere and without them things would become stupid. All these topics interest me a lot and I believe that through studying them, we can learn how to find responses to the city we now have and know doesn’t work.
We will always have the problem of how to occupy a territory that is not dense, we cannot make tabula rasa. The city generated by urban sprawl will always be there. Baita del Mario is one of the examples that corresponds with what I believe is right in this context. On the other hand, from much closer perspective, I really appreciate the intelligence of jumping over the most difficult topics that appear every time we start a project - plinth, orientation, roof and so on. Finding the existing structure that already answers the never-ending questions and allows you to intervene just minimally, at least for me is a miracle.
BAITA DEL MARIO IS A HOUSE THAT BECAME A HOUSE, ORIGINALLY IT WASN’T THE HOUSE THAT WE NOW KNOW. NOW IT’S LIKE A BOAT, AN EXTREMELY COMPACT INTERIOR SURROUNDED BY AN OCEAN. WHAT MAKES IT A HOUSE?
It’s a question that touches the topics that are much wider than architecture itself. It’s more about human life in general. If you are in the mountains all day long on an inclined surface, and you put your feet on a horizontal plane you have a feeling of security. Thanks to this small change, four walls and a roof above your head, a house is immediately created.
I like, very much, a conference that was given by Livio Vacchini in Toulouse. He began by saying „Ladies and Gentlemen, I have to say that architecture doesn’t exist”. In saying this he meant that we can make up 30 000 theories, but if we have to speak about the essence of what architecture actually is, then all it amounts to, is putting a roof above our heads.
What qualities can it have? If this intimate space separated from the infinite universe has its autonomous reasons of existence, it’s even better. It obviously needs dignity. But its essence is there from a very early moment.
When I go to teach in Geneva, I sleep in a hotel. Each morning when I wake up and look out of the window, I am always impressed by the sight of a person sleeping under the bridge opposite my room. I don’t know their story, but it makes me think: It’s quite radical not to have a roof above your head.
We are talking about primary necessities more than about architecture, but then if a roof or a wall is done with Mario’s sensibility, and transformed into something more than what pure necessity demands, it starts to be interesting in another way.
OUR QUESTION „WHAT IS A HOUSE FOR?” IS A RESULT OF ASKING OURSELVES WHAT A HOUSE, APART FROM FOUR WALLS AND A ROOF, CAN BECOME. IN CASE OF YOUR CHOICE, WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A BUILDING IN WHICH, APART FROM ITS ARCHITECTURAL ARTICULATION, THE CHARACTER OF A MINIMAL SHELTER IN A POTENTIALLY VERY DANGEROUS CONTEXT REMAINS VERY PRESENT. IT WOULD BE INTERESTING TO UNDERSTAND IF YOU THINK THAT THE QUALITY OF BASIC PROTECTION IS SUFFICIENT TO GIVE A SENSE TO A HOUSE OR DOES IT NEED SOMETHING ELSE?
I think it’s not enough. Otherwise, we would all give up. The quality of a space exists objectively and can be brought to the highest levels. Obviously, I believe that apart from the primary topics of order and basic quality of living space, I am adding only what is necessary to make spaces where you feel good. The structure for example is capable of working miracles. I am not saying that in order to make a house you should refrain from exploring architectural topics of right dimensioning, proportion, light etc. I just like to step back and look at the foundations of any intervention, before beginning any subsequent quality-oriented research. If you work with these fundamentals, you can define not only the interior of the building but also the exterior. You create shadows, you find spaces that didn’t exist before.
In the end, as far as I am concerned, the spatial order is defined by the presence, or lack of, various disorders. We as architects draw the details and people say, „this is something that only you, as architect can see”. Of course, it is something that only I can see, and I am not even interested if you see it or not. I am doing it so that you don’t notice anything. This is what interests me about the spatial order. It is a situation that starts with the lack of something that for sure is not orderly. I am definitely interested in identifying and reducing the disturbing factors before adding anything. If you become crazy about the detail of a plinth, and you don’t want additional shadow you will have to convince a client etc. In reality what you do is, you try to solve a problem of the meeting between horizontal and vertical surface, and this instead changes the proportion of the entire room, which frees the client from the problem of a wrongly proportioned space.
The human mind is very fragile and that’s why it’s not bad to have fewer problems. You never know who is going to live in your design. A client comes and then he goes, his place becomes someone else’s’ place. If the house you build has a few specific values, they will last longer than the life of the client and for that matter your own. If we try to work with logic, to optimise and use typologies that work well with structure, we just reduce the problems for the client and for the future generations. We give the possibility of living autonomously, suffering, laughing, crying, smiling, all without being concerned by architecture that doesn’t work.
WHAT KIND OF LIFE CAN A COTTAGE PROPOSE?
For the last 20 years I have spent my summers in a small house in the mountains and I have to admit that it transforms me each time I go. The silence is almost scary. It makes you feel good, but it is not a comfort driven well-being, it’s something else. You are confronted with sensations that you are not accustomed to.
Moving a lot, making primary gestures and being immersed in an incredible external tranquillity is something that I need desperately once in a while. These are qualities present in all remote places, regardless of architecture. If you have it and in addition you have architecture that makes your spirit experience another level of balance, it’s incredibly rewarding. The gesture of lighting the fireplace would be the same.
When I think about all the shepherds and all the cows that lived in these structures, I shiver. It’s one of the things that impresses me tremendously – the lasting of something through time. Very often these houses are in terrible places with severe climates, and I think the success of these structures is manifest in the fact that today, we don’t need to change any of their fundamental features. It just works, the walls were positioned and done well. The only reasonable way of confronting yourself is not questioning them. You feel you should adapt to it.
I am quite obsessed with order and method. If I am doing something in a place I always do it with an idea that this thing will be found and will provoke the pleasure in someone of finding something with a specific character. I admit that there are ephemeral things in life, but I am most interested in an architecture that will last and gain some kind of permanence.
I tell you what I feel when I go to these places. I see the primordial constructors that put the stones in a way so that they become eternal, without knowing or predicting what will happen in the future. They didn’t know that we will go to their houses to drink wine or stay in silence. They were making angles like ancient Greeks, inventing solutions to keep the stones in place forever. They were architects, transforming the landscape because of their needs, but at the same time they were challenging time, transcending their immediate conditions.
Obviously, their context was different, their main concern and source of action was survival. Still, they shared a fundamental human attitude, that today is often forgotten - to make things that will remain longer than one’s own life. Automatically it becomes a research of beauty. If a corner is made with an intention to last in time, it is beautiful, because there is an inherent rightness to it; it needs to be that way in order to exist.
People were changing the territory by introducing new light, new shadows. Maybe it wasn’t fully conscious, but how conscious are people today of building a house that perhaps changes the shadows of a place forever?
Livio Vacchini in his Chef d’Oeuvre writes that the handful of sand that forms a cone transforms the desert. The modest builders of Baita changed the Alpine landscape in terms of light, presence and anthropisation for centuries.
I also do not know what will happen to the walls I build, but if during my whole career, I will be able to make 4 walls of a quality, that are good enough to remain the way I draw them for 500 years, what more can I dream about?