High in the Mountains of Switzerland, High Fashion Meets Architecture
The pairing of architect Mario Botta’s bold sacred structures with new fall fashion reveals a perfect harmony between creations both natural and designed.
Switzerland is a confederation of rules and disciplines, as well as a confederation of cantons. It is sometimes said that in this miniature Alpine nation, what is not forbidden is compulsory. The Swiss are not known for frivolity; the grandeur of the scenery does not encourage it.
The designs of Swiss architect Mario Botta are, in some ways, a reflection of this high-minded national seriousness. But Botta is in fact from Ticino, the most Italianate of the Swiss cantons. Bordering Piedmont and Lombardy, Ticino was Italian territory until the 15th century, and Italian remains its official language.
Botta’s buildings reflect this dual inheritance. There is a sumptuousness to his architecture, and a sculptural intensity, that owe as much to the glories of Italy as they do to the rigors of Switzerland. There is discipline in Botta’s designs, but there is also aesthetic pleasure and a profound sense of spirituality.
Historically, Ticino has had a reputation for relative poverty. One result of this has been a landscape of tough, vernacular buildings, designed with a sturdy farmer in mind. The area is also known for its piety: Romanesque churches are a common feature of its landscape. Both influences are clearly visible in Botta’s work.
An even greater influence, though, was the great Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Botta was born in 1943, and is one of the very few practicing architects to have worked with Le Corbusier, who died in 1965. Le Corbusier’s real name was Jeanneret, but he chose a nom d’artiste, rather as a medieval knight might choose a nom de guerre. He was on an aesthetic crusade, and one of his soldiers was Botta.
To Le Corbusier, “architecture is the magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” It is appropriate, then, that two of Botta’s greatest buildings are churches. For a 21st-century architect to have made his reputation designing religious buildings is radical. But Botta has said, “I never talk about religion, as it’s all about spirituality for me.” The scriptures of all the great monotheistic religions feature revelations taking place on mountainsides. Significantly, Mario Botta’s two greatest churches are in the Alps.
San Giovanni Battista at Mogno-Fusio was begun in 1986. It is tiny, with just 15 seats, and the design is wholly original. There are no windows; the interior is lit by a glass roof, through which the light shifts constantly, animating the church’s contrasting bands of marble and granite.
On Monte Tamaro, Botta built Santa Maria degli Angeli in the 1990s. The church appears almost to extend out of the mountain, its dramatic aerial walkway leading to a curved belvedere, or viewing platform. It is as much a manipulation of landscape as it is a building, a response to the mystical enormity of the mountains.
Some critics have accused Botta of inconsistency: a high-minded church-builder on the one hand, and an architect for large corporations like Samsung and Swisscom on the other. But that’s the enigma of Switzerland. It’s a nation of pacifists who make advanced weapons, a place where Calvinist austerity and mountain romanticism exist side by side.
Great buildings can always be enjoyed on their own terms. But the greatest buildings also respond to their surroundings, creating an experience where architecture and nature become indivisible. To see a Botta structure is to witness contemporary design that draws strength from locality, history, and mysticism. “Architecture,” Botta has said, “is the shape of history.” It is also the poetry of place.
Ticino, the small Italian-speaking canton in southeastern Switzerland, is where Old World dolce vita meets Swiss engineering and efficiency. Here, ice cold alpine streams rush down valleys dotted with ancient stone farmhouses and flow into expansive, scenic lakes surrounded by Art-Deco villas.
Native son Mario Botta, the world-renowned architect, says Ticino's architectural landscapes—the meeting of jagged mountains with the flat reflective surfaces of the Maggiore and Lugano lakes—are stamped into his memory almost like a language. “I am fascinated by the forms of the valleys and the shapes of the lakes,” he said from his modern lofty travertine office in Mendrisio.
Botta is also preoccupied by the area's dramatically shifting light, and how it transforms space and objects. A disciple of Le Corbusier, Botta's most defining monuments in the area, both chapels—one dedicated to St. John the Baptist in the mountain village of Mogno, and the Cappella Santa Maria degli Angeli on top of Monte Tamaro—are monuments of local stone dedicated to light and nature. “A church should be recognized as a sacred site at first glance,” he said. “Designing a chapel is architecture at its purest. It's spirit in material form.”
Where to go:
After a 1986 avalanche destroyed the original, centuries-old Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista in Mogno-Fusio it took almost a decade to agree on a new design and rebuild it. Most locals were shocked by Mario Botta's design: an extremely modern cylinder-shaped building constructed of local white marble and charcoal gray granite organized in striped and checkerboard patterns with no windows and a sloped roof of glass. Now of course it’s one of the most admired architectural landmarks of the region.
Capella Santa Maria degli Angeli on Monte Tamaro was built as a memorial to the wife of the owner of the cable car network that brings vistors up to the site. Instead of a traditional roof, an aqueduct-shaped bridge extends from the top of the main chapel and serves as a lookout from which to meditate on the surrounding landscape.
It's only fitting that over his career Mario Botta has designed the modern cable car system in Ticino with glass cabins that in five minutes flat sweeps passengers from the village of Orselina at 1,296 feet to Cardada at 4,396 feet above sea level. Originally created with transparent floors and meant to have Wagner music piped in, the first passengers were so overwhelmed by the experience that the owners soon had to cover the floors and stop the music.
Near the cable car at Orselina, one should also take the time to visit the pilgrimage church of Madonna del Sasso, founded in the 15th century, which has been recently renovated with regional funds. Knock on the door and ask one of the resident monks—very kindly—to see the library; the monastery has an amazing collection of rare books.
The founding of the Church of San Francesco, in Locarno's historic center, dates back to the 14th century, but its interiors, complete with stunning frescoes, have been recently restored. During the Ascona Music Weeks, which take place from the end of August to mid-October this year, the church hosts some important Classical music concerts including one performed by the Vienna Symphony.
Above the medieval town of Ascona, is Fondazione Monte Verità, a utopian artist colony established in 1900 that was like a vegetarian commune for clothing optional artists and intellectuals. It attracted the likes of Isadora Duncan and Hermann Hesse; now it is a cultural center that hosts international conferences with a museum complex, hotel complex, restaurant, park, and tea house. Botta counts Monte Verità as one of the most meaningful historical sites in the region.
Lugano has for decades been an important Swiss banking city and home to several of the country's wealthiest citizens, such as Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. That of course explains all the elegant villas that circle the lake. One of the most remarkable properties open to visitors is Scherrer Park, the former residence of the wealthy textile merchant Arthur Scherrer. An obsessive gardener, Scherrer divided his park into two parts. One area is composed of Renaissance and Baroque style gardens, and the other is Asian in theme, a landscape of bamboo forests, dotted with Siamese and Indian-style buildings.
Mario Botta recommends visiting the Aurelio Galfetti-designed municipal pools in the historical town of Bellinzona, home to three impressive UNESCO protected fortified castles. The pools themselves will soon be restored and revived.
This month the region celebrates the opening of the new Lugano Art & Cultural Center (opening in September), a venue and platform for the arts designed by architect Ivano Gianola.
Where to stay:
Lugano has several elegant but austere palace hotels like the Villa Principe Leopoldo; at Giardino Ascona Old World meets modern conveniences and friendly, efficient service. The beautifully landscaped gardens and pools make up for its inland—rather than lakeside—location and the intimate two-star restaurant, Echo, is headed up by the young and ambitious Rolf Fliegauf, one of the most innovative chefs in the country.
The four-year-old Giardino Lago is possibly the most stylish modern property in Ticino. Its 15 rooms are tiny but the staff are both extremely attentive and cheerful and the public spaces, like the all-white lakeside terrace and airy restaurant are both chic and comfortable. There is shuttle service between this property and the one in Ascona so that guests can benefit from the perks of both destinations: Giardino Ascona has a boat and the Ascona has an excellent spa.
For those who want to experience one of Ticino's mountain villages, a more compelling alternative to the rustic agriturismos is the Palazzo Gamboni, a 5-room B&B located in an 18th-century French-style mansion in the tiny village of Comologno which is located in the Onsernone Valley above Locarno.
Where to eat:
Ristorante da Enzo: This charming little restaurant with a leafy garden terrace is run by the charismatic Enzo Andreatta and is a real institution in Ticino, favored by the likes of the 3-star Michelin chef Andreas Caminada. The chef elevates local ingredients and recipes in a non-fussy way; the menu might include a sea bass with fresh morels and wild garlic or an artichoke salad with marinated saddle of lamb.
Ticino is renowned for its rustic mountain taverns or grottos, usually located in stone cellars that were once used to store food. You’ll find them around the region, but the one that comes highly recommended by chef Caminada is the Osteria Grotto Borei, a standout for both its risotto and the view.
The Grotto Pozzasc, famous for its polenta dishes, is the perfect spot to eat before or after a visit to Botta's chapel in Mogno.
The Grottino Ticinese near Ascona is probably one of the few grottos that is ambitious enough to offer a kilometer-zero cuisine. Everything here is hyper-locally sourced.
While in Lugano don't miss a visit to the Ristorante Grand Cafe Al Porto, an elegant restaurant that has attracted a who's who's of the region since it opened in the 19th century. Make sure to at least peek into the Florentine Cenacolo, originally the dining hall of a convent. With its 16th century wooden ceilings and frescoes by the painter Carlo Bonafedi, the room resembles a scene out of The Last Supper.
A beautiful old school pastry shop and tea room, Vanini in Lugano is the place to sip a coffee and order the local dessert specialty, vermicelle, sweet chestnut noodles served with whipped cream. —Gisella Williams