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Located at the foot of the San Giorgio Mountain, in the Mendrisio district of Switzerland, Casa Bianchi (1971-3) at Riva San Vitale stands apart from the beautiful natural landscape of this fishing town. Occupying 220 square metres of an 850 square metre site, the concrete block tower resembles a fortress in its relative isolation above Lake Lagona; cold but yet familiar in its modern form.
Built on a hillside, the main access to this family house is curiously through its top floor. This square vertically extruded building seems fortress-like in that it does not interact with its surroundings but rather observes them. However, a connection is established between hillside and home by an 18 metre long red metal bridge which provides the main access to the house; reinforcing its stronghold appearance. The bridge pierces the heart of the home through the fifth floor where a studio and a terrace are to be found. Private views are offered from both these spaces, together detaching the viewer from the world, and directly creating a rapport between the two. ‘The feeling, when crossing the bridge towards the house, is of entering into the landscape, and one’s eyes extend beyond to the church of Melano, at the other side of the lake.'[i]
Mario Botta (b. Switzerland 1943) designed this house shortly after graduating for his close friends Carlo and Leontina Bianchi. This was Botta’s second project for the couple; the first was the refurbishment of a flat in the village of Genestrerio, Switzerland. The brief for the residence at Riva San Vitale was similar in that a low budget home was required for a couple with two children. Botta himself strongly believed in a house being designed for its particular environment hence the distinctive appearance employed by the home.
According to Arnardóttir, Halldóra and Sánchez Merina, Javier, the land along the small road where the Bianchi site ends had been suffering from haphazard development during the last century. Botta opposed the tendancy to treat architecture as a commodity and so it was his intention from the very beginning to propose a house that would mark the limit of the careless expansion of the village as means of protecting the woods. Due in part to his protest, shortly after the completion of the house, new regulations declared no further construction could be approved in the area and so, for this reason the tower house now stands alone in its protected landscape.
The greatest influences on the work of Mario Botta came in the form the renowned brutalist architects Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, both of whom he briefly collaborated with in the sixties. Brutalism was a movement conceived from modernist architecture that thrived in the wake of World War II due to economically depressed states requiring low-cost construction and design. Characterisd by its stark, monolithic forms, brutalism comprised of unembellished exteriors and often block-like geometric forms.
Undoubtedly the Bianchi house is a true example of brutalist architecture but Botta himself is most commonly referred to as a neo-rationalist architect, belonging to the Ticense school. Neo Rationalism was an Italian movement of great repute in 1960s and 1970s. Seeking to redefine architectural form through the rational mergence of its components, neo Rationalism dismissed the sentiment that technology is the only way forward in architecture. Instead they looked to the past and were inspired by the architectural forms that were once abundant.
Botta looked to the Ticinese movement of which he was one of the foremost figures when designing the Riva San Vitale residence. The Ticinese school was comprised of a group of Swiss architects who promoted a greater appreciation for the significance of historical style, both socially and culturally. “Roccolo” houses, or bird hunting towers once typified the Ticino region and it is from these buildings that Botta took inspiration when designing the load bearing concrete brick tower house.
‘These buildings were raised over the trees as traces of human marks… Later, although many of them were destroyed, some were converted into weekend houses. It was precisely this combination of astonishing nature and basic construction which gave a special quality to the area.[ii]
Botta’s intentions in utilising this form were however very different ; The house stands at a respectful distance from the hillside, infringing upon the land only as much as is necessary. The vertical manner ensures the house does not lose importance when compared with the lofty mountains as its backdrop and by doing so answered his friends’ wishes of enjoying both the views of the lake above the trees and by having strong contact with the ground. Stevens Curl, James described Botta’s buildings to have;
‘clear, powerful geometries and display fine craftsmanship. For instance, the house at Riva San Vitale… is monumental, and has deep and powerful voids in the elevations'[iii]
The house is open plan and yet still private, organized around a mostly enclosed central open newel staircase and offers a selection of different views of the region from each living space. In turn, the stairs section off the house and so act as a divider, creating privacy. From the bridge, the floor to be found when descending the staircase is the private one of Carlo and Leontina themselves. Through being positioned thus, the couple are essentially the gatekeepers to their own home. So long as they are on their floor, no one can leave or enter through the front without their knowledge. Botta has created for them an intimate space comprising a bedroom, bathroom, dressing room and even a lake view balcony.
The second floor of the home was designed for family living. The children have their own twin bedroom and bathroom and there is also a study which serves as a balcony, overlooking the kitchen-dining room. The duplex nature of the house allows for interaction between the different floors, making it more social, but there are still private quarters to be found on each level giving a range in atmosphere not only across the different floors, but in each room also. A dining room can also be found on the first floor and the basement consists of a laundry room, storage spaces and a garage which are clearly intended for family use only.
Botta arranged the house so that the service areas occupy a similar vertical position with the bathrooms on the second and third floors and the laundry room in the basement. This way, plumbing the house would be more cost effective as certain pipes such as those for drainage would run through the building and it would also save space. The only part of the house to require a separate system would be the kitchen which occupies a different part of the first floor. It is in this part of the house that we assume Botta has considered his clients’ spacial requirements the priority.
The basement consists of a laundry room, storage spaces and a garage which are clearly intended for family use only. The social centre of the house can be found on the first floor where there is a living room in addition to the kitchen -dining room. Guests to the house would be required to walk across the bridge and down into the public region of the house. Standing at the bottom of a slope, with such depths and fortification within the property, the Bianchi house feels like an upside down castle.
The simple design and allows for as much light as possible to enter the home without compromising the privacy of the family.
Increasing commercialization by those seen as having betrayed architecture, a return to academic theories propounded by Quatremère de Quincy and others was proposed. A good example of realized works is Grassi’s student residences, Chieti (1976), which drew on proposals by Weinbrenner (1808).
- Surname, First Name (or initials if you do not know the first name). Date. Title (in italics). Place of publication: Publisher.
- Arnardóttir, Halldóra & Sánchez Merina, Javier. 2005. “A family house at Riva San Vitale by Mario Botta”. Available from: http://storiesofhouses.blogspot.com/2005/07/family-house-at-riva-san-vitale-by.html (Accessed th October 2009)
- FDHA, Federal Department of Home Affairs. “Mario Botta”. 2009 Available from: http://www.bundesmuseen.ch/cdn/00127/00203/index.html?lang=en
- Stevens Curl, James. 2000. A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
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