Creativity and Inspiration: Secrets of a Famous Architect

Mario Botta at his studio. Photo by Debra Moffitt.
Mario Botta at his studio. Photo by Debra Moffitt.

By Debra Moffitt

Creating an edifice draws on an almost mystical process of imagining and materializing something from nothing, of developing original thought forms and manifesting them in the physical environment. Swiss-born Mario Botta provides a unique perspective on this creative process. He is best known in the United States for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and is considered one of the world’s foremost architects for churches and museums.

The Bergoase Spa  designed by Mario Botta.
The Bergoase Spa designed by Mario Botta.

He uses the language of space, light, and geometry to communicate with his audience and create what the Royal Academy of London refers to as “spaces of poetry.”

In a recent interview, Botta fingered his wire-frame glasses and threw his leg over the chair arm in his Lugano, Switzerland studio while speaking passionately about his work and the ground breaking for his museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, scheduled for late 2006. The museum will house the Bechtler art collection in a space that seems timeless, with strong geometric forms bathed in natural light.

Botta describes the principles he applies in designing:

• Use reason to identify a problem; let intuition find the answer
• Design to elevate and benefit society
• Build on previous experiences
• Search for the new equilibrium
• Foster the growing need for the sacred
• Transform a condition of nature into one of culture

Intuition Finds the Answer

“Analysis serves to understand a problem,” Botta explains, “then there’s the creative aspect which comes through intuition.” He actively “listens” to a place, to its geography and societal context. “I need to go and explore and ask a place — and intuit its aspirations, sense its history,” he says. “I believe that a place contains the potential for its own transformation. If one listens, it will tell you what to do.”

He spent long hours sketching his first church, the Church of San Giovanni Battista, at different times of the day before settling on the final design — an elliptical monument with an open glass ceiling set among the log cabins in the Swiss mountains.

Botta asserts: “making architecture is a way of resisting the loss of identity, a way of resisting “banalization” and the flattening of culture brought about by the consumerism so typical of modern society.” Motivated by a deep sense of responsibility, he feels his work can have a positive impact on society.

His designs — whether churches or office buildings — leave visitors feeling like an integrated part rather than alienated outsiders. “Architecture is an ethical discipline before it is an aesthetic one,” he adds. Architecture does not happen in a vacuum but demands interaction with communities and the environment. His art, he feels, should enhance and contribute something uplifting, not detract from or denigrate a place.

“Every project is the son of the previous project,” Botta says. “Our work is a continual apprenticeship.” His projects pay tribute to his predecessors, and each architectural achievement fosters the learning experience for the next work-in-progress.

His first church paid tribute to artists like Klee and Picasso, and he acknowledges that his encounters with Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn shaped many of his ideas. He also feels that architecture holds the power to encapsulate our time and pay tribute to history.

His Church of Santo Volto, built on the Fiat factory site in Turin, incorporates the factory’s chimney transformed into a bell tower as a tribute to the importance of Fiat in the city. Inside the church, the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin grows out of the wall in a starkly beautiful three-dimensional design of wood and light.

Creation Finds a Balance

Creating architecture means transforming a place. “People don’t like to modify the equilibrium that they’re familiar with,” Botta says. In his designs he imagines a new equilibrium that will necessarily be different from the existing one.

His recent renovation of the 200 year-old La Scala opera house in Milan brought initial protests from citizens. But Botta’s controversial intervention culminated with honors from the Italian President and won accolades from European historical conservation societies. This success suggests he has achieved a new equilibrium in the city: meeting the needs of the opera house for additional space while respecting the existing facade.

In designing places of worship, Botta confronts the evolution of modern spirituality. The Milan Malpensa Airport Chapel, the Evry Cathedral in France, and the Cymbalist Synagogue in Tel Aviv count among his recent works. He believes that a church — like any other architecture — must reflect today’s rarified culture.

“There’s a strong, but very personal need for the sacred,” Botta says. “Iconography cannot contribute much to this need, therefore sacred spaces must be reduced to their essential function.” His churches create a sort of transitional space between heaven and earth, where, he says, “man once again becomes the protagonist.”

He continues: “Everything has become chaotic and complex; instead the church is essentially a space of silence and meditation — therefore it is intentionally minimalist to predispose people to develop the relationship between man and spirit.”

Also, he concludes, symbols and icons must be used sparingly because their meaning may have been transformed over the ages and vary from culture to culture. “In most of the churches I’ve built, there is at least the idea of the earth and heavens.” His work remains an essential part of his striving for beauty, which he equates with his own search for God.

“Creating an architectural structure means taking possession of the earth,” Botta believes. “It means transforming a condition of nature into a condition of culture through man’s work and addressing the needs of the community.”

Designing and building things is a way to create beauty and to overcome the tension, anxiety and contradictions of daily life, he asserts. “It is a way to bear witness to hope. Architecture is not only an activity which transforms a place, it creates the place.”

Copyright, Debra Moffitt.  Debra has interviewed Mario Botta in Italian many times and has written about his work extensively. First published in Architecture Week.

No portion of Debra’s blogs may be reused, reblogged, reprinted, or used in ebooks or other printed material or online without prior written consent.

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