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Travel and Leisure
Aug 30, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

We're not just inspired by street style. There's plenty of inspiration to be had, including the clean, spare lines of architecture. Just take the pairing of architect Mario Botta’s bold sacred structures with new fall fashion; together they reveal a perfect harmony between creations both natural and designed.

Perhaps it's because Botta is from Switzerland, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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