Historical misrepresentation as a design principle?

Critical Reply

By Nold Egenter


An architect who no longer practices and has turned to anthropological research has the right, or rather is obliged to ask from time to time how his results, or more generally, how theory is perceived by design practice. The following contribution intends to set the discussion going in this direction.

The polemic text below against an interview with Mario Botta published in 'Archithese' 4-87 came about from a request from the editorial office. "This stuff can not pass without contradiction" the editor said. Originally a critical article was planned for the same edition. For reasons of time and fairness it was agreed upon a reader's letter in the following edition (5-87). The sharp style is warranted from the transcription of Botta's interview, which was at the disposal of the author. However, the text printed in 'Archithese', is a strongly shortened version. It was deprived of the most provoking viewpoints. In fact, the confrontation would be valuable in an objective sense. Unfortunately, it is against 'good manners' in journalism to expose the original text to the reader.

In order to make clear the position from which the polemic feeds, at the end an epilogue is attached which points out the dialectics between modern and postmodern periods.


Botta, a phenomenon! A whizz-kid. Who is not interested in that? The bibliography numbers 200 documents. Even in Japan the lecture halls are crammed full. Ha, the postmodern treasure chests in the landscape! And now this interview in the last edition of 'Archithese'. What is this actually about?

For around 20 years vast numbers of books were written. It was believed to be clear: today to build a decent house, to plan a vital city, this, until recently, was considered difficult by most designers. People were at loggerheads. A crisis of architecture!

Now one comes, sweeps everything from the table, puts quite unconcerned his neo-classical jewellery box into the spoilt Ticino. One discovers the jewels!

Super photographers from afar capture every detail with high focal lengths, so that none of the surrounding 'stupidity' is included. And then he is there, the new saviour, the new god. Talks naively about it, like a poet. Of the big legacy. Of eternity, of light and dark, of heaven and earth, as if we were on the eighth day of creation, on which architecture is created. How does it come to this 're-evaluation of all values' within a few years? Are the good old times of the 'good shepherds' beginning again, or is it simply a new - temporarily still sanctioned - sprayer in our landscape?

Actually, it is not so difficult, Botta's recipe; quite a simple soup in fact. Three, four ingredients: a pinch of reaction, then a pinch of mixing up architecture with religion and a lot of falseness as far as history is concerned. Serve it all with plenty of emotionalism, self celebration, for gourmets seasoned with too much salt. But, we'll leave the last one.

Firstly, the reactionary. How, though, was it for a long time so complicated. There was much criticism, lot of publications, research. Concepts were discussed in all lengths. Inquiries were made, ponderously, with enormous quantities of numerical data.Theories were built and tenaciously maintained. A lot of things were printed, read, taught, complained about. When everything lay on the floor a crisis was proclaimed. Now everything is at once blown away. Botta has the solution! The flock is once again behind the good shepheard. How beautiful the simple is.

Secondly, Botta's pinch of mistakes. The large simplification of the good shepherd comes paradoxically from religion. There too 'the past in the present' is basic. "Archaic of the new" as Botta's pathetic declamation before Stirling's Stuttgart National Gallery calls itself. Without delay, 'heaven and earth', the whole of creation produced out of thin air, the eternal light again becomes the most important thing against the gloomy dark, the eternal stone against the large transitoriness. Everything just as it states in the omniscient book. The eternal geometry of the cosmos! Plato is once again a cherished guest. Again the same love of things big as before. Quite clearly the architect knows again what he wants, he again has something to say. Big words, big values, big games. "The symbolic significance of architecture is architecture. The theatre again becomes the arena. Does this all not taste of dj-vu? Does architecture again need 500 (or even 1000) years of eternity as Botta demands for his "church for no-one"?

We have now drummed geometry for around 50 years into all doors and windows of the world, rationalised everything left, right and centre and are slowly noticing that there are also still people. Inhospitableness of the cities! Grid fassades. Concrete deserts. The desolate spirit of the geometric omnipotence. Now again the same geometric dressage-show comes in through the religious back door.

Architectural theory as religion? Axes into the next world, heaven and earth, circle and centre of the world. Plus some light mysticism. At least primeval times as revelation. "The wonder of geometry, which originates by means of light". And it continues as in the Sermon on the Mount! "... To make a quite simple form" is what the good shepherd wants, "at which an increasing ellipsis is cut in two so that it becomes the circle". Why this know-it-all-style metamorphosis? "The ellipsis has two centres". That would of course be nothing for the middle of the world, Botta's axis which connects heaven and earth. But, really refined thought: the ground plan is achieving it! Through the horizontal cut "it becomes a pure form, directed towards heaven". It is performed. Poor tormented Mogno. First the avalanche, now that.

Religion makes one strong! "Primary forms" the conversation goes "with which one can oppose nature." Architecture as a form of "anti-nature"? Perhaps that made sense to early collectors and hunters and early agrarian societies. Round huts in the wilderness. Nice. Anti-nature. Doubtless, the primitives were far more sophisticated than Botta in relating to this. It was connected with a growing and finely structured local view of the world. Against that, this pompous rhetoric looks very ungainly. And that today! A "strong, primary object" he puts "against the elements of nature"... "in order to lend more power to the gesture of man and to separate him from nature". Are not the "gestures" of those who play with the technology of big things today just so "glaringly powerful" that nature is revolting against mankind? "But the first act is an act of violence. In order to do architecture I must kill nature."

A manifest "of big thoughts". For example, time! "I said I will build the church under one condition: it can not simply stand for 50 years, it must remain for 500 years." 500 years that, roughly estimated, is equivalent to about 20-25 generations. Real biblical dimensions. Quite considerable farsightedness. Mind you, not merely the ordinary folk of today should become blessed with the good fortune of the evidence of big thoughts: No! "That is the fantastic thing. This church must be a sign for our children, for the future generations." All the theologically glossed-over odds and ends are, in fact, not related to the wisdom of heaven. It is concerned with the "big thoughts", or simply with a new personality cult.

Religion implies people. But, who then should go to church there? Who is supposed to light the candles in this room, with no water, no electricity and no sewerage system? Who in this 'room of meditation' is supposed to think, to be quiet? There is no "need of the church to be a sign of the community"! Mogno has no need for one "since there are hardly any inhabitants of this village and a service is no longer held". A church for no-one? A social, a cultic ruin? Far from it! There will be a new form of pilgrimage. One that worships Botta's "big thoughts". Even when once there will be just ruins left in 500 (or 1000?) years there will be people who admire the empty hole, with which someone in a famous past cut a piece of heaven from a small village. "I've always loved ruins."

Ellipsis and circle, heaven and earth, middle of the world. It is clear. The technical rationalism has had its day. Quickly it is replaced by a new one. Botta's religiously sentimental rationalism, the new salvation. The astonishing with this torrent of words à la carte: the creative aspect of form is poor, the advance in form an embarrassing step back. Which is not astonishing since Bottanian religion shares the rationality of forms with technology: Mogno, reactor dummy for the new god from Ticino?

The history of architecture does indeed have much in common with religion. But, simply to lump them both together would be wrong. No, it's not so easy. It's no longer possible to simply wave around ellipsis and circles. That all turns out much too banal, as soon as it goes on to a large scale. Just that we do know today, like never before. One must then offer much more in regard to the place created by architecture than just a few tossed-together historicisms.

And then we arrive at the third point, much falseness from history. "I believe that an architect has a good look at the evidence of the past"... not just at the rational evidence, "also at that from the whole of architecture." That would be nice. But history is obviously not everyone's darling, even if one has it for a friend. The relic for a friend? We briefly want to pick out three archetypes which are typical for Botta and see for all they are worth.

The architecturally historical archetype

Is it not somewhat simple, reducing the history of building to the hole in the Pantheon? Even if today there exists a certain need for simplification of things demonstrable, one would have to perhaps charge that the Pantheon - next to its geometric properties - belongs to the most important state relics of the imperial empire, consequently it probably not only embodied geometry. For example, cult. In it dominated the later Julian gods Mars and Venus, no longer the Tarquinian Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, let alone the oldest Triassic Jupiter Mars Quirinius, nor the oldest pair Janus and Vesta who had been honoured in ancient Rome in every house at the door post and in the hearth: hearth and door, just as in a hut. With this pair we evidently hit on the archetype! Hearth and door, quite impompous and spatially small. Nothing of geometry. Nothing of heavy, thick everlasting stone. Nothing of the cosmic love of things big. A small food offering from time to time, a gesture of worship to the traditional god of the constructed place. However: one would have to examine this just a little bit more carefully! (1). Note that the Pantheon is a very developed, a very late Roman achievement. It was inaugurated in 25 B.C and belongs with other precautions of this period to one of several measures which shifted the emphasis of traditional institutions from the Capitol to the Palatine, from Romanum forum to Caesarean forum and in the end were meant for the strengthening of the Julian lineage. Politics in those days was essentially done with religion and architecture! 13 years later Augustus declared himself as Pontifex Maximus of all the gods of the empire. Out of love of geometry? This period marked the start of the so-called blossoming of the Roman empire, and a look into the history books would show that there can be no more talk of the archaic. If one takes into account the legendary foundation, then Rome already had a good 700 years behind it. Now please, let us cease in this nonsense-talking of archetypes.

As far as the 'big spirit' is concerned which Botta is projecting into the Roman archaic: about ancient Rome in the royal period, Wissowa in his "Religion und Kultus der Roemer" (2) (Religion and cult of the Romans) says: "The religious views we find in this ancient order of the gods are plain and simple, they reflect the interests in agriculture and cattle breeding, in hard work and in endless battles of living communities. There are no traces of an immediate admiration of powers raised to personal ideas or related to appearances of nature, we can find no indication of any veneration of heavenly bodies, sun or moon, storms or lightening,... Even less so are, however, the ethical ideas which are embodied in the gods: the large number of abstractions, of godly personified characteristics which we encounter in later periods of the religious development in Rome... is completely lacking." Consequently, one has to understand at least a little of religion and history if one wants to talk about archetypes and architectural symbolism.

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