Amani SaridarAR 307 House and Housing Autumn 2009
Located at the foot of the San Giorgio Mountain, in the Mendrisio district of Switzerland, Casa Bianchi at Riva San Vitale stands apart from the beautiful natural landscape of this fishing town. Occupying 220 square meters of an 850 square meter site, the concrete block tower resembles a fortress in its relative isolation above Lake Lagona; cold and yet there is a familiarity in its modern form.
The main access to this family house curiously is through its top floor. Built on a hillside, this square extruded building seems fortress-like in that it does not interact with its surroundings but rather observes them. An 18 meter long red metal bridge creates a passageway between hillside and home, not only establishing a relationship between the two, but reinforcing its stronghold appearance. The bridge penetrates the fifth floor at the heart of the house where a studio and terrace can be found. Private views are offered from both of 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.”
Botta designed this house shortly after graduating in 1971 for close friends Carlo and Leontina Bianchi. This was Botta’s second project for the couple; the first was the refurbishing of a flat for them 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. This time however, Botta’s thoughts were of designing a home that seemed essentially to begin in the roof.
The house is open plan and yet still private, organized around a mostly enclosed central open newel staircase, the house 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 first floor to be found when descending the staircase is that of Carlo and Leontina themselves. Through being positioned thus, the couple are essentially the gate keepers 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 of 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 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 greatest influences on the work of Mario Botta came in the form the renowned brutalist architects Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn who Botta briefly collaborated with in the sixties. Brutalism was a movement conceived from modernist architecture that thrived in the 1950s to mid 1970s, especially in countries such as England due to the need for low-cost construction and design methods after the depressed economic state after World War II. It is characterised by its stark monolithic forms, unembellished exterior and usually block-like geometric forms.
The brutalist residence at Riva San Vitale is supported by load bearing concrete bricks and yet resembles the old “Roccolo” houses, or bird hunting towers which characterise the Ticino region. ‘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.The land along the small road where the Bianchi site ended had been suffering from haphazard development during the last century. For this reason, it was Botta’s 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 house now stands alone in its protected landscape. The Bianchi house was in relation to the environment intended to achieve its form in a vertical manner, so as not to lose importance when compared with the lofty mountains as its backdrop which answered his friends’ wishes of enjoying both the views of the lake above the trees and by having strong contact with the ground. Needless to say, Botta ‘quickly made his name as one of the most influential members of the Ticino or Ticinese School with a series of private houses set alone in the landscape: these buildings have clear, powerful geometries and display fine craftsmanship. For instance, the house at Riva San Vitale (1971-3) is square on plan, has an asymmetrically placed central staircase, is monumental, and has deep and powerful voids in the elevations’.
Similar in form to the Bianchi house is Atelier Bow Wow’s 2006 House Tower in Shinagawa-ku,Tokyo. The houses are similar in that they both cuboids concrete homes but they take this form for very different reasons. Botta has a large site and used very little of it in order to preserve the vernacular whereas Atelier Bow Wow were restricted with what could be built due to the land size. In Tokyo, there is a tradition of building tower blocks or houses to accommodate for over population. The House Tower, like the Bianchi house has a staircase running through the building that defines the space. Designed for a family, Botta’s staircase is used as a divide in the house, creating a sense of privacy in a very open house; Bow Wow’s house on the other hand is intimate in that despite the many floors, you are forever fully exposed. There are no internal doors, the bathroom relies on a shower curtain for privacy and many floors are on different levels so that it is possible to simultaneously see both who is downstairs and who is up.
Light penetrates the Bianchi house through carved geometric cuts in the external cuboid shape. The white interior maximises on the available natural light and the double-height rooms create the illusion of a large, modern space. The courtyard at the back of the house is south facing so the house is heated by the sun due to the overlooking glass facade. Bow Wow on the other hand uses white for stairways but on the walls has reflected the concrete outer shell by also leaving within exposed. The building is orientated north and is sandwiched in between other houses so direct sunlight entering from mostly parabolic shaped windows is relied upon to light the space. Having such an open home with a duplex guest area is essential to the design of this building as it gives it a very modern appearance from the inside. Externally however, it looks from the same period as the house at Riva San Vitale, despite there being over thirty years between the two builds.
Melnikov house is a suburban home in Moscow, Russia designed by Konstantin Melinkov for himself in 1927. The house takes the form of two intersecting cylindrical towers and is adorned with a pattern of hexagonal windows. Melnikov like the Bianchi’s wanted a family home with space to work and so he decided to construct a three storey house to house on 790 square meters. The house is unique in that it was one of the only private houses to be built during the Soviet regime in Moscow, and the land was granted to Melnikov thanks to a rare moment of cultural vision on behalf of the authorities. Despite permission to build, there was still a state rationing on building materials and so it was built using peasant techniques and a mix of brickwork, clay and scrap to form the honeycomb lattice.