Carlo and Leontina Bianchi were close friends of the Swiss architecture student, Mario Botta, when he refurbished an old flat for them in the village of Genestrerio, Switzerland. In 1971, after recently finishing his studies, Botta was asked by the same family to design a new house, but this time in the countryside of the Ticino Canton, at the foot of Monte San Giorgio, overlooking Lake Lugano. Although the brief was very similar - a low budget house with rooms for a couple with two children - the process of thinking this new house was very different. In fact, it was now like building a house starting from the roof.
At the north of the old fishing village, Riva San Vitale, the site is at the end of a small road that ascends along the mountain slopes towards the border of an extensive wood. It was a beautiful land of 850 square metres covered with tall chestnut trees, which Leontina Bianchi inherited, set on a steep hill that lead down to Lake Lugano and faced the impressive Monte Generoso between the peaks of the Lombard Prealpi which are usually covered with snow.
Characteristics of this region were the clear volumes of old buildings that raised over the trees as traces of human marks. Apart from the 16th century temple in Riva San Vitale, there were once plentiful old "Roccoli", or traditional bird hunting towers. 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.
Nevertheless, during the last century, the land along the small road which ended in the Bianchi's site, had suffered by indiscriminate planning development. Consequently and from the very beginning, Mario Botta's main concern was to propose a house that would mark the limit of the careless expansion of the village as a means of protecting the woods. Due in part to Botta's protest with his powerful architecture and shortly after the completion of the house, a new urban planning regulation declared the environment as a green belt and, hence, no further building construction was approved in the area. This is the reason why this house stands alone in its protected landscape.
Acknowledging that with building one transforms nature, Mario Botta insisted on committing himself to build a pleasant and human space. Evidence of this dialogue are in the posters from the Ticino Tourist Office which shows images of Swiss landscapes with Botta's architecture. In the case of the house at Riva San Vitale, he reinterpreted the vernacular type of tower to protect the landscape, together with answering his friends' wishes of both enjoying the views of the lake above the trees and by having a strong contact with the ground.
Building the landscape
From the old road that reaches the site at its top, a thin metal bridge leads to the house which is formed as a 13 metres high by 10 metre square tower. The 18 metres long gangway emphasises a separation from the land and reveals the house as an observatory of the surrounding landscape. 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.
Since the house is organized around a central staircase, its spiral circulation faces different views. From the entrance, and in descending order, there is a studio and an upper terrace on the east overlooking the lake and the mountains; the parents' bedroom with its spacious terrace facing south to the meadows, and then, below the floor with the children's bedroom and playroom. Moreover, all the bedrooms are open to a triple height space, so they communicate visually to each other and to the spaces below, including the kitchen and living room. Finally, there is a cellar and a big porch that opens directly to the ground.
The house is like a carved volume with four elevations which responds to the surrounding environment: the lake, church of Melano, the meadows, the woods, and the old access road with the green. Each aperture in the facade frames a specific view and expresses Mario Botta's belief that architecture is the design of a location. Therefore, his facades are not simply a question of decorating the exterior surface of a building. They express a relationship of the interior of the house with the surroundings, the movement of the sun, or the direction to an existing historical construction; they have a geometry that corresponds to the abstraction of the surrounding landscape.
Captions for illustrations:
a. Mario Botta (b. 1943). (Photo: René Burri)
b. Old "Roccolo" characterise the Ticino region.
c. The walls consist of a double-layer concrete blocks unplastered and painted white only on the interior, the floors are terracotta, and the bridge is an iron frame painted red. All of them are simple and common materials that reappear in the construction with the quality of treatment elaborated from Botta's old Professor at Venice University, Carlo Scarpa. (Photo: Antonio Martinelli)
d. The house is a carved volume that responds to the surrounding environment. From its more than 1000 cubic metres only 220 square metres are inhabited.
e+f. The interior of the house is the exterior landscape. (Photo: Alo Zanetta)