Olgiati’s house reminds me that I have an opened cardboard box sitting around that I need to stomp flat so I can put it in the recycling bin.
The basic problem with being an ambitious architect in the 21st Century is that after 10,000 years of architecture, virtually almost all the good designs possible have already been done by architects who came before you. We are 10,000 years into diminishing returns on architectural innovations.
So, how can you make yourself a name? By creating bad designs and talking a small number of wealthy clients into putting up with them while you garner media attention.
Not surprisingly, admired architects, such as Valerio Olgiati, tend to have the personality of a conquistador:
From the New York Times’ style magazine T:
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
There are some visionaries who, in their refusal to follow the rules of convention, advance their fields and make us reconsider what we think we know.
By Hanya Yanagihara
Sept. 20, 2021
… Should a building — even your home — be comfortable?
Next question, please.
… But it’s the people who think otherwise who can sometimes create the most remarkable designs; who can, in their refusal to respect the rules of convention, push their fields forward. The same for design that’s friendly, likable or understandable — choices all, but if everyone made buildings that were comfortable or likable, where would architecture be?
In our biannual Design issues, we celebrate people who choose the other way. Not always, and not only, but often enough that their projects make us see anew, make us question what we’d long assumed: What is the purpose of a building? How about a chair? How about a garden? Of course, money helps enable many of these rebellions, but it’s not a prerequisite, and nor does money guarantee interesting design. What’s more important is a strong point of view, even if that point of view can be difficult to articulate.
Take, for example, the Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati. Olgiati, 63, who lives in his tiny Alpine hometown of Flims, has only produced some two dozen buildings over the course of his long career, and yet he has had more influence on his peers than someone much more prolific. His refusal to concede — to clients, to the market, to closely held ideas about what architecture should be and do — not to mention his projects themselves, which are expressions of his commitment to pure abstraction, toward non-allusive or -referential design, make him sui generis in a field that has become bloated with money, ego and personalities.
You may not want to live in an Olgiati structure yourself. You may not like them. (Olgiati probably wouldn’t care either way.) But what you can’t do is deny them: not their inventiveness, not their strangeness, not their distinctiveness. And really, isn’t that what design is meant to do? Challenge us, provoke us, unsettle our expectations. Comfort is welcome. But discomfort can be, too.
And more from the New York Times on the Swiss architect who has become the most fashionable purveyor of the Aboveground Hitler’s Bunker school of ugly concrete buildings:
The cult Swiss talent Valerio Olgiati creates austere, often concrete spaces that eschew references to history or place.
By Nancy Hass Photographs by Mikael Olsson
Sept. 20, 2021
… His 25 or so conceptual, meticulously crafted structures, as well as his computer renderings of those never (or at least not yet) erected, have become legendary for their idea-driven purity and shocking forms. … He is regarded as a bulwark of incorruptibility in a world of starchitects who stamp their names on billionaire-friendly residential towers and Instagrammable but ultimately gimmicky buildings. Relying upon a theoretical framework and his own volcanic charisma — he has a reputation for reducing students to tears, and has never shied from expressing contempt for peers who he believes have sold out — his Howard Roarkian devotion stands out as a rebuke to an architecturally milquetoast, commercially driven era. …
Last year, mid-lockdown, the musician Kanye West, whose passion for contemporary design is well documented, took his jet to Zurich for a day, then drove to Flims to dine with Olgiati in a local restaurant. The meeting landed the architect a commission for both a Los Angeles apartment for the recently separated West and a quixotic megaproject that would render literal the underground nature of the architect’s appeal: an artists’ colony built beneath West’s Wyoming ranch (which is reportedly 4,500 acres), as vast as the subterranean cities of Turkey’s Cappadocia, with up to 200 dwellings, as well as studio spaces and a performance venue. …
As with award-winning Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne, Ogliati appears to be motivated not just by egomania but by misanthropy and sadism:
The School at Paspels, completed in 1998, is a bunkerlike structure intended for primary school students, built into a steep hillside in rural Switzerland. The three-story pale concrete exterior is rigidly rectangular, punctuated only by a few elongated, symmetrical frameless window openings. Inside, the four larch-wood-lined classrooms are set about four degrees off kilter from each other; moving through the building, you sense the slight distortion, as though the structure itself were in motion.
After all, who hasn’t wanted to torment children by forcing them to spend much of their childhood in an off-kilter bunker?
What unifies these disparate structures, other than their unforgiving material, is Olgiati’s professional philosophy, which he espouses at international lectures and through classes at the Academy of Architecture Mendrisio near the Swiss-Italian border. Says the British ur-minimalist John Pawson, known for residences that evoke a Zen state of nothingness: “With me, all I can do is show the work, but Valerio has the big idea.”
OLGIATI CALLS THAT idea “non-referentiality.” Historical context is dead, he believes: Architecture should be an end unto itself instead of a reflection of its era, local culture or any sort of concocted narrative. “People think it’s crazy to believe you can make something truly new, but that’s because they lack talent and imagination; they are stuck,” he says. To him, vernacular references get in the way of making truly great buildings. Besides, he argues, such constructs are often tortured and artificial — or made up after the fact — with a self-righteousness he finds repugnant.
Who is less self-righteous than an architect who lectures endlessly on his Big Idea?
From a distance, amid gnarled cork trees and a few low-slung farmhouses, its form evokes a massive open gray cardboard box.
Even the NYT critic gets the joke.
But inside, up a 110-foot set of concrete stairs — there’s no railing —
Although all the surfaces and structural elements are concrete, including furniture of Olgiati’s own design, the stark effect is softened by velvet sofa cushions as gray as nearly everything else in the room. (“Linen velvet,” he clarifies. “Just the right texture and amount of relaxation.”) As darkness descends — he’s served both lunch and dinner, including a saffron risotto with green beans, during a 12-hour conversation that has careened from Le Corbusier (“His buildings have no soul”) to issues of race in America (“Why can’t you people figure this out?”) to his disdain for the Pritzker Prize (“It’s become just about who is culturally acceptable, not about the architecture at all”) …
… But his most formative period was the two years he spent in Los Angeles in the early 1990s… Frank Gehry and Morphosis, the collective led by Thom Mayne, were then experimenting with wild geometry, found objects and innovative materials, which made the city a locus of contemporary design.
Ironically, Gehry’s handful of not-ugly buildings are not ugly because he references his hobby, sailboats, which always look nice.
With no contacts, Olgiati had to leave California before gaining a professional foothold, which he still regrets, even though his career flourished only after he returned to his more conservative home country.
Where his father was a famous architect.
“In Switzerland,” he says, “you win the poker game when you have the best cards. There [Los Angeles], you win because you play the best game. I liked the bluffing, the bravado. I would have stayed if I could have.”
The most important thing he learned in the United States, he adds, was that the world had permanently changed, and architecture needed to follow. Ours, he believes, is a globally mashed-up era with no meaningful shared references or objective truth. And so buildings, he says, must stand on their own. … takes his own inspiration, for example, from the monolithic rock pile structures of the Aztecs, for which historians cannot find an antecedent.
Why am I not surprised that human sacrifice platforms appeal to Ogliati? So, maybe I was unfair to the conquistadors by comparing Ogliati to them. At least they were repulsed by Aztec human sacrifices.