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Text from the first introduction:
‘Textured Spatiality and Frozen Chaos
The first important building by Valerio Olgiati brought him immediate fame. For this to happen it had to be radical, since in Switzerland we were accustomed in the 1990s to ‘formes fortes’ (strong shapes), as Martin Steinmann called them. There is no doubt that Paspels School has a ‘forme forte’. The first impression is of a reinforced concrete monolith that is geometrically simple, a parallelepiped with a square base and a sloping roof. It is a forbidding object, since it is brutally carved out without affectation. If we saw only this we could conclude that the architect wanted to shake us up, to shock us with a powerful gesture which tries to challenge the surrounding mountains in this magnificent location. We would understand quickly and then go on our way.
However, the building’s forbidding appearance stops, holds back and detains us in a way. Why did the architect choose this strength of expression bordering on violence? Why, instead of a simple form, many irregularities? So why are the windows, the volume’s only ‘events’, staggered as if driven in a rotating movement? Why are some window frames set back while others are flush with the surface? Why are some horizontal, and others smaller and almost square? I ask this set of questions because, while the building does not immediately reveal the rule governing the arrangement of visible elements, nevertheless it suggests that a rule exists -from one facade to another rhythms take shape, a movement starts, contrasts are repeated, patterns appear. What is the rule?
Let us return to the building’s monolithic character. It belongs to the category Robert Morris called ‘unitary forms,’ polyhedrons that ‘seem to fail to present lines of fracture by which they could divide for easy part-to-part relationships to be established.’ From this perspective Paspels School should be understood as a whole, an entity so indivisible that no joint shows a possible separation, nor does any axis of symmetry divide the volume. Openings are not set out at all regularly; in particular, as if they are located for a reason which is at present hidden, they do not fit into the grid of the reinforced-concrete formwork. This has the effect of giving the school an even more monolithic character, with the pattern of formwork unaffected by the openings. The intervals between openings always vary slightly, so they seem to disturb the regularity of the complex.
Moreover, by looking slowly and carefully we see that the four corners of the building seem not to be right angles, but are slightly acute or obtuse. These deformations mean that the volume is not a ‘cube’. Although the differences, intervals and deformations are visible, they are slight and not very distinct. Because of this we are not trained in these problems of stability and balance, issues to which we have accustomed modern architecture in its picturesque tension.
In the end Paspels School offers a perceptual experience. It invites us to circle round as if around a totem pole, looking at each facade, but there is no ideal position where we can stop, no viewpoint from which we can understand the building in its entirety. So it is a paradox, one which Valerio Olgiati likes to present elsewhere: to create a monolithic and static building with irregularities that just emphasise its unified and harmonious character and which, being visible and understandable, make us move, change position, circle round, and increase the number of viewpoints, none of which is more important than the others. This experience is really phenomenological, in the sense used by Maurice Merleau-Ponty himself: ‘The perceived thing is not an ideal unity possessed by intelligence, like a geometric concept for example; rather it is an entity open to the perspective of an undefined number of views which tally according to a certain style, style that defined the object concerned.’ From now on we can understand why Paspels School resonates with certain installations by minimalist artists.
We will delve further into the style of the building. To do this we must enter the monolith, we have to understand the space, because that will certainly give us the reasons for the distortions and irregularities we have already noted.
The two storeys of classrooms represent an opposition between a communal space, in the shape of a crooked cross with one arm containing the staircase considerably larger than the other three, and three classrooms that are roughly rectangular and equal in size. From one storey to the other there is a rotation of ninety degrees in the general position of the classrooms. The communal spaces in the cross have exposed concrete finishes; classrooms-walls, floors, ceilings-are lined with wood. Each classroom has a long window stretched along one of its sides; all narrow arms of the communal spaces have small windows, while the larger arms of the cross have a long window. Moreover, classroom windows are set back in relation to the school’s exterior surface, whereas windows of communal areas are flush with that surface.
This description is like setting out some of the rules the different components of the school submit to, regulations that produce very strong contrasts of atmosphere, particularly between the communal spaces in grey concrete and the panelled classrooms. But these rules are not enough to account for the spatiality of the building. We must return to the deformation of the ‘cube’ to understand this. None of the arms of the cross are identical, either in length or in width, and their sides are not parallel; this is actually because of the initial deformation whereby only one of the sides of each cross is perpendicular to an external wall.
The complexity of the geometry is the result of a limited number of decisions, but these choices set off a series of intersecting consequences, producing a building which is extremely dense. Just as the visible irregularity of the exterior greatly emphasises the monolith’s coherence, so the visible irregularity of the interior unifies, we can even say solidifies, each communal space in the form of a cross.
Repetition of devices and their successive shifts, gaps that might seem imperceptible but produce a variety of chain reactions, these give the school a property that I call textured spatiality. This spatiality provides the chance to take up many viewpoints, all different, impossible to locate within a system of orthogonal axes, providing a variety of perspective views which, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said, ‘tally according to a certain style.’ After this, we can understand the architecture of Paspels School, its style. The rules that regulate the arrangement, the interweaving, of the building’s components can only be found in the building itself. The artist Rémy Zaugg said something about the method for a work of art that we can apply to this school: ‘No extrinsic law can regulate this system of signs that contains its own law. The work is its law.’ Rémy Zaugg added ‘when I say I experience a work, I mean understand a system of signs through the meaning and the spirit.’ Through the meaning-he is talking about perception; through the spirit-he means understanding. Perceiving and understanding, this is the experience to which Paspels School invites us.
Unity and organicity
A discussion of Valerio Olgiati’s work must start at Paspels School. Remarks about it can apply to the architect’s other projects and creations, which include certain devices that are even more intense.
The work always unfolds from simple structures with unified forms, although not always deformed as at Paspels, but subjected to a few operations which have a multiplying effect in a chain reaction. Das Gelbe Haus in Flims, the project on the shores of Lake Cauma, the house in Corsica and the K + N House near Lake Zurich, for example, follow this pattern.
Das gelbe Haus is the complete metamorphosis of an old building. The first operation was to take the form of a house with traditional characteristics and make it abstract, suppressing all wall ornamentation, distributing equal openings almost regularly and, above all, combining all walls and the roof of stone slabs with a homogenous whitewash. This paradoxical and provocative whitening covers the house completely and reinforces the abstraction of its ‘cubic’ form, but it simultaneously reveals the numerous changes in the texture of the walls. So abstraction provides two possible points of view that are extremes: the distant view of a unified form; or from a close, tactile distance an impression of a surface, as if we are ‘in the picture’.
The project on the shores of Lake Cauma is also a unified form. In it, two deliberately distinct spaces confront each other, only linked by the umbilical cord of a staircase -the horizontal and panoramic upper-level restaurant, and the narrow, vertical crypt-like bar with a window looking into the bottom of the lake when the summer water level is high. Because the water level varies considerably, these changes modify our perception of the building which, depending on the season, ‘is not the same’. The house in Corsica contrasts two rectangular courtyards of equal size. One is open, the other closed; one is planted with trees, and the living spaces on the lower floor are oriented towards these, while the other is lined with a swimming pool and the bedrooms on the upper floor open onto it. To connect the two levels, two staircases fit together, one linking exterior spaces and the other linking the interior. The absence of a visual relationship between the two staircases produces a labyrinthine structure, another way of describing textured spatiality.
The K + N House is another ‘cube’ that is extraordinarily dense. It sets up contrasts in that, when entering through an upper level passage with no external view, we do n...
For years now, Swiss architecture has been grabbing international attention not only for the high general level of its buildings but for a few great names. Aside from the megastudio of Herzog and de Meuron, which builds on all five continents, Switzerland has an extensive network of small studios with a modest work that, as in the case of Peter Zumthor and Peter Märkli, have crossed the frontier and become known the world over for the care, beauty and precision of their buildings. Valerio Olgiati's work would belong to this genealogy of the patient, well-made body of work.
Valerio Olgiati became known through the school in Paspels and, a little later, through the radical reconstruction of Das Gelbe Haus -two small buildings in villages in the Swiss canton of Grisons that appeared in all the main international magazines ( a+u, Baumeister, AA Files, etc.). The radical nature of his approach and the perfect execution of clear and concise ideas have enabled his work to exude a special intensity and to stand out within the new crop of Swiss architecture.
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