It all comes down to Villa Além
Not many plans can speak for themselves like the one for Villa Além does. In fact, there is a special quality in all of Valerio Olgiati’s drawings that can induce such level of understanding. His projects are complex, yet their representation is rather simple and straight-forward when it comes to communicating the idea behind them. This does not mean that the ideas themselves are simple, but the fact that their first concretization through architectural drawings can describe so faithfully the actual creative thought has to do with something that is beyond convention. And maybe this is why architects were so struck by Olgiati’s work, starting with the distorted square in the plans for the Paspels School. I dare say that this is what strikes them still, although recent works are often associated with some sort of an olgiatian mannerism, an olgiatism. This is mostly because now, after two monographs and the book Non-Referential Architecture as his theoretical project, one may try to delineate a conceptual line in Valerio Olgiati’s work.
“A discussion of Valerio Olgiati’s work must start at Paspels School.”¹ Jacques Lucan’s statement comes before the project for Villa Além; more precisely, in-between Olgiati’s two monographs (2008 and 2017) and also before Non-Referential Architecture had its impact on our collective professional consciousness. I wonder if he still feels the same now. I wonder if still “remarks about it (i.e. the Paspels School) can apply to the architect’s other projects and creations, which include certain devices that are even more intense.”² If there is such thing as olgiatism, one must not seek it in his architectural motifs, or in certain aspects that are recurrent in his buildings. Of course, we could point out that the entrance to The Grisons Parliament Building, the Perm Museum XXI or the UAE Medical Center share the same notorious structural petals, or that the corridors in House K+N and Villa Alé m emphasize a distinct spatial type, but I question if a conceptual line in Olgiati’s work can truly be derived from these particularities.
I also question if he himself thinks of his work as a natural chronological succession in search for the non-referential, or towards something that is yet to be discovered, but which for now cannot be articulated. Maybe his work’s degré zéro is indeed the Plantahof Auditorium, or maybe the closeness in the entrance to The Grisons Parliament Building, as much as the unbuilt coordinates of The Lake Cauma Project speak of such a primordial moment. Many of Valerio Olgiati’s buildings could carry this genealogical statute, each of them being entitled to claim being the first. This in itself can be considered a professional quest: to always make a new building as it would be your oldest.
I consider Villa Além to be such a building, striving to be the oldest not only in reference to Olgiati’s previous work, but in reference to architecture itself. I reckon that its timelessness and its unfathomable weight can indeed coagulate such reasons to believe that this is in fact the olgiatian pursuit. I also argue that, above all, this particular building can be seen as the sign for such a pursuit. It is, after all, the case of an exception in his work, because it rests on the exceptional situation in which the architect is his own client. Therefore, we are dealing with ‘his own architecture’, a privilege, a radical takeover of an act that is socially acclaimed of being altruistic. But building your own house has nothing to do with such a condition, be it cultural, historical or social. It is rather the case of regaining the lack of condition in the archaic act of building the primitive hut. However, it goes without saying that the main contradiction in this analogy is that, as long as it has a project, there is nothing primitive about Villa Além.
Timelesness does not elude the project, it restores it. The Zapotec Temple of Mitla is, therefore, timeless not because we cannot trace its conceptual origin, but because we can restore an archaic understanding of space throughout architectural convention, even though we manage to do so by means of an a posteriori project.
This being said, in Villa Alé m, the idea of a secluded garden is in itself so graphical that we all understand it through its project. It is, in fact, not drawing as a second language for architecture, but architecture as a second language for architecture.
1 Jacques Lucan, “Textured Spatiality and Frozen Chaos”, 2G 37 (2010), 6.
Cosmin O. Gălățianu is an architect based in Bucharest. He studied architecture at UAUIM Bucharest where he is currently a teaching assistant in prof. arch. Iulia Stanciu’s studio. Since his graduation in 2016, he has been developing a doctorate on Valerio Olgiati’s architecture and has been invited for lectures or as a guest critic in different schools such as Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Universität Kassel or Peter Behrens School of Arts in Düsseldorf. He has been working as an associate architect at STARH since 2016 and co-founded the architectural group Alt.Corp. in 2018.