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Notes on the Conference of Valerio Olgiati in Bucharest

Photo:Valerio Olgiati, The Lake Cauma Project, El Croquis 156 (2011), 85

Ștefan Simion

As soon as word got out in UAUIM, teachers and young colleagues let me know of their interest and enthusiasm regarding the upcoming event. In the last twenty-five years, the academic environment in Bucharest has closely looked towards the ongoing architectural debate in Switzerland, to the point of having a certain tradition regarding this influence: starting with the group of four of Mario Botta, Luigi Snozzi, Aurelio Galfetti and Livio Vacchini who have nuanced modernity redefining the architectural object on the background of a territorial scale in the thinking space opened by Rino Tami; to the local going global Herzog&de Meuron, who have taken the poetic of banality explored in their initial projects of the ‘80s and ‘90s, all the way to working with intellectual strategies when redefining program and employing materiality on vast projects; to the Swiss academic legacy of Aldo Rossi’s stay in Zurich that has reconnected ties between architecture and the city; to the urbanity of Diener&Diener and Miller&Maranta in Basel and Miroslav Šik and Peter Peter Märkli in Zurich; to the unique poetry of Peter Zumthor; and, of course, to the essential architecture of Valerio Olgiati.

In this extremely rich cultural landscape, Valerio Olgiati has also created a profoundly original school of thought, by putting forward a specific way of thinking and making architecture. My reading of his work is that each of his projects wants to be a single indivisible, irreducible thought. In doing so, the main protagonist (or instrument) is space. In a radical manner – abstract space: defined by tectonic discourse; play in scale; a meditation on the nature of limits – walls, pedestal, roof; a contradictory and simultaneous denial and appraisal of materiality, by obsessively using concrete; masterful use of light and orientation. All these take place on the background of a highly intellectual architectural knowledge.

This forceful abstraction is just half of the way. Again in my understanding, Valerio Olgiati has defined a subversive poetic regarding architectural modernity, with the purpose of transgressing it. What you get is more than what you see; it is more than the modern minimalist art statement; it exceeds the modernist sincerity – a concept meant to describe form and way of thinking and relating to the world. I would say his architecture has a deep complexity while appearing so simple. Its richness grows out of the unexpected contradictions between visible form and masterful interiority. This double trait is never arbitrary, nor circumstantial.

It is subversive because things are not clearly or rhetorically exposed; variations are sometimes so discreet that you cannot precisely name them, yet they have a powerful imprint on the inhabitant, such as in Paspels school, when experiencing the slight, nuanced, minor variations between floors. It is subversive in the dialectic of oneness and duality, as in Atelier Bardill or the Zernez National Park Center. Subversive is also the radical tectonic character, while the structure is being drawn with a certain freedom and lightness as in Baloise Insurance Company Office Tower where the plan form of the columns becomes a sign, or as in the Plantahof where the setting of the column challenges the perception of the natural verticality of the structure and its wholeness. In the same manner, it is polemic in the way his projects reflect the servant-dominant spaces fundamental relationship: it goes beyond the modern structuralist need to organize space. I would say the traditional function and form debate has been surpassed by a densification of spaces that poetically induce a particular experience and use of place, somewhere between the light of reason and the shadows of the labyrinth, as in Villa Além; also in Villa Além, a meditation on the limits due to their particular section: they are radical, conspicuous, yet it seems their reason is not just to enclose, but also to free up space. In doing so they gain a certain magnetism and the limit somehow becomes the center, a place in itself. It is subversive because you absolutely have no way of deducing the interior from its exterior, as it happens in the Small house for a Priest: plan and section become a single thought in order to transport the inhabitant towards the sacred, archaic nature of architecture and its hidden scales.

In the quest for irreducible thought, each of his best projects is fantastic in being just one project; not two, not a sum of ideas, not a gathering of details, but in the most elementary way one architectural idea. It may seem evident, yet it is so rare in contemporary architecture. This might reflect one of the reasons for Valerio Olgiati’s fascination with the archaic temples of Inca for example. Regarding his teaching, just as in his architecture, Valerio Olgiati has a radical strategy: out of many possibilities, the project chooses just one single idea and then takes it to its utmost extreme possible becoming. I think that, understood in the context of his built projects, this trait is the one that (intellectually) seduces young architects and professors in UAUIM (and beyond).

VO’s stay in Bucharest
Since arriving in Bucharest, Valerio and Tamara shared their enthusiasm toward architecture. The talks went from what it means to lead an architectural office, the particularities of making a project in various countries, teaching and travelling, politics, art and society in general. I must say I have been impressed by the ease and familiarity they induced in all talks, meetings and walks we took in Bucharest, not just with us, but with everyone they met. As in a theatre play, scenes followed one another in Sera Eden, at the Swiss Ambassador’s Residence for the dinner kindly offered in honour of Valerio Olgiati’s presence, at the late hours in a wine bar on the Eminescu street.


All these led to the Wednesday evening conference at the Romanian Athenaeum. Together with our colleagues and students, we prepared the set (image, sound etc.) and opened the doors for the public at 6 PM. At 7 PM, the hall was full, architects, students and professors all waiting for the conference to begin.

As previously discussed, I met Valerio and Tamara Olgiati five minutes prior to the start of the conference at the artists’ entrance. Valerio Olgiati wanted to discover the hall for the first time at the precise moment when he started talking, not before. In a similar yet opposed way as did Tadao Ando when he kept everyone waiting outside the conference hall in Mendrisio, until a few minutes before starting the conference for him to have a lengthy moment just by himself with the place.

After an initial thought on the archaic temple of Mitla from Oaxaca in Mexico, Valerio Olgiati presented four projects: Villa Além, the project for Kanye West, the Baloise Insurance Company Office Tower and the project for their new house, up in the mountains of Switzerland.

After the conference, Professor Iulia Stanciu delivered an extraordinary Laudatio and Valerio Olgiati was then awarded the title Doctor Honoris Causa by the Rector of UAUIM, Prof. Marian Moiceanu and the President of the Senate of UAUIM, Prof. Cristian Drughean, along the Vice-Rector, Prof. Georgica Mitrache, and Dean Conf. Horia Moldovan.

An after-party followed at the nearby garden of the Casa Mincu – headquarters of the Romanian Order of Architects. The last day we visited our University at the invitation of Prof. Moiceanu, and casa Melik. The three days visit ended.

This conference was made possible with the support of the Romanian Order of Architects, the Bucharest Territorial Branch of the Romanian Order of Architects, ‘Ion Mincu’ University of Architecture and Urbanism (UAUIM), the Swiss Embassy in Romania, the Swiss Sponsors’ Fund, ProHelvetia.

Mazzocchioo#8 echoes the presence of Valerio Olgiati in Bucharest. The intention of this issue is to paint an image of the attention paid to the architecture of Valerio Olgiati by the academic milieu from Bucharest. I was aware of the doctorate being developed by Cosmin O. Gălățianu on the architecture of Valerio Olgiati, so, after discussing with our colleagues, we extended him the invitation to be the guest-editor of this issue. He has enthusiastically accepted our proposal and has conceived this rich and dense issue. He has invited eight young architects to write short contributions. They are part of one of the most effervescent groups in our environment, both at UAUIM and on the scene of architectural competitions in Romania. We want to thank them and to note here the appreciation towards their generous involvement with this issue of Mazzocchioo.

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