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Valerio Olgiati: Works

Valerio Olgiati, in: World Architecture, Daniel Walser, issue editor, Beijing, No 8 / August 2012.


Idea expressed by structural invention

The Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati develops ideas in his architecture studio in the village of Flims in the middle of the Alps. The location might seem cut off from where you would normally expect such an international operating architecture office. But Flims is not rural and is very much a local skiing centre for the urban winter tourism. Living and working apart from the fast changing architecture fashions a quality in Olgiati's constructions. It allows him to concentrate in an independent way and develop unique architecture. Unique in the sense that Olgiati emphasizes structural and spatial essence.

The result of Olgiati's design process is often astonishing for the viewer. The radical physicality that his buildings depict is different to what we are used to seeing in contemporary architecture. I remember, when I visited his Secondary School in Paspels (1998) a short time after completion, I was amazed by the radical yet very natural attitude of the building in situ and the inner spatial yet unexpected complexity. In the meantime this school building has aged in its material texture and formal expression exceedingly well. It is a timeless architecture. The building convinces the viewer with its almost self-evident presence. The secondary school building stands on the other side of the street to the existing primary school, in a field. The outer almost monolithic volume shelters the surprising inner spatial by its nutshell concrete form. By stretching the layout on two diagonal ends Olgiati shifted the parallel axis to a slightly different perspective. From outside the building still looks rectangular but inside one experiences the rooms as dynamic. One never expects such a compelling space inside a reduced volume. Outside light from the field reflects into the cross-form corridors, thus bringing seasonal colours into the concrete volume. The classrooms themselves are covered in wood to reflect something traditional and warm and so gives the pupils a personal place. The inside is a rich play of light, colour, space, and materiality.

Entrance, Secondary School, Paspels, 1998, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

The design idea as a backbone
Valerio Olgiati sees himself like an author in his architectural thinking, searching for the "how". Every task is solved in an individual way and requires its own solution. He does not work with an "emotional design process" of sketching and model making, as he calls it. But rather, solution finding is a process of thinking and inventing with discussions to understand the given task and develop the design idea. Olgiati aims to design based on a precise analysis of the given task. The idea, resulting out of this process is the backbone of his architecture. Until the idea is clear he does not work with sketches, plans or models.

For Olgiati the building idea needs to be much more than a mere functional organisational scheme. It is not about the construction or site-specific interpretation of a genius locus, as in the School in Paspels he designed an independent volume. The idea aims to be more universal and therefore more abstract. Architects today need to work as close as possible with all kinds of specialists to fulfil today's necessities. Olgiati goes the other way around. He does not believe in the specialisation in our society. The building has to last longer than specific technical solutions. With his design idea Olgiati aims to solve more than one aspect of the project. Otherwise specialists will take over the project and such particular specific interests will change the design direction, and in architecture this may not necessarily be in relevant directions. For Valerio Olgiati it is important that the architect remains in charge of the design process, as the architect in the past always was when building structures out of ideas. In the long run such resulting architecture will be more sustainable.

Front, Auditorium Plantahof, Landquart, 2010, , Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

Spatial framing of the idea through structure
The idea is somehow the "DNA" of architecture, as Valerio Olgiati said. A very important element for the formulation and expression of the basic design idea is the architecture structure. Olgiati demonstrates the transformation of an idea through the structural elements, together with the negative volume of space. To transfer the design idea into a precise architecture Olgiati works with the structural engineer Patrick Gartmann. In this close collaboration he is able to also include questions of earthquake protection or wind force and develop a structure such as in the project for the new University building Luzern (2003). Here the structure is not just supporting the building but is a dynamic in itself. The twist in the rotated building volume does not come from an aesthetical decision but out of the structural idea based on the commitment to solve all necessary questions as a tectonically thought-out structure. It is indeed an economical effective way to use such forces to give the building its specific expression. Hereby one even limits the use of material to a minimum.

Further emphasis on structure can be observed in the project for the Learning Centre for the EPFL in Lausanne (2004). The invented space is spatially an even more explicit skeletonal organism. Even, if the building somehow retains massive parts, set in relation to its dimensions and the placement of openings, the building has been designed to its structural limits. If one would remove one element of the structure the building would collapse. This building system has also been applied in commercial jobs as the Binz office building in Zurich (2001) or the modular tower as in Lima (2010-).

The process of designing properties of structure and the use of concrete in Olgiati's architecture is in reference to modernist architecture after the Second World War. The structural framing of space leads to an architecture formulated by the late Le Corbusier as we can find in the Monastery of La Tourette (1956-1960) or in his government buildings in Chandigarh (1952-1959). Such a radical conceptual design approach and structural framing of space can be understood as a connection between the architecture of the late Le Corbusier and Olgiati. Especially in earlier work as the school building in Paspels, Olgiati likes to work with the geometry and define space in such a radical way, that he is very close to the architecture of Louis Kahn and other exponents of Brutalism architecture. Especially Kahn was able to create structural solutions with an overall idea binding the volumes together as in the Salt Lake Institute (1959-1965). The fundamental difference between Olgiatis work and modernist buildings lies in his use of advanced building structure techniques to reduce the materiality of the structure not in an additional way but as a sculptural organism.

Visitor Center Swiss Natinal Park, Zernez, 2008, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

Dual dynamics of space
For Valerio Olgiati it is important, that a building i s more enigmat ic from the out s ide and for one to understand what one sees only through thinking. The architecture should always keep a certain mystery how it really functions. Ideally the viewer has to experience and think about the building to get a deeper understanding of the idea. This kind of thinking gives the building a variety of possible interpretations and thus intellectual depth.

One perceives Olgiati's Visitor Centre for the Swiss National Park in Zernez (2002-2008) as a simple and clear-cut building, two connecting cubic volumes with windows. But when one arrives at the staircase one is not sure which way to go, and if only one is the right way. This irritation helps to make the building richer in experience. This building is not just a sequence of rooms. Every visitor has to search his own way through the building and creates his own museum in his mind.

When one visits the Plantahof Auditorium in Landquart (2008-2010, one does not immediately understand the use of the beam sticking out of the building volume on the outside. When one steps inside it is not clear either what exactly is happening. It starts to be more interesting when one connects the two images in mind and thinks about what one sees. Then one might realise that the inner concrete structure is a hybrid one partly hanging from the ceiling, partly a massive one standing on the ground. This tension between the outside and the inside gives the architecture a spatial richness.

Backside, Auditorium Plantahof, Landquart, 2010, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

In dialogue with historical architecture knowledge
Valerio Olgiati has a collection of images, which he calls iconographic autobiography. This collection provides non-verbal hints to what interests Valerio Olgiati and to what he thinks could have an importance for his architecture. An influence for example is the traditional stone architecture of GraubŁnden. These stone buildings have a daily presence in Olgiatis life. Nevertheless, the archaic presence of traditional buildings shows up in several of his buildings. But one should not misunderstand his buildings as archaic. It is more a learning from existing values and spatial complexity. Another similar discourse can be found in the Scottish tower houses. These buildings have a very compact form but the inside is extremely rich spatially. The niches for the windows and the inner composition of these houses formulate a complex spatial negative volume. In the studio of the musician Bardill in Scharans (2007) Olgiati refers to traditional spatial conditions in a completely different way, with more of a rational invention of the almost circular opening in both the courtyard as well as in the separate music studio. The inner courtyard and the shell like concrete facade are new inventions. The open atrium can be used as a garden as well as a stage for concerts. The almost circular opening of the atrium towards the sky is a design decision, not a functional one.


Atelier Bardill, Scharans, 2007, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

But it is not just traditional or vernacular buildings, which form a basis for Olgiatis architecture. The impressive urban presence of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence by Giuliano da Sangallo (1489-1539) is very much based on the development of its facade. In several of Olgiati's buildings, as the School in Paspels and even the Museum in Perm (2008) the physical facade presence of dominates building volume.

This research leads to the question of unity in architecture. In Olgiati's collection of the iconographic autobiography one finds a plan of the Villa Rotonda by Andrea Palladio (1567-1591) as well. This villa is not just a house on a hilltop, it represents an idea of lifestyle with surroundings, and life. It is almost an icon for an architecture where an entire life is reflected. In Valerio Olgiati's architecture such inseparable unity is aimed for.

Almost circular opening in the courtyard, Atelier Bardill, Scharans, 2007, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

Expression and meaning
Even for supposedly limited architecture tasks Olgiati is able to develop a fundamental solution, as for example the new Main Entrance to the Parliament House of the Canton Grison in Chur (2009). Years ago, due to the lack of space the parliament moved to the remodelled arsenal. The same building hosts the local state theatre as well. The entrance to the parliament was put on the side wall towards the main street. Because this main entrance was not accessible for people in wheelchairs and without cover against rain and wind in winter, the administration searched for a new entrance solution with an architectural completion. Valerio Olgiati won this competition because he presented the only project able to solve questions of representation for such an important official building.

The building consists of a ramp a supporting half-shield like element, a pillar, and a roof, which is not connected with the building in the arsenal. This radical reduction of elements for the given task surprise in its simplicity and in the monumentality of the given solution. The surreal aftermath of placing the cantonal parliament in an unused arsenal with access to it from the side is finally given a representative architectural solution by Oligati. It is a new architecture, invented to solve a specific problem with an appropriate non-standard solution. The use of non-conventional forms, images, and types can provoke people too, because one has to think about the given solution.

Balconies, Appartment Block Schleife, Zug, 2012, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

Structure as a reflection of today
In a larger scale the Health Centre in the United Arab Emirates (2005) or the Museum in Perm are basted on structural thoughts. The variation of the volume is based on questions of the hospital purpose. In the health centre the hospital section needed more economically used space than the rest of the site and in Perm the structure is defined by both functional and exhibitional tasks.

Valerio Olgiati is not the only architect working with such issues. The abstraction in the Architecture of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa from Sanaa, the material presence of David Chipperfield or the essential structural research of Christian Keresz show how Valerio Olgiati is part of a larger movement in architecture for a fundamental research in possible development of architecture. The outstanding achievement of Olgiati's contribution lies in the ambiguous complexity he achieves. His architecture is multi-layered in its interpretation of architectural expression, and yet a clear idea, which restrains the complexity and keeps his architecture Straight and pragmatic.

Staircase detail, Visitor Center Swiss Natinal Park, Zernez, 2008, Valerio Olgiati, (photograph: Daniel A. Walser)

Text by Daniel A. Walser
English Edit by Nicole Ottiger

World Architecture, Beijing: Editorial presentation

World Architecture, Beijing: online Journal

Atelier Valerio Olgiati