Architectural Dooz-Gest: Mario Botta, Aries

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By Alla Kazovsky –


The ocean-deep waters of Pisces, the 12th sign of the zodiac, contain those necessary seeds of life that will blossom in the spring with the following sign. It will be Aries, the first in a new cycle. Associated with re-birth of nature, it possesses the willingness to bravely start anew. Loving conquests, adventures, and challenges, it boasts a youthful, instigating spirit. Having a cause, something to fight for, brings out the best in courageous Aries.

Mario Botta, portrait

Architect Mario Botta born on April 1, 1943 in Mendrisio, Switzerland is an Aries Sun. Out of secondary school, Botta designs his first building at age 16 as a draftsman apprentice. Eventually, 26-year-old Mario completes his training in Venice where he interns for Le Corbusier, meets and works for Louis Kahn, AND!! arranges for Carlo Scarpa to be his thesis supervisor. What are the odds? To work with just one of these giants would have been huge. I have no doubt, Mario Botta, an assertive and competitive Aries, is overwhelmingly convincing — the best student to hire. He claims his chance, no matter how unattainable it might seem. He seizes the opportunity. “Faint heart never wins fair maid.”

Aries, a self-starter of the zodiac, is ambitious. Aiming to ascend proverbial Mount Blanc, his strategy is to consciously direct willpower.

Without the need for social reinforcement or approval, thriving on danger and determined to win, Aries is able to pioneer. Arian motto: “I am going to do what I want to do when I want to do it!“

“Architecture is the constant fight between man and nature, the fight to overwhelm nature, to possess it. The first act of architecture is to put a stone on the ground.” 

Mario Botta, Riva San Vitale

Mario Botta’s buildings are imposing — they represent strength and resolve. Architecture is his battlefield. He rises up the ranks on his way to becoming an accomplished “general” with vigor and self-control. Notice the way he spars with a steep slope at Riva San Vitale, Ticino Switzerland in 1973. A red steel truss of a bridge (18 meters or 59 foot long) is his weapon of choice. It boldly spans a void between a hillside and an observation platform (a signature theme) on top of the house, a sculpted cube. Accessed from the uppermost point, the 3-level residence is juxtaposed against a mountain range towering in the distance.

Arians will not rest until attaining their own idea of beauty and satisfying their intense innate desire for harmony.

“The church is a house that puts a believer in a dimension where he or she is the protagonist.”

Mario Botta, San Giovanni Battista

Mario Botta, San Giovanni Battista

In 1986, in a tiny village of Mogno, Maggia Valley (Switzerland), an avalanche flattens a 17th-century church, San Giovanni Battista. Mario Botta mourns the loss by passionately reinventing the original structure and defiantly responding with a strikingly new solution: a rectangle inscribed within an ellipse that transforms into a circle at the skylight level. A calculated risk results in a triumph. Forces of nature will not overwhelm its thick walls, made of alternating white and dark stone from neighboring quarries.

What resources are available to Aries? Rocket fuel.


Element: Fire

Fire energizes. It delights and warms in the hearth, or burns and destroys when out of control. All fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius) have a strong appetite for throbbing excitement. They have a need for a great deal of freedom in order to express themselves. Aries is the first fire sign — all power and strength.

The fire signs exist in a state of highly charged activity; maintaining it is crucial. Arians need existential courage to climb all the way to the summit and to act clearly and decisively in the face of fear.

“In my work, I can never find peace. It is like I have the need to multiply the projects.”

There’s that inherent instability of fire; Botta can’t rest. He still hears his mother whispering: “Go, and don’t waste time.” Maria Botta, the architect’s wife, talks about it: “Mario has like a fire burning in his soul. Sometimes he starts sketching while eating. He wakes up in the middle of the night and says – I have to do something.”

Fire doesn’t work along the set lines. First fire sign Aries must know how to act without hesitation.

For me, there is a great privilege to be confronted with the design of a church because it shelters the most powerful themes of humanity: birth, marriage, death.

Mario Botta, Chapel Santa Maria degli Angeli

Chapel Santa Maria degli Angeli in Ticino, Switzerland (1990 – 1996) is another glorious conquest. A church conceived as a processional bridge opposes its mesmerizing surroundings. Botta locks the structural geometry of stark man-made forms against a naturally powerful site. Rendered solid, the building holds its ground.

Rushing vitality and burning enthusiasm of Aries can influence and stimulate others.

“Church architecture describes visually the idea of the sacred, which is a fundamental need of man.”

Mario Botta, Papa Giovanni XXIII Church

Somehow, the architect is in his own element of heightened inspiration when creating places of worship. One feels revitalized within the sculpted single volume of Papa Giovanni XXIII Church, Seriate (1994-2004). The exultant quality of Botta’s monumentality, which he underlines, even exaggerates by unpredictable means of using predictable materials, awakens the soul. Regardless of religious affiliation, the space provokes a visceral reaction. You can’t remain indifferent — it is truly powerful! Attuned to his astrological fire energy, Botta channels it through virtuosity, originality, and dynamism.

How does Aries respond to a threat? By engaging.


Modality: Cardinal

Cardinal means overriding or essential. All four cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn) take action by focusing on the world outside. Robert Hand calls Aries “the ultimate cardinal sign,” “the first outthrusting of Will into the Universe.”

Cardinal signs have a fondness for starting things. They are not daunted by the lack of precedent.

“Voids are what dictates spatial and functional relationships, controlling visual lines and generating potential emotions, expectations, interpretations.”

Mario Botta, Cymbalista Synagogue Jewish Heritage Center

On an epic quest for spiritual unity, the architect devises a way to simultaneously separate and combine a place for prayer with a place for debate. Norbert Cymbalista hires Botta to design a synagogue even though the architect had never been to one. That does not matter. In the client’s mind, what really counts is that Mario Botta’s buildings “give a feeling of protection.” The outcome of their collaboration, Cymbalista Synagogue and Jewish Heritage Center, Tel Aviv (1996 - 1998), is a breakthrough — the only synagogue in Israel to house and conduct, under the same roof, religious services for all three major Jewish denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Serving the students of Tel Aviv University, the Synagogue and the Auditorium, symbolize the two realities of Israeli democracy — the religious and the secular.

Aries focuses attention in the external realm.


Polarity: Positive or Yang

Positive signs (Fire and Air) are considered to be objectively oriented and open. Actively conscious of life, they are interested in what is going on around them. Possessing strength in a masculine way, fire is the most yang. It concentrates on possibility.

Dynamic flow of creative energy requires spontaneous and powerful expression.

“I wanted to design a museum in which everything would seem clear.”

Mario Botta, SFMOMA

When Mario Botta sets out to design a new home for SFMOMA in 1988, his bid is to create a landmark building with "iconic strength". Clad in various treatments of red brick, Botta’s five-story structure establishes the museum’s visual identity as its commanding orthogonal volumes step down to greet the street. Accentuated by bands of black and white stone, piercing the center is a massive cylindrical skylight with its top sliced off at an angle. An immense architectonic apparatus, it emerges to bring in natural light while making a bold gesture to the city.

Aries achieves self-awareness by developing individual identity.


Orientation: Personal

Sue Tompkins writes: ”Aries can be like a child reveling enthusiastically in the discovery of something, joyfully unaware that countless others have previously made the same discovery.”

Arians are endowed with a childlike ability to reveal themselves freely.

“It was very useful to learn the history, the theory, and the art of building from a practical background.”

Mario Botta, Noah's Ark sculpture park

Hmm… Naïve and child-like… A refreshing collaboration with Niki de Saint Phalle comes to mind. The Noah's Ark sculpture park (1995-2001), a whimsical playground at the Jerusalem Zoo, encompasses 23 fantastical animals made of mosaic glass, mirrors, ceramic tile pieces, and polished stones discovered as they join the visitors, children in particular, roaming the “archaeological” remains of Noah’s Arc “fossilized” in local yellow stone — a figment of Mario Botta’s imagination.

How does Aries relate to others?


Complementary Sign: Libra

Being the first, Aries is the most self-oriented of all signs. Its opposite and complementary sign is Libra, the first one to be concerned with achieving balance between itself and the other. Robert Hand writes: “Aries must learn to adjust to the presence, pressures, and needs of another.”

“…the strongest emotions and delights, as well as the biggest disappointments and enthusiasms, are the ones I experienced standing in front of what I was creating, at the worksite.”

Mario Botta, Tour de Moron

Botta’s Tour de Moron (1998-2004) a helical tower with a roof composed of flattened cones, is found on the same winding path as a symbol of the region’s history, the 12th c. abbey. Built by more than 700 trainee stonemasons, this austere work gives visibility to the effort it takes to perfect the craft of stonecutting. In addition, it celebrates the deliberate process of literally climbing to the top. Weather permitting, the breathtaking view from there extends all the way to Mont Blanc.

It’s interesting how we spiral back to the theme of scaling Mont Blanc. In my mind, this unpretentious project is a testament to Botta’s relentless perseverance, and uncompromising integrity. So much accumulated wisdom, so many buildings and years later (he is already collaborating with his grandson Tommaso Botta), the architect is still deeply loyal to the core principles, still a crusader with the fire in his belly.


– Alla Kazovsky

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