Giacomo Guidotti: I have three types of memory connected with houses. The ﬁrst is the house I lived in as a child. The second was the observation, still as a young boy and thanks to my father’s role as chief constructor, of the urban restructuring of Monte Carasso by Luigi Snozzi. Acknowledging this, what I ﬁnd interesting, reﬂecting on the thesis of your project, is not to talk about the houses that I know somehow through the natural coincidences of my childhood but, instead to discuss a house that I discovered consciously through my own curiosity and research. It is this third type of memory, one that required effort and persistence to develop, that I would now like to talk about. This brings me to Casa a Costa by Livio Vacchini.
From the begining, Luigi Snozzi was always concerned with the ethical basis of architecture, which underlined that a house needs to be a structural part of the territory and clearly articulate the primary relationships between private and public domains. This theme being acutely manifest in his work in Monte Carasso and my experience as child. The buildings he drew, were essentially the results of pragmatic planning within the general large frameworks of cities. At the typological level, Snozzi’s houses usually remain under what we associate as “normal”. They have a clear subdivision between both day and night zones and served and serving spaces. The day zone has a speciﬁc relationship with the landscape, the night zone a different one; big windows have a function, small ones have another. Snozzi’s architectural decisions were driven by the pattern of their own use. He did this with the intention of putting his buildings to the service of a wider urban vision. I ask myself why that was. Slowly, over time, I began to realise that the main topic of Snozzi's architecture was not the language of the object but the relationship it had to the wider context. The ideological social dimension was for him, the most important one.
I saw Casa a Costa for the ﬁrst time whilst studying with Atelier Patrick Berger at the EPFL in Lausanne. In his classes, the ethical issues, which I’d become accustomed to, were signiﬁcantly less important. Instead, the question of how one builds, or „writes” a piece of architecture, based on syntax played a central role. In his teaching approach it was crucial to get to know the vocabulary and grammar ﬁrst before one started to tell stories. In other words, a capacity to put things in order was the basis of any further expression. Casa a Costa showed me in practice what Berger’s teaching was about. I understood that a house can deal with the universal and timeless topics common to all constructions: be it a museum, a stadium, or even a railway station. Vacchini’s house doesn’t lack anything to work-properly, at the same time and because of the way it was built, it is able to transcend contemporary connotations. More directly, the house gives form to ordering principles that allow it to participate in the 5000-year history of humanity. There are precise responses to many universal topics of architecture such as the relationship to the ground, interior, and exterior, monumental, and private dimensions, relationship with the landscape, behaviour of light on the surfaces of material, the topic of the plinth, cladding, etc. You are confronted with a very coherent piece of architecture that makes a statement on each topic. With this in mind, when observing the house, you begin to follow its logic and start to decipher and understand the intellectual process that brought it into existence.
IS IT NOT AN EXAMPLE OF ARCHITECTURE THAT FALLS IN LOVE WITH AN ORDER, TO AN ALMOST OBSESSIVE DEGREE?
That might be true, but if so, Vacchini does it on purpose. The house is a tentative attempt to make architecture driven only by principles. He wanted to build an order, a manifesto, and for this, he invented a program, and not the other way around. If he had wanted to build a house suitable for the daily life of his family, I am sure he would have made it differently. Finally, in the end, the building was used more as an escape, a meeting place to have dinners with friends and to read alone. This fact does not reduce the importance of Casa a Costa. On the contrary, it shows exactly why architecture has an autonomous right to exist and doesn’t always have to be justiﬁed by a function. A project also needs to develop an emotion, and this cannot come from the correctness of functional solutions. Vernacular domestic architecture for instance doesn’t have the ambition we are talking about. Early cultures invented archetypes, small machines to live in, that over time developed into what would ﬁnally become almost clockwork like systems; ﬁnely tuned to the speciﬁc conditions of their context. These houses were then reproduced systematically and built next to each other following the topography and are today what we know as vernacular architecture. Casa a Costa does not follow these premises. It manifests an ambition to give space an autonomous value, regardless of its ﬁnal assumed function. That is the best lesson it offers. For instance, it is the exact opposite of Le Cabanon by Le Corbusier, where each space can only be used in a speciﬁc programmed way.
Vacchini essentially makes a three-dimensional structure in which a person can do whatever he or she wants. If we think about a more traditional house, with a standard subdivision of spaces, entrance, living room, kitchen, two bathrooms, three bedrooms, etc., it seems universal and versatile, but in reality, it responds to the needs of a family for only a certain period of life, i.e., when a family has young children. The children inevitably grow up quickly, and in only a matter of years go away to study, etc. The house starts not to suit the requirements of life anymore. You have to change, or rent, or demolish it, or just accept that it doesn’t ﬁt. Life is made up of many of these diverse periods and how one lives consequently changes over time. An architect needs to know for how long, for whom, and for what activity a house is to be built for. Apart from that, there is always an architectural, spatial question, that should point towards universality. Casa a Costa was meant to be a holiday house for Livio Vacchini and his family. It was never meant for permanent habitation. That’s why the question: „How to make a piece of pure architecture?” could become the only important one. He could forget about solving a plan suitable for one speciﬁc moment and instead offer one that both proposes and provides for all possible future functional scenarios.
THE SPACE IS LONG AND NARROW IN PROPORTION, TWO CORRIDORS ALONG OPPOSING FACADES. DO YOU THINK IT IS A GOOD SHAPE FOR A SPACE WHERE ONE SPENDS A LONG TIME?
The space, on the ground ﬂoor, is indeed, physically long, and because of the wall in the middle of the plan that draws the division between the kitchen and the bathroom; narrow. The great invention is the roof that rests on pillars at the two short facades. It means that two out of four enclosures of each of the corridors are glazed. It transforms it into a terrace exposed to the landscape. As a result, you don’t have the impression of being in a long and narrow space.
On the other hand, if we look at the type of glass, it’s important that it is not completely transparent. It is blueish and strongly reﬂective on the outer surface and in my opinion, it plays a crucial role in the atmosphere of this house. It has a presence that changes the hue and opacity of the light entering the building. It is not about pretending there is not a wall, it is about having something other than a wall. Subtly, it marks the limit between exterior and interior. Whenever you open the window, even minimally, and the real light enters which has a very different colour and temperature, you perceive immediately, with your eyes and as it falls on your skin a series of interesting phenomena. I ﬁnd it very rich and it changes all the time. It looks simple at the ﬁrst glance, but in fact, it is very complex and done with the utmost precision and sensibility. Banality and simplicity are not the same things. It’s another lesson the house offers us.
OVERDOSING ON EXPOSURE IS A REAL ISSUE. I IMAGINE THAT THE STRONG EXPERIENCES YOU DESCRIBE COULD BECOME UNBEARABLE UNDER CONSTANT REPETITION. WHERE DO YOU RETREAT TO FROM THE SPECTACULAR VIEW AND HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO RE-EMERGE, CURIOUS TO GO BACK ON TO THE BIG STAGE? IN A SPACE OF THIS TYPE, WHERE DO YOU HIDE?
It’s a fundamental topic. The house exists as two „tubes”, it has three pillars on each short facade, it’s very open and as you say it produces an experience of extreme exposure. In this respect, it is important to consider the layout and design of the plot. On one side of the house, Vacchini planted olive trees, which were supposed to create an external screen obscuring the long view and giving the space a more intimate dimension. It is also screening those inside from being seen by passers-by. There is also another way to respond to your question. Sometimes when inside a house, you don’t always want to be exposed to the people you are with, all the time. The intimacy of a house is not only measured in a relationship with the public space but also the one between an individual and a collective. An open, free space layout always has this problem, but in the case of Casa a Costa, the fact that it’s a house for a couple reduces it signiﬁcantly.
HOW DO YOU INTERPRET THE USE OF COLOUR IN CASA A COSTA? WHAT ABOUT THE YELLOW FLOORING AND RED STRIPED PILLARS?
As far as I am concerned the ﬂoor simply emphasises the interior light dynamics. For example, with a wooden ﬂoor it would simply be less visible because wood disperses the light. A synthetic yellow material makes all the changes sharp and evident. When it comes to the red stripes, I don’t feel that the colour, in this case, is very important. What is important is the cut.
One of the main qualities of concrete is that it is monolithic and does not have a front or a back. Even local Gneiss, commonly used for monolithic columns, when looked at carefully has stratiﬁcations; it is composed out of layers. Concrete is even more amorphous than stone. It is a material that par excellence can be used to make volumes, masses, and all without orientation.
In architecture, there is a classical topic of cladding, an external layer of construction that belongs to the public domain. From antiquity, people ask how the blocks or panels of stone or wood are articulated in the corners, which element covers which, etc. Monolithic concrete in theory allows a construction to be liberated from the topic of cladding. Vacchini, however, decides to recall the classical topic even in the monolithic construction by making a slit in the pillar and painting it red. I think it is to underline the passage from the exterior to the interior. It gives a form, a spatial dimension to the limit between two fundamentally different realms. Everything that has mass is the private domain, everything that has an association with cladding is part of the public space.
IN CASA A COSTA, VACCHINI APPLIED A VOCABULARY THAT COULD EASILY BE ASSOCIATED WITH PREHISTORIC CONSTRUCTIONS LIKE DOLMENS. IN THIS SENSE, MONUMENTALITY WAS NOT ORIGINALLY APPLIED TO DOMESTIC ARCHITECTURE, BUT RATHER TO THE PUBLIC ONE, THE ONE THAT HAD A FUNCTION OF BRINGING THE EARLY SOCIETIES TOGETHER. WHAT DOES THIS ASSOCIATION PRODUCE ONCE APPLIED TO A PRIVATE HOUSE?
As far as I am concerned in every construction an architect designs there is the question of monumentality, and how much he or she decides to give to it. It’s a question of balance between the public and private dimension of a structure and it depends very much on the position of the building in relation to other buildings, territory, landscape, etc. Common sense tells us that the more public a structure is, the more monumental its dimension should be. Conversely, the more private something is, the less monumental it is. In my opinion, this is not always true. One can invert a common logic and ask, regardless of the program, what grade of monumentality the context requires in a particular place. Sometimes it is necessary to make an object that deals, using monumentality, with for instance, the scale of a lake, or a mountain, or public space - even if it is programmatically a modest house.
Another factor is the dimension of time. Today a house is a building where one lives, tomorrow it can be a chapel. To give this possibility an architect needs to think in universal, abstract terms and keep the object resistant to fashions and short-term scenarios. A house doesn’t need to describe anything. The life of a person or a family is self-explanatory and doesn’t need architecture as a metaphor to explain or teach people. I think it is interesting to give a person a space that is open to diverse uses. Casa a Costa is a house without judgment, it doesn’t tell you what to do or what activity is more important and how you should experience it. The middle wall is there now, but tomorrow the bathroom and the wall might disappear or move somewhere else, and the house could become a gallery of sculpture. The wall is less a part of architecture than it is part of the furniture. The roof instead wouldn’t allow the level of freedom it offers if it were dependent on intermediate supports. To guarantee this, it needed to break free.
I used to say that a house always has two lives. The ﬁrst one, before anyone lives in the building, starts with a project, before it passes through diverse phases of construction. The second is the live beginning when all the furniture, art pieces, sentimental objects, toys, ﬂowers, decorations, etc are introduced by the users. I don’t think that there is something wrong, if in its ﬁrst life, a house has a sober character of a public building and deals with universal and abstract topics. Shortly after it will anyway be inhabited by someone, and it will become „softer” according to the preference of the user. I don’t think that architecture itself needs to be domestic, for chairs, sofas, pillows, etc. play this role perfectly.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF VACCHINI, BEING RIGOROUS, MINIMAL
AND ONE THAT RADICALLY CLEANS EVERYTHING THAT IS NOT ESSENTIAL, CREATES AN ATMOSPHERE THAT MIGHT SUGGEST
A CERTAIN WAY OF LIVING. DO YOU THINK IT CAN ACCOMMODATE ALL POSSIBLE SCENARIOS JUST BECAUSE IT IS PHYSICALLY FREE OR RATHER ITS CHARACTER EXCLUDES SOME OF THEM?
I am not sure. I have just ﬁnished a house for a friend who is a painter. I couldn’t make a house with glass everywhere and without the possibility to hang his paintings and the art he collects. These pieces play an important part in his daily life, they are essential to it and require a certain type of architecture. In this sense, architecture is not fully free and autonomous. However, the problem is not whether you listen to the clients or not. The central problem is whether you give a direct answer to their wishes, or you try to ﬁnd a solution that has a spiritual ambition, or intellectual nature, that responds in an indirect way to their needs. The direct answer is a functionalist architecture, the indirect one is an architecture that celebrates its freedom and deals with more universal topics in the ﬁrst instance.
As far as I am concerned, as an architect, your primary task and responsibility is to build a world. What matters is that it makes sense and things begin to make sense when they have governing rules. Otherwise, it’s not a world, it’s chaos. Casa a Costa is a world. Casa a Costa follows a system that Vacchini developed and applied to his house. One can live there in a very minimalistic style. At least this is what is suggested at ﬁrst glance, but I wouldn’t say it is the only way. I can also imagine you could also live there with Persian carpets, piles of books, and armchairs of Louis XIV style. Take for example, Stonehenge or the Parthenon, nobody knows what was there at the beginning, what kind of partitions, curtains, chairs, benches, textiles, etc. We only know what has lasted and stayed.
We spoke before about the two lives a house has. It’s not like that the transition between them is immediate, sometimes it takes many years before a house an architect builds becomes someone’s home. In the beginning, it is often very surprising how wrong everything seems; without any order, spaces are arranged strangely, furniture does not ﬁt and is put in the worst possible places. Usually, after a long time, you go back and discover beautiful and unexpected arrangements, completely different from what you imagined while designing, rich, and very authentic. It is not true that a space built with rigour and with the ambition of abstraction, promotes a minimal and contemplative lifestyle. In Casa a Costa there is nothing intrinsic that tells you to sit there, on only one chair, watching the mountains in silence. The more architecture is sober, even abstract, the more it allows surprising situations to take place inside it.
IN MANY DISCIPLINES, IT IS NECESSARY TO UNDERSTAND METHODS, PROCESSES, PROCEDURES, REASONS, AND DIFFERENT KINDS OF LOGIC. THE QUESTION IS WHETHER ARCHITECTURE, UNDERSTOOD AS DESIGN, IS ONE OF THEM. DO WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND ARCHITECTURE TO APPRECIATE AND MAKE IT?
It is a question of mental structure. I think in the European context, as a culture, we are educated to understand what we do, and do what we understand. Doing things, is in the ﬁrst place a way of communication. To live together, a society needs both communication and understanding. As far as I am concerned, everything we do is ﬁltered by our own rationality. In the context of architecture, I am not talking about the preference for orthogonal compositions over freeform ones. I am stressing the necessity of a logical argument that makes me choose between one or the other.
I am convinced that the ﬁnal aim of constructing a piece of architecture is one of constructing a city and with this intention, I am close to Luigi Snozzi. A city is a form of organisation within society, it needs a certain structure. If I design a house and I want to build a single event, I can do it following my fantasy, intuition, and subjectivity. However, if I have an ambition to contribute to the construction of a city, I must deal with the question of how a city should work, not only as a hierarchical and efﬁcient system but also in terms of poetics and fundamental visual rules that determine its character. A city should not be a prototype or a generic result of the multiplication of other models, it needs its own unique face. The same principle works on a smaller scale for quarters, neighbourhoods, etc. It’s just not possible to build a city out of single objects developed solely out of the architect’s subjectivity - just put next to each other, one at a time. To hold a ‘wall’ together, you need some mortar between the individual bricks.
Today, the question remains; what is the required criteria to build a city or to make a physical structure within a society? Is there something important for everyone that should have priority and become a guide for all the rest that grows around it? What is the reason to physically meet in a place, apart from the commercial exchange of goods and wealth? Should a city have a centre or not? Nowadays everyone has a problem with answering these questions. I do not know what the ultimate solution is but denying the importance of looking for it will have exclusively negative consequences. The more architects decide to refuse to participate in a discussion about the future, form, sense, and space of our cities, the less impact we will have on how our environment looks and works. Already today, the role architects play is secondary, cities are shaped by economists, sociologists, historians, engineers, and landscape designers. An architect only comes to the table when all the important topics are decided upon, it’s only then that they are allowed to make their isolated object.
DO YOU THINK IT’S THE ARCHITECT’S ROLE TO CHALLENGE THIS;
TO PROPOSE THE BIG FRAMES WITHIN SOCIETY? IF THIS IS SO, WHAT ARE THE CURRENT PARAMETERS AN ARCHITECT WORKS WITHIN?
The dominating housing concern in the contemporary occidental democratic society is reciprocal non-disturbance between neighbours. You can make whatever you want in terms of materials, forms, language, spaces, if you accept and follow the rule of non-disturbance i.e., distances from the borders of the plot and reduced height. This is the level we are now at. It’s a low level of controlled social order. We lack more sophisticated, more creative, more longsighted, more intelligent, quality-oriented ideas to govern how we build the quarters we live in. I ﬁnd this state of affairs disappointingly poor for a society that declares itself to be so advanced.
The house of Vacchini is not only a formal manifesto, but also a conceptual manifesto. It shows that a house, and we can extrapolate it to anything of fundamental importance to human existence, is deﬁned not only by superﬁcial elements or decoration but by structural elements. It is a general philosophical message. It stresses that structure, signiﬁcantly more than cosmetics, has a fundamental role to play in constructing a world. The rigour of Vacchini’s architecture is one of conceptual types. It’s a construction, understood as an orderly composition of a series of elements.
Fluidity is an often-explored topic in our times, and it might be fashionable to talk in terms of individual narratives and deconstruction of general systems. But as far as I am concerned, it describes only a part of today's condition and refers to speciﬁc, limited spheres and problematics. It should not become a methodology to deal with everything. In times of Covid, for example, we have beneﬁted from technology and the fact that our private social worlds could remain connected, even if people were on different continents. We could continue to teach in universities, etc. However, it doesn’t mean that this virtual, a-contextual dimension should be our ideal and the horizon of all our ambitions. We are architects ﬁrst of all because we believe in the physicality of spaces at all scales, not only in the scale of our bedroom. This requires structural thinking and Casa a Costa puts it in the foreground. The message that connects the work of Vacchini with what I learnt from Snozzi, is an ethical one.
WOULD YOU CHANGE ANYTHING IN CASA A COSTA?
I don’t think we should be preoccupied with changing anything from the past, we should make projects that deal with the future. More than modifying Casa a Costa, I would be interested to bring the best from it to my own projects and make it even better.
Vacchini often spoke that in life you make the same project again and again, trying to make it better each time you deal with it. This means that past experience is nothing more than a necessary step towards a future one.
Casa a Costa taught me to see a house not as a ﬁnished object but as a manifestation and concentration of wider more universal thoughts. Luigi Snozzi illustrates this point with his famous aphorism “L’acquedotto vive al momento che ha cessato di portare l’acqua” („an aqueduct starts to live once it stops carrying water”). This thought has been present through history and will be present each time I start to draw.