Home Diplomatic Pouch The Swiss-Italian Architectural Touch

The Swiss-Italian Architectural Touch


By Mirko Zambelli, Minister, Embassy of Switzerland in the Netherlands.

As a newcomer to the Netherlands, I was immediately struck by Dutch architecture (in fact, it was when I first saw the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague). This got me thinking about the Swiss architectural tradition, and how Switzerland has always been fertile ground for this art form.

My country has produced several famous architects, such as Le Corbusier and, more recently, Peter Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron and Mario Botta. It has also attracted foreign big names, such as Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano and Daniel Liebeskind. To link our subject back to the Netherlands: did you know that the father of modern Dutch architecture, Hendrik Petrus Berlage, studied his craft at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich from 1875 to 1878? And the connection continues – the Swissôtel in Amsterdam is located in a building designed by Berlage!

The Italian-speaking region I come from – Canton Ticino and partly Canton Grigioni – has greatly contributed to the Swiss architectural tradition. Even long before modern urbanization and industrial growth, Swiss Italian émigré architects, builders and craftsmen (stuccatori) were working for monasteries and courts across Europe (mainly in Italy, Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic) and into Russia, thus directly contributing to the early export of this cultural savoir-faire.

Prominent early figures also include the maestri of the late Renaissance and Baroque period in Rome. Major works by these architects include the church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane/San Carlino and the Re Magi chapel (by Francesco Borromini), the façade of the St. Peter’s Basilica and the church of Sant’Anna della Valle (by Carlo Maderno), and the finalization of the dome, originally designed by Michelangelo, of the St. Peter’s Basilica (by Domenico Fontana, who also erected the 327-ton obelisk in St. Peter’s Square). All three men were born in Ticino.

Another Ticino native, Domenico Trezzini, was influential in Russia, where he elaborated on the Petrine Baroque style of Russian architecture. Peter I of Russia commissioned him (among other architects) to design buildings for the new Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Among his most celebrated achievements are the Peter and Paul Fortress (including the Cathedral) and the Summer Palace. Trezzini even developed a personal relationship with the Czar, who became godfather to his son (who was, by the way, named Pietro).

Building on this long tradition, today’s “Ticino Tendency” represents a globally recognized architectural style. Perhaps its most famous representative is Mario Botta, whose masterpieces spread across at least three continents. His landmarks include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cathedral of Evry in France, the Cymbalista Synagogue in Tel Aviv, and the Watari Museum in Tokyo. Closer to home, Botta also renovated Milan’s famous La Scala Opera House.

In 1996, Botta and Aurelio Galfetti – another famous contemporary Swiss-Italian architect – founded the Academy of Architecure in Botta’s native city of Mendrisio. This Accademia is a testimonial to the longstanding and prestigious architectural tradition from the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, linking the venerable Renaissance and Baroque maestri with the currently vibrant Ticinese school, as well as providing a laboratory with a strong international vocation for the future.

Joining the Swiss and Dutch architectural traditions today is an agreement between the Accademia in Mendrisio and the TU Delft school of architecture, the European Mobility Program (students exchange). And finally, it is worth mentioning that another globally famous architect from Ticino (also from Mendrisio), Luigi Snozzi, designed the Stoa residence in Maastricht.



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