No man is an island independent of the rest of humankind, preached John Donne, the English 16th-century poet, who in 1940 inspired Ernest Hemingway to entitled a famous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The adage also holds true even when the bells and their sound “softened by high-performance panels inserted in the house enclosure” are the familiar ones of the parish church of Saints Cosmas & Damian in the historical center of Mendrisio, a small town in Canton Ticino, Switzerland, home of the architects Tommaso Botta and Eleonora Castagnetta, his wife.
A few years ago they found this personal island not far from the young Architecture Academy and their place of work, the studio of the architect Mario Botta, Tommaso’s father. It became a shared project of an architect couple that through “continuous discussion benefit from the complementary interaction of different forms of expertise,” Botta says.
“Even the opposite realities in which we grew up, a converted former monastery and the chaotic city of Palermo, generate unity of thinking. The questions of the profession of the architect, expanding into all aspects of living, make home and work coincide in our case. Mendrisio has always been a reference point for us. The position of the house is central, a remnant of a historical complex demolished to make room for the parvis of the neoclassical church from the late 1800s designed by Luigi Fontana di Muggio, in front of the medieval tower.”
On the northern side, the house – with an L-shaped layout – faces the parvis, while also enjoying the privilege of a private garden of 250 m2, enclosed by old stone arches. “Research revealed that the arches belonged to a street that was later rebuilt, and continued inside the building, unfortunately without any great historical or architectural value when we found it. The renovation project took two years, from 2012 to 2014,” he says.
“In order not to betray the local spirit, in our intervention on the protected exterior we conserved the pacing of the openings, as well as the figure of the pitched roof, underlining the relationship between the walls and the public space, with a strip of granite that marks the entire perimeter.”
In the interiors the action was more radical. The building has been gutted, to a great extent, and designed to create large spaces for contemporary living. The 380 m2 of overall area were divided into three main levels, a mezzanine and a cellar; five floors now connected by an internal elevator and a concrete staircase separated from the walls by 5 cm, at the center of which black thermocoated drawn steel grilles create a moiré peek-a-boo effect of lights and shadows.
Clarity and formal order in the architectural composition are reflected in the choice of glass with a single sliding panel, underlined by the black color of the frames, drawing attention to the ample elevation that extends from the courtyard-garden to the eaves.
“The pursuit of a relationship with the outside was a constant,” Botta observes. “Many openings, in relation to the parvis, or with the church facing the garden, or with the garden itself, bring the landscape into the spatial composition.”
Precisely the play of different levels in relation to the surrounding environment becomes one of the strong points of the design, especially due to the fact that from the outside the surprises of the interiors are not perceptible. The first one, after getting past the entrance atrium, is the size of the two-story living area, a theatrical space in which a luminous sphere stands out, two meters in diameter, featuring over 1200 LEDs (produced by Moooi) that fills the space, leaving its fluidity intact.
“It was complicated to insert, because in spite of its lightness – it weighs about 12 kg – it is shipped whole, in a crate that makes the weight increase to a total of 120 kg: we had to dismantle the parapet of the living room and raise it with a crane.”
This lamp embodies a second surprise that captures attention just after dusk, when the luminous inscription Desiderio on the wall emphasizes, by contrast, the dialogue with the capitals of the neoclassical church framed by the window, conveying, between rationality and figuration, new metaphorical and symbolic values.
“For us, desiderio (desire) is a word with a dual meaning,” Botta explains. “It is a reminder of the dimension of dreams, but also the surname of the former inhabitants of the house, like a trace of their presence in the past.” The possibility of making a spectacular living area on two levels is accompanied by other solutions and ideas that are unusual for an old typology, suited to a more contemporary way of living: from the kitchen open to the living area, with an induction range, to the fireplace that can be operated with a remote control; from the double washstands in the bathrooms to the laundry column to convey washables to the lower level.
The classic furnishings bear witness to the taste of the owners for contemporary product design. “We love design history, the creations of the great masters,” they say, “but also new object-sculptures. Because if architecture, as Adolf Loos said, is a complete discipline, design breaks up rigid schemes and personalizes space.”
The pleasure of details makes all the difference: between shutters that underline the contrasts of the materials used; wood paneling in lightly blanched oak, bringing rigor and continuity to the private zones, disguising wardrobes and doors with a certain degree of abstraction. The choice of Roman travertine in pale beige tones for all the floors and facings of the bathrooms reflects the desire for a warm, almost ancestral domestic atmosphere. A quality of life that is boosted by the encounter with 21st-century technology.
“Two geothermal probes, 100 meters each, fulfill the thermal needs of the house, taking energy from the ground,” Botta explains, “while the electrical system is automated to control lights and blinds, also from a distance.”
Without overlooking the LED strips, 53 linear meters, hidden in the girders at the base of the roof pitches, transforming the roof and the house into a total inhabitable lantern, a striking effect at sundown.
Photos by Enrico Cano – Text by Antonella Boisi