Architect Puts His Mark on San Francisco

In an interview, Mario Botta offers insights into his design for an American museum

IN early April the ground-breaking ceremony for the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was held, paving the way at last for construction to begin on an ambitious project that has been gestating since 1989. The architect is Mario Botta, hardly known to the American public, but one of Europe's heavyweights.

Mr. Botta has seen over 40 of his projects come to life, and has been described as playing a major role in revitalizing modern architecture. He is from the Ticino canton in southern Switzerland; a tiny region which has produced an impressive list of architects over the centuries, including the master of baroque, Francesco Borromini. More recently, in the 1950s, a generation of architects set forth as their objective to incorporate regional themes and traditions into their projects, each using the topogra phy for inspiration and interpreting it in an individual way.

A key figure in this group, Botta peppered the Ticino landscape with his creations from 1960 on, and essentially ran out of space. In 1980 he began to build outside of Switzerland - in Italy, France, Belgium, Japan, and Argentina. But his studio remained in Ticino and it is from his Lugano headquarters that Botta conceived the San Francisco museum, his first project to be realized in the United States, as well as his first museum.

The museum site is at the edge of the city's downtown area, with skyscrapers as backdrop. In this context, says Botta, "I had to work with a very strong image, one of great intensity. So I decided to insert a big structure into the spot, almost like a face; very totemic, capable of communicating that something special is happening inside, in contrast to the surrounding office and administrative buildings."

What struck Botta most about San Francisco was its natural light, which he describes as "extraordinary - Mediterranean, almost Greek, and very pure." Structurally, the raison dtre of a museum, says Botta, is its location. "There's no point in us designing synthetic laboratories that could just as well be in Dusseldorf or Helsinki. San Francisco has its light, which must be used."

This light became one of the most important elements of the project. Botta is critical of museums built in the 1980s in which artificial rather than natural light was preferred.

"Artificial light is used because you can control it better, technically it is more homogeneous, more delicate and less damaging to artwork. But I think it's interesting when the visitor can see variations in the light, when it is not only technical or suitable. I made an effort so that the museum, whenever possible, will have diffused light and the visitor can assimilate works of art with this special San Francisco light."

Another of Botta's objectives was to design a space using simple, classical forms, that would create a natural pathway through the galleries, drawing visitors on, orienting them. Here, too, Botta criticizes contemporary architecture "which has turned public edifices into labyrinths you move through following arrows and information. The route is not indicated by the architecture but by a second-rate form of media. I wanted to design a museum in which everything would seem clear."

Botta says that his most ambitious architectonic goal, however, was to create a structure without a style. "Something with such a strong presence that it wouldn't need a style." He explains. "A building that can't be placed in a historical context, that could be ancient, or very modern, even from the future."

He worked with simple volumes making a tower, in black and white stone, the central axis. The horizontal elements on each side of the tower will be in terra cotta bricks.

The architect has already succeeded in creating this sense of timelessness in several of his single-family homes in Ticino: a Palladian structure anchored to the earth, a fortress-like cylinder or a concrete brick edifice, its facade decorated with silver paint - Botta's houses seem caught in a time warp. They are both medieval and futuristic.

The interior galleries of the SFMOMA will have white walls and light wood floors, mitigating the density of the exterior structure.

Botta would like the museum to have "various protagonists: When visitors enter the building, they should feel at the center of the museum, dominating the richness of the space. Once they leave the ground floor and move to the upstairs galleries, the architecture will recede, and the works of art will be the protagonists. The space will be defined only by its light, and the visitor consequently will feel more discreet and humble, will sense that the art has become the nucleus."

A museum in a big city these days takes on a very important role, says Botta. "It has become an institution, the way the church was in the sense that it's a collective place, a place where people question themselves."

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is scheduled to open in 1995 and Botta hopes that the cylindrical tower will become the image of the museum. "It will be like the eye of Polyphemus, looking out over the city."

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