SCHARANS (CH) - Valerio Olgiati designed a house without a roof for artist Linard Bardill.
Linard Bardill is a well-known Swiss singer-songwriter and storyteller; every Swiss child can sing along with his tunes. He lives in a 16th-century house decorated with beautiful frescoes, right in the intact heart of the village of Scharans, a community of 800 inhabitants in the Grisons Alps. His wish to have a separate but nearby place to work led to the demolition of an old wooden stable opposite the house.
Bardill's chosen architect was Valerio Olgiati – of all people, one might say, considering that Olgiati is regarded as an uncompromising and radical architect whose declared aim is to make 'utterly non-political architecture'. This almost fabulous liaison between the children's bard and the purist architect rumoured to have torn pupils' drawings from the concrete walls of his schoolhouse in Paspels, sounds like a guarantee of fireworks. In fact, the fairy tale had a happy ending, producing one of the most surprising buildings to have been built in the Grisons in recent years.
And this in spite of the fact that the parameters were anything but flexible: the volume of the new building is exactly that of the former stable, as stipulated by regional building regulations designed to ensure that the coherence of old urban or village structures and the proportions of its open spaces are preserved. The red-tinted concrete facades trace the outlines of the vanished stable down to the last centimetre. Their materiality is puzzling. No less so is the lack of windows and the view inside from the lane: through the only opening – large, high-up and unglazed – over the rear gable, up to the wooden house towering above, and beyond that, to the sky. A house without a roof!
Upon closer analysis, the building turns out to be more courtyard than house. The actual studio covers only 60 square metres, about a third of the floor area, and it uses only a quarter of the 1700 available cubic metres. The architect argues that the client's budget was limited; if it had been bigger, Olgiati said, the studio would have been bigger too. In view of the high quality of the material (coloured exposed concrete on both sides, with foam glass in between) and the handcrafted execution, this explanation should be taken with a grain of salt.
The courtyard walls, facades and interior are all done in the same material: deep red exposed concrete. The wall between the studio and the courtyard consists of two huge steel-framed windows, one of which can be slid open electronically. An acoustic field in the ceiling allows the room to be used as a sound studio; an open fireplace defines the space; the open kitchen and bathroom stay in the background.
The building's most striking feature is the decoration imprinted on all the concrete surfaces, indoors and out. It is a rose, which appears 1400 times and in three different sizes. A local artisan carved it into the planks of freshly-cut local spruce used for the shuttering. Although the same planks were used three to four times, the pattern runs irregularly across the building, either clustered or spread out. The idea for the ornament came from the client, the actual motif from an old chest standing in his house. It depicts the stylized rose that was very often used in the Grisons but, according to Bardill, is universal, at home all over the world. After all, the point today is not to invent new ornaments but to use the old ones in a masterful way – the musician explains, quoting Adolf Loos.
To Bardill this rose stands for the basic attitude his new studio building expresses. It is meant to be both 'esoteric and exoteric', introvert and extrovert, to not only provide its user with the desired creative retreat but to also occasionally serve as a theatre or concert room – with the audience seated in the courtyard and the artist in the opened-up interior. Olgiati, too, emphasizes the unifying effect of the ubiquitous emblem, which can even be found on the walls and ceilings of the garage and the service area in the basement and parts of the facade that are underground: 'In my buildings I do not differentiate between indoors and out because I do not want there to be a difference between private and public.'
The only sense of hierarchy is imparted by the geometry and the structure of the spaces, not by the material or decoration. The best example is the courtyard. With its two freestanding gable walls, it might easily have been read as a roofless house were it not for the gigantic elliptical opening inserted at ceiling height. It is this monumental space – 'the most mathematical space in all of Scharans', according to Olgiati – that demonstrates its architect's determination not to be limited by the dimensions of the former stable. An architectural ambition that deals a deathblow to any vestiges of romanticism.
January | 2008 | Switzerland | Axel Simon