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EXHIBITION

REVIEW

Mario Botta: The Architecture of the Sacred: Prayers in Stone At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 14 January

Minimalism, Neo-Modernism, 'the new simplicity' - these are the characteristics of current Swiss architecture. The work of Peter Zumthor, Gigon Guyer, Diener & Diener and, best known, Herzog & de Meuron typifies this approach and has made Switzerland a major force on the global architectural scene and certainly an influence in the UK.

The architecture of Mario Botta appears to be completely at odds with the ethos of Minimalism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, yet Botta is one of the leading Swiss architects today, and the interest generated by his recent lecture at the RIBA suggests that his work is well regarded in this country, though he has yet to build here. Accompanied by a handsome book (Editrice Compositori, £34), this is a striking exhibition. Drawings, excellent photographs and some stunning models make it a show that really should not be missed.

By British standards Botta, now in his 60s, is an exotic figure, his work strongly rooted in history and an overriding preoccupation with form. His is an architecture of masonry, stone and brick, of solids and voids, of memorable shapes.

In Britain, it begs comparison with the later work of James Stirling, but could equally be damned by association with the meagre legacy of PostModernism, a movement which some in this country find not just aesthetically offensive but morally too.

Such an association would, however, be mistaken. Botta is, of course, an Italian-speaking Swiss from the Ticino and studied in Milan and Venice before collaborating on projects with two titans of Modern architecture, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. A preoccupation with the cylindrical form emerged as early as 1980 with the house in Stabio, a project much revisited by other architects who share Botta's central concerns. It surfaced again in larger projects such as the new cathedral at Evry, France, and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, completed in 1995.

There is nothing in Botta's work of the facetiousness of the worst of PoMo. Along with the urban concerns of the Italian tradition, Botta was imbued with a regard for the Romanesque churches and dignified farm buildings of his native region as well as an enthusiasm for the Baroque of Borromini. Churches do not figure prominently in the work of most contemporary architects, but Botta has designed many - 11 are shown in this exhibition (and one synagogue) and they range in scale from a tiny cemetery chapel near Lucca to the Evry cathedral. All are numinous structures, loaded with meaning; some of them (the church at Mogno, for instance) set in sublime landscapes.

Botta has been distinctly under-appreciated in Britain.

This exhibition convinces me, at least, that he is a truly major architect in the mould of those great figures whose work was such a potent inspiration for him, and certainly the most significant church architect alive today.

Kenneth Powell is a London-based architectural journalist

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