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Valerio Olgiati at the RIBA

Valerio Olgiati’s dining habits prove a clear metaphor for his approach to building, says Nic Read

‘I don’t want to be a servant to the public,’ said Valerio Olgiati to a packed-out lecture hall at the RIBA. Olgiati – three-times winner of the Best Building in Switzerland award and professor at the Università della Svizzera Italiana’s Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio – was in London, a week ahead of Peter Zumthor, for the RIBA’s Contemporary Swiss Architecture series of talks.

Olgiati’s followers turned out in droves and were treated to a charismatic walk through four recent projects. Having eventually mastered the art of changing slides, Olgiati explained the generative idea behind each of the buildings, referring to each project as ‘an action, not a reaction’ to its context. These ‘actions’ varied greatly in scale, from his petite office in Flims, Switzerland (2008), a ‘fragmented situation’ within a 12 x 12m black timber chest on a floating concrete plinth, to his design for the Lausanne Learning Centre competition (won by SANAA), which was a marriage of two strong, landscape-scale forms – a 350m-long ramp and a rusty-hued concrete, skeletal-framed box.

The newly finished museum for the Swiss National Park in Zernez has the clearest concept of the four projects. In white concrete with bronze detailing, it has a strong form: two kissing boxes mounted on a plinth. Inside, however, the building is a disorienting labyrinth of identical rooms. The detailing on this project is exquisite, almost ridiculously so – the bronze handrail on the escape stair provoked chuckles from the audience. Yet the 2007 Perm XXI competition for a museum in Perm, Russia, for which Olgiati was joint winner with Moscow-based practice Bernaskoni, seemed to indicate a new direction. This 60m-tall structure is an assemblage of stacked tiers of varying heights and widths, each with a scalloped, white concrete frieze serving as a structural and decorative device.

Olgiati accompanied his projects with slides from his ‘iconographic autobiography’ – a mental catalogue he refers to when designing. These images range from a ‘non-referential’ painting by American artist Robert Ryman to a photograph of his own dinner table, offering Italian food and French wine. ‘I made a decision about this,’ he declared. ‘French food always has sauces with 28 ingredients – you can’t taste the food. Italian food, you know what you are eating.’ This statement clearly supports Olgiati’s keep-it-simple approach to building. And French wine? ‘It’s just better,’ he added.
Resume: Fuelled by Italian food, Olgiati gets to work on his context

Valerio Olgiati. 24 March. RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD.

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