Luigi Snozzi 1932–2020

The very core of the form

Irina Davidovici

When, in 1973, the architect Luigi Snozzi was invited as guest professor at the ETH, he set out to clarify to himself what architecture meant, before teaching it to others.1 To that end, he condensed his principles – I think it is correct to think of them as human, rather than design, guidelines – into several concise statements. Each of them worked in association with one referential image, serving as illustration and as key.2 These pairings were compiled under the title ‘Our Architectonic Breviary’ (Unser architektonisches Brevier), with the (only partly ironic) implication that they could be recited daily at the canonical hours. An early version of the Breviary exists in Snozzi’s office, typed directly in German on five A4 sheets, paired with thumbnail images printed from slides. The reduced format of the written statements seems set as a (self-) reminder that the primary task of the architect is to design. Despite their terseness, these aphorisms are so pregnant with meaning as to defy any cursory reading. Each takes its time, like an echo in a stone chamber.

The first among them is illustrative of the way the rest of the Breviary works: by verbal implication and visual comparison. Coupled with an engraving of the Pyramids taken out of Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurf einer historischen Architektur (1721), this aphorism reads: “Weiche deiner Verantwortung nicht aus: setze dich mit der Form auseinander. In ihr wirst du den Menschen wiederfinden”.3 (Do not abandon your responsibility: confront the problem of form. In form, you will find again humanity.) In its elliptical way, the statement equates artistic creativity with ethical responsibility. It places form at the very core of the design process, and humanity, at the very core of form. Thus, in a couple of sentences, Snozzi formulates, as his once-student Roger Diener wrote, an understanding of “design as a process of perception and change in human existence”.4 As an ensemble, the Architectonic Breviary attests to a mode of thinking that conflates artistic, political, and moral dimensions, delivered in nuggets. It acts as a guide to understanding and interpreting the architecture of Snozzi, built and unbuilt.

Snozzi’s oeuvre is far more varied and radical when considered in its entirety, using the more inclusive category of progetti. In 1985, with the occasion of his inaugural lecture at EPFL in Lausanne, he named his unrealised works projets alternatifs. This term conceives of architecture as the uncompromising correction of an imperfect reality. It is therefore little surprise that relatively few of these projets alternatis found actual form in the ‘masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’ – to paraphrase an architect rather more adept at selling visions. Two examples of Snozzi’s unbuilt work still haunt the collective architectural imagination. The first is the competition entry, together with Walter von Euw, for an apartment building in Celerina, Graubünden (1973), drawn like a straight line across the landscape. This powerful gesture attempts to carve an autonomous territory apart from the scattered logic of the existing village. The line is not arbitrary; it reinforces a historical track (now a fully tarmacked road visible by Google satellite) by means of a continuous slab raised above ground, connected to eleven small tower houses by means of suspended balconies – a free interpretation of the local vernacular. The building’s double aspect aims at stitching together two incompatible conditions, the slab screening the piecemeal sprawl of the new village, the line of towers facing the horizon of the adjoining field. Such a sophisticated reading was contested by the jury, whose view, that the project made no attempt to establish ‘any formal relations with the existing architecture’, would probably still prevail today. And like today, the jury’s decision by no means justifies the nondescript houses and small blocks eventually erected on the site.5 Subsequently, however, the Celerina project took a life of its own as teaching device. Its radical clarity not only inspired generations of his students but also opened their eyes to the critical instrumentality, and frequent failures, of the planning process. Thus, again for Diener, the term suburban sprawl is not able to communicate the threatening qualitative loss that Snozzi was able to illustrate so eloquently in his project for Celerina. It is only the project that really moves us. Instead of abstract terminology, we find a presentation that helps us to comprehend the real physical consequence of this argument.6

The second example, utopian from the outset, was Snozzi’s deliberately provocative proposal for the reconstruction of Brunswick (Braunschweig), a German city destroyed in 1944 by an air raid. Snozzi proposed the creation of an empty centre, where the ruins would stand as a permanent monument, surrounded by a continuous rampart made of the rubble and penetrated by towered city gates. This project recalls another of his aphorisms: ‘observe the ruins’, Snozzi wrote, ‘if you want to discover how architecture flows from need and transcends it’.7 The modern city was to grow freely around this ‘new Pompeii’, following its own ineluctable logics. Other ‘alternative cities’ have emerged in Snozzi’s collaborative competitions at urban and territorial scales, of which more later.

The city haunts Snozzi’s aphorisms as a constant datum against which all architecture should be measured. ‘Baust du einen Weg, ein Haus, ein Quartier, dann denke an die Stadt’. The city reverberates beyond its physical limits, it extends to the sea and mountain: ‘Der Seefahrer ist glücklich mitten auf dem Meer, weil er hinter dem Horizont die Stadt weiss’. Same with the mountaineer. This insistence is not a Lefebvrian acknowledgment of planetary urbanization, but rather envisions urbanity as a cultural condition that architecture must aspire to, regardless of its immediate situation. Even in the most picturesque location – itself artificial, natural landscapes having long been shaped by human activities – the built projects betray this constant awareness of and aspiration for the urban. In Casa Kalman (1973–76), with the tacit agreement of his clients, Snozzi developed a taut and compact project. Its pristine geometry confronts the difficult sloping terrain in a dialectic manner. Implanted into the slope, the house arises like a slab towards the street, yet on the opposite side the raised terrace is shaped to precisely accommodate the topographic curve. The most radical of his projects was the series of interventions for Monte Carasso, starting in 1977, a project in which he involved and educated the resident community.

A born communicator, Snozzi excelled in collaborations with other architects as much as in his teaching. With Livio Vacchini, with whom he built several buildings between 1961 and 1970, he enjoyed a ‘precise and clear relationship’ based on mutual respect: ‘when we worked together, none of us interfered in the other’s affairs. I refrained from commenting on political views, and he on my architecture’, Snozzi recalled in 2018.8 Bruno Jenni was his collaborator from 1975, and practice partner between 1980 and 1988. For urban and planning competitions, Snozzi entered highly powered professional constellations. The collective entry for the EPFL Campus at Dorigny in 1970 was designed together with Mario Botta, Aurelio Galfetti, Flora Ruchat and Tita Carloni. His planning of the Locarno historical centre, between 1967 and 1977, was a collaboration with Carloni and Vacchini. Snozzi worked with Botta and Ivano Gianola for the Centro Direzionale in Perugia in 1971, and with Botta and Martin Boesch for the extension of Zurich’s trailway station in 1978.

Much has been said and written about Snozzi’s political militancy and his membership of the Partito socialista autonomo since its formation in 1969.9 These idealistic credentials were more closely reflected in his ‘alternative project’ worldview, rather than in the few fragments that got built. ‘Architecture doesn’t bring about revolution’, ran one of the Breviary prayers. ‘Neither is revolution enough to make architecture. People need both’10 While, in a different time and place, Snozzi’s political views might have engaged him in a feverish production of socially oriented architecture, the limited opportunities for such projects in boom-years Ticino resulted in little collective housing, including the Casa Popolare in Locarno (1962-65) and Casa Patriziale in Carasso (1967-70), both in tandem with Vacchini. This constraint was historically imposed. As local historian Virgilio Gilardoni comments upon contemporaneous Ticinese architecture:

Was hier angeboten wird, sind keine Lösungen für das Kollektiv, wie zum Beispiel die Höfe im ‹Roten Wien›. Die Arbeiterklasse, für die diese Siedlung gebaut wurde, existiert in diesem Sinne auch gar nicht mehr, und darum existieren auch keine Projekte mehr für solche Lösungen. Und aus diesem Grund ist diese neue Tessiner Architektur auch keine revolutionäre Architektur … Der Erfolg dieser Architekten liegt darin, dass sie eine Antwort für das Einfamilienhaus gewagt haben, das nicht ein bürgerliches oder kleinbürgerliches Haus ist.11

This external situation explains why the architect chose to work through resistance. Why even his private houses remained rigorous, austere, responsive. And perhaps it is this obduracy in relation to the status quo that led Snozzi to draw his own, half-humorous, comparison with Don Quixote.12 Stubborn idealism led him on a lifelong search for the lucid, clarity of form. Let it be said: at the very core of architectural form, the architect Snozzi found humanity.

1 Luigi Snozzi, «Vive la resistance!», in Luigi Snozzi and others, 25 Aphorismen zur Architektur (Einsiedeln: Oechslin, 2013), p. 19.
2 Werner Oechslin called them Emblems (Embleme), in which the association of scant words and images can convey entire narratives. See Werner Oechslin, «... fuggirò la lunghezza delle parole ... »!, in Snozzi and others, p. 14.
3 All the aphorisms quoted in the present essay are taken out in the original German from the facsimile of the 1970s Breviary, as shown in Snozzi and others, pp. 95–99. English translations by the author.
4 Roger Diener, The Seduction of the Architect, in: Peter Disch (Hg.), Luigi Snozzi – Costruzioni e Progetti, 1958–1993, Lugano 1994, S.25.
5 See Claude Lichtenstein, Luigi Snozzi, Studio Paperback (Basel ; Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1997), p. 45.
6 Roger Diener, ‘The Seduction of the Architect’, p. 25.
7 Die Architektur entsteht aus wahren Bedürfnissen heraus, aber sie übersteigt diese … Willst du sie entdecken, betrachte die Ruinen.
8 "Luigi Snozzi. Prix Meret Oppenheim 2018", directed by Matthias Huser, https://youtu.be/u1kcYBlrE_s
9 See for example Diener, The Seduction of the Architect, Disch, p. 31.
10Mit der Architektur machst du keine Revolution. Aber die Revolution genügt nicht, um Architektur zu machen. Der Mensch braucht beides. ’ Op. cit, 95.
11 Quoted in Dieter Bachmann, ‘Gründer, Schüler, Epigonen’, Du : Die Zeitschrift der Kultur, 46. 8 (1986), 66–67, 72 (p. 67).
12 Oechslin, Werner, and Luigi Snozzi, ‘Luigi Snozzi und das Politische in der Architektur’, in Du : Die Zeitschrift der Kultur, 49. 11 (1989)

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