At Lake Maggiore, three Swiss architects are trying to give something back to the grandiose landscape. They are creating houses that grow out of the topography and interact sensitively with natural stone, different wood species and rough concrete.
Markus Wespi, who comes from Rorschach on the shores of Lake Constance, has been working as an architect since 1980 and for 15 of these years in Zurich. He teamed up in 1998 with Jérôme de Meuron, who comes from the local area around Bern and in 2002 they founded their joint company in Caviano at Lake Maggiore. The third partner to come on board in 2012 was Luca Romeo, the sole member from Ticino.
They cooperate with colleagues locally for commissions abroad, as will soon be the case in Berlin, Madrid and Croatia. Above all, however, they are experts when it comes to hillside villas in Ticino and in Brione (photo on left) or Sant’Abbondio. What is most important? "Material structure, lighting effect, orientation in the house, atmosphere", says Markus Wespi. "And we love it when secrets remain", adds de Meuron. "When a house doesn't give everything away from the outside, rather holds surprises inside.“
The house in Brissago, on the west bank, sits on high. Four floors, a lift, a friendly fortress, views to the left and right over half of the lake (photo). A patio with shingle, a water trough and olive trees provides heavenly views of the castle through double doors on two sides which can be opened and closed. The seamless steel kitchen and pebbledash finish on many of the inside walls are truly amazing. Nobody else would dare. The material is frowned upon since the seventies. "I was the one in the office who was least brave – I guess it's a matter of age", laughs Wespi.
The Wespi de Meuron Romeo architects allow houses to grow out of the southern alpine topography of the lakes landscape of Ticino. "Dealing with diverse conditions really excites us. Many simply create a single level and place a house with lots of glass atop. That's boring", sputters Markus Wespi.
Locations on the border with Italy are favourite places for developers seeking a mild southern hideaway. Oleander, olive trees, lavender, palms, cacti, agaves flourish outside here all year round. The eastern bank offers less sunshine than across the way in Locarno or Brissago, particularly in winter. It is therefore important to calculate properly how and precisely where the house will protrude from the hillside. "We always work with contour maps." Attention is also given to the subtle handling of different types of stone and wood, different grades of hardness and smoothness, different roughness of surfaces, concrete mixes and plaster tones ranging from cream to beige to grey and brown. Natural materials that age gracefully are important to them. "No synthetics", says Markus Wespi. "We never start a project without first thinking about the material", interjects Luca Romeo.
They take pains at times to ensure that their architecture is deliberately understated. The aim is then to "give back a little to the landscape" (Wespi). Take Brione, for example, some years back. A classic holiday home region. The mountainous landscape above Locarno is completely built up. The architects did not want to add to the volume here, instead they preferred to hollow out. They accommodated 95 square metres of living space, two floors, garden, terraces and pool in towers and walls. Wespi likes the idea that their houses can be missed.
But less of the dogma! "In other cases, a tower that can be seen from anywhere is perfect for providing a welcome contrast", says Wespi.
Weaving up and down the winding roads from site to site – this will also soon become everyday life in this architect's office.
Text: Alexander Hosch