“I strive for perfection in both my thoughts and my actions”

The renowned Swiss architect, Valerio Olgiati, spends winters in Flims (GR, Switzerland) and summers in his “Villa Além” in the Portuguese region of Alentejo. In this interview, he explains what has led to his architecture becoming more radical and what values connect him to V-ZUG as an ambassador for the appliance manufacturer from central Switzerland.

NZZ content creation: Mr Olgiati, what constitutes good architecture?

Valerio Olgiati: Good architecture engages in emotional dialogue with people and extends far beyond the functional. It is the soul of a building that makes good architecture.

How would you describe your style?

I’m not interested in styles. Through my architecture, I want to create something that is timeless. Styles create memories and tell stories. That’s not my aim. I want people to experience my architecture. They should experience a feeling of spatiality. Maybe even a primal feeling.

And how to you succeed in creating this “primal feeling”?

I compose things so that they are in harmony with one another and stir creativity in people. That is the craft of an architect and it goes hand-in-hand with imagination.

Is it primarily a question of colours, materials and surfaces?

Yes, all these elements clearly play a role. But it also involves proportions, light and acoustics. When I plan a room, I primarily think about the people who will experience the space. If the room should effuse a feeling of comfort and security, I ask myself: Where will people sit and where will they move around? Where are the openings?

Valerio Olgiati (64), a native of Graubünden, is one of the most famous Swiss architects and has made a name for himself worldwide with his minimalist, radical architecture. His best-known edifices include the Yellow House in Flims, the National Park Centre in Zernez and the Villa Além in Portugal, which is the second home of Valerio Olgiati and his wife, Tamara. Mr Olgiati has received numerous awards for his pioneering buildings.

What do you have to take into consideration for a room to radiate a feeling of comfort?

If you sit in a room with windows both in front of me and behind me, there is no feeling of comfort and security. In fact you may even feel exposed and uneasy, despite the fact that this room looks very attractive on a photograph. I think that a bedroom, for example, should have a protective character. Among other things, this can be achieved by the configuration of the windows, by the position of the bedroom in the house or even by the position of the house in its grounds. It might be protected at the end of a corridor or in a recess with a view opening onto an axis.

What thoughts did you take into account when building your house in Portugal to create a feeling of security in the rooms?

In a house, you want some rooms where you feel protected and others where you feel more exposed. In our house, which is made from concrete, I gave each room its own, unique expression. The lounge, for example, is square-shaped with a single, central window overlooking the vast landscape. You could say that it is the piazza, where everyone meets. All the other rooms are grouped around it.

Is the concrete not a little brutal and cold?

Everyone that comes to visit is surprised to find that our lounge is cosy. Because everyone respects concrete – everything in our house is in exposed concrete be it the walls, ceilings or floors. What makes rooms cosy is the type of room, the position and the lighting. In our house, you look out from a darkened lounge into the light of the garden.

“I compose things so that they stir creativity in people. That is the craft of an architect and it goes hand-in-hand with imagination.”

Why do you enjoy working so much with concrete?

I feel that concrete is the tool with which I can create every part of a building. It allows me to create a clear and attractive whole. But you have to know how to handle this material. I find most architecture in concrete unpleasant. I wouldn't want to live in such buildings.

What role does your kitchen play in the construction as a whole?

When I was planning our kitchen, I thought of a sort of garage, an informal room opening onto the garden. In the centre, there is a work island which we often stand around.

Whenever possible, would you design a kitchen with a work island?

Absolutely. I find it very pleasant standing around a work island, setting up, cooking and maybe enjoying a drink. When there is sufficient space for a kitchen island, it is always the best choice. But you can also cook well together in a kitchen installed against a wall. Everything must be arranged so that you don't constantly get in each other’s way.

Are kitchens difficult to plan, because they must first and foremost be functional?

No, no more difficult than houses that also need to be functional in every respect. I enjoy designing kitchens because I enjoy cooking. For my wife and I, cooking together is a great opportunity to switch off.

How important were sustainability considerations when building your villa?

We produce our own solar energy that we use to heat the house during the winter. Furthermore, the house is designed so that it isn’t too hot in the summer. We have shaded walls and an ingenious ventilation system. The temperature indoors never rises above 25 degrees. That means we don't need air-conditioning.

“I feel that concrete is the tool with which I can create every part of a building. It allows me to create a clear and attractive whole.”

How do you engage with foreign cultures when developing a project abroad?

As an architect, you can react to an environment in different ways. Some architects draw on stylistic features of the local architecture or reproduce the building types typical of the location. I don’t do that. I’m interested in the physical presence of the surroundings or the landscape. Ultimately, I’m not a Portuguese farmer and it would make no sense to surround myself with the architectural style of a farmer or to attempt to live in a house the way a farmer would. And the farmers here don’t live like tourists, who mostly want to lounge around the pool in swimming trunks.

How would you describe your lifestyle and daily routine?

My wife and I live and work here maybe five months per year and run our office in Flims remotely. From time to time we go to the sea or enjoy a dip in the pool. And we often work in the garden.

Do the extremely minimalist architecture, the solitude and the empty concrete walls around you have an impact on your creative work?

There are certainly fewer distractions here and you have plenty of time to rethink things endlessly. Since we have had this house, my architecture has become more purposeful and radical.

Have you learned more about yourself here merely as an architect or also as a person?

This place leaves its mark in every respect. Everything works differently here. When we return here after several months, I need a good two weeks to accustom myself to the peaceful lifestyle again. You’re not sitting in a boat that takes you somewhere itself. You need to check for yourself that you’re still moving. You’re compelled to think about yourself.

How do you experience the seasons here?

It’s very intense! In the summer, it feels like North Africa and in winter like Scotland – there is a huge contrast.

How well integrated are you into Portuguese life? As a native of Graubünden, can you speak Romansh and so understand a little Portuguese?

My wife now speaks Portuguese, but I speak neither Romansh nor Portuguese. I speak to the people here in English, as far as possible.

“When I was planning our kitchen, I thought of a sort of garage, an informal room opening onto the garden. In the centre, there is a work island which we often stand around.”

Do you sometimes feel lonely?

We are very isolated here, but I like that. We took a conscious decision to live here in this empty landscape. There is no standardisation as a result of social integration. Our house is about ten kilometres from the ocean, nestling among countless cork oaks. There is nothing other than trees and a few sheep. The feeling of solitude is nevertheless constantly diminishing. Portugal is becoming a hot spot. More and more foreigners are building holiday homes here. Five years ago, the closest luxury holiday home was ten kilometres away, now it’s only five. Fortunately, we have a lot of land and will therefore always be alone.

Why did you not want a sea view – that is generally the ultimate wish?

Here in our region, you’re not allowed to construct inside the first few kilometres from the coast, and after that the view of the sea is obscured by silos, roads and barracks. Where we live, the unspoiled horizontal landscape disappears into the unspoiled distance. That’s absolutely wonderful.

How did you first have the idea of building a second home in the Alentejo region?

We searched all around the world, from the Andes to India. Then when we were visiting friends in Alentejo twelve years ago, the penny dropped and I began to design the house even before we had purchased the land.

Your wife is also an architect. Did you plan the Villa Além together?

During the planning stage, we discussed it endlessly. With regard to design issues, I ultimately have the last word while my wife has better ideas concerning business matters. And that was also the case for our house in Portugal.

You are a perfectionist. The Swiss appliance manufacturer, V-ZUG, is also known for its attention to detail. Do you see any parallels?

I strive for perfection in both my thoughts and my actions, and attach little value to design driven by poetry. I also see this attitude in V-ZUG. The shape of a V-ZUG appliance is the very essence of clear thinking. They are precise machines produced consistently and to perfection – they are not merely impressive design objects.

Which kitchen appliances do you use on a daily basis?

We have equipped our kitchen with V-ZUG appliances, including an induction hob, an oven, a dishwasher, a freezer and a wine cabinet.

It’s clear that the kitchen is very important to you. What type of dishes do you prefer cooking?

I prefer Italian dishes. But I also enjoy cooking typical specialities from my homeland, such as Pizzoccheri and Maluns. My wife, on the other hand, is better at preparing fish and meat. I have to confess that her culinary skills are far more sophisticate than my own. Here in Portugal, you can find outstanding products both on the markets and from discount stores – wonderfully aromatic tomatoes, amazingly fresh fish, great vegetables and, of course, black pig. That makes cooking even more enjoyable.

This interview appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 19.09.2022.