Heavy Rotation - The Recurring in Architecture

In loose succession, we publish here contributions from the discourse section of the current yearbook of the department. In it, members of the department address the significance of cyclical processes in architecture.

The course of events

by Prof. Meinrad Morger

House Trancauna Lumbrein, Grisons, Switzerland, 2006-2010, Morger Partner Architekten Basel

The recurring in architecture is of interest when the recurring appears neither as a repetition nor as a copy, but rather in transformed form: for life is in a constant state of flux, architecture in an ongoing process. The art film Der Lauf der Dinge by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli (1952) and David Weiss (1946 - 2012) tells of this in anarchic form. It depicts the continuous progress of a kind of nonsense machine, which is set in motion at the beginning and triggers one chain reaction after the other, with each element passing on a movement impulse to the next. Each end of a process is equally the beginning of a new one, whereby it is never certain whether and how it will continue at all: Just like in real life. The course of things has inspired me to tell of a few formative events that have influenced my own course to become an architect.

Inspired by my grandmother, a dedicated Rheintal dialect poet, the first impulse came well over forty years ago. She tirelessly wrote about her great-uncle Johann Georg Müller (1822 - 1849). The architect, painter and poet was, according to the historian and university professor Adolf Reinle, one of the most creative Swiss architects, who, although he died at a young age, left behind an extensive body of work. Through grandmother's mediation, his publications were familiar to me from an early age and left a profound impact. His creative period was at a time when architecture was beginning to break away from the influence of historical models. Johann Georg Müller rejected classicism as a recurring copy of antique or medieval archetypes. He was looking for a style that would find a specific expression for his epoch and be located in the respective period of origin: "We do not want monumental architecture that proves to the future that the Germans of the 19th century have copied the style of the Greeks or of the Middle Ages. We do not want monumental architecture that will prove to the future that the Germans of the nineteenth century greatly admired the Greek style or the medieval Gothic and faithfully copied one of these stages of development in the history of architecture, but we strive for monuments that will glorify our faith and knowledge, our customs and nature; in short, now as in the farthest future, they should be a faithful reflection and permanent mediation of our conditions. ↘ 1 Understanding architecture as a seismograph of cultural, social and political processes had first made a deep impression on me at that time. Architectural personalities who followed this credo always gave me orientation.

I grew up in the city of St. Gallen. After primary school I attended the convent school. My classroom was one floor above the world-famous Baroque Abbey Library, where the St. Gallen Monastery Plan, which was probably made between 819 and 826 AD in the monastery of Reichenau, is kept.Chr. originated in the monastery of Reichenau, lies stored and currently since April 2019 in an exhibition for the first time ever to be seen in the original. Viewing the facsimile edition was part of our schooling. Despite moving away from Catholic St. Gallen to Protestant Basel and from a culturally-religious to a purely cultural milieu, the monastery plan pressed like a palimpsest through all my age and developmental strata, occasionally showing its haunting effect. The surprising document, named by German art historian Wolfgang Braunfels as the Utopia of St. Gall, is a plan of an ideal Carolingian monastery. It represents the only architectural drawing in Europe before the 13th century in which we see planning imagination documented. The monastic way of life is organized like a city. Besides its archaic substance, I am fascinated by its urban potential. The house is in the immediate context of an urban idea.

Our family spent the school holidays in the canton of Graubünden throughout my youth. During hikes in Flims and the surrounding area, we came across white houses that had a special effect on me. At that time, however, they still remained a mystery to me. A few years later, for my 20th birthday, my girlfriend at the time gave me a book publication on the work of Rudolf Olgiati (1910 - 1995), which was published on the occasion of the exhibition at the ETH Zurich in 1977. His conception of architecture made me think. He had recognized the importance of historical design principles for modern architecture. His buildings became epochal architectural, cultural, and intellectual thought structures. The study of Rudolf Olgiati and his very independent work led me directly to the important Tendenza movement, which began in the same period in the neighbouring canton of Ticino and achieved great international acclaim. It represented an extraordinary symbiosis of rationalism, modernism, history and context. One of the most important protagonists was and is Luigi Snozzi (1932). He too represents history as the source of the new. In one of his most famous aphorisms, he says that architecture must not be invented, but rather rediscovered. In the face of fierce political opposition, he developed strategies to revitalize sprawling areas that had lost their identity. With the help of various influences, he ordered the settlement structure and understood how to give the place a new identification. His architectural language was neither loud nor fashionable, but rather restrained, functional and with a light touch of poetry. In the early 1980s, several excursions took me to the canton of Ticino and to the buildings of the most important Tendenza representatives. The visits and human encounters had a decisive influence on my further architectural development.

Thus, an important contact led me from Ticino to Basel to the architect and teacher Michael Alder (1940 - 2000) and his no-frills buildings. As a lecturer he initiated and published essential research. Primarily Michael Alder dealt with investigations of rural and anonymous architecture and showed rules of a building and settlement culture on the basis of found structures, typologies, constructions and pictures, which developed over centuries. In 1981 I was personally asked by him to participate in the recording of an extensive settlement development work on the mountain village of Soglio. The in-depth study of the house type and a settlement form that has grown over centuries and which, due to the climatic, topographical and cultural conditions, represent a historical structure of rare beauty, became a further formative building block on my path to becoming an architect. Following this valuable occupation, I was given the opportunity to work with Michael Alder in his studio. This was also the moment when I definitely moved to Basel. Michael Alder was a passionate representative of the so-called New Simplicity. By this, however, he did not mean a simplicity that is understood as a formal-aesthetic reduction in the sense of the Minimal tradition. Rather, he was interested in the ordinary, the everyday - the self-evident. The architecture he sought was, in his words, "an evocation of primordial images that we all carry within us." I became aware that his method, questioning the past, was not backward-looking, but rather a sound typological investigation in order to obtain continuous and constant answers for future house and housing construction.

It was the beginning of my practical activity as a young architect and the moment when I was convinced for the first time that, through training, study and above all these essential encounters, I had enough material to be able to formulate my own architectural attitude. Material that, in analogy to the film The Course of Events, did not come together through a sequence of foreseeable events, but rather through incalculable and random experiences, occasions, episodes and stories. As a substrate, this embodies an idea of architecture that, like the recurring in architecture, can be expressed as datable timelessness.


↘ 1
Written to save the cathedral, original missing; reprinted in Ziegler, pp. 8-11; in Polasek, pp. 29-34 and in Ninfa, pp. 491-503.