There is hardly anything more difficult to quantify in architecture than beauty. How can I quantify beauty in a market where values are controlled by capital? How can I give an emotion not only a value, but also a price? How can I trust people to feel with their hearts and not just reason with their brains in a world where the greatest trust is placed in data and digital?
To me, beauty is an art, not a science. You can’t catch it, you have to follow it. I will not put a price tag on beauty, and I will not talk about numbers and formulas.
Instead, I have decided to share my very personal ten criteria for beauty. These are neither complete, nor do they pretend to be the absolute. Since I have taken the liberty of doing this in a very personal way, I will outline them not only theoretically, but also practically. I will do this based on projects I have designed myself or personally collaborated on.
Tiziana Ugoletti wrote her doctoral dissertation about patrimony and urbanism, using the example of the Riedtli Siedlung, a communal housing development in Zürich. The buildings were constructed between 1908 and 1919. Today, such a long construction period would be unacceptable, which is already the first hint we get about the project’s accuracy.
To me, differentiation does not mean having a personal architectural signature to be adapted to a site. And it does not mean having a catalog of measures and instruments to spread over a plot of land in support of a personal handwriting either.
When I look at construction projects in general, and housing projects in particular, whether they are built in the center or on the outskirts, in Zurich or in Paris, they all seem to have a similar flavor. The ingredients seem to be the same, dictated by a strong intention of optimization and profitability, by a need of rationalization, by a run for time records and it looks like we as Architects are subordinate to that same recipe.
Differentiation to me means to be able to think of a location without prejudice. It means to be able to relate to nature in the most urban of locations one can imagine, because this is what we do as architects, we continue building on nature, even if we build in a city.
If you study the Riedtli Siedlung, you will see that it has a strong relationship with nature and people. Corner houses are not simply cut corners but have their own corner house quality. Roofs are not invisible peaks without end but give the building an additional quality of space. Entrances are not just visible because of their large house numbers, but because they invite us to enter. Balconies are not just brutal cutouts in the facade, but connections between interior and exterior spaces.
And the windows are not banal formalities or empty faces, but eyes of the buildings through which one can look out or look in. Buildings should be human, and natural. Just as a human relationship consists not only of duties but also of pleasures, a house consists not only of functionalities but also of differentiations.
I chose this image of a staircase not only because it is a beautiful example, but also because it illustrates what it means to be mastering handcraft. It belongs to a home of a Shaker community in the USA. What is impressive is not only the result, but the process of its creation.
Architecture has always been planned visually. But the search for the right form, developed by hand on paper, which is dynamic and the immediate expression of a brain, and which can move in all directions, is different than a mouse click that follows the rules of the software.
Richard Sennett, the wonderful American sociologist, describes in his book “The Craftsman” the fundamental importance of the connection between brain and hand, between thinking and doing.
Mistakes are hard to make on the screen, and when they happen, they are undone by another mouse click. What is serendipity if not making mistakes useful? Computers may do much more than hands. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and others indeed give us many possibilities.
But the same representation can lead to a wonderful as well as a terrible result. It can lead to a beautiful staircase as well as an ugly one. The difference is in the reality of things. Just as the direct physical experience between the brain and the hand is lost by working on the computer, the connection between the eye and the emotions is lost by glossy images on computer screens or fashion magazines.
One right word, a good sales pitch, or an attractive visualization is enough to trigger a sense of beauty. The algorithms then provide the right criteria for the object that best fits your profile.
They model the images you think you will find in the object itself. Whether what you finally find and eventually buy is human, feels warm to the touch, turns out to be practical, can be maintained by yourself and build a human relationship with, you will only discover over the years.
You will only find it out when you experience that metal is cold on your hand, concrete echoes in your ear and what you have seen on the glossy magazine loses its color and what is underneath ages very badly over time.
The second picture is a staircase that I designed myself, and the roof that goes with it, which I consider a modern and beautiful industrial handcraft.
The dream for a house of one’s own is a common one. But if you look at ownership today, you will discover that there are two kinds of ownership. Many years ago, I designed a swimming pool for a good friend in Florence. The house you see on the image, has been inherited from a family property over generations. It embodies family and memory.
The client who asked me to design that project, did not have a real imagination of what he wanted. He just knew that he wanted to build a swimming pool, which would not only reflect the context, but also the history of the site.
His open imagination was finally unveiled to be the driving force behind the project, because his criteria was only that his family and his memories would have to be in-graved in the project. We designed and realized the project in a way to talk to the site, to marry the topography and to respect the principles, according to which the site had been originally built.
Not too long ago, you would find many people who would never have taken out a mortgage to finance a house, because they were convinced that to own a house must really mean to own a house. And to own in this sense, means to give and take in a balance.
This is a different form of ownership. It means independence and responsibility, and this leads to a different treatment of architecture. My client wanted exactly this, independence from the conditions of the market and responsible handling of his story and his history. Whenever he is there, he has this feeling of independence and responsibility towards his environment and towards his beautiful house.
When the project for the Novartis Campus in Basel was mandated, the briefing was a simple one. It should illustrate the highest potential of the existing site, irrespective of what would be realized. Professor Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, who is the Masterplanner, illustrated that potential immediately. He had received full trust and free hands by the client, but he had also an excellent far-sightedness.
And so, a plan came to life that went beyond all borders. The long-term plan foreseed to realize more than seventy buildings within thirty years and spill over the national borders of Switzerland into France.
None of the two ideas has and probably will ever be realized, the project stayed within Swiss borders and realized approximately twenty buildings in ten years, but the illimitability of the thoughts leads to the fact that what was built, raised an extraordinary level of quality.
Interesting in this project is that the illimitability of ideas is expressed timewise, as well as it is expressed in urbanistic terms. The same thought was followed when composing the planner team. Lampugnani proposed an interdisciplinary team that was supposed to fully cooperate in the thinking of a Gesamtkunstwerk.
Initially the exponents were Lampugnani himself for urbanism, Peter Walker for landscaping, Harald Szeeman for art, Alan Fletcher for design and Andreas Schulz for lighting. Later Jacqueline Burckhardt succeeded Harald Szeeman and Michael Rock succeeded Alan Fletcher, but the spirit stood the same.
As an illustration for this collaboration, I am showing a square that the above team planned and built on the Campus. It is the first public space realized, the Forum. Initially the intention was to have all the Landscapes designed by Peter Walker.
The principle proved successful for the streets, but after we discussed Peter Walker’s design for the Square, we realized that this would lead to a too high monotony, so we started treating every Square like a separate project.
Since we didn’t want the Squares to be totally detached from the rest, we mandated the workshop, composed of the exponents mentioned above, with the design of The Forum.
So Szeeman was not just acting as the art curator anymore, but also as a planner. Lampugnani was not just acting as the urban planner of the Campus, but also as an architect in the project. So a real interdisciplinarity came to life. Because of the long discussions the planning took quite some time. But what came out was a project that began communicating with its context on totally new and different levels.
Like a classic work of an urban planner, which spanned from the urban context to the house and to the window, so this team spanned topics which went from the masterplan to the paving joint. Suddenly, the art began to talk to the paving, the trees began to talk to the buildings and the street names began to talk to the facades.
What we often see end as the sum of the elements into a cacophony of forms and colors, on The Forum ended into a harmonic coexistence. This is where the illimited thinking, space-wise as well as time-wise, became a premise for beauty.
Ten years into my career, I was commissioned to redesign a 900-year-old monastery. I was fortunate to have a client who gave me an extraordinary brief. “I want to eat well, sleep comfortably, work, concentrate, sell wine and have meetings. In addition, we should do the right thing for the estate”.
I can say that we spent almost three years defining the right space program. The result is a five-star luxury hotel in the Relais Chateau area. Hotels and wineries can make good money and are self-sustaining. And contrary to all expectations, the pandemics have boosted its growth.
The first question of the project, however, was not about money, but about doing the right thing. And for the right thing to do, the estate was the main actor. For a long time, I wondered why this building, despite its physical destruction, still had an inherent beauty.
Of course, the beauty is hidden in the building itself. But you will only find it if you try to understand what the building wants to tell you and under what conditions it was conceived.
It is important to understand that what we perceive as unity has been built over centuries. We all know that the technologies were below what we have today, the availability of materials was scarce, and the labor force was minimal. I believe that what we see today as a disadvantage is an advantage. I asked the question why this building is still beautiful despite its original physical destruction.
The difference between us and the monks is responsibility. While today we have a specialized construction market with unlimited possibilities, the monks had to do everything themselves. While today we have segmented responsibilities so that each project becomes an organizational masterpiece, the monks were responsible for everything.
They were clients, designers, contractors, and users all at the same time. Think for a moment what this would mean for your projects. You start to think about how to maintain a building, how to overcome the cold, how to give the building longevity, how to design it so that you feel comfortable and whether you yourself really want to live in such a building. The monks were all in one, they had total responsibility for their actions, which is why it has survived beautifully to this day.
I have been an architect at Novartis for twenty years. Architects in corporate organizations who do the work of an architect are rare or no longer exist. The same goes for most of the building authorities, investors, and real estate companies.
And yet, if you look at history, not so long ago, clients often designed and built projects themselves. One is the example mentioned earlier, the Riedtli settlement in Zurich, which was realized by Friedrich Fissler, an architect working for and at the city of Zurich.
I designed this Main Gate for the Campus project for and in Novartis, shortly after I started in 2003. It is a rather exposed project. At the beginning of the project there was a competition with the participation of five extraordinary architects, Zaha Hadid, Vito Acconci, Jose Luis Mateo, Buol & Zuend and Sumi & Burkhalter.
They all submitted spectacular projects. However, neither the preliminary review nor the jury were positive about the proposals, so, I was asked to submit an alternative proposal. I felt that the job was much too big for me, but I had expressed the desire to design and there it was. I had been on the juries for the other campus projects, so I knew how the client thought and I had the experience of understanding the client from within.
All five of the architects in the competition were excellent, and I had been involved in their selection. I had great respect for their work and no pretension to be better. But there was one fundamental difference. It was the trust that gave me the opportunity to realize such a beautiful project.
Part of the same Campus project is the parking garage, which is located under the Main Gate. The client probably underestimated the potential of an underground garage.
The competing architects wanted to make a spectacle out of the project, but all the client wanted was a beautiful, invisible, and safe parking garage, in order to design a natural park above it. So, they asked me for a proposal that was functional, beautiful, and above all, invisible.
As a young and inexperienced architect given such a task, it was perfect, because it allowed me to experiment and remain invisible. I concentrated on the inherent qualities of the parking lot. Room height, overview of the space, comfortable parking geometries, no intersections, safety, and security.
In Switzerland we use to have parking spaces for women to feel safe and secure. Well, I wanted this parking lot not to have women’s parking because all the parking spaces should feel safe and secure.
Subscribe to Venetian Letter
You will receive our regular newsletter with blog posts, interviews, books and events on human-focused architecture and urban design.
The biggest challenge of a parking garage is usually orientation. The most important element of the parking lot therefore was the lighting. Building a large hall helps, but I wanted to think of the parking garage as an underground house.
If you think about orientation in a normal house above ground, you will find that it is always in relation to the outside. You have windows to look out. Since we had no way of relating to the outside, together with LichtKunstLicht we designed the exterior facade like a normal house facade and called it the Light Facade.
The idea of the Light Facade is to help understand where the perimeter of the building ends. In addition, the Light Facade also houses all the technical installations, ventilation, electricity, plumbing. The imbricate character of the construction in the direction of circulation avoids being blinded by the light while driving.
Thinking about this project after fifteen years, it was one of the greatest undertakings of the Campus project. The fact that it was underground and that it had to be invisible, gave me the opportunity to remain invisible myself.
The project lives from the fact that people do not expect such a space underground. It lives from the bad experiences one usually has in underground parking garages. And it lives from the fact that parking garages are underestimated as the first contact points of a place. The project lives from surprise. The surprise of seeing beauty in the invisible.
The eighth criterion is time, which I would like to illustrate with the last project we built on the Novartis Campus in Basel. It was done by the wonderful Italian designer and architect Michele de Lucchi. It had an approximate planning and construction phase of five years, but if you look at the whole thinking phase of the project, you will see that it took ten years.
The project began as a conference center. At that time, the plan was to use a hotel building on the outskirts of Basel. Ten years ago, it was a common model to build such conference centers. During the planning phase and several other attempts of projects on different sites, however, we realized that the way we learn today has changed fundamentally.
Society was no longer learning in conference centers, so we decided to bring the project closer to the workplace. We learned that learning is not only internal and theoretical, but also daily and in exchange with society.
The result you see now is an exhibition building on the edge of the Novartis campus. The program includes an exhibition about the life science industry of pharmaceuticals, a school laboratory where students can learn about the pharmaceutical industry, an event space that serves as a platform for intellectual exchange, a small but very valuable bookstore where you can find excellent life science literature, and a café where the public can go and talk or work.
Often an idea is wonderful, but perhaps the timing is not right. My experience with this project was that every idea has its time. Only then, I think, can it become timeless and beautiful.
The project illustrated here is the Hedge Museum. It was designed by Ulrich Rueckriem in connection with the monastery project Abadia Retuerta. In fact, it is not a museum, but we liked the name because it conveys a new typology of architecture expressed as a piece of nature. The program for the project consisted of seventeen sculptures by the artist himself, which we wanted to place in the context of the monastery.
Ulrich Rückriem had the wonderful idea of exhibiting the sculptures outdoors. The landscape around the monastery is exceptionally wide, and the Hedge Museum is basically a collection of hedges planted around a core of tamped concrete.
The sculptures are positioned like parkours through six chambers. You can simply walk through and visit the sculptures as if they were in the open air. You are alone with the sculptures under the open sky, the sun and the warmth or the cold.
The beauty here is simple. I think everything we do should be at least as beautiful as what we find. Often what we find is a piece of nature, but more often we find something that we have to decide whether to destroy or not. Often one is confronted with the department of historic preservation, which decides on the value of an existing building.
What we rarely do, however, is ask ourselves whether the piece of nature that was there before is worth being replaced by one of our interventions. Whether we are building in an open field or in the center of a city, this question needs to be asked.
Are we replacing a piece of nature with something that is worth replacing that piece of nature? This is what the Hedgemuseum does, it replaces a piece of nature with something similarly beautiful. An obvious but new form of beauty.
I designed a garden house for my father. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I prefer to think that love is in the eye of the beholder. The beauty that comes from that love should be visible. I am convinced that there is indeed a common understanding of beauty.
Before my father decided to buy this little piece of land, he had built many different huts. They were all unbelievably chaotic little things made from spare materials. They were built to be torn down. Even though they were ugly, they were an important part of my father’s life. They represented the small piece of freedom and peace that a humble man could expect.
My father used to disappear into these huts for days at a time, curating his piece of nature, his garden, and he was happy. Of course, these huts were beautiful for him, but not for me. On the other hand, the little cottage that was beautiful to him and to me. It has the profile of a small animal standing among the trees.
On the left side you have the canopy with the shape of a spout, the window represents the eye and the water tank on the right side could be the tail. As an architect, I only gave directional input, but I did it with love. Probably this kind of love is not recognizable, but I hope the beauty that comes out of it is. I believe that to build beautifully is to build with love.
Subscribe to Venetian Letter
You will receive our regular newsletter with blog posts, interviews, books and events on human-focused architecture and urban design.
Marco Serra is an Italian architect born in Zürich. He is the Co-Founder of Serra Architekten, Basel. He studied Architecture at the ETH Zürich, and worked at the offices of Prof. Adrian Meyer and Diener & Diener Architects. For almost twenty years, he has been the Architect at Novartis, responsible for multiple projects, including their campus in Basel.