THE MONOLITHIC VILLA in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains an hour south of Marrakesh, Morocco, designed by Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty of the Paris-based architectural firm Studio KO as a French client’s holiday house, embodies contemporary Brutalism tinged by the Bauhaus. Shorn of ornament and minimally furnished, the fortresslike vacation home is all jutting red sandstone angles and expanses of glass, opening onto the cinnabar-hued landscape. But turn a corner and there looms what the architects refer to simply as the Wall, a two-story-high concrete cliff decorated with more than a dozen bas-relief circles in an array of sizes, some with abstract daisies at their centers. In so stark a context, it may be hard to understand why the duo, Fournier, 51, and Marty, 46, added such embellishments — until Marty offers a one-word explanation: “Olgiati.”
Although they have never met him, it’s unsurprising that the pair would want to include a homage to the 63-year-old Swiss architect, who practices in his tiny hometown, Flims, an Alpine enclave two hours from Zurich. Little known beyond the design avant-garde, Valerio Olgiati is a cult figure of the digital age, revered by the cognoscenti: His 25 or so conceptual, meticulously crafted structures, as well as his computer renderings of those never (or at least not yet) erected, have become legendary for their idea-driven purity and shocking forms. That his portfolio is so limited — unlike major firms where there are hundreds on staff and dozens of in-progress projects, he has a team of 10, which includes his architect wife, Tamara — only heightens his influence. He is regarded as a bulwark of incorruptibility in a world of starchitects who stamp their names on billionaire-friendly residential towers and Instagrammable but ultimately gimmicky buildings. Relying upon a theoretical framework and his own volcanic charisma — he has a reputation for reducing students to tears, and has never shied from expressing contempt for peers who he believes have sold out — his Howard Roarkian devotion stands out as a rebuke to an architecturally milquetoast, commercially driven era.
“For most of us, architecture is a profession of compromise,” says the British architect David Chipperfield, 67, who recently finished a tower overlooking New York’s Bryant Park. “We are service people, turned on and off by the client, not so terribly different from window washers. But Valerio is different. He believes in the physical substance of architecture, not the impression — that something should not just look interesting but be interesting. That makes him incredibly important to our field.”
Last year, mid-lockdown, the musician Kanye West, whose passion for contemporary design is well documented, took his jet to Zurich for a day, then drove to Flims to dine with Olgiati in a local restaurant. The meeting landed the architect a commission for both a Los Angeles apartment for the recently separated West and a quixotic megaproject that would render literal the underground nature of the architect’s appeal: an artists’ colony built beneath West’s Wyoming ranch (which is reportedly 4,500 acres), as vast as the subterranean cities of Turkey’s Cappadocia, with up to 200 dwellings, as well as studio spaces and a performance venue.
Olgiati’s buildings are as hard to categorize as they are to fully comprehend. His most notable structures are made mostly of tinted reinforced concrete; they seem initially forbidding but, because of his sense of proportion and his clever placement of light sources, can feel surprisingly intimate within. Consider, for example, the 2007 music studio that Fournier and Marty referenced: Built for the classical composer Linard Bardill in the traditional Swiss town of Scharans, the project came with stringent zoning restraints — the structure had to not only occupy the exact footprint of an existing barn but also maintain its original silhouette. The architect, who never sketches, conceived of a sort of ghost barn, a windowless 3,000-square-foot concrete shell colored dark red. Afterward, he cut a giant oval into the roof, turning most of the interior into a courtyard; the studio space itself is behind a convex sweep of glass that follows the ceiling’s arc. A pure minimalist might have stopped there, but Olgiati instead adorned the tanklike exterior and some of the indoor space with nearly 300 hand-poured concrete medallions, for an effect both harsh and transcendent.
The School at Paspels, completed in 1998, is a bunkerlike structure intended for primary school students, built into a steep hillside in rural Switzerland. The three-story pale concrete exterior is rigidly rectangular, punctuated only by a few elongated, symmetrical frameless window openings. Inside, the four larch-wood-lined classrooms are set about four degrees off kilter from each other; moving through the building, you sense the slight distortion, as though the structure itself were in motion. In 2010, for an auditorium at Plantahof Agricultural School, Olgiati constructed a towering gray concrete wedge that evokes a prehistoric monument — or a slice of an asteroid sheared off on its journey toward Earth. Illuminated through a pair of long windows near the base, the interior has the theatrical elegance of a dimly lit cathedral. Then there’s the 2019 open-air Pearling Path Visitors Center on Muharraq in the Dubai archipelago, a building intended to enshrine the centuries-old pearl-diving industry in the Persian Gulf. It’s a vast forest of 32-foot-tall columns topped with a thin concrete canopy perforated by pentagon-shaped cutouts, pointing in myriad directions; as the sun crests, it casts slashing shadows through the openings.
What unifies these disparate structures, other than their unforgiving material, is Olgiati’s professional philosophy, which he espouses at international lectures and through classes at the Academy of Architecture Mendrisio near the Swiss-Italian border. Says the British ur-minimalist John Pawson, known for residences that evoke a Zen state of nothingness: “With me, all I can do is show the work, but Valerio has the big idea.”
OLGIATI CALLS THAT idea “non-referentiality.” Historical context is dead, he believes: Architecture should be an end unto itself instead of a reflection of its era, local culture or any sort of concocted narrative. “People think it’s crazy to believe you can make something truly new, but that’s because they lack talent and imagination; they are stuck,” he says. To him, vernacular references get in the way of making truly great buildings. Besides, he argues, such constructs are often tortured and artificial — or made up after the fact — with a self-righteousness he finds repugnant.
It’s a midsummer afternoon, and Olgiati, who is tall and fit, with white hair, and wearing a black, Japanese-designed outfit, sips a double espresso at a long steel table, one of the few things not made of concrete at Villa Além, the vacation house he and Tamara, who declined to give her age, share on a hill in the Alentejo region of Portugal, two hours southeast of Lisbon. They spend as much as half the year at the house, which was finished in 2014 and is perhaps his most potent showcase.
From a distance, amid gnarled cork trees and a few low-slung farmhouses, its form evokes a massive open gray cardboard box. But inside, up a 110-foot set of concrete stairs — there’s no railing — the cartonlike sides reveal themselves as the walls of a courtyard, planted with tall, spiny succulents and other desert plants. The open-sided cube, which looks out on the garden through glass sliding walls, is entirely in shade, a refuge from the relentless sun. Although all the surfaces and structural elements are concrete, including furniture of Olgiati’s own design, the stark effect is softened by velvet sofa cushions as gray as nearly everything else in the room. (“Linen velvet,” he clarifies. “Just the right texture and amount of relaxation.”) As darkness descends — he’s served both lunch and dinner, including a saffron risotto with green beans, during a 12-hour conversation that has careened from Le Corbusier (“His buildings have no soul”) to issues of race in America (“Why can’t you people figure this out?”) to his disdain for the Pritzker Prize (“It’s become just about who is culturally acceptable, not about the architecture at all”) — an Isamu Noguchi lantern throws patterns onto the walls. “No one expects it to be intimate in here with the concrete,” he says. “You see? They’re completely wrong.”
The subject to which he keeps returning is contemporary architects’ unwillingness to cast off commercial concerns and cultural pandering. It’s a worldview that likely has its origins in his Flims childhood, as the son of Rudolf Olgiati, a well-regarded Modernist architect who, perhaps incongruously, collected Swiss folkloric artifacts. (His son’s first major project, started soon after Rudolf’s death in 1995, was the Yellow House, a renovation of a traditional three-story 17th-century residence owned by the local church in the center of Flims that now houses Rudolf’s collection. The younger Olgiati removed the daffodil-colored clapboard and covered its prismlike form with textured masonry that he painted spectral white.)
But his most formative period was the two years he spent in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, having followed an American girlfriend there. (Their subsequent marriage fell apart, sending him back to Switzerland — he and Tamara now occupy the same 350-year-old Flims house he grew up in, which he updated in 2017 after an earlier reimagining by his father.) Frank Gehry and Morphosis, the collective led by Thom Mayne, were then experimenting with wild geometry, found objects and innovative materials, which made the city a locus of contemporary design. With no contacts, Olgiati had to leave California before gaining a professional foothold, which he still regrets, even though his career flourished only after he returned to his more conservative home country. “In Switzerland,” he says, “you win the poker game when you have the best cards. There, you win because you play the best game. I liked the bluffing, the bravado. I would have stayed if I could have.”
The most important thing he learned in the United States, he adds, was that the world had permanently changed, and architecture needed to follow. Ours, he believes, is a globally mashed-up era with no meaningful shared references or objective truth. And so buildings, he says, must stand on their own. Even abstraction is too derivative because, by definition, it has a figurative source. (“People ask me all the time what the medallions are on the Bardill studio, and they get upset when I tell them that I don’t know,” he says.) Olgiati admires Modernist masters like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the contemporary Japanese minimalist Tadao Ando, but takes his own inspiration, for example, from the monolithic rock pile structures of the Aztecs, for which historians cannot find an antecedent. By contrast, Machu Picchu, the 15th-century Inca citadel in Peru, is an abstract reinterpretation of the surrounding mountains. Fantastic, he says, but derivative.
Granted, designing entirely without reference is impossible, he concedes. After all, unlike art, architecture has to follow physical laws — to shelter people and not collapse — usually entailing walls, floors and roofs. He acknowledges that these tend to evoke earlier structures or motifs, at least to others. But working toward greater non-referentiality is his constant goal. (In keeping with his theory, he says he doesn’t know exactly where such an impulse came from.) “I build the building for myself, because I am the benchmark,” he says. “This is not arrogance. How else would I measure something?”
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These days, his hopes are buoyed by West, whose aesthetic ambitions are as limitless as his budget. Olgiati says West is the best client he’s ever had, unfailingly gracious and generous, and they speak on the phone, email or Zoom often — West calls at all hours from the bedroom, the studio, the bathroom. While he was working on his album “Donda,” he sent the architect one of its tracks, a mournful vocal at that point backed only by piano, seeking feedback. “He says I am Picasso, and his job is to buy land so that I can create,” Olgiati says. “I have never had anyone who appreciates so much what I do.” West’s underground village, which he hopes to finish within the next few years, will be accessible from the scraggly prairie by a ramp descending into the ground, leading to a third-of-a-mile-long arcade. The dozens of communal dwellings, which feed into the central spaces, will have circular bedrooms mostly taken up with mattresses, and walls of pink and blue marble to be illuminated by light shafts from vast windows onto the surface. “He doesn’t want to buy furniture, he wants me to make it all from concrete,” the architect says. (West declined to comment.)
If Olgiati harbors doubts that the subterranean utopia will ever be realized, he doesn’t let on. Instead, he relishes the precise planning. Like the design aficionados and architects who seem to live vicariously through him, you find yourself wanting to believe such a thing can happen, that as amenity-laden condo towers and giant faux-Modernist mansions pock the land, Olgiati will indeed build his Atlantis deep in the ground — and that it will be pure and strange and uncompromised. “Yes, it sounds a bit far-fetched, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed it,” says Chipperfield. “And wouldn’t it be amazing?”