Bechtler Museum features career of building architect Mario Botta

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte is celebrating the most important piece in their collection: the building that houses the rest of it. “Mario Botta: Architecture and Memory” showcases the Swiss architect’s achievements through images, models, art objects, and videos.

Standing in one of his projects while surveying feats of his career, the visit becomes experiential. One could consider this building a permanent art installation.

Museum CEO John Boyer curated the show, a work in process since before the museum was open. Showcasing 30 projects, the exhibition champions Botta as one of the world’s most important living architects, while proving the significance of his presence in Charlotte. The Bechtler is one of only two Botta-designed projects built in the United States (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the other).

Throughout the design process he sought to create a building that would not be dwarfed by uptown Charlotte’s skyscrapers, even if it held a relatively small collection. On a tour of the show, Botta exhibited pride in how the building integrated into the city, saying through an interpreter that his creation is “even richer, more fulfilling, more beautiful than (he) ever imagined it would be.”

The first room of the exhibition, labeled “encounters,” showcases works by artists who have influenced the architect, from the collections of the Bechtler and the architect. Picasso, Corbusier, Giacometti, Duchamp and others make appearances. The works are obviously significant, though their real role is to present Botta as an artist of their caliber, another champion of communicating the human experience.

The rest of the exhibition is a presentation of Botta’s work: artistic large-format black and white photographs of his buildings hang behind their accompanying wood models. Set at eye level, the intricate models and their pedestals are joined to be individual pieces, beautifully constructed in section as if cut in half and cracked open.

Here Botta’s work is divided into four themes: museums, libraries, theaters and sacred spaces, all containers of human knowledge and emotion. Botta poetically explained his theory that a library is a “deposit of the knowledge of humanity,” relaying respect for the purpose of the space he creates. As for theaters, Botta said, “the reason people go to the theater is because they need to dream.”

The sacred spaces portion is the most substantial, showcasing commissions almost exclusively in Europe. In a continent full of Gothic and gilded sanctuaries, their minimal appearance is a powerful visual correlation to the silence and meditation that accompanies a spiritual experience.

A highlight and one of the more experimental works on view is Botta’s San Carlino Lugano, a temporary project that was little more than a life-size section model of Borromini’s Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Rome, 1638-1646).

Botta’s tribute, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Borromini’s birth, registered as an enormous, occupy-able relief in an equally enormous block of painted black wood. It sat spectacularly at the edge of Lake Lugano in Switzerland from 1999 to 2003.

Architecture might seem unconventional as an art object, but in Botta’s hands it certainly falls in this category.

John Boyer relayed Andreas Bechtler’s realization of his dream of providing a good home for his family’s collection: “the best architect that could celebrate and provide a safe harbor for this work in the family collection was Mario Botta.”

In this well-organized exhibition one can’t help but agree.