In the recent history of contemporary art establishments, one cannot help but notice a partial migration to the periphery. One argument could be that this is the result of institutional critique; another and more pragmatic argument could be that this move is caused by the densification of the city centre and the consequent soaring property prices. But I would like to explore the other reason behind this development towards the periphery, one that seems to be more impassioned and almost sentimentally driven.
March 28, 2018, Zurich
In 1989, architect Peter Märkli bought a piece of land in Giornico and designed a building to house the sculptures of the artist Hans Josephsohn that is now known as Congiunta. The building itself is almost a sculpture on its own and attracts waves of architecture pilgrims to this small village in the Tessin. The building is not only architecturally interesting, but also invites the visitors to engage with the locals at a bar to collect the only key to the museum that normally stands closed but houses a collection of Josephsohn’s bronze casts.
Peter Märkli’s studio in Zurich is filled with memorabilia, including a beautiful Josephsohn bronze cast that quietly, yet very noticeably (much like the other pieces in Giornico) keeps us company throughout our conversation about Congiunta:
Kristina Grigorjeva (KG): So, why build this museum in Giornico?
Peter Märkli (PM): The program of the building itself, one could build anywhere really. And in Switzerland there is such a variety of places, villages, and countryside. In the city, the land is expensive. And in Giornico the place itself is already powerful, with the river, the bridges, the Roman churches. It is small, and the site was so ideally situated. This was the decisive factor, right? This uninhabitable situation, the relatively cheap price of land, and not solitary, but already in a context which by itself is already rather strong. I think at the time, the Louvre pyramid was just being built. And this super-concentration in certain places is just part of the bigger story. At times we have discussed with Josephsohn that it could well be a little more decentralized and could spread a little out and could be connected to other places. That is why it all came together this way, the land was offered, and I knew the town already. We had a look and found that it was perfect, that we could try it out.
KG: So, somehow, you already had a certain relation to the place?
PM: Yes, Josephsohn would always take the train to Italy, passing Giornico on his way, and we knew the village from before.
KG: And did you know from the start the exact selection of works that would be exhibited there?
PM: Yes, in the discussions we had at the very beginning we talked about that and about his entire oeuvre, all of the typologies. Between the two of us we decided for the “reliefs.” As you know, he had remastered the “relief.” It got lost a little, and with these stories, these objects depicted in these “reliefs,” there he obtained a certain language. To fill the “relief” with content again. And these were all personal stories. That, and the Halbfiguren. We agreed that these two typologies are the least known and exactly those we wanted to show. Both were ideal for a sequence. And because the sequence was possible, the building was then designed in a way to express this. This was, of course, something very new, because of this extremely constant slenderness. I have measured the widths of the streets here in the city. I just went to see in the narrower streets, how wide they are. So, the specificity of the building lies in this risk of this slenderness, in order to avoid the need for organization on the inside. Here, one starts to work with the height, where normally other projects operate with the depth of the space. Here, the height works with the slenderness and produces the required volume and space for the objects to work in the space.
KG: There is also this kind of temple atmosphere in the building and this strong relation of the works to the building. Do you know of another example that works in a similar way?
PM: I don’t know one. This is in fact the new, the unfamiliar. But the idea was clear. And it would be unimaginable for me to exhibit Giacometti’s works in there, for example. Because he, in fact, needs the encompassing space, he does not need the height. And then the sequence is obsolete.
KG: The building was built more for the works, not for the village dwellers, if I understand correctly?
PM: Yes, that’s right. The “dwellers” of the building are, in fact, the sculptures.
KG: And how did the people from Giornico react to the new building?
PM: You know, they were originally very impressed by the opening, when their village was completely packed. That was impressive for them. And now it is being visited by the entire world, that astounds them, too—why and what for. But whether the sculptures interest them, I did not ask.
KG: And the villagers were probably also happy to be involved, after all, they guard the keys of the Conguinta?
PM: This was, of course, also because of the Louvre and all these modern ways… Firstly, one has to imagine, that for these bronze casts, these sculptures, no climatic requirements need to be met. We had no insurance; we had no special exhibiting requirements. I mean, the paintings in the churches do not get ruined. All these are insurance issues that catapult the exhibition spaces into this technoid world that absolutely does not go together with what is being displayed. And we could just radically avoid all of that. And then we said we would deposit the key at the Osteria. And then one can just go there and have a look. There is no entrance fee or anything.
KG: What exactly interests you in Josephsohn’s work?
PM: Well, that is a complex question. When I started with the job of an architect, I had no language. I had to dedicate myself to the language, the expression. I could not paint myself, could not depict figures. And then one day in the Tagesanzeiger, I saw an image of this work by Josephsohn and went to look for him, because it spoke to me. But through the emotion of it. More the emotional intelligence than the rational. I was young, had no experience, more or less. And then, just so, I had a means, an instrument in my hands. Because it was so perfect to use in buildings. I had found a means to do certain things as an architect. Then I did a lot of studies through drawing, also with these figures of Alberto Giacometti. But they are no longer attainable on the market. They were and will always remain studies. But the world that he formulates with his sculptures, and the world that Josephsohn formulates with his works, they speak to me. One always looks, or at least I have always looked for this feeling, these things, that have an aura that speaks to me.
KG: Do you think there is a general relation between the artist and the environment in which he works, be it a remote place or in the context of the city?
PM: It is comparable with Mont Sainte-Victoire, that Cézanne had worked with. Do you think the farmers saw Mont Sainte-Victoire the same way he did?
KG: Probably not.
PM: Exactly. And I cannot answer this like that. A place and an output, they have to come together. I think an outsider has this fresh view and is surely free towards the environment. And this freedom certainly lets him view it more precisely. And this has its advantages.
KG: True, and on a different note, the artists that come from these villages in the valleys, they tend to somehow use anything that they find around them. For example, Not Vital, had he grown up in a city, his work would probably be different.
PM: That could be. At the same time, art itself is detached from these topics. You know, anything could be taken as a departure for what one calls a work of art. A piece of paper over there, if you will. I mean, Segantini manipulated this to the highest degree. He was absolutely unsatisfied with what it looked like. He built the mountain silhouette anew. One could get into this topic more precisely.
January 29, 2018, Lavin
Almost twenty years after the construction of Congiunta, a man from St. Gallen took over an old hotel in the small village of Lavin further up north from Tessin, in the valley of Lower Engadin. Together with the renovation of the building, he initiated a transformation of the village itself that has led to the formation of almost a cultural centre that brings cooking, art, music, and craftsmanship together. The building of the hotel as well as Chasa Bastiann vis-à-vis have both retained their historical appearance with their wooden interiors, lime-white vaults and warm Arvenstuben and now house Biblioteca Linard, rooms for workshops and exhibition spaces, as well as serving as a hotel and offering simple but refined local cuisine. Together they create a certain immersive atmosphere. On a crispy winter morning, sitting in the main hall of the hotel, the founder of Piz Linard, Hans Schmid, told me how this atmosphere came to be and why here in Lavin.
Kristina Grigorjeva (KG): I was wondering if you live here yourself, it seems you are somehow always around?
Hans Schmid (HS): I live here. That is, I live over there in the house with the gallery, and I live here throughout the year. Every week I go to the city, to Zurich. That’s my short weekend.
KG: Exactly, your presence here is really felt. And what would be the everyday routine for a someone who lives here in Lavin throughout the year?
HS: People who live here work according to their profession; some are builders, partly there are also artists, gardeners, there are teachers, there are managers. Or like us, in hospitality.
KG: Before starting with Piz Linard, you were involved in cultural production in St. Gallen. Is there a relationship between that and what you have been doing here in Lavin?
HS: So, it is like this, when we talk about culture there are a couple of interesting questions, because for me the cooking, the dining, the atmosphere is very much part of culture, to the highest degree, I would say. And here in Lavin, I dedicate myself to this culture. And then there is another differentiation for me, that of art and craftsmanship. And there the question is, of course, where does one draw a line between the two and whether one should at all. But personally, with what I have been doing over the past thirty years, I have acquired a lot of interest and respect toward the craftsmen. All of this is close to one another for me, art as well, or culture, something that speaks to the senses, moves the senses or enables encounters or at least contemplation about what is the sensual. Here, we have classical concerts, wonderful jazz concerts, we have art exhibitions—these are, of course, rather a classic form of culture. But I wouldn’t like to simply plant these here. For me, it is not about the name or reputation of the house, but rather about this culture the way I pictured it just now, with the indulgence, the cooking, the dining together with the crafts integrated within all of the above. And, of course, in that there could be a bridge between my activities in cultural patronage in the canton of St. Gallen, where I was responsible for cultural projects to receive either public or cantonal support.
KG: You mentioned that there is a presence of local artists who live and work here. Would you say then that the exhibition space here is exhibiting only local artists?
HS: Yes and no. That is most of what we have here, meat, flowers, cheese, all is from here. But for me, it does not have to be one-to-one. For me, the river here, the Inn, is very important. The Inn leads to the Danube, Vienna and then to the Black Sea. Not like most rivers in Switzerland, that either go into the Rhein or into the Rohr, either into the Mediterranean or the North Seas. The Inn here flows to Istanbul, into the Black Sea. And culturally, that is something very different, almost infused with the Eastern culture and has a lot more force in it, like gypsy music. There is a wonderful musician here in the village, for example. He is not famous or anything. But he has been playing freestyle jazz for around twenty or more years now, on all possible tonalities of the clarinet and the saxophone, Andri Steiner. And I don’t do this out of this idea, that we must work with local artists and take care of the local art. But rather because it’s just so totally emotional, that the primal meets the lust. For me, that is how it is, the local and the faraway. And it concerns figurative art as much as the concerts or the film nights that we have here. One could talk about that, the local and the faraway, or the mountainous here in the mountains and the urban down in the city, right? One could say it is rather urban, but at the same time very authentic, reduced and pure here in the mountains.
KG: Then, why here in Lavin?
HS: So, here is the thing: the lower Engadin is a rather closed off valley and within Switzerland very much on the edge. That is, it is an edge-region, with all the qualities of an edge-region.
At the same time, over generations there have been these “Zuckerbäcker”, they also call them ”Randulins”. The ”Randulins” are the migrants, and the Zuckerbäcker is a classic. Here, over decades there were a lot of poor folks. That has to do with the remoteness, especially in terms of transportation, right? Then the roughness of nature plays a role for the farming here, of course; whole harvests used to be destroyed. Either it was too cold, or it had snowed too early, or it was too dry, or I don’t know what. And then they were always poor here, and a lot have drifted over specific time periods. Especially to Italy, but also to Alexandria, or to the East. And there they worked with their craftsmanship and creative strength that is rooted here in the Engadin. It is quite a place of strength, the lower Engadin. Mostly they worked as confectioners in Italy, and some of them made spectacular careers for themselves in Venice, Florence, all over. These are the so-called “Zuckerbäcker.” They also became quite wealthy and would send money back to their families. That is partly why there are these precious magnificent buildings in this humble region. And at a certain point, some of them would come back. These were the “Randulins,” or the “swallows”—they migrate and then find their way back.
KG: This is where the “italianità” comes from?
HS: Yes, there is the “italianità” as well, that is true. Historically and traditionally, there has always been this symbiosis or this tension between the departed, the returned, the mountains here and the very lively metropolitan of a city. Whether it is Zurich or Alexandria. And exactly because of that, it is such a fruitful tension. Now, for me personally, Lavin happened by pure coincidence, I would always come here for holiday. But Lavin is probably one of the more interesting places in the whole of the Engadin. It has for a long time been in the shadow of Guarda, the next village up the valley. Guarda is a pristine Engadine village that has been preserved intact and has also received the WAKKER Prize, the historic preservation prize, because of its especially authentically preserved buildings. But there is something almost museum-like about it as well.
And here it is really rather authentic, lively in its own way. It was originally built by Italians after the big village fire. In 1869, Lavin burned down completely and got rebuilt from scratch in 1870-71. And this was done exactly with the money from the emigrated “Zuckerbäcker” and the so-called “Cotton Kings.” For that reason, it is more Italian, it has the flat roofs. And up until the 1950s, there was an understanding that Guarda is the “pearl” and Lavin is “unrefined.” Until it became a little clearer that Lavin is a lot more authentic than the museum-like Guarda. And then, of course, it has this “italianità” and this unfinished, imperfect pragmatic. Because after the fire, they built directly onto the ruins of the burned down houses. Our wonderful garden, for example, stands on the vaults of a burned down house. That is, there is a vault right underneath the garden.
KG: You have already mentioned this subject, but I wanted to touch on this once again. The more I speak to people from the Engadin or in general from the mountains, the stronger is this feeling that their perception of the world around them differs from, say, a metropolitan person. In one interview, Peter Märkli, a devoted Zurich resident and an architect, said, that “seeing” is a heritage. I can imagine that the eye gets used to the calmness of the landscape and somehow leaves the superfluous and concentrates on the essential. This makes me think of Giacometti, Segantini, and Not Vital, who all come from this area. Do you find there is a relationship between the artist and his/her environment and the way they influence each other?
HS: I find the topic quite fascinating and also rather difficult to address, so I will just say what I think about it. I think there is this image, that the urban context is somehow full of stimuli and attraction and this is not just a cliché, the city really is full of attractions. Besides, in the city one meets a lot of different people. And these encounters can be either momentary or a little closer. That is not the case here. Here there aren’t that many people around, and they are always the same. That could be a factor. The one question is that of where you look for social life in this limited context, because here everything is transparent to all, everyone knows one another. And that might then be the starting points for the creativity and reflection for these artists. That is in this familiar context. And this is very different for artists in an urban context. And the second is what I appreciate again and again, the contrasts of nature. Day and night, during the day it gets very warm and then it gets very cold rather quickly.
KG: And dark as well…
HS: And dark. That is another thing that one should mention, the light. This flat light, that particularly around November is especially beautiful because the sun shines onto the mountains with such a flat angle. I think it might have something to do with the circumstances, this nature with its rhythm on the one hand, and the small village context on the other.
Peter Märkli, a Swiss architect, lives and works in Zurich. Since 2003, he has also held a professorship at the ETH Zurich, and since 2013 he has been a visiting professor at the Moscow Architecture School MARCH. From 1972 to 1977, he studied architecture at the ETH Zurich. He studied alongside the architect Rudolf Olgiati and the sculptor Hans Josephsohn. In 1978, Märkli started his own office in Zurich.
Hans Schmid, initiator and director of the Piz Linard since 2007. Educated as a lawyer, he was previously in charge of the cultural department of Kanton Sankt Gallen. He engages in critical writing and painting, as well as building bridges between the city and the mountain. The integration of talents from other countries and cultures is an important aspect in his work.
Kristina Grigorjeva (*1990, Estonia) is an architect and an independent curator born in Tallinn, Estonia and based in Zürich. After studying architecture at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, TI and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences she has worked for Caruso St John Architects in Zurich, where she has combined her architecture practice with diverse international curatorial projects. Her latest collaborations include the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2018 and Gasträume 2019, a KiöR project for art in public spaces commissioned by the city of Zurich, as well as past and on-going collaborations with institution and galleries like Architekturforum Zurich and Kulturfolger. Currently she works for Museum für Gestaltung at the Pavilion Le Corbusier and is working on the ongoing exhibition series detours, that explores the relationship between art and the public in the fast-paced society of today.