A Neuchâtelean Archi-tour – now doesn’t that sound fancy?

creation |noun| the action or process of bringing something into existence

Writers shouldn’t paint, at least that’s the moral I took away from the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel. But if they can’t be stopped and you feel exceedingly pressured to showcase their artwork, at least do us the favor of getting a world-class architect on board. You owe it to us to give us something aesthetically pleasing to look at! So my sincere appreciation to the folks that snagged Mario Botta for the gallery where the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s artwork is permanently on display.

I had already gathered from my investigations that this fellow wouldn’t have been the liveliest of dinner guests. Not only were his literary works mostly philosophical crime stories and macabre satire plays, but he also considered a story finished only “when it took a turn for the worst”. And not in a witty Oscar Wilde kind of way. As for the sole difference between humans and wild animals, humans – he said – pray before they commit murder. Perhaps these statements can be better understood if we recall that the author was 18 when the Second World War broke out – although Switzerland was, as always, neutral and therefore not directly involved.

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David Bowie in front of some unfortunate Bowieart.

The inclination of certain celebrities to self-express through painting is a wonderful thing. Truly. All my support goes out to Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé, Steve Tyler, Michelle Pfeiffer, Slash and Josh Hartnett who all claim to paint. If, however, samples of your tinkering happen to slip into the public arena, please don’t expect us to like it just because you clobbered the Nazi’s in World War II… or you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have the highest number of covered songs in the world… or you are the very embodiment of glam rock and London’s V&A Museum has recently inaugurated a box-office-record-breaking retrospective of your career. (To be fair, Winston Churchill’s work is discreetly displayed at his Chartwell studio and is not too bad, but Dylan’s horrendous tempera tantrums were recently exhibited at none other than the Palazzo Reale in Milan (http://www.halcyongallery.com/news/bob-dylan-at-the-palazzo-reale-milan) – explain that! Bowie’s unfortunate pieces have their own website and brand (Bowieart: http://www.bowieart.com/default.asp), where it is abundantly clear he takes his art a lot more seriously than I do.)

As for the artwork of the decidedly less famous Dürrenmatt, Francis Bacon was dark, as was Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Hieronymus Bosch. And I love them. But their work is to Dürrenmatt’s, like truffles to turds. I can’t shake the feeling that Botta may not have been an admirer of Dürrenmatt’s paintings either. After all, for a space meant to showcase the man’s artwork, all of the tributes in the design are to elements of his literary output.

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The cave-like gallery of the Centre Durrenmatt, complete with skylights and door to the exterior.

With such harsh views, you may be inclined to avoid that stark climb up the Neuchâtelean hills to where the Centre Dürrenmatt is perched. But please don’t. Thanks to Mario Botta, it is a beautiful space with incredible views that are decidedly less harsh than my own about the elaborate wall stains within. Dürrenmatt’s work may be hard to swallow, but at least it has given occasion to some truly remarkable architecture. Beautiful things can spring from bad beginnings.

I am a sucker for good contemporary architecture and the Swiss are surprisingly skilled at it. (I say surprisingly, because industrial ingenuity seems more in Swiss character than aesthetic genius.) Le Corbusier may have preceded the coining of the phrase “starchitect”, but Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (think Tate Modern, the Beijing Olympic Stadium), Peter Zumthor (think Therme Vals, the Brother Klaus Field Chapel) and Mario Botta (Saint John the Baptist Chapel, Spa Tschuggen) certainly came just in time for it. Being fans of architecture and spas, the Swiss have even given rise to a new niche – spachitecture!

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The theatrical balcony suspended over the valley and Lake Neuchâtel.

My first impression of Neuchâtel was marked by the rich yellow hue of the Jura stones found everywhere in the historical center. It’s as if the sun’s dying light perennially lingers on their façades. Back in the 19th century, a visiting Alexandre Dumas said the town looked like a toy sculpted out of butter. In contrast, Botta’s design for the Centre Dürrenmatt is in black slate, a tribute to the author’s dark outlook on life. And just as his literary work digs into the depths of the human soul, so does the space created by Botta resemble an unexpected cave carved into the heart of the mountain. The visitor feels protected and yet illuminated by the light that mercifully pours in from above. The crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly the balcony suspended high over Lake Neuchâtel. Botta called it a stage, the visitor the protagonist.

As I stand out on that balcony gazing down at the vast lake, I feel certain you cannot look at something that breath-taking day after day and not be profoundly affected by it. And yet this beauty failed to permeate the exhibited artwork. Surely, Dürrenmatt must have loved that lake, the Jura mountains beyond it, the green pastures that frame it. Otherwise, he would not have chosen this spot to live. Yet such was the strength of his angst that he chose to dam himself up in it.

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The dam-like wall that delineates the gallery space and supports the balcony above it.

Botta’s design seems to reflect this same perception, with the massive valley-facing wall that both delineates the exposition space and buttresses the balcony. “When I am inside the space,” he said “I also feel the emptiness of the valley, I feel the lake, the city. The wall is like a dam: it holds back an internal energy against the outside world.” Curiously, Botta cut out a door smack in the middle of this dam, as well as vast skylights. This leaves the visitor standing in an exhibition space that is far from the dark empty pit felt in the artworks. The combination of these elements (light, lake and door) make Botta’s building a space of hopefulness – despite the sharp torment of Dürrenmatt’s oeuvre. This is fitting. It gives us a more complete picture. Man cannot live without hope – and that is what, I believe, distinguishes humans from wild animals.

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