A Ticinese Flair for Life : Although the Canton of Ticino Is Officially Part of Switzerland, Its Architecture, Food, Language, and Attitudes Testify to the Region's Italian Character

By Gani, Martin | The World and I, April 2000 | Go to article overview

A Ticinese Flair for Life : Although the Canton of Ticino Is Officially Part of Switzerland, Its Architecture, Food, Language, and Attitudes Testify to the Region's Italian Character


Gani, Martin, The World and I


Mediterranean, sunny, and imperfect may not be the ideal adjectives to describe Switzerland, but they are more than fitting to depict Ticino, the southern, Italian-speaking region of the country. Although proudly Swiss in everything else, the Ticinese are seldom thought of as disciplined or strictly law abiding; half of them defiantly refuse to wear seat belts, and speed limits are rendered approximate if not obsolete.

My visit to Lugano, the largest town in Ticino, starts badly. I drive round and round, searching desperately for a parking spot. I explain my predicament to a policeman. He suggests I try the autosilo (multistory parking garage) just ahead. The ultramodern circular building I had mistaken for a luxury apartment block--I'm embarrassed to say--offers dozens of free parking spots. Having unburdened myself of the car, I get down to some serious exploration.

Lugano is Switzerland's third most important financial center and Ticino's best-known town. Occupying a stretch of the lake it names, Lugano sprawls upward from the shore as if to engulf the surrounding hills. Luxury hotels jostle for the best lake views. On the lakeside promenade, visitors stroll in the shade of palm trees among flourishing flower beds, proceed into the town's landscaped park, take a boat trip, head for a museum or art gallery. Lugano is famous for its high-profile art exhibitions, and art lovers from all over Switzerland and Italy flock to these events. The town has in recent years hosted the works of Francis Bacon, Emil Nolde, Colombian artist/sculptor Fernando Botero, Edvard Munch, and Amedeo Modigliani with immense success.

As I explore, I realize this is an affluent town. Along the main shopping thoroughfare, Via Nassa, shopwindows sparkle with designer watches and jewelry. In Lugano, I notice a general conviviality. Easygoing crowds gather in open-air cafAs in the historic plaza, Piazza della Riforma, sipping drinks and socializing in many tongues. The town's gleaming, ultramodern buildings reflect daring architectural designs, some of them by Mario Botta, a native of Ticino and Switzerland's most successful contemporary architect.

Botta studied in Milan and Venice and worked with his countryman Le Corbusier as well as the influential American designer Louis Kahn. Since the 1980s he has become a sought-after, globe-trotting architect. He designed San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art; the cathedral of Evry, near Paris; churches in Italy; and a synagogue in Jerusalem. Solid blocks, bold stripes, a sliced cylinder, and insistent symmetry tend to characterize his work. What reflects Botta's genius best, however, are his houses and small churches scattered throughout Ticino. Speaking to the British weekly the European, Botta explained the philosophy behind his buildings: "My architecture has two main ingredients; the first is a monumental scale, an architecture that works at full volume, with all its power, with its entire form. This must connect with and confront the landscape, and here [in Ticino] the landscape is always very rich, with mountains and lakes."

From the lakeside, I drive to the hilltop village of Montagnola. A perfect spot to take in views of Lake Lugano, it is home to the Museum of Hermann Hesse (1877--1962). Born in Germany, Hesse moved to this peaceful hamlet in 1919, became a Swiss citizen in 1923, and spent the rest of his life here. He grew into a literary giant, winning both the Goethe and Nobel Prizes in literature in 1946. His books, particularly Siddhartha, which recounts the life of Buddha, sold millions of copies around the globe. It is said that after the Bible, Siddhartha is the most widely read book in the world. Ironically, success brought unwanted attention to Hesse, who adored his tranquil existence in Ticino.

Memorabilia, books, and watercolors by Hesse furnish the small museum. Seeing me peering at a pair of round, wire-rimmed glasses, the museum curator approaches and says, "Did you know Hesse had thirty-six pairs of glasses? …

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