When you first see the intimidating exterior of this villa in Lugano, Switzerland, it is difficult to imagine what is secreted away behind its high walls. Built on a plot that sits between a road and a formidable rock face, the concrete building seems to hang from the mountainside, and its minimalist geometric facade blends in with its wooded surrounds – so much so that there is no hint as to what lies within.
One of the most notable works of Swiss architect Mario Campi, the villa was originally designed in the mid-1960s for painter Felice Filippini, whose only request was that Campi include a north-facing studio with ample light for the artist’s painting practice. Unfortunately the next tenant – Bulgarian-born French musician Alexis Weissenberg – was not as respectful of Campi’s design, and he transformed the interiors by covering up the ceiling as well as the wooden and concrete walls. Once described by Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan as ‘one of the best pianists of our time’, it seems that Weissenberg was not as sensitive to design as he was to music.
Several years passed before the villa found new owners, needing a special pair who would be able to see past its existing interiors and appreciate its architecture and unusual location. Happily, François Droulers and Chiara Costacurta were such people, and set to work restoring the building to its former glory.
‘We worked with a very competent team: the heirs of the Campi studio, who retain the original designs for the architecture; Droulers Studio, namely my sisters Nathalie and Virginie, for the interiors; landscaper Sophie Ambroise for the garden and Marco Pollice of Pollice Illuminazione for the lighting,’ says François. ‘For 40 years, the house has been inhabited by two singles – now there is room for four children.’
As well as exposing the original ceiling and walls, the pair expanded the villa by emptying the embankments, increasing its inner surface area and adding a pool, all the while ensuring that the alterations were consistent with the remaining features and landscape. Expansive in its proportions, the home is laid out over three floors: the arrival level with the entrance hall, study, kids’ rooms, guest bedrooms and swimming pool; a higher second level where the staircase opens onto Filippini’s original studio, which is now a huge 5m-high glazed living room with an adjacent dining area and kitchen; and the top floor, with the main bedroom and bathrooms as well as a transparent greenhouse that overlooks the living area.
The fluid interconnecting spaces are grounded by the cement-coated ceiling, whose precise geometry and textural finish is almost Brutalist in its appearance. Structurally rigid and modular principles have been employed throughout, which can be seen in the use of raw materials and the bare walls. ‘For the interior, we tried to maintain a sense of minimalism, with few decorations or embellishments needed,’ says Nathalie Droulers. In the large living room, for example, there is deliberately no carpet on the resin floor, and the walls are clad in green-painted wooden panels that echo the outdoors.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the construction is the building’s proximity to its natural surrounds, with parts of the tactile exterior so close to the rock face that they become one. ‘At first, the closeness of the rock might seem threatening but, in fact, the house communicates positive energies and a calming sense of wellbeing,’ says Chiara.
Campi’s design establishes a strong and direct relationship between the building and its environment, and the couple embraced the mineral objects and vegetation already present on the site. The living room and guest bedroom are fronted by two lush gardens, and there is a rock wall-facing balcony from which visitors can examine its surface and form up close.
From the main bathroom you can look into the glass greenhouse, complete with potted plants and skylights that have been employed throughout the build to encourage visitors to admire the greenery overhead. Water flows into a tank below the ground floor, and in the entrance hall, the floors don’t touch the perimeter walls, allowing a glimpse of the gushing stream below.
Behind bold design choices such as the decision not to conceal the rock face and instead highlight it with big glass windows, there is a strongly conceptual attitude. And this is what makes the villa so fascinating: by combining the rigidity of architecture with the unpredictability of nature, the owners have achieved a spectacular cohesive home that wholly embraces its architect’s unique vision.