The house of the doctor


     By car, the narrow road rises in twists and turns up into the foothills of the mountains beyond, passing between low walls of venerable gray stone. The stimmung is that of an ever present sense of rusticity in harmony with the modern. This once agrarian landscape still possesses small patches of vinyard and cultivated terrain, often interspersed with a dense but harmonious mixture of traditional dwellings of weathered wood and modernistic upscale residences which succeed in blending well with the signs of the past: an ageless way of life co-existing side by side with discretely posh progress.

     We left the car in the shade overlooking a valley where a shallow stream seemed to bring some relief to the hot summer landscape. From here we set out on a leisurely stroll.

     Sandro Zendralli: "My studies were not academic since I did not go to university, I simply went to a technical college. I went to Zurich mainly in order to learn how to draw not the project but rather the actual construction: the details, arrangements, supervising the construction works and so forth to gain experience since I planned to return here to the Ticino and to open a business of my own. That had always been my dream.

     "There was no one among my school companions to open a private studio of architecture. I was the only one starting out with few small things, even refusing bigger projects because I wanted to grow slowly. Coming back from Zurich there was a doctor who asked me to build his private home and medical practice. It was my first commission after my studies. I was twenty three and a half years old. I had no clue where to start, but I made it...

     "Today the practice is subdivided into several smaller ones. Next to the house was a traditional little stone hut and in order to combine the old with the new I built several intertwining walls... I still remember the wooden model I had done with tiny trees out of material I collected from the forest. They almost looked like real trees..."

       We had come to see the doctor's house, which was the first major architectural project of Sandro Zendralli. During the interceding years the real trees on the grounds circling the house had grown considerably in stature.

     It is a strange experience to accompany an architect in order to view a structure which he had created so many years before and which, since then, had been the scene of lives lived day by day, year after year, by those who were the proprietors and yet who now seemed strangely to be playing a role in the theater which the architect had first imagined and then brought into concrete form.

     We also, for our part, had a feeling of intruders into somewhere we had no real business being. We had not come to visit the doctor or his wife, we had come instead simply to look at the house from the outside. I could almost imagine the lady of the house herself, if she had happened to look out the window at that very moment, turning with a puzzled look on her face toward her husband and saying, "there is a group of strange people outside, who seem to be looking up at our house..."

     For an architect of a mere twenty three years of age, it was a remarkable achievement, and one was struck immediately that it carried its years with grace. In other words, it stood up. It had successfully survived thus far the test of time, which in itself is already high praise for the work of any architect. What is more, the house seemed to give the feeling that the years which its inhabitants had spent there had been happy ones.

     The house, with all its modern dignity in keeping with the stature of a prominent physician, had entered comfortably into that timeless sphere of the unausweichlichkeit where, like a well cut suit of clothes, it passes almost unperceived.

     One's first impression was more of a sculptural than architectural nature. The early work of Laurens, Archipenko or Lipchitz came to mind, although the placement of the upper floors on overlapping levels in white stucco, with horizontal windows, lent the house that air of accumulative volumetries often seen in the early residential buildings of the young Le Corbusier, such as the Villa Schwob at Neuchâtel, which he designed at age thirty one.

      To take in all available views of the house, we went back down the hill a few paces to where a narrow lane of stone walls arrived just above eye-level. One of our company raised himself on tip toe and was heard to say, "Buon giorno..." Soon others of our tiny band were peering over the rim of the wall. A young studentess wearing black-rimmed reading glasses and a remarkably bright blue bikini was seated at the extremity of a diving board suspended over the equally bright blue waters of a swimming pool.

     One could make out the title on the cover of her book: Kierkegaard. The young lady in question did not seem particularly pleased by our unexpected, and unexplained arrival. Especially when in his enthusiasm, Sandro Zendralli began taking photographs. Little could the aspirant to existentialist philosophy have known that the subject of the architect's snapshots was not her blue bikini but rather the structure in the background, of which she had no way of knowing that he was the author.  

     We continued on our stroll without saying farewell to the bathing-beauty scholar and soon had arrived once more beside the valley where our promenade had begun. Now we descended closer to the banks of the stream and made our way toward a country inn which we could see in the distance. Coming closer, we could see the name above the door:

Osteria Zendralli

     The little mystery was soon resolved as we learned that the patronne was none other than the paternal aunt of our host. Settled at a table beneath the vines on the terrace and serenaded not only by the babbling brook but also by the insistent inquisitiveness of sparrows, we proceeded to enjoy a memorable luncheon.

      "One day, many years after I had completed construction of the doctor's house, I came by to have a look at it. At that moment his wife happened to come out and recognized me. She said: We are very happy and still enjoy so much living and working in this house."

     What could bring more satisfaction to an architect than to hear these words?

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