Text: Susanna Koeberle
Pristine nature, imposing mountain panoramas, incomparable light and mythic characters from legends and fairy tales: Mankind has always been fascinated by the mountains which inspire a longing for peaceful and idyllic nature, especially in stressed-out city dwellers. Mountain landscapes also attracted researchers who studied their unusual flora and fauna. Those with health problems came to convalesce. Soon enough, the Alps also developed into a major sport destination. British tourists in the mid-19th century were among the first to flock to the Alps. The railways built during these pioneering times provided access to remote places. The hotels which were constructed to accommodate the new guests were part of a new type of architecture.
Some of the imposing hotel buildings have been preserved until today. With Alpine tourism taking hold, holiday homes were built in growing numbers – not all of them in harmony with nature. However, over the last 30 years, local architects have developed a subtle approach to old building stock that focuses on dialogue with existing structures rather than contrasts or imitation chalet style.
‘Critical regionalism’ was the motto that dominated a new architectural discourse in the 1980s. One example of this concept is the work of Grisons architect and Pritzker award winner Peter Zumthor. His frequently quoted Therme Vals spa is proof that good architecture can become a tourist magnet, although later developments once again favoured the negative sides of tourist construction in the Alps.
Nevertheless, mountains have always been a fascinating natural phenomenon which most people prefer to enjoy without luxurious superstructures. The conversion of the former Gotthard Hospiz by Basel’s Miller & Maranta architects is among the Alpine examples of tourism in harmony with nature.
Picture gallery - Hospiz Gotthard
Of course, people were living in the Alpine region long before tourism came along. However, the exodus of the local population is a big problem in many mountain regions. Often, there is not enough infrastructure to guarantee the financial survival of the local farmers. The architect Gion A. Caminada (professor at ETH Zurich since 2008) has implemented a model in his home village of Vrin in the canton of Grisons that has become an inspiring example for other regions. Essentially, instead of striving for new inventions and maximum exploitation, the model focussed on developing what was already there and rediscovering the beauty of the village. Regrettably, this type of project is still the exception, although its value as a constructive architectural contribution to villages is undisputed.
The young Grisons architect Men Duri Arquint knows what it means to realise high-quality architecture in the mountains. He has built a number of houses in the Alps. “I follow Adolf Loos’ essay ‘Rules for those who build in the mountains’. His attitude aptly reflects the balancing act between preservation and innovation,” he says during our interview. The house he designed in the middle of nature in Maloja is a fine example of this differentiated approach. According to Men Duri Arquint, a sensitive approach to existing structures and the surrounding landscape is a central issue that is perfectly expressed in this building. Since the traditional structure had already been converted once in the 1960s, the challenge consisted of uncovering the original construction and adding to it in a harmonious way. This formula promotes an architectural culture that respects both the Alpine landscape and century-old knowledge encapsulated in the local building style, providing an entirely new perspective.