Three Houses, one Cathedral
The Alps seem to have become the training ground for good architecture. It may be on account of the breathtaking landscape, or the inescapable requirement to guarantee unfailing quality of structure and finish, or the increasing environmental awareness of tourists. Whatever the reason, Alpine architecture is at the forefront of contemporary architecture. Not that it wasn’t before. This has always been the case practically since the Alps were discovered by the Grand Tour and its vernacular architecture became the subject of study, admired and tapped for the perfect technological solutions born of empirical know-how under inhospitable high-altitude mountain conditions. When, however, after two centuries, élite tourism gave way to mass tourism, mountain landscapes also were subjected to assault. Concrete eyesores rose up in complete disregard for the volumes and stratified materials developed down the years in keeping with their natural surroundings and age-old building traditions. A swathe of sterile, shortsighted archetypes spread across the Alps, from the Maritime Alps in the west to the eastern Giulie region, exclusively in the name of business and building. Recently - perhaps because the low lands have been exploited to breaking point - there has been renewed interest in the mountains and what they can teach us. The focus is once again on what the albeit few, but outstanding architects, like Carlo Mollino and Edoardo Gellner, have handed down to us. We are rediscovering an environment, which however familiar - all northern Italians are very much aware they are surrounded by a semicircle of mountains - remains what it has always been: a challenge. For mountains are difficult places, requiring courage, inventiveness and real know-how as to the assembly of materials and the optimization of form. The Milan firm Peter Pichler Architecture, in partnership with architect Pavol Mikolajcak, provides a fine example of how contemporary architecture can fit into a mountain environment intelligently and sensitively but without forgoing the ambition to build something arresting and compelling. Standing at an altitude of 2,096 m, the recently completed Oberholz Mountain Hut at Obereggen in Italy’s South Tyrolean (Alto Adige) Dolomites - a Unesco World Heritage landscape - was built from sustainable materials. Started with a competition in 2015 and opened for the 2016/17 skiing season, it combines a new take on a hospitality facility with contemporary tourist requirements. The hut has a dual personality: a concrete volume set partly underground in the dolomite rock and housing various service functions; and a wooden construction anchored to the concrete structure below. It is here that the architects show their prowess with archetypes, designing a unique, arresting piece of architecture. The plan of the above-grade timber volume spreads out like a three-fingered hand, the tip of each finger projecting towards one of the major summits in the region: the Mendel, the Black Horn and the White Horn. Each fingertip has a transparent crystal glass front, its shape an almost playful reference to the naïf pitched roof and gable archetype. The impression from the outside is of a simple hut structure clad in juxtaposed larch slats splaying out towards the mountains like three closely set telescopes - three unobtrusive little constructions with sweeping views over the Latemar mountain chain. It is inside that the miracle becomes apparent. You find yourself standing in a magnificent Gothic cathedral, the long line of imposing red spruce trusses emphasizing the building’s sinuous geometry. Three curving naves are generated by the conventional pitched roof shapes. The tapering structural ribs dissolve into the walls, giving the impression of a single volume, an impression reinforced by the varying fir-paneled widths separating the truss elements. Functionally, the main environments - restaurant, small lounge, bar and kitchens - are on the ground level. A second small bar to the side facing the valley connects to a large open-air panoramic terrace, used both summer and winter. As mentioned, the semi-basement area is occupied by restrooms, storage and staff quarters, the unconcealed reinforced concrete frame dialoguing to great effect with the warm wood enveloping the hut interiors. The facility can be directly reached from the chair lift a few meters away, either by means of a lift that takes visitors directly into the building, or on foot along the road leading to the piste running past the hut and right up to the terrace that also serves as the main entrance.