High up in the Alps of the South Tyrol in northern Italy, there is a remarkable architectural project: a set of six museums dedicated to mountain culture. Four are in renovated historic buildings, one is purpose-built and the last is under construction. This has been designed by Zaha Hadid Associates and is set to become one of the most distinctive new buildings in the Alps. Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer behind the museums, is thrilled by what Hadid has done. “She has created a work of art.”
For Messner, a longtime collector of books and memorabilia, the museums are a legacy project, a way of both sharing his passion for climbing and mountain life and boosting the economy of the region. In his earlier career he climbed some of the world’s biggest mountains so the scale of this venture comes as no surprise.
Yet his first foray into museums was rather different. The Museum of Alpine Curiosities opened in 1993 in a small hut near to Mount Ortles. A former climbers’ refuge, known to locals as “the fleapit”, it is a typical piece of vernacular architecture, the kind of stone hut that you see all over the Alps.
Then, in the early 1980s, Messner bought a derelict fortress, Castel Juval, dating to the late 13th century and located in the Vinschgau valley, aiming to create a family home. But after years spent renovating the castle he realised that he only stayed there in the summer so decided to turn it into a museum for the remainder of the year. Adapting a large historic building was not so easy.
“Museums need toilets, fire escapes and ticket booths,” says Messner. “The problem was that I had already converted Juval into a private residence, so it was hard to remake it as a public space.”
In spite of the problems, the success of Juval as a tourist attraction convinced Messner that he could gradually expand his museum project. Over the next two decades he moved into two more historic buildings – a first world war fort at Monte Rite, and Castel Bruneck close to the Austrian border. Ownership of the buildings remained with local government while Messner financed and ran the museum operation as a private venture.
His principal focus, though, was an ambitious scheme to renovate one of the most famous buildings in South Tyrol: Castel Sigmundskron, a huge rambling complex of fortifications and soaring towers with walls five metres thick. This, he decided, would be the central museum, with the others as satellites around it. Each would have its own particular theme ranging from religion and mountain mythology at Castel Juval to the history of the Dolomites at Monte Rite. Sigmundskron would be the base camp, introducing visitors to the history of mountaineering and hosting temporary exhibitions.
It took several years and a lot of negotiations with the regional government before work began. Though he’s proud that all his museums run without public funding, the conversion of Sigmundskron and the other buildings cost an estimated €30m, which was split between Messner and the province of South Tyrol. At the time, there was some opposition to spending such a large amount of public money, but Messner was a shrewd and tenacious campaigner, and as South Tyrol’s former MEP and by far its most famous son, had the contacts and the charisma to get his way eventually.
To help him achieve his architectural vision for Sigmundskron, Messner turned to Werner Tscholl, an architect from Bolzano. “The main problem for me,” says Tscholl, “was the sheer scale of the castle and my desire to minimise the impact on this ancient building.”
The challenge with Sigmundskron and all the castles and forts was to turn buildings designed to keep invaders out into museums that would pull in tourists, while complying with stringent rules about what could and could not be done to historic property.
“I didn’t actually rebuild anything,” he says, “or change the architecture of the castle. All the new elements – spiral staircases inside the towers, walkways along the castle walls, the floors and ceilings of the gallery spaces – were designed to be removable. We made them from black steel, everything was screwed in, nothing welded, so that at some point in the future it can all be removed. We deliberately left the metal untreated, so the exterior elements would rust and blend into the castle walls.”
Work finished in 2006. “Just before it opened,” says Tscholl, “someone asked me, ‘When are you going to start?’ I took it as a compliment. Good architecture is by its nature adaptable for different purposes. These castles were built for war, but a thousand years later they work as museums.”
In the three years that it took for Tscholl to finish the “mother” museum, Messner commissioned another satellite, near the Ortles glacier. It was his first purpose-built structure, located on land that he owned and its style was entirely different. “For me this landscape is holy. I didn’t want a single cubic metre above ground,” says Messner. A local architect, Arnold Gapp, designed a subterranean chamber that was excavated into a low hill.
Apart from a discreet entrance, the only element visible on the outside is a narrow strip of glass cut into the hillside above. “The museum at Ortles is dedicated to the world of ice so we wanted visitors to feel like they were inside a glacier,” says Messner. “The window at the top is like a crevasse, a break in the ice that allows the light to come in.”
For the sixth and final mountain museum, currently under construction at Plan de Corones, Hadid has taken an even bolder approach, creating a building that is both within and without the mountainside. Her company already has a record for innovative Alpine architecture with four futuristic train stations in nearby Innsbruck as well as the soaring Bergisel ski jump.
The latest venture has been commissioned and financed by Skirama, the company that owns the ski infrastructure in Plan de Corones; as with the other museums Messner will be in charge of all the day-to-day operations.
“We have always enjoyed the challenge of working in extreme environments,” says Patrik Schumacher, Hadid’s principle collaborator on the new building. “Opportunities like this don’t come up very often.”
In Hadid and Schumacher’s design, most of the museum space is underground but the layout is much more sophisticated than at Ortles. After passing through a raw concrete entrance, a long curved walkway takes visitors into the heart of the museum. There’s no attempt to follow the traditional rules of symmetry and proportion. At the bottom there are three large balconies, offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Messner wholeheartedly approves, though he admits that he was worried initially about displaying artwork and artefacts on such irregular surfaces. “I like the fact that it is so hidden, that it doesn’t destroy the landscape but works with it,” says Messner.
Schumacher is equally proud of what they have done. “It is obvious how castles dominate the landscape around them,” he says. “We wanted to have the same impact but to stake our claim in a different way, with the mystery and intrigue of the outside, the drama of the interior and then the sheer thrill of walking out on to those balconies with their amazing views.”
There’s a long tradition of modernist architecture in extreme locations. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, Villa Malaparte on the eastern tip of Capri, Richard Neutra’s dramatic Kaufmann House in Palm Springs are today revered as 20th-century classics. “There’s something exciting about working on slopes, designing buildings with cantilevered elements. Modernism has always loved the horizontal,” says Schumacher.
It is never easy though to work in mountainous areas. Construction costs are high, transport is difficult and the unpredictability of the weather can wreak havoc with schedules. This summer was one of the wettest in memory, with flooding and disruption all over northern Italy. The sixth museum was due to open this year to mark Messner’s 70th birthday, but though well under way current estimates are that it will not open until summer 2015.
For the industrious Messner, the delays are frustrating but a lifetime spent living and climbing in the world’s mountains has taught him patience. “Every week someone rings me up wanting to open a new Messner museum, but I’m not interested. This is my last one and I want to finish it, to give visitors somewhere that is quiet, tranquil, not aggressive, something that will promote calm and reflection.” Harking back to the 18th century, he quotes William Blake, the Romantic poet: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”
Photographs: Werner Tscholl; Zaha Hadid Architects; MMM; Getty Images