Architecture: mountain house design reaches a new pinnacle

Homes are now being built that exploit the topography, insinuate themselves into a landscape and feed off it
Cadaval & Solà-Morales’ house in the Spanish Pyrenees

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“Above the vegetation line,” wrote Bruno Taut, “the rock is hewn and smoothed into manifold crystalline shapes . . . The snowy summits in the distance are surmounted with glass-arch architecture. In the foreground pyramids of crystal needles. Across the abyss and latticework glass bridge.”

Taut’s extraordinary 1919 illustrated text, Alpine Architecture: A Utopia, imagined a peaceful paradise of glass cities built among the peaks of mountains. Following the mud and blood of the battlefields of the first world war, it was a paean to purity and transparency, a reimagining of the gothic cathedrals in crystal rather than stone.

Importantly, it was also a plea for architects to adapt and adopt new building technologies to create cities of light. Despite the fact that his Alpine crystal cities were never actually built, Taut’s work strongly influenced the development of the sculptural architecture of expressionism which exploded in Germany between the wars and subsequently the development of modernism, with its glass facades, picture windows and fluid spaces.

Nowadays, most mountain dwellings look pretty much the way they did a century before Taut wrote those words. Log cabins and Alpine pastiche seem to rule the slopes. Of course, there are a few exceptions: the ski resorts built in determinedly modernist France in the 1960s and 1970s, for example – most notably Marcel Breuer’s wonderfully sculptural concrete experiment Flaine and Charlotte Perriand’s Les Arcs. Still, not many people go to the mountains for the architecture.

But, slowly, things are beginning to look up. Around the world a number of exquisite mountain houses have been built in recent years. Last month, the beautiful Gota Dam house outside Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by London-based architect Christina Seilern, won the international award from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Admittedly it is built on more of a rock than a mountain but the way the house grows from the outcrop gives clues as to how houses can exploit the topography, insinuate themselves into a landscape and feed off it (just as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater did in the 1930s), rather than work against it as so many seem to try to do.

The most impressive mountain architecture of recent years is undoubtedly to be found in Switzerland. The country’s particular combination of a long, unbroken history of modernist architecture, a tradition of mountain dwelling, peace, taste and, of course, wealth, have resulted in a number of stunning Alpine buildings.

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is at the forefront of these buildings. His Hotel Therme at Vals has become arguably the most emulated space in contemporary design. Carved into the mountainside and seemingly extruded from the rock, it is a building which speaks of the density of material and the kind of elemental security which comes from dwelling in the rock, an archetypal sense of the cave as refuge. Its spaces are ascetic yet rich, their luxury emanating from the density of the material and the quality of light. This kind of elementality for which Zumthor has become famous represents a kind of monkish dedication to pure architecture. Its influence has been strong: architects, designers and clients are now willing to accept a certain asceticism and plainness that might have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. This partly derives from a combination of vernacular techniques, a taste for the minimal and an appreciation of the view and the light which means that the architecture can appear to do less to allow the focus to be on the scenery rather than the interior.

Zumthor also built two small houses in the hamlet of Leis, near the baths in Vals, which impeccably combine the local timber style with the plainness of his own aesthetic. Originally conceived for his wife (who apparently always wanted to live in a timber house), one is now available as a holiday rental. The interior is simple and its architectural expression is focused on the view of the mountains beyond through large, apparently frameless windows. Inside the rooms are encased in the timber of the structure, and it is the exquisitely executed timber joints which give articulation to the surfaces. It is easy to see here that Zumthor’s background was in the cabinet-making workshops of his father. Indeed, the house has the feel of a beautifully crafted piece of furniture.

That same sense of an architecture deferring to the landscape defines another Swiss Alpine building: Bearth & Deplazes’ intriguing private house in Sevgein. This is a timber-framed house (built, apparently, in under a week) expressed more as a slender tower than the traditional blocky building. Its interiors are self-effacing to the point of disappearance and it is aimed squarely at the mountains. The view in the main living room appears almost as a giant mural, a screen of glass bowing to the sublime landscape.

Nearby, architect Gion A Caminada has also designed a number of houses which make the most of mountain living. Blending conservation of traditional timber buildings with striking yet respectful modern structures, Caminada’s houses share the roots of Zumthor’s work in their deceptive simplicity and the cosy, timber-lined rooms which resemble cabinets as much as cabins.

Very different indeed is a collaboration between Christian Müller Architects and Dutch practice SeARCH. This largely subterranean house, also in Vals (which is oddly emerging as one of the world centres of architecture) is carved into the landscape. It features an oval cut into the mountainside with a curving stone façade and an elliptical terrace. The sparse, intimate and rather beautiful interiors are of concrete and timber and are all oriented towards the striking Alpine view, framed by the oval opening.

Marte.Marte Architects’ new cabin on the mountainside in Laterns, Austria, stands like a contemporary sculpture, a big hunk of roughcast concrete. Its abstraction is enhanced by a cut-out giving it a kind of waist which seems structurally surprising, defying gravity. The rooms are small (despite its rather monumental form, this really is a cabin rather than a house), yet the presence of the terrace created by the cut-out imparts a sense of grandeur, a wallowing in the panoramic view.

Finally, Lawrence Savioz’s wonderful renovation of a stone farmhouse in Chamoson illustrates quite how well historic Alpine buildings can be converted into contemporary dwellings, with a little invention.

Marte.Marte Architects’ cabin in Laterns, Austria

So far I’ve concentrated on Switzerland (and the Alps) because the depth of quality and variety there is unparalleled. Elsewhere, from Aspen to Asia, there is plenty of mountain architecture but much of it is pastiche and surprisingly unsophisticated. Mountain homes tend to be the preserve either of locals (who might have little interest in contemporary design) or second homes for the wealthy, providing only a few recent houses of real interest.

Among these is Cadaval & Solà-Morales’ house in the Spanish Pyrenees. Its barnlike length and stone base is rooted in the local agricultural tradition, while the sharp peak of the gable end (opened into a huge glass window) echoes the jagged form of the mountains. Perched above the village, its great slate roof situates it exquisitely in its context – here is a building which looks entirely at home in its setting.

G2 Estudio’s Ribbon House in the Patagonian mountains of Argentina is less concerned with its setting or any attempt at a vernacular, creating instead a complex, sculptural form in which the structure, like the mountains themselves, exhibits a diagonal, canted form, with the internal columns and openings creating an intriguing web of angles.

Chilean architects dRN’s unusual house in the Chilean Andes obviously takes its inspiration from Swiss architect Mario Botta’s dramatic 1971 house in Riva San Vitale, Ticino (Switzerland), with its theatrically engineered bridge and boxy dwelling. But it is a fine house with some truly striking spaces.

Room 11’s Little Big House, on the slopes of Mount Wellington, near Hobart in Australia, meanwhile, is as simple a timber box as could be wished for, yet one which contains incredibly elegant and considered spaces. Its polycarbonate spandrels also allow it to glow in the night like a paper lantern.

Despite Bruno Taut’s visions, modern architecture has yet to colonise the mountain tops. Instead, it has remained a landscape of rock, snow and ice – and probably all the more attractive for it. Yet architects can work with that environment and revel in its ups and downs to create homes which are open to the topography, which bring mountains into the interior and which can be imbued with a sense of the power and permanence of where they are.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent

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