There’s nothing like a bit of Alpine life (the big skies, the fresh air, the aroma from various conifers and brisk walks) to bring out the inner urban planner in all of us. From the moment I touch down in Switzerland (my usual port of entry is Zürich), I’m counting the minutes till I board the little red mountain train from Chur and chug up to St Moritz.
Aside from all the holiday trimmings and traditions that go with the journey at this time of year, there’s also the delight of moving from the macro to the micro that makes the trip so enjoyable. As the sprawl of London fades and Zürich draws nearer, the scale gradually reduces and everything becomes more human, more intimate and, this being Switzerland, more cosy.
Zürich’s airport is the perfect size for an international aviation hub. The distance from airport to main station is just as it should be. The connection from the mainline train to mountain train is a stroll across the platform. And so it goes, everything in precise measure, all the way to the front door of my building in St Moritz.
As the train winds its way past little villages, lone chalets and tiny farms, I try to imagine what goes on behind the heavy woven curtains (normally in dense tones of orange, brown and cream) in these little outcroppings of civilisation. As I get the sense that many young Swissies flee for the attractions of bigger urban life as soon as they can, I conjure up images of well-weathered elderly couples reading, cooking and doing crafts together.
All a bit of a cliché, perhaps, but it’s hard to contemplate anything more energetic or untoward happening beyond the walls of these little happy huts.
As the train pulls into St Moritz and hotel staff hustle around greeting guests and collecting luggage, I can think of no better setting for first impressions – particularly if the train is arriving at a peak time. The sense of industry, the gentle hustle, the mix of locals and international clientele and the lovely bite of cold air all complement the blend of traditional architecture that has managed to work with various additions and new bits of technology.
For sure, there are other Alpine towns that are more beautiful and charming than St Moritz but I like the mix of higher and lower elevations (Dorf and Bad respectively), the rather brutal but oh so necessary supermarket that cantilevers off a slope, the massive parking garage (one of the most attractive and expensive ever built 1,000 metres above sea level) that acts as a transportation anchor connecting train station with the town and lake, the dull modernist apartment blocks that sit on the valley floor and the mishmash of architectural styles that keep it from all looking too cute or quaint.
During morning runs around the lake or walks up to the village, I often think about what I’d change, what I’d keep and what I’d demolish if I was given the keys to the city or at least a desk in the planning office.
Does the city really need to convert more hotels into apartment buildings? Particularly when they’ll only stand empty for 11 months of the year? In fact, could more be done to revitalise smaller hotels and make them more attractive all year round? Could the somewhat unloved galleria in the heart of town be given a new mission in life?
I pass the cream and burgundy structure several times a day when I’m staying up in the mountains and always try to figure out what could be done with a structure that’s too complicated to pull down, as it houses both business and apartments, but too much of an eyesore to leave it as is. Would I reclad it? Paint it? Or is the problem more complex?
As the region isn’t short on farms and wonderful producers of all kinds of foodstuffs, I often think it should be transformed into the most wonderful food hall in the Alps – complete with tiny restaurants and little stalls so even the most small-scale operators could have a shot at being in the heart of one of Europe’s most iconic mountain resorts. Surely a year-round attraction is just what the region needs as it struggles to attract guests outside of the summer and winter seasons.
As I ease into the holiday and my day job drifts ever so slightly into the background (not too far away, however, as I’ll be doing radio broadcasts from the centre of St Moritz for most of the Christmas break, so please drop by and say hello), I will have reshaped the form of this little Alpine retreat countless times – mentally moving buildings around as if the whole village was a German toy train set in 1:1 scale.
By the time I pack up and head down the slopes everything will have been perfectly reordered – only to be lovingly deconstructed the next time the little train pulls into the station.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine