The idea of the Alps as a vacation spot would have seemed strange to most Europeans before the 18th century. In their minds, mountains were sublime, which was very different than beautiful. William Wordsworth, having made his way through a mountain pass, could write about the Alpine landmarks he saw as “Characters of the great Apocalypse/ The types and symbols of Eternity.” Clearly, travellers have lightened up since then.
Today, the mountaintop is as desirable and – most importantly – as accessible a destination as the beach or the countryside. Yet it still carries a different sort of thrill, especially in winter. The Alps or the Rockies or the Andes can be rough places when it snows, often inhospitable and even deadly. The retreat to the fireside, looking out at the snow, is a victory over nature.
That tension – between danger and comfort, awesomeness and accessibility – is driving some compelling pieces of contemporary architecture. For Canadian-born Todd Saunders, for instance, it was the germ of a striking lookout point he designed with Norwegian architect Tommie Wilhelmsen for Norway’s highways department. The former partners won a competition to update a rest stop overlooking the village of Aurland and a large fjord on the country’s west coast, but the architects gave this prosaic idea a twist. “We tried to challenge the romantic version of nature,” explains Saunders, who grew up in Newfoundland and is now based in Bergen, the picturesque Norwegian port. “Instead of resting in it, we wanted you to get right into it.”
When you arrive at the site, your car or bus stops at a distance from the edge of a high cliff. You can see the tall, sharp-cut peaks of the Breheimen mountains and the narrow fjord far below. Then you walk toward the edge and onto a long pine bridge that stretches out 30 metres into the air … and stops. Only a transparent Plexiglas railing holds you back from the abyss. “You are 360 degrees surrounded by nature,” Saunders explains. “You can really feel the steepness of the mountains. You don’t see the edge; it gives you a feeling of looking to eternity.”
Like many structures routed in scenic landscapes, the lookout is intended to be experienced both from within and from afar. The deck of the bridge is shaped like a hook, which curves back down and diagonally toward the ground, where it’s secured on a foundation of solid concrete. It is, Saunders adds, “a clean, clear line in the landscape” – a line, in other words, that shows exactly where people have made their mark.
With Villa Vals, a vacation villa in Switzerland, the architects who designed it, Dutch-based Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH and Christian Müller of CMA, took the opposite approach: Their building is designed to hide as much as possible within the landscape, which is both rugged and pastoral. Although it’s 1,250 metres up in the Swiss Alps, the village of Vals is an old farming community located deep in a mountain valley at the site of a spring.
A complex, 1,700-square-foot house, the two-storey Villa is literally dug into the ground. Visitors enter it through a sort of secret passageway, walking first into an old livestock barn (built in the traditional local style, with a combination of stone and timber) and then into the basement and through a tunnel into the villa itself. The ultra-contemporary interior, lined with furniture and installations by contemporary Dutch designers such as Hella Jongerius, features raw concrete walls and strong black accents that play off the wildly figurative, whimsical furnishings, including a Marcel Wanders Knotted Chair and plenty of boldly coloured Jongerius pendant lights.
The house’s one outdoor face – a rounded surface cut into a concave gap in the hill – is clad with local quartzite stone and studded with black-framed windows; it overlooks a broad, enclosed patio and then a long view down the mountain. To the outside observer, it looks as though one of the area’s traditional buildings has been melted and shoved into the earth. All of this lets it get around incredibly restrictive local laws and preserve the character of the village, which has been shaped for centuries by the mountain climate and its rocky terrain.
The house (www.villavals.ch) is rented out to visitors who are drawn by the area’s unlikely design pedigree. The village of Vals put itself on the world design map in the 1990s, when it hired acclaimed Swiss architect Peter Zumthor – who has spent almost his entire life and career in the region – to redesign its thermal baths and hotel. Hotel Therme Vals (www.therme-vals.ch/en) is now a landmark, the spa’s remarkable stone interior evoking a mysterious modern cave – the mountains chopped up and sculpted into a setting that is both beautiful and soothing.
On the other side of the world, engagement with the landscape, rather than escape from it, was the aim of Chilean architects Max Núñez and Nicolás del Rio, who co-designed a private glass-walled villa overlooking Lake Inca, north of Santiago. Known as Chalet C7, the structure sits almost 3,000 metres up into the Andes, where the mountains are steep and rocky and the climate is especially inhospitable (snowdrifts can reach six metres in winter and the winds are typically harsh).
Núñez and del Rio designed Chalet C7 in two distinct parts. Outside, a concrete-and-stone foundation with just a few windows sits tight to the steep, rocky slope; on top of it is a glass-and-steel box with a butterfly roof and weathering-steel skin along the sides. Inside, an exposed bone structure of steel girders supports the tremendous loads of snow that land here in winter, while a sofa allows occupants to look out across the lake to an incredible vista dominated by the Tres Hermanos (Three Brothers) mountain peaks.
The main exit door, however, is the other way, up a staircase away from the lake, because that way lies a sizable hotel. Chalet C7 is a neighbour of the Ski Portillo resort, reachable by car or helicopter from Santiago. After a day of heli-skiing and perhaps drinks at the hotel, Chalet C7 provides its owners with a place to retreat from most of civilization and come face to face with the mass of the mountains. So, in its own way, it is an escape as well.
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