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Contemporary architecture tendencies in the Grisons / Graubünden

«You see, even if there are enormous difficulties, in any case the conscious endeavour to take care of the image of the landscape, and if possible to enliven and strengthen it, is a main goal of the work.».Benedikt Hartmann, 1914 (on the RhB railway line Chur - Arosa) [1]

The relation between landscape and architecture plays an important role in mountain areas. On one hand the topography allows a direct view to the landscape and on the other hand rough mountain weather conditions demand compact and economical building solutions. About hundred years ago, during industrialisation of this landscape with hydroelectric power plants and the RhB railway lines an important discussion was raised about how such buildings and infrastructures should be integrated in the landscape. The «Bündner Heritage Society» was a driving force in the integration of these buildings in the landscape. The result can be seen today by such an application such as the Albula and Bernina railway line between Thusis and Tirano, which hope to be on the UNESCO World Heritage List in summer 2008. With local architects as Peter Zumthor, Andrea Deplazes, Valentin Bearth, Valerio Olgiati, Hans-Jörg Ruch, or the structural engineer Jürg Conzett today the region has powerful local operating architectural and engineering offices with their own specific position.

Tourism as a future key factor

Tourism could be a growth industry in the Grisons. Unfortunately, the number of beds and people staying overnight is constantly shrinking. In the winter season 1980/81 a total of 14'711'640 persons stayed overnight. In the winter 2002/03 there were only 11'939'546 tourists. [2] Today, Alpine tourism is in direct competition with low cost flights to cheaper holiday destinations worldwide. To improve the situation, new strategies have been developed: locality concentration, quality, and regional diversity.

One element in the selling-oriented strategy of Graubünden Ferien - the marketing organisation for tourism in the Grisons - is a concentration of advertising for tourist destinations in five main regions: Flims-Laax, Arosa-Lenzerheide, Davos-Klosters, Scuol-Samnaun and St. Moritz/Engadine. [3] The political decision of focusing and concentration follows a larger tendency of cutting government subsidy in economically less powerful regions, especially farming. Economically powerful areas are attracting international investors for building large-scale tourism infrastructure and hotels. Architects respond in their work to both tendencies with unique solutions.

Big is Powerful

Large-scale infrastructure projects are already under way to either provide better access to the most important valleys, or are located in the five main tourist regions. For several years, the Grisons government has invested in large new infrastructure projects such as the Vereina railway tunnel (opened 1999). The tunnel connects the Lower Engadine valley closer to the main centres of Switzerland; and journey times have been cut by more than an hour. Today the Porta Alpina railway station in Sedrun is the most important infrastructure project in progress. Porta Alpina is a railway station in the middle of the Gotthard base tunnel which connects Zurich and Milan. Through an elevator, Sedrun, high above on the mountainside, is directly linked with the railway line in the tunnel. The elevator to the surface was originally built as a working shaft for the tunnel construction and later as an emergency exit. A local initiative convinced local authorities, cantonal, and state governments to transform it into a proper railway station. The Porta Alpina will bring the Surselva region, at present remote and peripheral, closer to the major economic centres of Grisons through public transport. After the opening in 2017, new visitors, day trippers, and residents will increase tourist development in the valley. Due to the direct railway line between Chur and Zermatt, Porta Alpina will have an impact on the whole of Grisons. [4]

Parallel to the Porta Alpina project, private investors are working in the main tourist centres, building large international hotel complexes, holiday apartments, and transforming existing hotel structures into secondary homes. International clients should be attracted to such spaces. Often international architects are employed, like Ben van Berkel for the Chesa Castlatsch and the renovation of the hotel Castell in Zuoz (2000-04) or Lord Norman Foster for the Murezzan hotel and apartment project in St. Moritz (2003-06).

In Davos, Herzog and de Meuron are planning a development (2005-) to revitalise what was once one of the most exclusive tuberculosis sanatorium Schatzalp (1899). The former sanatorium is situated on a perfect spot above Davos, connected solely by a private cable car to the town, and is used today as a hotel. To finance the necessary renovation, the architects Herzog and de Meuron are planning a new hotel and apartment tower beside the old sanatorium. By using a tower the architects avoid building a sprawl of new houses around the main building, and they create a new landmark. Because it excludes the car, and contains secondary housing in the tower, the project got all necessary legal permissions incredibly fast, in two democratic votes.

Economy as a driving force

In 2005 the ETH Studio Basel formed by the architects Roger Diener, Jaques Herzog, Marcel Meili, Pierre de Meuron, and the sociologist Christian Schmid published their research on the urban situation of contemporary Switzerland. [5] They proclaimed that Switzerland is completely urbanised. Even peripheral villages have a contemporary infrastructure and can be reached by public transport. "Metropolitan regions" such as Zurich or Basel are economically powerful, prosperous, and are developing across national borders. In the Alpine region they see many difficulties. The Calanca or the Safien valleys, for example, have, over many generations, lost inhabitants and economic opportunities. It is no longer farming, but subsidy of urban areas that finance the infrastructure that makes Alpine living possible. These researchers argued that the state should focus economically on the more urbanised zones and cut investment in the shrinking "quiet zones" and change them into "alpine fallow lands". These cultivated lands ought to be given up and are lost for living and working. Exceptions are the "alpine resorts", areas where tourism in the Alpine regions is established, which are economically healthy and should still be supported. The project of the hotel tower in Davos by Herzog and de Meuron can be seen as a direct translation for an "alpine resort" of the urban theories promoted by the ETH Studio Basel.

Research on global economy, for example by the sociologist Saskia Sassen, has proven the interconnected nature of modern trade. Peripheral regions do not participate in these economic relations. [6] For regions like the Alps, it is economically impossible to participate in the global network. For example territory and production costs are too high to make alpine farming a globally competitive industry. One alternative possibility is to produce specialities for the metropolitan centres.

Small is beautiful

The Alps are one of the largest tourist regions worldwide. They host around 11% of World tourism. But about 80% of the surface in the Alps is not directly used by tourism. Other economic factors such as farming are building up an existential fundament for the often high up situated tourist areas. [7] It is not only large and cost intensive projects, often planed by offices outside the Grisons, that can change a region. Small, but precise interventions can transform an economically difficult situation into an attractive solution. In the special case of Vrin, the architect Gion A. Caminada developed particular methods and answers in discussions with local people to support and improve existing living conditions. For him, social, economical and aesthetic issues must be considered much more carefully. [8] In 1979 "Pro Vrin" was founded "to ensure and advance the living and the commercial circumstances and to conserve the architectonic substance" of Vrin. It was decided to discuss and develop a specific economic model together with the people of Vrin. At the beginning, the major concern was to improve the agricultural production capacity of each farm by improving the efficiency of the agricultural area. To support these aims, a completely new building law that respected and strengthened the existing architectural qualities of the Vrin region was established.

In order to improve agricultural capacity, new, large, and more efficient barn buildings were required. Caminada designed these buildings as an interpretation of the traditional wooden construction technique called "Strickbau". By using local building materials and working methods, which could be carried out by local carpenters, he was able to include much local labour in his projects, which in turn supported the economy of Vrin. In addition, his houses solve contemporary needs and are self-evident interpretations of traditional buildings.

Theoretically, Caminada sees the peripheral situation as one which needs to be supported. But the economist and agronomist Peter Rieder, who was president of "Pro Vrin " still questions whether the formulated economical concept for Vrin will be enough in the long run. [9]

Specific concepts for special places

The qualities of existing historical contexts that lie idle and in their inaccessible nature can be developed with precise concepts and interventions into the basis for new forms of tourism. The small beautiful village of Vnà is in economic danger. This perfect sunny spot above the Lower Engadine Valley lives mainly from farming; but this is becoming more and more difficult. Several houses are for sale, and others have been transformed into secondary homes. A group of local people around the "Foundaziun Vnà" [10] have started a project to revitalize the town. The central building Piz Tschütta will be transformed into a hotel with a restaurant, store and space for cultural activities, and the attached barn will be converted into a dwelling house (2003-07). Since the hotel has only space for five rooms, additional spaces may be rented in private houses. In collaboration with the "Foundaziun Vnà", the whole village will be transformed into a decentralised hotel. The artist Christof Rösch and the architect Rolf Furrer are leading, the radical but very sensitive transformation of the village.

Even before the Roman period, the Viamala valley was used as a passage from northern to southern Europe. It hosts a rich cultural heritage in the fabulous medieval church in Zillis (around 1200), and the castle Hohen Räzien above Thusis. Because of difficult ground conditions, the spectacular pass is dangerous even today, and the different sites are no longer connected with paths, or are partly abandoned. Only the most spectacular part of the Rhine gorge is accessible for visitors. A private initiative, the association Kulturraum Viamala [11], was formed in 1992 to reopen the old trading paths.

The structural engineer Jürg Conzett has employed a precise understanding of the site to build several bridges to cross difficult parts of the valley. The elegant wooden footbridge Traversina I (1996) was destroyed by a rockfall in 1999. The first bridge was replaced by the extraordinary wooden suspension bridge Traversina II (2005), which was designed as a staircase to reduce the costs of a larger span on a safer site, where the gorge was wider. [12] For the elegant prestressed bridge Pùnt da Saransuns (1999), across the Rhine Jürg Conzett chose a stress-ribbon system with natural Andeer Granite. [13] The bridges have created a completely new tourism in the Viamala. Tourists do not only visit cultural monuments in the Viamala, but also the spectacular structural engineering infrastructure. With the installation of an eco-museum an entire valley was brought back to life.

Construction, landscape, space and atmosphere

In mountain areas, architects and structural engineers have to solve far more demanding problems than in other regions since they have to deal with specific mountain topography and climate conditions. Construction is of major importance. Buildings in mountains have a direct visual connection with the landscape. The relation to contextual cues: visual, morphological and typological is fundamental for new buildings.

Radical interventions into existing architectural situations and subjective interpretations of the "genius loci" of a place are special qualities in the work of Peter Zumthor. His poetic transformations bear a direct relationship with the spatial conditions of a site, 14 the demands of a client and a sensual interpretation of the atmosphere of different spaces in a building. But Peter Zumthor does not invent solutions. He physically constructs a building out of different pieces, but also makes a mental construction out of images and his personal memories of space. An important source of knowledge for his work was his employment in Chur by the cantonal department for preservation of monuments and historic buildings from 1969 till 1979. He was a driving force for the inventory researches on the urban context of Vrin, [15] Vicosoprano [16] and Castasegna. [17] In buildings like the Sogn Benedetg chapel in Sumvitg (1988), the Thermal Baths in Vals (1994-96) or his new atelier in Haldenstein (2004), a precise understanding of the cultural background and the situation were important factors in the design process.

Younger architects such as Andrea Deplazes, Valentin Bearth, Valerio Olgiati, Conradin Clavuot or Andreas Hagmann who studied together at the ETH in Zurich with Miroslav Sik became known as "analogous architects". Many of these students have worked in the studio of Peter Zumthor. Sik defined "analogous architecture" as a method to show the "hidden poetry of the world ". It is a reflection upon the "poetical-realistic representation of the world" [18] The students worked with "fractions of memory ", their "roots" and personal experiences to develop design projects in direct relation to their sites. By winning public architecture competitions, mostly for school buildings as the University of Applied Science HTW in Chur by Jüngling and Hagmann (1993), the school in St. Peter by Conradin Clavuot (1998) or the gymnasium in Tschlin by Bearth and Deplazes (1993), a strong architecture culture was formed. The architects have formulated independent standpoints but basic assumptions in site and construction still exist.

Hans-Jörg Ruch works in St. Moritz. His remarkable rebuilding of existing traditional farming houses in houses for living as the Chesa Andrea or the exceptional transformation of the Chesa Madalena (2002) to an art gallery for Ruedi Tschudi, are sensible ways of making use of existing architecture substance. His building transformations make use of the original building substance for a contemporary architecture solution. In the Chesa Madalena he dissects an old defending tower from 1305. The visitor walks in serpentine around the tower to arrive on the top floor of the building. The past of the house is always present.

The two architecture faculties in the Grisons the Chur Institute of Architecture (Master) and the University of Applied Sciences HTW (Bachelor) are both actively participating in the architecture discussions of the region. With a fundamental research approach the Chur Institute of Architecture formulated new possible strategies for future development of Sedrun after the opening of Porta Alpina. The HTW currently researches for a new building regulation for the well-kept vine village Fläsch close to Chur. With the current building law it would be forbidden to build the houses as self-evident in the urban context of the existing volumes of living houses and barns. To be able to preserve the existing architectural quality of the urban structure of the town at least the regulations have to support high-quality architecture. Both faculties participate in the urban and economical context of the region with their research.

The youngest generation

The youngest generation such as Corinna Menn, Marisa Feuerstein or Annabelle Breitenbach have started to build larger constructions. Their architecture is very much related with the place and the influences of the site. Their building work is more expressive and scenic. Corinna Menn studied as many of the youngest generation with Hans Kollhoff at the ETH in Zurich, where the expression of tectonic facades was experimented with. The viewing platform for the Ruinaulta valley above the Rhine at Conn close to Flims (2006) is an expressionist work, with a scenic architecture gesture towards the valley. The task was to build a viewing platform to open up the spectacular scenery to visitors. A serpentine path leads from a nearby restaurant to the platform and opens up a view from the platform, which flies like a bird over the valley. The platform itself is not touching the valley but lifts the visitor into the gorge.

Marisa Feuerstein, Men Clalüna, Annabelle Breitenbach and Jon Armon Strimer who won the competition for a youth hostel in Scuol (2006-07) are building a compact and strict cubic volume with a wooden but very contemporary interior architecture. The compact block the architects designed is a direct response to the site at the edge of the village, close to the station, and surrounded by streets and railway tracks. The facade is a playful expression of the inner structure of the building with 44 hotel rooms where the smaller windows are, and large windows where the common rooms are located.

Urban solutions in a complex cultural context

The success of the spa by Peter Zumthor in Vals is difficult to repeat. Of course, it has something to do with the quality of the architecture. The story of Vals is not just that of the success of the thermal baths. It has much to do with the complex relations the baths have with the urban surroundings, to the subsequent developments, to the wider infrastructure, and to possible tourist activities such as skiing, walking, and sledging. Without these additional values and concepts, directly related to site and landscape, the baths would not be interesting enough to remain a week.

The alpine regions are in an important process of transformation. The solution promoted by the ETH Studio Basel, with a division of "alpine resorts " and "fallow lands", is a danger for several valleys in the process of being depopulated as much as some parts of the Italian Alps. For smaller towns and valleys it is important to have a chance to be able to participate in the necessary transformation process. The research of the ETH Studio Basel and the concept of Gion A. Caminada do not exclude each other. Both strategies have their focus on completely different sites with different demands: the more urban sites by the ETH Studio Basel and the peripheral villages by Gion A. Caminada.

The cultural complexity that we can find in the Grisons is not just a problem of branding, of finding a precise image for tourists. It is an urban complexity that gives tourists something to explore, to deal with such complex situations. Local architects are skilled with the knowledge and experience for such challenges. Peter Zumthor wrote about the magic of the real "that to [him] is the 'alchemy' of transforming real substances into human emotions" [19]. Architecture is far more than pure economics. Architecture has to provide ways in which economic development is applied to specific places creating urban architectural qualities. Good architecture, as designed by younger architects, can help find solutions to support, shape, and form local identities, and to guide the landscape towards a sustainable future, not just as a set of singular objects but as urban systems.


1 Quotation: Jürg Ragettli, Heimatschutz und «die neue Welt». in: Bündner Monatsblatt, No.1, Chur 2003, p.70.

2 Statistics 2006, Amt für Wirtschaft Graubünden,, inet_griz%202006.pdf , p.10, 24.October 2006.

3 Hansruedi Berger, Neue Gäste gewinnen, aber die Stammgäste nicht vergessen, in: Die Südostschweiz, 21. November 2006, p.3.

4, Die Argumente, 26. October 2006.

5 Roger Diener, Jacques Herzog, Marcel Meili, Pierre de Meuron, Christian Schmid, ETH Studio Basel, Switzerland. An urban portrait, Birkhäuser, Basel Boston Berlin 2005.

6 Saskia Sassen, Why cities matter, in: Cities. Architecture and Society, exhibition catalogue of the 10. Architecture Biennale Venice, Marsilio, Venice 2006, p. 26-51, p.31.

7 Werner Bätzing, Die Alpen. Geschichte und Zukunft einer europäischen Kulturlandschaft, C.H. Beck, 2 nd edition, München 2003, p.156-158.

8 Gion A. Caminada, «Etwas tun um das Leben etwas erträglicher zu machen», in: Cul zuffel e l'aura dado. Gion A. Caminada, Bettina Schlorhaufer (Hrsg.), Interview, Quart Verlag, Luzern 2005, p.169f.

9 Peter Rieder, Vrin - am Ende oder nur zuhinterst?, Stiftung Pro Vrin (Hrsg.), 2006, p.126.



12 Jürg Conzett, Second Traversina bridge, in: Structure as space. Engineering and Architecture Works of Jürg Conzett and his partners, Mohsen Mostafavi (editor), Architectural Association Publications, London 2006, p.101f.

13 Jürg Conzett, Pùnt da Saransuns, in: Structure as space. Engineering and Architecture Works of Jürg Conzett and his partners, Mohsen Mostafavi (editor), Architectural Association Publications, London 2006, p.225f.

14 Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser, Basel Boston Berlin 2005 2006, p.17.

15 Peter Zumthor, Johanna Strüblin, Urs Brunold: Siedlungsinventar Graubünden. Vrin. Lugnez / Bearb, Kantonale Denkmalpflege, Chur 1976.

16 Peter Zumthor, Vicosporano. Entwicklung eines gestalterischen Grundgerüstes für eine Bauzone mit privaten Einfamilienhäusern am Dorfrand. Fallbeispiel, Bündner Vereinigung für Raumplanung (Hrsg.), Chur 1980.

17 Peter Zumthor, Siedlungs-Inventarisation in Graubünden. Aufgabenstellung und Methode des Bündner Siedlungsinventars mit Inventar Castasegna, Kantonale Denkmalpflege Graubünden (Hrsg.), Chur 1981.

18 Miroslav Sik (editor.), Analoge Architektur, introduction. Boga, Zurich 1987.

19 Peter Zumthor, La magia del reale, in: Casabella, no. 747, 9. September 2006, p.57.


New Architecture in the Grisons, in: World Architecture, Daniel A. Walser, issue editor, Beijing, No 4 / April 2007.


World Architecture, Beijing: Editorial presentation

World Architecture, Beijing: online Journal