Architectural hotbed — report from the Swiss trenches

Post by Max Mulhern

Artblog Leis Switzerland
Leis Switzerland. This and other photos in this post by Max Mulhern

The small idyllic Swiss village of Leis is expanding in the form of two new twin houses designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor of thermal bath fame. They are nearing completion on a steep upward slope behind the village as we go to press. I call them the twin towers so strong is their domination over the low flat houses snuggled together at their feet.  The lower of the two is called the Annalisa House in honor of Zumthor’s wife for whom the house was built. The other is a rental.

Zumthor houses

The wooden houses are built in the traditional regional style. The walls are composed of 6” x 4” pine boards that are assembled, frame free, by tongue and groove. The height of the houses make these walls appear to be almost paper thin. Zumthor likes his structures to exude lightness or even downright fragility.

Z8 det.JPG
Zumthor house detail

The walls certainly don’t feel avalanche proof. Large plate glass windows in wooden sockets jut out from the walls to create extra living space beyond the walls. Some give access to a balcony while others are sealed. Topping off the slim houses is an innovative roof structure that creates space in places formally encumbered by structural elements in traditional buildings of the region.

Zumthor house

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Typical house in Leis

All of the roofs of the region are obligated by law to use rough -hewn granite slabs for roof tiling. These roofs, require massive structures including one, or two central beams at the peak of the roof. Zumthor eliminates the central beam by pulling the frames together at their bases with steel rods in order to form the peak thus creating an empty space between the house and the roof. This, system enables lighter walls while the roof becomes a row of chevrons hovering over the house thus lending a high performance feeling to the structures.

Typical Leis roof tiling

Zumthor house roof chevrons

There is great visual fluidity between interior and exterior. The front and back of the houses are aligned with the slope as are the main stairs. From outside of the bottom front window we can look up a flight of stairs and through a back window to the peak  behind the village. The sides of the house with the large plate glass windows are aligned with the valley. The houses are see-through and form crossroads of high- energy streams. And yet they felt insurmountable from outside. I felt the impulse to scale them in order to know them.

Will the inhabitant feel more like a bivouacking guest?

Leis is a favored halt for walkers as well as skiers. The gondola for the ski station runs just in front of the village. And yet Mr. Zumthor declined to talk about the houses on the grounds that they were private and that he didn’t want hordes of people visiting them.

I can understand why. At the foot of these houses we see nothing of the interior but step away and you will be able to see what’s cooking, what’s on TV, and the art on the walls. I felt mildly self -conscious about studying them. For privacy the Zumthors will depend on us to lower our eyes, mind our own business and be on our way. From a small village that used to feel like Eden to us we will now slink out almost ashamed.

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Vals mountain

In a land terrorized by floods and avalanches until recently these houses step out of the village fold and rise high into the havoc of the elements. They should have gone higher.

One that went lower.  Architect Hans Muller’s house set into the mountain.

Lower by about 300 meters and to the right is the quarry from which the granite for the Thermal baths of Vals came. Walk a mile down the road and you will come to this snug troglodyte structure designed by Swiss architect Hans Muller and built this year.  200 meters more and you can just see a corner of the thermal baths.

Google satellite map showing Vals (1) and Swarthmore (B)

Didn’t catch it? No worry. Continue down out of the valley on to Chur and Zurich and then go about 6000 miles due West South West to greater Philadelphia, Swarthmore College in Swarthmore to be precise. There you can see the stone from Vals as it was used to build the Alice Paul Hall (William Rawn Associates, Boston ) dormitory in the now international style of the thermal baths of Vals.

in case of war -- by Gael Camu
Only open in case of war. Swiss neutrality apparently does not envision a peaceful world and they have precautions …just in case. Photo from Vals by Max’s friend Gael Camu.

Brancusi in Switzerland

–Max Mulhern last wrote for artblog about surveillance and the ubiquity of self-promotion sites on the web.