For anyone who has seen the Top Mountain Star restaurant above Obergurgl-Hochgurgl or the glass cuboid Gaislachkogl top station in nearby Soelden, the latter whose use in the James Bond SPECTRE film has been mercilessly exploited by the lift operator, will already be of the opinion that the boundaries of conventional alpine design are not only becoming blurred but being propelled into hitherto unknown, and at times undoubtedly controversial directions.
Far from being confined to the wild but increasingly spoilt Oetztal the appearance of groundbreaking cableway stations can often be found in some of the Tirol’s wealthiest municipalities, where an abundance of cash appears to be the sole criterion for siting what to many will be architectural carbuncles. As though with any form of art and design, there will always, and should be, sufficient room for subjectivity and the starting point of a physical narrative to ‘move on’ from the past, whilst attempting to remain sympathetic to tradition and the dramatic alpine surroundings. Where though boundless cash holds sway there will always be a danger of the most outlandish of designs being approved, in effect giving designers free rein to bring their wildest avant garde ideas into reality.
As we’ve already established, architectural whims do come at a high price, but they must also pay their way in what is a highly competitive winter sports sector. The ability to transport several thousand skiers an hour is therefore crucial for the avoidance of long queues and without customers feeling unpleasantly shoehorned into carriages. There is also little mileage to be gained from showcasing cutting edge design should the facade be Potemkin-esque, and without the commensurate engineering sophistication behind the scenes. One can therefore make an argument for being less concerned by the design of the valley and summit stations’ edifices should their performance outstrip the more conventional constructs of the past.
Above we can see the St. Anton am Arlberg-based Galzigbahn valley station, the first step to reaching the 2,800+ metres Valluga peak. There was very little of the conventional regarding the 2006 construction of a giant cog system that raises and lowers customers from and to ground level, depending on their direction of travel. Again, this is a crucial aspect of a design not ‘all for show’ but walks the walk in the crucial vectors of capacity, comfort, and speed. My personal experiences of the lift, from an aesthetic perspective, do though regard it as being more sympathetic to the local surroundings once they are blanketed in snow, the Tirol’s white gold that has the ability to hide a multitude of man-made sins.
A traditionalist at heart, I am usually unmoved by futuristic design I regard as frivolous, vanity projects by designers given carte blanche to further their unrealistic agendas. Again, this is subjective, and in no way suggests that I do not respect the expertise and ingenuity of those commissioned to design cableway infrastructure for the next generation but the name of the game for St. Anton, Obergurgl, Soelden, and the multitude of ski areas within the Tirol, Salzburgerland, and Carinthia is, and always will be, how to get as many people up the mountain as quickly and comfortably as possible. Will more patrons choose one resort over another because they particularly like the architecture attached to a certain lift station? Time is short and ski passes are expensive; the desires of skiers therefore mirror those of the lift operators – to be on the pistes as quickly as possible without being treated like cattle.
I have therefore determined that the majority of skiers, and hikers, care less for the aesthetics than the ability of the cableway to do what it says on the tin. Space Age-like design will be given short shrift if the engineering side does not match the shiny outer casing but be forgiven and often indulged if the vital inner workings mirrors the faith placed in the physical design.
As a working entity predicated on improving on what went before, or indeed broke new ground both in design and as a new presence(as was the case with the Top Mountain Star restaurant servicing the Wurmkogel lift) there must therefore be a superior technical aspect for what are commercial operations to be regarded as financially viable. This is not Turkmenistan, where President Gurbaguly Berdymukhamedow continues to preside over a burgeoning portfolio of white elephant, Potemkin projects that have all the front but little in the way of substance under a faintly scratched surface, or those designed for local and foreign visitors that are unaffordable for the former, inaccessible to the latter. Where commercial sensibilities underpin the conception of such projects the glitz and gaud will only hold the attention for so long and will not pay their way, unless strong synergies are established from the outset between the aesthetic and technical sides and the overall financial viability.
It has been brought to my attention of late of a different facet of alpine life, guest accommodation, being overhauled from the accepted norm. Slovenia’s Bohinj region and its eponymous lake represent what many equivalent areas in Austria perhaps resembled 20-30 years before and are only in relatively recent times being plagued by mass-tourism from the selfie-stick holding Instagram generation ticking off their next ‘must see’ location.
The guest accommodation sector in Bohinj, especially within or adjacent to the central core of the Triglav National Park in which it resides, is undergoing a once in a generation overhaul since several of its neglected hotels, some of which had closed and fallen into considerable disrepair, have been purchased from negligent, absentee owners by those with greater concern for the area and significant commercial acumen. The plans of Damijan Merlak, the new owner of the Ski Hotel Vogel, Hotel Bohinj, and Hotel Zlatorog are slowly unfolding but have initially concentrated on the Stara Fuzina-based Triglav Aparthotel, now fully refurbished and operational under Merlak’s management team. (The Hotel Bellevue, once patronised by Agatha Christie, has been acquired by a local, unconnected company but designs relating to its renovation have not as of yet made it into the public domain).
Architecturally and historically iconic to the region, especially during and reflective of the Tito Non-Aligned Yugoslav era, the rebirth of both the Ski Hotel and Zlatorog will have to be conducted carefully and sympathetically, in line with tradition and unique but also overlapping ecological and topographical traits. It is therefore with this significant, much needed upheaval of Bohinj’s guest accommodation in mind that a further project, to site a community of 12 villas adjacent to the lake, presumably in the unspoilt hamlet of Ukanc, that has piqued my ire more than any current or historic scheme within Slovenia, a country awash with stunning Tirol-like scenery but without the money to ruin it.
At first glances the Russian-based architect’s designs, viewed in several links below, appear to be an April Fool’s joke but seem anything but. As a few comments rightly point out, these glass-dominated abominations will not be avian-friendly but aside from the real dangers to local ornithology, the lack of harmony with the surroundings and only a cursory nod to traditional design lend not only feelings of ludicrousness and incongruity but also a sense of unease, and real concern that this avenue of design is being considered for a fragile environment still assumed to be heavily protected under the aegis of the Triglav National Park authority. My first impression of one of the conceptual mock-ups was a resemblance to the CGI used to depict what U.S. serviceman reportedly witnessed in the 1980 Rendlesham Forest UFO incident.
Further research has so far failed to ascertain if these designs have been approved, for land now presumably under the control of those who’ve commissioned Moscow-based Alexander Nerovnya. Lake Bohinj is a little piece of paradise in a world getting smaller by the day; the realisation of these designs will only result in a significant part of its Slovenian soul being sold to the devil for the sake of what is not on the one hand a generic, unrelieved development but that bearing no relation or resemblance to its surroundings, in what is almost a display of disdain and antipathy. Should this concept have its place anywhere, something which is of some doubt, it should not be in Ukanc or anywhere near Lake Bohinj.
You only have to travel around your local district and not too far from home, especially in England, to be confronted by architectural and design mistakes – usually from the 1950-1970 period of throwing up poorly devised but admittedly well-built housing and public buildings. Whilst it seems many of the errors of yesteryear are being repeated by the monotonous, identikit estates being built in the next wave of mass building throughout England, I would hope that those tasked with approving schemes large and small in the Alps will still seek designs melding modern but functional design that offer more than a cursory nod to tradition and the surroundings in which the hope to be sited.
There is no room in Europe’s increasingly disrespected mountainscape for those wishing to use it as a blank canvas on which to unleash their most outlandish designs purely because they can. That would be more akin to the approach of a narcissistic Turkmen dictator, and not a display of best practice of alpine design for the 21st century and the attendant challenges it faces from Climate Change.
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