Architecture, similar to many areas of modern life, has become highly subjective as tradition gives way to the Avant Garde, the controversial, and a general feeling that ‘anything goes’ in an era of declining standards, moral ambiguity, and disrespect.
Even in the Alps there is no longer a uniform design template to which architects must conform, leaving Europe’s higher reaches vulnerable to the most outlandish flights of fancy that potentially threaten the aesthetic appeal, the area’s USP, and the wildlife found within.
One can argue that the original design of classic alpine architecture had to start somewhere and may indeed have drawn initial disapproval. I would though suggest that until relatively recently in human history the Alps was the preserve of agriculture, without the questionable influence of tourism. The design of traditional buildings constructed by and for the farming community was inevitably translated into the chalet-style hotels synonymous with many areas of Austria and Slovenia, with perhaps as many edifices being converted into overnight accommodation for tourists as those who aped the archetypal blueprint when seeking to house hikers and winter sports aficionados in new builds.
It is though indisputable that the Alps is indeed a special case for its built environment to be sympathetic, and dovetail with its unique but fragile surroundings. It is insufficient for a development to be acclaimed as an exemplar of good design if it does not fit with its immediate and wider environment. Good design cannot simply relate to ground-breaking dwellings containing state-of-the-art technology but must also relate to where they are to be sited.
When I first saw the designs of Peter Pichler’s proposed Tree Suites, reportedly a constituent part of yet another luxury tourist development in the Austrian Tirol, my feelings of horror, incredulity, and some sadness didn’t include the notion that ‘they’ll never allow that to be built’. In the same way resorts seek to out ‘cable car’ each other an insatiable and unrelenting alpine arms race continues unrepentant and unabashed, just as much away from the slopes than on. Although saturation point is another subjective argument where the market will decide how much is enough and which will ultimately fail in the survival of the fittest, it is invariably the environment that suffers. How many birds will be confused by and fly into these bizarre, almost war of the worlds-like carbuncles that loom over the adjacent trees as if to have the final say over the natural arboriculture?
From a journalistic perspective to identify this proposed development with the resort of Kitzbuhel is lazy, but inadvertently appropriate. Should the build come to fruition in nearby Pass Thurn, far closer to the town of Mittersill and the Panoramabahn cableway than a town where all that glitters is usually gold, there are nevertheless obvious synergies with a monied and at times vulgar Kitzbuhel that makes appending its relative proximity a pragmatic, if somewhat misleading, caveat to the sales brochure.
Many will suggest that the Tirol is under attack from proposed developments that put the environment as great risk more than at any other time. Although this is an understandable opinion not without some validity I believe recent proposals, some further down the line than others, including the Ötztal-Pitztal and Hochzillertal-Mayrhofen links, have gained greater prominence in the media not JUST because of the potentially serious and untenable implications on the areas in question, but by attempting to locate fresh challenges for skiers involving hitherto untouched terrain. This is particularly pertinent in the Ötztal-Pitztal question. There is though a case to answer for development fatigue, preparing the ground for a backlash against perceived greed seemingly overriding environmental sensibilities.
The Pitztal is though perhaps unlucky to be bearing the brunt of so much disquiet over its plans to link with the already developed, overdeveloped Ötztal. It is not as if the winter sports sector has thus far failed to develop glaciers for its own ends; far from it. Can it be argued that the Hintertux, Rettenbach, Kaunertal, and Stubai glaciers were any the less important or untouched prior to being given over to Austria’s leviathan ski industry? I in no way advocate the development of permanent, now semi-permanent snowfields in any way, shape, or form but with the Pitztal affectively being the last one standing when the music stopped, they are inevitably taking the flack for not having beaten any of the others to the punch. As the last realistic and virgin area of the Tirol theoretically capable of cutting a piece from the winter sports cake the Pitztal wants what so many other valleys in Austria have already got.
There are obvious distinctions to make between building yet another ski area in a country replete to overflowing with such, and futuristic if albeit incongruous accommodation. Cableway designs rarely veer too far from the last and whilst their multitude of sins can to some extent be covered by winter’s white coat, the wider implications of intense development in some of the most inaccessible and subsequently pristine areas of Austria far outweigh aesthetic sensibilities above the treeline. It is though the designs from the likes of Pichler that to me at least seek to impose themselves on and over the natural environment, as if to give man the last word, that rankle with me just as much as a scheme to spend €130 million on developing a vanishing glacial world. If the implications weren’t so serious for the indigenous flora and fauna high in the Pitztal, which will reap the condign repercussions of heavy traffic already experienced by the Ötztal, I would say let the investors blow their money on a glacier, itself a portentous indicator of Climate Change, that might not be there in 30-50 years’ time.
Having recently visited Kitzbuhel and its region I truly hope the Tree Suites development doesn’t come to pass but if it doesn’t there, it will somewhere else. Precedents galore have been set throughout the Tirol, and Salzburgerland, to an extent where those seeking to hold back the tide face an almost thankless task. How I wish to remember the Kitzbuheler Alps is summed up below, courtesy of nature’s peerless hand:
All photographs copyright of C. Bowman
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