Contained Geometries

architect Pascal Flammer
project Stöckli (house for retired farmer), Balsthal, Switzerland
written by James R. Payne

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The damp forests and limestone bluffs of the Jura mountains in the north-west of Switzerland have a more distinctly sober character than the Alps proper. At a strategically important point near Solothurn where the grain of long parallel valleys is broken by a transverse connecting valley, medieval fortresses tower dramatically over the quiet agricultural and industrial settlement below.


Here, just outside the village of Balsthal, young Swiss architect Pascal Flammer has built his first project with unusual precision of concept and execution. The house sits in rural isolation within a field at the end of a valley with forest rising steeply on both sides. Although a suitable rural retreat for the city-dwelling client, it is officially defined as a ‘Stöckli’, a peripheral building belonging to a larger farm to accommodate the farmer when he retires.


The only passers-by are inquisitive hikers making their way up the old Roman road as it climbs precipitously to a higher valley beyond. The object of their passing gaze is a dark timber gabled volume with overhanging eaves protecting the flank walls. The apparently simple and coherent whole on closer examination resolves into a secondary geometry, a noughts-and-crosses game of diagonal structural positives and round window negatives. Views in and through the house confirm that this is not merely elevational, but a clever spatial and structural puzzle in three dimensions.

Descending a slight incline from the road, the front door under the eaves opens into a low, horizontal ground floor space. Sunk into the ground at the height of the desks that line the panoramic glazed perimeter, the architect describes it as a ‘piazza-like’ space where the communal activity of the house takes place. The kitchen is cleverly positioned down one diagonal step and round the corner of a small wardrobe and cloakroom volume


Ascending the steel spiral stairs, the first floor plan is divided into four quadrants, bedroom spaces occupy three of these and the remaining quadrant has a triangular loft over the bathroom. The tall bedroom spaces extend to double height at the ridge, with glazed walls facing up or down the valley. The landscape is experienced comfortably from the slightly raised datum afforded by the sunken ground floor.


There is a certain humour in the timber partitions that slide neatly into the Vitruvian-man scaled round windows. Even when these are closed, bisecting the circle, one is aware of the symmetrical other half and totality of the whole house. The structural concept is closely integrated with the spatial to raise the gabled volume above the largely glazed ground floor. Although the laminated timber structure is both concealed and exposed, its honour as a purely timber building is intact as there is no hidden steel to assist. The central spine wall is in fact a deep structural truss, as are the flanking walls despite being holed in the centre with the round windows. These are held together by the diagonal struts on the short ends that also tie the horizontal ground floor space to the lofty chambers above.


Outside, the house is clad with black stained timber boarding with copper flashing and a standard tiled roof. The highly insulated house has a heat exchanger in the basement and requires little energy input. Inside, the spruce Triboard lined walls, floors and ceilings match the laminated timber columns and struts, even the curved walls encompassing the stairs are timber. Thin planes and chunky structural members alike take on a unified and almost concrete-like plastic quality. Overhanging rafters glimpsed through the circular windows reveal the structural tectonics of the gabled roof.

No classifiable single constructional system has been used, it is not simply the product of technique, and pre-fabrication has been used only so far as it serves the aims and logistics of the project. In its veneration of structure as being both spatial and symbolic this little house draws on a much wider architectural discourse, notably that of Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara and the office of Valerio Olgiati, for whom Flammer worked as a project architect.


While it might recall chalet or barn forms found in the vicinity, it possesses something else, this characterful house stands alone in this slightly eerie place as self-contained as the Napoleonic soldier depicted in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Chasseur in the Forest. The powerful domestic spaces created here allow for a similarly deep contemplation of the landscape.