Men and Mountains

architect Miha Kazelj
project The Bivouac below Grintovec, Kamnik Alps, Slovenia
written by Matevž Čelik

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Fifteen years ago, when Miha Kajzelj defended his graduation thesis entitled ‘Alpine Architecture’, he presented the concept of a contemporary bivouac. As an active alpinist who has a special relationship with mountains, he posed several strategic questions about future constructions high in the mountains. He advocated a revival of bivouacs as the ecologically most acceptable type of mountain station.


Kajzelj’s bivouacs are the result of the analysis of the historical development of mountain shelters, from the shacks of shepherds, lumberjacks and coal miners, to modern bivouacs. In his opinion, it is the first type of alpine shelter, free of the formal and ideological blockades of traditional architecture, which has proven to be a new type of alpine architecture. In marginal conditions of weather and geography, architecture is completely cleansed of all unnece­ssary layers. It strictly focuses on elementary problems – pro­tection, resistance, transport, scale and light – revealing its essence.


The bivouac on Veliki Podi is located on an open, exposed and vast rocky plain, where walking on mountain paths, especially in bad weather, is challenging and fraught with danger. Since the sheltered locations in the vicinity of the bivouac are exposed to avalanches, it was moved to an open, windy ledge. It was assembled in a workshop and then lowered by helicopter onto its prepared concrete foundations. Building works in the mountains should not last too long because of unpredictable weather conditions; transportation of materials to the building site should be reduced to a minimum. To make the bivouac as light as possible, its shell is made of insulated aluminium sheets attached to an aluminium substructure.


Such lightness, while ideal for transportation, presents a problem for the continued existence of the bivouac. Storm winds could easily have swept this fragile piece of architecture away if they had not been taken into account during the design phase. When building in windy high mountains, therefore, architects often use knowledge from aerodynamics. Mountain architecture has complex forms, adapted to air currents. In this sense, it is necessary to look for suitable structural solutions. The bivouac on Veliki Podi has nevertheless been designed as the simplest container, its wind resistance guaranteed by strong steel anchors, buried deep into the ground. The truncated side of the structure also leaves the impression that the winds blowing from the ridges will more easily brush past it. The minimum amount of excavations for its concrete foundations reflects careful (self-)control du­ring construction in the sensitive mountain environment, as advocated by Kajzelj in his graduation thesis.


When de­signing the bivouac on Veliki Podi, priority was given to its high visibility; in fact, a shelter in the midst of a vast desert of stone must be visible from afar. It has been conceived as a sign in space, so its minimal contents are distributed vertically. Despite the fact that the dining area and the few beds would not have occupied much space even on a single floor, they have been disposed in a four-storey tower.


The well-crafted wood interior with windows opening on all sides offers more than a minimum shelter to hikers, used to humble lodgings. The space is flexible, so that it can accommodate many or few. The windows let in much light, so that the sun warms the premises when the weather is fine.


As Miha Kajzelj established in his graduation thesis, bivouacs are not an ecological strain on the environment, no supplies are necessary, and the concentration of hikers stays the same. This is a way for small architecture to regulate the burden on its mountain environment. The three bivouacs which Miha Kajzelj has managed to build so far have been created separately, yet together they reflect a consistent transfer of his principles into material and space. Also, this last bivouac on Veliki Podi below Grintovec (2,100 metres) is a simple piece of architecture, with minimal construction work, that reacts to the demanding terrain and extreme weather. At the same time, however, it appears as an object that overcomes the opposition between men and mountains. It is a clear sign of human presence high in the mountains; the visitors of the­se remote ridges are guided towards deep experiences and a responsible coexistence.