An Autumn Journey

written by Vera Grimmer

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From antiquity to modern times, travel has been a constant inspiration for a wide variety of writers—adventurers, scientists, sailors, explorers, writers. Travel writings by Darwin, Amundsen, Stanley and Cook enriched science; Goethe and Taine’s Italian travel journals influenced the spiritual climate of the period; Le Corbusier credited the experience of young Edouard Jeanneret traveling to the Orient as the source of his work. In Croatian literature there are travel writers such as Matoš and Nazor, Slavko Batušić, as well as Krleža with his influential and lucid Izlet u Rusiju (An Excursion to Russia). Perhaps the most lyrical prose pages in Croatian literature were written by Matko Peić describing his Skitnje (Wanderings). He needed neither splendid city views, nor the expanse of the seas—a hawthorn bush blooming along a graveyard wall in Turopolje, or a burst of light on the surface of a small tributary stream of the Sava river were more than sufficient for him. In this regard, a travel book can be seen as a self-portrait, attitude towards life, realization of one’s own world.


Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot, wrote the English writer and journalist Bruce Chatwin. In 1972, Chatwin interviewed Eileen Gray in Paris. On that occasion, she drew his attention to Patagonia, and said, Go there for me. Two years later, he, indeed, traveled to Patagonia, where he spent six months. The result of that exploration was his highly praised travel book In Patagonia.


Travels are special times in life. Suddenly, the rules of everyday life cease to apply, priorities become completely different. The intensity and the amount of experience create the illusion of extended time. Special rules apply, in turn, to architectural journeys; one needs an accurate itinerary which will enable the experience of a maximum number of buildings or environments, yet in a minimum time span. It was roughly the itinerary planned by the small Oris team—editors Vera Grimmer and Tadej Glažar, photographer Damil Kalogjera—on their way to the westernmost and, with the exception of Vienna, smallest federal state of Austria—the architectural El Dorado Vorarlberg. This humble report on our venture, actually some sort of a guide, will attain its goal if it succeeds to encourage travels toward the same goals. We interrupted our full day trip as early as in Carinthia, in the small village of Fresach. We had to prepare for our main objective—an interview with, in our opinion, two very inspiring architects—the Marte brothers. Their Fresach Diocesan Museum for the Lutheran Community, notable in its reduced form, is in stark contrast to everything else in the small Carinthian town. But by applying a rationally reduced approach, they were able to establish a relationship between the new structure and the existing church, thus creating a consistent spatial ensemble. The Museum itself houses a valuable collection of books, and stages exhibitions, such as the one on Primož Trubar, a follower of Luther, and the first translator of the Bible into Slovene.


Driving through the valley of the River Inn has always been a valuable experience for me; in the Anglo-Saxon world, this route would be designated as a scenic route. But it is not just about spectacular mountain ranges enclosing the valley; it is also a province rich in history, with Renaissance cities such as Schwaz or Hall, which were among the most important cities of the Habsburg Monarchy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Located high above the valley, Schwaz was at the time the mining capital of Europe with 20,000 inhabitants. Thanks to its copper and silver mines, it was the second largest city in the Monarchy, after Vienna. Surprising for us today is the spacious four-naved hall church dating back to 1460. The church building was so large in size so as to accommodate the huge mining population. The silver from Schwaz was used in the mints set up in nearby Hall in the late 15th century. Today, the prosperity of that period, based on the salt deposit as well, is still visible in the old town. Partly luxurious palaces display layers from Gothic to Baroque.


On the left side of the highway towards Innsbruck, in the municipality of Volders, we see a quite peculiar, almost naive Baroque church. Constructed from 1620 to 1644, the building was designed by Hippolyt Guarinoni, a universal expert, a doctor in Hall and amateur architect. Yet, on the road through the valley to Innsbruck there are several points of interest for the fans of modern architecture, as well. At the beginning of the valley, again on the left side, we will see a white building of dynamic form—the Passion Playhouse Erl, which was designed by Innsbruck architect Robert Schuller in 1959. Less noticeable from the road is the new addition to the theater—the black festival hall by the architects Delugan Meissl, an expressive architecture typical of these architects. One should neither forget the extension of the Park Hotel in the Hall. There Tyrolean-born Viennese architects Marta Schreieck and Dieter Henke contrasted the white architecture by Austrian Modernist architect Lois Welzenbacher with the black cone of the new hotel. I remember a unique experience of staying at that hotel on another occasion. Thanks to full glazing and semicircular panorama, one has the impression of awakening amidst a mountainous landscape. Driving along the ring road around the imperial city of Innsbruck, the seat of a Renaissance ruler, the mighty Habsburg Maximilian I—a fact also reflected in the world famous historic core of the city—our eyes follow Zaha Hadid’s Bergisel ski jump that is visible from all over the city and its surroundings.


The landscape of the Upper Inn Valley becomes increasingly dramatic, and yet after passing through long tunnels, we come to much more gentle parts of Vorarlberg. At this point, perhaps, it would not hurt to mention some factual information. Throughout history, this province has been witness to the reign of different ethnicities and rulers. After the Celts came the Romans, who founded the settlement of Brigantion (modern-day capital Bregenz) in 15 bc. Following the collapse of Rome, the area became part of the Frankish Kingdom. Since the 14th century, it was ruled by the Habsburgs with a brief interlude under Napoleon (1806–1814). It is not surprising that, after the collapse of the Monarchy in 1918, 80% of the population voting in a referendum supported the proposal for the state to join Switzerland. But the then Swiss government was not prepared to accept such a proposal. In fact, in terms of ethnicity, dialect, mentality, and geographic location, Vorarlberg is actually closer to Switzerland than it is to the rest of Austria. About 375,000 people, proverbially industrious and thrifty, live in relatively favorable economic conditions in an area of 2,600 square kilometers.


Favorable conditions for architecture were secured by local architects some thirty years ago. They were able to convince the politicians that high-quality architecture was important for their own promotion as well. It would be hard to find so many relevant buildings anywhere, let alone in such a small area. We will also be amazed by the phenomenon that the most relevant projects are created in the smallest localities.


On a rainy October morning, we arrived in the village of Batschuns—though not entirely without difficulty—situated between forests and pastures, high above the Rhine valley. The Parish Church of Saint John the Baptist is already astonishing; it is an early work (1921–1923) by Clemens Holzmeister, certainly one of the most important Austrian proto-Modernist architects. Additionally, he was a specialist in the national style, and was also teacher to a whole line of Modernists such as Achleitner, Kurrent, Spalt, Hollein, or Holzbauer. But the reason for our trip to Batschuns, again in terms of preparation for the interview, was the addition of a funeral chapel to the graveyard around the parish church. Marte Marte did not want to compete with the old master, but rather define the final sequence of the entire space in their own way. The chapel itself is an entirely reduced and, in terms of the material of which it was made, rammed earth, an almost archaic building. With its luminous effect and the tactility of material, the interior of that earthen cube creates an atmosphere which strongly affects our emotions. Not far from here, in the middle of the pasture, there is another, different, rather mundane structure by the same architects. It is a rehearsal hall of the local band of musicians. Clad in already faded larch panels, the structure exhibits strong plasticity. It is characterized by deep window niches whose function is to prevent direct light from entering the space. Too much light would, namely, disturb the musicians. Indeed, the rehearsal hall can be viewed in terms of spreading architectural culture. But there is more to it in Batschuns—noteworthy is the row house complex by architect Walter Unterrainer, as well. Additionally, the passive energy complex is carefully designed, both, in terms of detail and attention to the individual versus the communal.


On the last, clear October day, the Bregenz Forest revealed itself in all its glory. Its pastoral mountain landscape was a good backdrop for three, as much different as intense, architectural experiences. We are already familiar with the enterprise of the Krumbach village community. Oris published an article in which Dietmar Steiner, the director of the Architekturzentrum Wien (Az W), as the project promoter, presented the genesis and the appearance of the seven bus shelters scattered around that small village community. It is really a very special experience, however, to actually sit down on a stylized rustic chair in the entirely transparent pavilion by Smiljan Radic, with a bird house facing the nearby cypress. A Russian atmosphere, or at least, as we imagine it, is felt in the pavilion by Alexander Brodsky. The spatial sculpture by Sou Fujimoto does not, however, fulfill any function. Yet, it is elegant and fragile, a folie opposed to the rural environment. After his masterful Kunsthaus Bregenz, the Werkraum Bregenzerwald is Zumthor’s second building in Austria, and is dedicated to the extraordinary craftsmen of Vorarlberg. Carried by slender, high wooden columns, the heavy, black roof plate floats above the glass membrane. The master hand is clearly apparent in every detail, and a complicated structural design hides behind a seemingly simple construction. A place for exhibitions and meetings does not serve only the needs of local craftsmen, but attracts numerous visitors as well, obviously from afar.


The real and symbolic final stop on our trip was the well-known, award-winning Islamic cemetery by Bernardo Bader. It is hard to pinpoint the reason for such strong effect of this environmental complex—the position in the landscape and the orientation towards the river and the wooded slope above it, the shaping of the ritual process or the materiality of the terracotta colored concrete resembling clay. It is probably a synthesis of these factors that causes us to suddenly feel away from everyday life, to experience the precious moments of transition to another quality of sensitivity, and ultimately, to experience what architecture can mean for us.


Each journey is more complete and happier if one meets new faces, establishes new contacts. With this in mind, this journey may be considered pleasant. Starting with Stefan Marte, our interview partner, everywhere we went we attracted quite a bit of interest, we might say even cordiality. Stefan Marte was our very engaged and serious partner in a discussion on a wide variety of relevant topics. In Dornbirn, we visited the local House of Architecture—the Vorarlberger Architectural Institute—and received an exceptional welcome from Dr. Verena Konrad, the head of the Institute. She took us on a little guided tour of the school by Marte.Marte Architects, and enabled further contacts with architect Bader and Ms. Breuss, head of the Werkraum Bregenz exhibition hall. All of them gave us a warm welcome and showed a professional, constructive attitude towards future collaboration.