Peak tectonics

A mountain house by MODUS architects, which includes its owner's atelier, proposes a daring but successful symbiosis between landscape, contemporary production and the vernacular tradition of Trentino-Alto Adige.

This article was originally published in Domus 967 / March 2013

"The foreigner feels strengthened by the distance that detaches him from the others as it does from himself and gives him the lofty sense not so much of holding the truth, but making it and himself relative while others fall victim to the ruts of monovalency."
—Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves , Columbia University Press, New York 1988

Before setting off from Milan to Castelrotto, in Trentino-Alto Adige, we did well to examine the photos of the artist Hubert Kostner's home-atelier, designed by Matteo Scagnol and Sandy Attia (modus architects). As a result we could approach the building without being disturbed by preconceived notions derived from Alpine architecture of the past 30 years. Indeed, only recently has the alpine landscape finally witnessed the introduction of designs that restore stylistic autonomy to individual architectures within the complexity of their urban contexts. In such places, the design of private houses had for years been almost exclusively influenced by holiday-making as a promotion of architecture.

For too long these zones had received a "crop" of constructions that were apparently in harmony with local styles. This trend was driven by an architectural verve that replicated villages and buildings which were almost too alike to tell them apart, gradually producing something that seemed more like a collage of picture postcards.
Top and above: The home-atelier of South
Tyrolean artist Hubert
Kostner dialogues at a
distance with the baroque bell
tower of Castelrotto, a town
of some 6,500 inhabitants
in the autonomous province
of Bolzano
Top and above: The home-atelier of South Tyrolean artist Hubert Kostner dialogues at a distance with the baroque bell tower of Castelrotto, a town of some 6,500 inhabitants in the autonomous province of Bolzano
The dimension of architecture thus emerged in all its ostentation, inspired by a tourist phenomena so incisive as to influence even the way people look at that architecture. Mountains, on the other hand, have always offered various possibilities for looking at landscapes and their many physical layers: rocks, trees, ascents and descents, nature and houses, but also sky and sun. So now we can approach a building that resulted from a closeness — even at a distance — between the client and the architects, who, in 2009, sent him a postcard illustrating the conceptual outline of his future home. This postcard-"messenger" matched the as yet unfulfilled wishes of their "client", and led to the meticulous process of designing and building. The main construction material — wood — was simply revealed in all its hardness, expressing the desires and dignity of a client who had actively participated in the design process by creating a preliminary model of the house.
In this
built work, the structural theme also becomes a design
motif: the trellis supporting
the gallery continues up onto
the facade all the way to the
edge of the roof. Kostner has
carved the plan drawing of his
home-atelier onto the west
elevation
In this built work, the structural theme also becomes a design motif: the trellis supporting the gallery continues up onto the facade all the way to the edge of the roof. Kostner has carved the plan drawing of his home-atelier onto the west elevation
Starting from the postcard sketch, the architecture already envisaged a twofold request to blend with a landscape that lacked the usual mountain views, typically with impervious peaks looming over villages and resorts. Instead, the most conspicuous feature here seems to be the plateau that surrounds the village: a context more redolent of the Black Forest. In a mountain diorama similar to some of Kostner's own works, a different ironical eye is cast over a scene as familiar as the Alps. Rather than copying reality as a means of research, this different strategy of looking may also become pretence. Thus we have a plateau that seems to emerge from the landscape, and where all the houses seem suspended.
The design led to a construction split into two entities, rising like suspended mini-mountains, both to be climbed
The
southwest elevation
features a large terrace
The southwest elevation features a large terrace
On reaching Castelrotto, it's hard to miss the new building as it emerges with its two distinctive entities. As if somehow suspended on a snowcapped spur, the work is best approached from the lower part of the village, by walking along the crest that ends with the two volumes formed by the house and atelier. On the way, several typical local buildings can also be observed, with their small artistic wooden embellishments that reveal the inhabitants' approach to the art of remembering and memory. In the future, the same approach will be part of this new dwelling, too.
Matteo Scagnol and Sandy
Attia explain how their project
reinterprets the construction
materials and technologies
of local tradition, whose
buildings are characterised
by a brick base and an upper
structure in wood
Matteo Scagnol and Sandy Attia explain how their project reinterprets the construction materials and technologies of local tradition, whose buildings are characterised by a brick base and an upper structure in wood
In a way, the fact that we had already seen images of the house taken from below helped to explain the artist's and the architects' attitudes towards an environment where tourism has largely conditioned the way spaces for living, and in this case also work, are considered. From this point of view, the home-atelier set within the village is just as extraneous as those who sent the postcard and those who received it: they are "local strangers" who, through a long and animated dialogue, understood how to bring about a part of the future.

The design led to a construction split into two entities, rising like suspended mini-mountains, both to be climbed. They suggest the idea of seemingly roofless peaks, set against a background like that of the Alps in which roofs practically encapsulate the image of mountain architecture. The two built summits recall the typical local farmhouse, the masi , often built in pairs. This prompted the architects to propose distinct volumes, while highlighting the apparent interference of this building set on a small plot of land between old houses. It's as if it tells the story of a space that has received an element which redesigns the existing context through its fragmentation.
View of the
atelier
View of the atelier
Settling here with a building of this type is equivalent to associating history, represented by local construction, with a way of establishing the contemporary within a future alpine landscape. "You are here," said a notice posted by the artist Kostner in every station of Bolzano's surface metro, signifying that each stop can never be the same as the others, in the incessant flow through a city subject to continuous mutations. This might lead back to a hypothetical "You were here" in the design of this house. In fact, the house simply expresses its own time through a design that combines a no longer distant past with an immediate future — and above all with a future that can no longer be represented by chalets and pseudo-Trentino farmhouses.
Views of the
atelier. This space occupies
two levels: the first is partly
built into the ground, while
the second is completely
glazed and surrounded by
a gallery enclosed with a
trellis. The two top floors
are given over to the home
Views of the atelier. This space occupies two levels: the first is partly built into the ground, while the second is completely glazed and surrounded by a gallery enclosed with a trellis. The two top floors are given over to the home
The life of the Kostner family and the work of the artist unfold under the same roof, or roofs. In the portion that emerges from the ground, the artist works and exhibits his art, and in the part suspended (or hanging from the sky) he lives with his family. His workspace, therefore, is immersed in the ground and physically linked to the next-door building, inhabited by his family of origin. The artist himself, on inviting us to visit his home again in a few months' time, reveals that it sprang from a blunt and unadorned project, through processes that led to spaces modelled by wood assembled without using a single screw, with decoration confined to a carving in the boards of its outer cladding: a tattoo that almost invisibly injures a fragment of the façade.

As Kostner quips, if necessary the house could be demolished in half an hour, using a chain saw to cut the X-beams that hold it together. Which almost makes it a non-permanent feature of this unusual and remarkably un-alpine landscape. Luciano Bolzoni, Architect and scholar of Alpine culture and architecture
The architects and client exchanged a series of postcards with their design views
The architects and client exchanged a series of postcards with their design views
MODUS Architects: Hubert Kostner's home-atelier
Architects: MODUS architects, Sandy Attia, Matteo Scagnol
Design Team: Volkmar Schultz, Samuel Minesso, Veronika Lindinger
Structural Engineering: Rodolfo Senoner
Construction Supervision: Matteo Scagnol
Plant Engineering: Josef Reichhalter
Manufacturers: Urban Winkler (concrete structure); Ludwig Rabanser (timber structure); Wolfartec (windows); Kometal (metalwork); Josef Rier (furnishings)
Client: Hubert Kostner
Altitude: 1,075 m
Site Area: 934 square metres
Underground Built Area: 410 square metres
Aboveground Built Area: 160 square metres
Atelier Floor Area: 200 square metres
Residence Floor Area: 200 square metres
Design Phase: 04/2009 — 06/2010
Construction Phase: 04/2011 — 12/2012

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