Architecture at new heights

Mountain refuges are multi-facetted: landmark, stop for food and drink, place to sleep in the mountains, and a shelter from the harsh forces of Mother Nature. How best do trends in modern architecture channel this tried & true versatility?

  • September 2019

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Architecture at new heights

Mountain refuges are multi-facetted: landmark, stop for food and drink, place to sleep in the mountains, and a shelter from the harsh forces of Mother Nature. How best do trends in modern architecture channel this tried & true versatility?

Some 200 years ago, the first scientists and adventurers ascended into the high mountains. All the while, locals, hunters and shepherds shook their heads in disbelief. After all, why would anyone in his right mind venture beyond the treeline? Rock and ice and unimagined dangers lurked beyond this boundary line. And yet as interest in the natural world grew amongst the middle class, the seeds of “mountaineering” were planted. With more people heading up to explore, reliable bases in the high mountains were a much-needed practicality.
Within just a few decades, numerous mountain refuges sprang up in South Tyrol, the majority of which were constructed by the Alpine Club founded in 1869. The formula was simple: Successful refuges offered hikers simple food and a protective roof over their heads in a seemingly harsh mountain environment. Although mountaineering has changed considerably in the intervening years, transforming into a popular leisure activity, mountain refuges have retained their original function as places of shelter and as landmarks on the mountain.

un escursionista sta per arrivare al

The construction of the “Tierser Alpl” refuge

 “My father-in-law Max Aichner was responsible for constructing everything here,” says current hut keeper Stefan. “There wasn’t much here before, not even a trail. At the age of 20, Max had the foresight to recognise that this was a strategic point.”

il rifugio alpe di tires oggi

In the 1950s, many young South Tyroleans left their homeland because there was hardly any work. Max Aichner, however, refused to leave. “He loved the mountains too much and decided instead to work as a porter at the Vajolet mountain hut. With his savings, he bought the 200-m2 property at the Tierser Sattel saddle and began to construct his mountain hut. Piece by piece, stone by stone, he laid the foundation all by himself using rocks from the surrounding area as bricks. From his home in Seis/Siusi, he ascended 1,400 metres up from the valley to the building site carrying cement and wood on his back. Finally, in 1963, after six years of hard work, the hut was finally completed.”

nonno max che e salito al rifugio in macchina da solo come ogni settimana parla con stefan 2

Never quite finished

Some places never change. The Tierser Alpl mountain hut on the other hands has been continuously adapted to keep pace with the times. “Every year, Max invested a portion of profits to enlarge or improve the existing refuge or to build access roads and via ferratas. He always saw to such projects personally.”

il rifugio alpe di tires nella sua prima versione
il vecchio e il nuovo si incontrano

Even a hut needs foresight

In 1992, Max Aichner handed the hut over to his youngest daughter Judith and her husband Stefan. “We were just 25 years old at the time. I had recently completed my business studies and although I had worked at the hut for several summers already, Max initially had doubts about entrusting me with the refuge. In his eyes, I was a student lacking in practicality,” says Stefan in fond remembrance. “But Max soon changed his mind because the business continued to do well. Again and again, we expanded the hut from 70 to 120 beds.” The refuge was connected to the power supply and sewerage systems. The petrol-powered generators, which they had previously used, were dispensed with. “Things were going well, but we lacked vision. So we decided to try something new in 2013.” Keen for a new direction, the hut keepers commissioned architects Paul Senoner and Lukas Tammerle to renovate the shelter.

The hut with the red roof

During construction, parts of the old building were preserved and connected to the modernised sections. The large red roof, a visual element that now extends over the entire hut, is visible from afar. Inside, an architectural dialogue between old and new, between aesthetics and functionality is on-going. Naturally, requirements and construction methods in the mountains have changed greatly since Max Aichner first climbed up from the Tschamintal valley some 60 years ago, carrying tools and materials for his hut on his shoulders.

stefan e gli architetti hanno i

Modern construction at familiar heights

Paul Senoner and Lukas Tammerle’s architectural office is housed in a converted old barn in Kastelruth/Castelrotto, just a few kilometres as the crow flies from the refuge. “What Max Aichner achieved in the 1950s is hard to believe. Today, such methods would be unthinkable. In the past, materials were a great expense. These days it’s time,” explains Lukas. “Today, a lot goes into preparations for building on a mountain. Light materials are selected that can be easily transported. With preparations in place, the actual construction process goes quite quickly and accurately.”

paul senoner e lukas tammerle

Do construction projects on the mountain still differ from those in the valley? “Mountain projects require a particularly high degree of adaptability as far as the terrain and nature are concerned. Weather conditions must also be taken into account,” says Lukas. “If the construction site can be reached by road, as is the case with the Tierser Alpl refuge, material transport is relatively easy. Things can change quickly if affected by a sudden heavy snowfall. In refuges that can only be reached via a material ropeway or helicopter, the problem during transport is often not the snow but the wind. Every mountain-hut construction site has its own unique challenges.”

Form follows function

Architecture in the high mountains has changed radically in recent years, though the core idea behind planning a refuge actually remains unchanged. “When you build in the city, your aesthetic choices must always take into account the surrounding buildings, the colours of the roofs, the other façades, the dominant architectural style,” says Paul. “In the mountains, there are no neighbouring buildings to consider and the structure is instead just a tiny point on the mountain, seemingly lost in the immensity of nature. Mother Nature is not only a much better architect, but also a quite changeable environment to build in.”

“Buildings in the high mountains have unique structural demands,” says Paul. “It’s a bit like blasting off into outer space: there are far more pressing problems to solve before deciding how to decorate your rocket. When it comes to mountain refuges, it's important that the construction is solid, that the space is used optimally, and that materials and manpower are used as efficiently as possible. To offer the best solutions, it was key for us to learn from the hut keepers and to understand what they needed from the new hut.”

la nuova sala

Tierser Alpl

Judith Aichner and her husband Stefan Perathoner have operated the “Tierser Alpl” refuge for more than 25 years now. The refuge at 2,440 m above sea level was the first private hut in the Schlern-Rosengarten area. Unsurprisingly, the hut is still a hub for many mountain routes and, especially when crossing the mountain range, a can’t-miss place to take a break for food and drink. Enjoy the view at a special place that took decades to realise, yet will never be entirely finished.

What farms and huts in the mountains have in common

As a hut architect, Paul is also convinced that there is a lot to be learned from the construction of mountain farms: “In former times, South Tyrolean farms were not planned by architects. They were built according to experience and the collaborative efforts of several craftsmen. The buildings were constantly optimised and improved. These were slow developments that took place over generations. Practical challenges that required efficient solutions rather than aesthetic issues determined further development.
Our challenges were similar: once we had solved the technical problems, i.e. loads on physical structures, volume and use of space, questions regarding the aesthetics of the refuge came naturally. The starting point of contemporary architecture, including mountain architecture, is often the exterior. Afterwards the interior spaces are determined according to their purpose. The result is that some structures no longer appear conventional and instead resemble a spaceship. Our project was different and I would even venture to say that our approach resembles the spontaneous and functional architecture of farmhouses. I also think that this is why our project received the architecture award.”
Renovation and expansion works at the “Tierser Alpl” mountain refuge lasted from autumn 2013 to spring 2015. The hut nevertheless remained open during the peak season. Not long after the hut was completed, the architects were awarded the 2015 “Architekturpreis Südtirol” architecture award in the category “Building for Tourism”.

il primo piano del rifugio

The only constant is change

While hut keepers Judith and Stefan and their guests instantly took to the changes, Max, the original builder, was initially sceptical, recalls Stefan. Small wonder: “Some of what he had laboriously transported here more than half a century earlier and erected with his bare hands had disappeared during renovations. But at some point he said: ‘They may have changed my style a bit, but the boys (Paul Senoner and Lukas Tammerle) didn't do so badly after all!’” says Stefan, quoting the reaction of Max.
The architectural duo succeeded in creating a beautiful space that respects the history and soul of his original refuge. They were of course cognizant that what is new today will someday also be old. When that day comes, different generations of builders and architects will repeat the cycle anew. During the two-year renovation phase, Paul visited the construction site on the Tierser Sattel saddle about 70 times. Who knows: Perhaps the design was so successful because Paul never arrived by car? Each time he visited, he hiked up the 1,400 meters of altitude from the valley to the refuge in the footsteps of the original builder, Max.
Text: Alessandro Cristofoletti
Translation into English: Covi, Wurzer & Partner
Photos: Alessandro Cristofoletti / Harald Wisthaler
Video: Miramonte Film/Andreas Pichler