Mountains through the Looking Glass

Peter Pichler succeeds in integrating both culture and craftsmanship into his architecture. But what inspires his designs?

  • September 2017

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Mountains through the Looking Glass

Peter Pichler succeeds in integrating both culture and craftsmanship into his architecture. But what inspires his designs?

Strange and exceptional shapes and the use of modern materials are the elements that make contemporary architecture so compelling. When I’m confronted with a building that inspires me, I want to look inside, to press my face against the glass and look inward. Yet sometimes the exact opposite moves me, and I long to look outward towards the horizon.

Like skyscrapers in an endless cityscape, the towering peaks of the South Tyrolean Dolomites beckon me forward. Dangling before me, my legs search for purchase as the chairlift moves me ever closer. Then, just before we arrive atop the Latemar massif, I notice three large window facades to my right. Like the well-rooted trees that surround the structure, the three segments of this contemporary mountain hut are firmly nestled into the landscape. At first glance, seemingly contradictory words like organic, modern and timeless spring to mind.

With my feet on solid ground once more, I cover the distance from the lift to the Oberholz mountain hut in seconds, though I feel as if I’m stepping into a wholly new environment. The building, which is dramatically situated within the Obereggen ski area at 2,096 m, was christened in November of 2016. I can’t wait to discover every inch of this place and who better to guide me than the designer himself: Architect Peter Pichler.

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The Oberholz mountain hut

The Oberholz lift is located just 20 minutes by car from Bolzano/Bozen. In addition to catering to winter-sports enthusiasts, the cable car is also open in summer and serves as a gateway to numerous hiking trails. Because of the location’s popularity, offering guests a place to eat and drink became necessary. With its magnificent architecture and delicious food (high-quality without being too expensive), the mountain restaurant is now one of the ski area’s true highlights.

A Magical Trinity

From the outside, the structure resembles three small conventionally apportioned houses next door to one another. Yet as I enter, I find myself in a spacious room featuring a brightly lit bar – it’s cosy traditional parlour meets modern open-space living room. Moving further inward, I am immediately drawn to one of the three enormous windows and my gaze is cast outward towards the dramatic mountain scenery. “The focus of this interior space is the exterior,” explains Pichler, who collaborated with fellow architect Pavol Mikolajcak on the project. “From these windows, the natural environment is truly on display.”

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In Famous Footsteps

Peter Pichler looks a bit how I would have imagined an architect of his generation. Dressed in jeans and a dark shirt with a suit jacket and a classy watch for good measure, he looks both intelligent and serious. His father is a South Tyrolean business giant and CEO of Stahlbau Pichler, the company currently engaged in the spectacular construction of the Zugspitze cable car. Curiously, Peter’s involvement in his father’s legacy was never a topic. “My path is and always has been my own,” says Peter of his desire to forge his own way forward. It’s hard to deny, however, that success runs in the family. Is there a secret formula? “I think it’s quite simple: Do what you love and become very good at it.” That’s sage-like advice, but such self-clarity is often in short supply in today’s world.

Every path has a beginning and Pichler’s didn’t get off to the best of starts at the Technical University of Vienna. After switching to the University of Applied Arts under the directorship of Star-Architect Zaha Hadid and her congenial partner Patrick Schuhmacher, Pichler discovered his creative side. In next to no time it became clear that he had righted the ship for good: The world of architecture was where he belonged. His course now set, he made stops in Los Angeles, Rotterdam, London and Hamburg. “It was exciting to work on large projects in some of the most renowned architecture firms and to witness the scope of their initiatives. In my heart, however, I knew that I would one day start my own agency.” 

Contradiction Fosters Inspiration

Peter Pichler is a man moulded by his environment: He loves big-city life and rural simplicity in equal measure and each muse inspires new ideas. “I find inspiration while skiing in the mountains or joining the hustle and bustle of an urban landscape. Looking out over craggy peaks from a viewpoint is like being eyelevel with skyscrapers from the top of a building.” As I nod in agreement, I’m still puzzled by the location of his agency. Why Milan? For starters it’s the most important city in Northern Italy. It’s also connected to the world by two airports and it’s located just three hours from South Tyrol by car so an impromptu trip is always possible. But, as Pichler explains, contradictions breed inspiration. How better to appreciate the pulse of urbanity than to occasionally seek refuge in nature? 

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Oxygen for the Soul

Peter’s greatest source of inspiration is open dialogue with people who know what it is to devote themselves heart and soul. He has friends around the world and keeping in contact with them is invaluable.

Peter grins as he recalls the first email he received from a sophisticated businessman in Abu Dhabi. “At first I thought it was spam,” admits Pichler. Instead, it was the opening salvo of a barrage of communication that led to the construction of a desert villa. The businessman, impressed with Pichler’s penchant for the dramatic in designing a project in Southern Italy, was searching for a unique approach. Making his 4,000-m² dreams come true took many Arabian days and nights and the intercultural exchange proved to be one of the project’s most rewarding aspects. 

“I don’t often discuss architecture with architects. I prefer to speak to passionate people from other branches.” Peter Pichler

Though at home on different continents, the two have now become friends. It’s as if architecture was the side effect rather than the main event. The sharing of ideas proved to be the most valuable exchange and the ingredients of lasting success.

Full Immersion

If a farmer’s privilege is watching his crops grow, then the daily yield of an architect is the growth a building. For Pichler, who appreciates spaces where high culture meets cultural diversity, the pinnacle of achievement would be designing an opera house someday. “Such projects must be earned,” says Pichler, who recognises that his body of work must first prove itself worthy of such an opportunity. Though young, he is nevertheless building the foundation for a bright future.

Fundamentally speaking, what is good architecture? Strategy and method are decisive elements of a larger puzzle, the pieces of which are myriad details to be considered. How does the location define the design? What challenges does the climate present. Is the building private or commercial? What feeling should the building give the occupant, the visitor? What are the physical characteristics of the neighbouring buildings and the cultural character of the neighbours? After all, the needs of the people as stakeholders are paramount and an understanding of culture and tradition informs both inspiration and design. 

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“It’s actually quite simple,” says Peter Pichler. Standing next to him on the terrace of the Oberholz mountain hut with the South Tyrolean Dolomites as a backdrop, I begin to truly understand.

Text: Barbara Prugger and Katja Schroffenegger
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photos: Ivo Corrà
Video: Miramonte Film and Andreas Pichler