Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
SkySpace
by Daniel Frisch
Posted March 20th, 2019

This is my first post that can fairly be called a dispatch – as I am writing on my laptop from the library of the Gastof Rotewand, in Lech, Austria. I am enjoying spring break with my family, as well as with Jamie and Zoe, who you know from DFA. Between ski runs, meals and pool time, Zoe, Jamie, and I are able to talk quietly, considering DFA from a distance, and we share insights and thoughts without the distractions of the day-to-day. The trip is made even more special as Jamie’s family (on his father’s side) is Austrian, and he has three generations of family here in Lech.

Austria is a long way to travel, but Jamie and Zoe and their extended family (we are staying in a cousin’s hotel), welcome us and make us feel at home. Lech is an Alpen ski-resort community with a full-time population of only 1500, yet boasting 8500 hotel beds. Perhaps my favorite thing about the area, other than it’s being the birthplace of alpine skiing, is that the families that owned most of the property before resort days built and maintained the hotels and resort amenities (ski lifts), and do to this day. Sheraton, Hilton, Ritz Carleton and the Fours Seasons brands are nowhere to be found. When Jamie first started telling me about Lech and it’s tradition of hospitality, design and architecture, I thought he was up-selling his ancestral home. I know people from Grand Rapids (my childhood home) to Charlotte (a recent place visited) who do the same thing. I believe all places deserve such pride of place, but notwithstanding, Jamie is right, and that Lech is spectacular in many ways.

Architecturally, I’ll limit myself to a hotel and two restaurants we’ve come to know very well. The first is Walch’s Gastof Rote Wand in the hamlet of Zug on the perimeter of Lech. The Rote Wand is owned and run by Jamie’s cousin Joschi and his wife Natasha. The main building is referred to as Zug 5, as it is the fifth oldest structure in Zug, dating to the sixteenth century. The building is un-presupposing from the exterior, appearing similar to many, if not most, of the snow-covered shallow pitched structures throughout Lech. The Rote Wand commenced hotel operations in 1959 and was probably on the forefront of traditional Austrian design and hospitality. Today, when walking into the hotel – recently and ingeniously re-branded as a “Gourmet Hotel,” – I am struck by the simple and graceful modernity as well as the simple lines of the lobby, bar and dining room. Which feature warm natural oak paneling and subtle elegant lighting. The public spaces of the Rote Wand are more akin to Alvar Aalto’s Scandanavian classicism than what one would expect inside a four hundred year old vernacular building in the Alps. The modern themes continue to the guest rooms and suites, which the Walch family and their architects put similar thought into each room type’s unique layout and design.

The two restaurants we visit every trip are separated by a single chair lift, yet are a world apart. The first is in town at the base of the Kriegerhoff lift, and the second is 2500 meters above sea level at the top of the same lift.   The in-town restaurant is named Schnegeraii, and from the outside, it is looks like any other Lech building. Inside, the blend of modernity and vernacular is so seamless that the casual observer and patron might miss the countless subtle design innovations. If one were to aspire to create an architecture that recedes into the background yet still delights, I would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the restaurant Schnegaraii.

Let’s put on our skis and get on the lift. As you ascend the summit a building comes into view. It looks deceivingly like a modern utility barn, perhaps one that would house the sno-cats that roam over the mountain each evening. But, ski from the lift over to the structure and you will encounter Der Wolf, a restaurant as well designed to capture a view as any I have visited. There are other panoramic restaurants above Lech, one or two of which hang precariously over the edge, but none justify our annual trip in the same way as Der Wolf. While I have taken pictures of it, through it, and from it, I can’t do it justice. A few days ago, I took out my pen and sketched it, not that I had a prayer of capturing it’s essence, but that I might study it a bit more carefully and by doing so, remember it a bit more clearly.

Clarity brings me to the primary subject of this dispatch; James Turrell’s SkySpace. As a contemporary artist, James Turrell has contributed significantly to our understanding of light, architecture and nature, and I’ve been an admirer of his work since graduate school. The residents of Lech, all fifteen hundred of them, sought out James Turrell to conceive and install a permanent work of art in nature showcasing their pride of place. The result is SkySpace Lech, one of ninety-something SkySpaces in places of resplendent natural beauty Mr. Turrell has erected around the world. We talked the kids into joining us for the walk up the hill, and when we arrived at the smallish oval structure in the biting cold, I’d thought we had made a mistake in pushing our art tour upon them. But after half an hour of playing in the snow high in the Alps, the frigid children and parents settled in for a fifteen-minute ‘tour’ of the SkySpace. As the sun set in the perfect oval room with its crisply cut oculus open to the sky, and as the domed space changed colors (or was the sky changing?), even our nine and seven-year old kids became transfixed. At Der Wolf, the spectacular framing of the Alps is supplemented, depending on age, by schnapps and French fries. In James Turrell’s SkyScape, there is nothing other than the precise manipulation of light and nature to compel reflection and to awe. Old and young, we were, indeed, awed, and in spite of the chill, we struggled to pull ourselves away and to walk back down the mountain to the comfort of our home at the Rote Wand. Thank you to the fifteen hindered residents of Lech who had the vision and wherewithal to commission James Turrell and to bring SkySpace to Lech; while a very small structure, it’s a vision as large and compelling as thei ski lifts and hotels.

Closing now on the airplane as we return to New York, and having experienced all that we did this week, I ask myself, why do airlines not serve kids’ meals?

DF, 3-4-2019