© Kottersteger

Architecture in South Tyrol: So Close to Heaven

South Tyrol is an architectural El Dorado: nowhere else can so many fascinating and unusual buildings be discovered that fit perfectly into the rugged mountain landscape. High-quality materials are standard here.

May 10, 2024

Clear shapes and spectacular views: architecture is there to showcase nature. © Jeremy Austin

Probably the innovative understanding of architecture in South Tyrol can be summed up quite simply: nature is the real star. The rugged Dolomites have always been a great challenge, whether due to impassable terrain or harsh climate. Architecture that can survive in this extreme landscape needs a clear language of form. It must be functional and resilient, but also distinctive enough not to be swallowed up by the dramatic view of the mountains.

Innovative architecture like a wood carving that plays with being folded and twisted. © Lukas Schaller

In the beginning, they were loners who were somewhat stubborn in realizing their vision of translating traditional building methods into a modern design language. Werner Tscholl, born in 1955, is one of these Alpine pioneers. His buildings have something sculptural about them and enter into dialogue with their surroundings, as in the Timmelsjoch project. Or Othmar Barth, born in 1927, who presented a milestone of brutalist architecture with the Seehotel Ambach in 1973. Purist buildings of exposed concrete, at the same time refined in detail, fit well in the region. They take a back seat without modesty, embodying modernism without kitsch - and spectacularly setting off the surrounding landscape. For example, from the balconies of the Hotel Ambach you can see Lake Kaltern as if through a picture frame. The Stadele Rooms hotel in Lana is also a monolith made of concrete: with its emphatically minimalist design, it conjures up a touch of Japan in South Tyrol. The interplay of cool concrete on the outside and cozy, high-quality wood from the region on the inside creates an exciting contrast.

At 2700 meters lies the newly built Santnerpass Hut, which was initially controversial. © Nicola Paltrinieri

The new spa of the Alpin Panorama Hotel Hubertus is also an absolute eye-catcher, adapting to the mountain landscape in its choice of colors and materials. It seems somehow weightless; as if in a bird's nest, one looks, completely freed from everyday life, at the surrounding mountains. With this unusual wellness area, the architectural firm NOA has created a new landmark for the region. As impressive as the building is, it doesn't impose itself - the large glass fronts give you the feeling of being in the midst of nature. This is how South Tyrol builds: the landscape remains the star.

At the Berghütte Oberholz three gable roofs seem to grow out of the slope. © Günther Pichler

Here, even mountain huts have a distinct shape, seeming to nestle into the rocks or jut out of the stone. Zaha Hadid's Messner Mountain Museum, built from 2012 to 2015, was a major impetus for futuristic architecture in the Alps. The Mountain Hut Oberholz, for example, sits at the foot of the impressive Latemar rock range. Three gable roofs - traditional elements that are played with here - seem to grow out of the slope. The sky and the mountains are reflected in the large windows, and the sophisticated wooden construction inside resembles a skeleton. One could also be in the belly of a whale. The Santnerpass Cabin, located at 2700 meters, on the other hand, was controversial due to its sheer size, but architecturally it certainly seems innovative. It sits enthroned like a mountain on a mountain. It seems to be its own peak on the peak.

Alpine wooden architecture with reduced design is also the focus of South Tyrolean architect Martin Gruber, who has created a perfect retreat in the mountains with the Anders Mountain Suites. The building grows out of the ground like a mushroom, organic design and clean lines characterize an architecture that embodies simple luxury. The interiors are lined with natural spruce wood; floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows enable you to experience the mountains in every mood of light and inspire.

Anders Moutain Suites is a perfect retreat in the mountains - the building grows out of the ground like a mushroom© Tobias Kaser

Wood artwork

Even sober functional buildings are surprisingly innovative in South Tyrol. For example, the wood carving company Ulrich Perathoner had a wooden block with shingles designed that looks like a cube that can be twisted. The architecture plays with being carved and folded. This fits perfectly as a studio for someone who creates works of art from wood. Form and content in this building by Bergmeisterwolf of Bressanone go hand in hand. Here, the outer skin acts as a kind of living facade. This is another great advantage of building in South Tyrol: the architectural firms are local, people are networked, they know each other personally. They take the time to develop projects that are unique and tailor-made, down-to-earth and yet cosmopolitan - just like South Tyrol itself.

This article appeared in the Falstaff TRAVEL issue South Tyrol Special 2023.

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