Seeing Things

Mountain architecture is very different from its flatland counterpart. This may be stating the obvious, but I’m referring here to buildings situated at high altitudes in very rugged terrain; not buildings fashioned to ‘look’ like mountains, such as those in Copenhagen or Barcelona. The extreme climate, the absence of roads or infrastructure, and the human risks and dangers posed by ‘real’ mountains mean that buildings situated in this type of environment must respond to very different kinds of design imperatives than buildings in cities.

Boulder-shaped hut named 'Antoine' in the Swiss Alps by Bureau A
Boulder-shaped hut named ‘Antoine’ in the Swiss Alps by Bureau A. Image courtesy

It is curious, then, to come across projects such as this ‘concept hut’ titled ‘Antoine’, by Bureau A of Geneva; an alpine hut designed to resemble a boulder in order to render it invisible; in order to camouflage it into its rocky landscape. You might think this is some sort of Swiss military observation post, but no, this is ‘everyday camouflage’, as their project explanation implies:

“ANTOINE creates an alpine shelter, a precarious «Existenzminimum» somewhat subversive in its use where one can freely enter and hide.” (the emphasis is mine).

Normally, high alpine huts are intended to be everything that this hut is not: easy to see. The reasons are obvious: their purpose is to provide refuge to any souls who may be in need of it, be it to spend the night or to take shelter from a sudden snowstorm. The most essential thing about a mountain hut is that it needs to be visible from afar in order to make itself useful. Its presence needs to be made perceivable. Traditional vernacular stone and timber huts, for example, would always be sited as ‘landmarks’, at locations where they could be spotted from a distance. Modern prefab mountain huts, the kind that are delivered to their location by helicopter, are sometimes even painted dayglo orange to maximize their visibility in an emergency.

The Baborte Refuge in the Catalan Pyrenees
A modern prefab mountain refuge
A vernacular hut
A vernacular mountain refuge

What use, then, is a hut that is camouflaged into the landscape? Obviously, only someone in the know –and possessing the exact GPS coordinates– would be able to take refuge in this hut. Members of a club, perhaps? Certainly, Antoine’s camo job seems so well done that any unsuspecting person would think it’s a boulder even while standing next to it. In a blinding snowstorm, precisely when a hut is needed the most, Antoine would be nearly impossible to find.

What should we make of this? That the architects have a sadistic streak? That the hut is only to be used by some people and not by others? Or is the hut not, in fact, intended to be used by anyone? Maybe the hut is intended to be merely rhetorical; a work of ‘art’ that, as if it were on display in an art museum and is not even supposed to be touched, only admired visually. The project explanation even describes it as a work of ‘inhabitable sculpture’ situated within a sculpture park. A ‘Where’s Waldo?’ sculpture theme-park?

Now I get it: it’s art, and not architecture at all. Silly me.


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