Seeing Things

Mountain architecture is very different from its flatland counterpart. (I know this may be stating the obvious, but I’m referring to buildings situated at high altitudes in very rugged terrain, and not buildings fashioned to remotely ‘look’ like mountains, such as, for example, in Copenhagen or Barcelona.) The extreme climate, the absence of roads or infrastructure, and the human risks and dangers posed by ‘real’ mountains entail that buildings situated in this type of environment must respond to very different kinds of design imperatives than buildings in cities. (Again, excuse me for stating the obvious, but these days, architecture and rationality seem to be headed in opposite directions.)

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 a-bureau.com

It is interesting, 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. In dangerous high-mountain terrain, interestingly, there’s a sort of unspoken rule: nobody is ‘above’ anyone else in terms of wealth, only in terms of experience and knowledge (if only this were the case everywhere else too). This is why Sherpa guides rule in the Himalayas, and not the millionaires who hire them. In any case, to return to the subject: 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 afar. 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 hut

A vernacular hut

A traditional vernacular hut

What use, then, is a hut that is camouflaged into the landscape? Obviously, only someone in the know would be able to take refuge in this hut. Or else, only those persons knowing the exact GPS coordinates. Members of a certain club, perhaps? Certainly, Antoine’s camo job seems so good, 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 purely rhetorical: as a work of ‘art’ that, as if it were on display in an art museum, 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 Wally?’ sculpture theme-park?)

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

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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