32 students from across Europe explore the architectural culture of a country – this was the premise of the Erasmus Intensive Programme, which I participated in during August 2014. For the tenth time, Professor Urs Meister and Carmen Rist, lecturers at the Institute of Architecture and Planning at the University of Liechtenstein, sent out invitations. To date the project has taken place in Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Slovenia, Ireland, Spain, and the Netherlands. On each occasion it was dedicated to a different building material, from brick via concrete to steel. Returning to Liechtenstein and focusing on the Alpine architectural tradition, the material was wood. Our task was to reinterpret traditional timber construction at 1432 meters above sea level. We used the old architectural tradition of hay storage huts, of which there used to be a great many in the mountains of Liechtenstein, as our point of departure.
Constructing with Wood
I grew up in Liechtenstein and during the workshop I fulfilled a dual role: I was a participating student and owner builder. My mother’s family comes from Liechtenstein and we own a plot of land in Tuass in the mountains. It was here and on the Münz alpine pasture that the project took place. Timber was traditionally used for building in Liechtenstein, but that has now changed. Nevertheless in recent decades certain types of log house construction have continued to be developed. The advantages are once again being discussed, such as for example the fact that log house construction enables the inclusion of insulation into the wall layer. But there are also ecological aspects. As an abundant amount of wood grows locally, it makes sense to use it here, rather than merely exporting it.
1434 Meters above Sea Level
The Erasmus Project was conceived to last for ten days. We were divided into groups and shown how earlier hay storage huts were built. This was an incredibly laborious procedure, compared to today’s industrial methods. We were to develop a new type of log house construction, inspired by the old design, but responding to modern visual requirements. We did some experimenting for two days, testing which corner joints would be viable, what the façade might look like, and what solutions could be found for the windows. This resulted in the emergence of creative approaches which would otherwise have been unthinkable. We were supported by the regional log house construction expert Christoph Frommelt, who is also a lecturer at the Institute of Architecture and Planning at the University of Liechtenstein and Managing Director of Frommelt carpentry in Liechtenstein.
An absolute highlight for many of the students was the panoramic view from our workplace. The journey up to the mountain pastures at the Tuass and Münz settlements on the first day, left many speechless, especially those from flat regions. The view from up here over the Rhine valley is unique, but the ascent itself required getting used to as the road is only as wide as a car. On the left-hand side rock cliffs tower up, whilst on the right-hand side there is a fall of hundreds of meters, nevertheless the ascent is worthwhile.
During the project we learned a great deal about Liechtenstein’s history. Up until the 1940s people mainly lived from agriculture. Until the dam on the Rhine was built during the 1920s, the river regularly flooded the valleys, destroying the harvest, meaning the Liechtenstein inhabitants had to seek alternative places for cultivation and storage. This was the origin of the hay storage huts in the mountains. As agriculture became less important, many of the buildings were demolished or converted into vacation homes. Our objective was to build two new cabins for vacationers at Tuass, and we were also to replace a building that still served agricultural purposes on the Münz alpine pasture. It belongs to the local community, serving as a shelter for herders.
We spent the evenings together on the Lawena alpine pasture. Each day people from a different country did the cooking. The hospitality of the local people was overwhelming. Many of the mountain huts belonged to long established inhabitants of Liechtenstein, who normally would have little contact with an international group of people, but nevertheless still invited the students to have a drink of beer or spirits each evening. The Institute of Architecture and Planning at the University of Liechtenstein is generally very international and is not immediately associated with the local region, but this project was a means of changing that. For me too the workshop was a great experience, enabling me to view my homeland from a different perspective. The European students perceived things that for me are normal. I am now able to appreciate not only our architectural tradition but also the environment even more. I have remained in contact with many of the participants. On New Year’s Eve I was in Amsterdam, and one participant from Denmark came to Liechtenstein to look at the cabins.
Anchored in the Region
The only downside during the ten days was that it rained rather a lot – which is not typical for a Liechtenstein summer. As a result the cabins could not be completely assembled. As had been agreed in advance, Christoph Frommelt’s carpentry company completed the construction in their own project, with apprentices from three Liechtenstein businesses taking part. One of the huts at Tuass now belongs to me, and it awakens many memories. I am proud that it looks different to the other buildings in the settlement, and yet still fits into the overall landscape very well. It is modern, but an expert will recognize the timber construction at the corner joints. Many people in Liechtensein were impressed that a group of international students were able to create something so appropriate to the region – to its landscape and culture.
Student University of Liechtenstein and client