Architects Georg Nickisch and Selina Walder are the designers of ‘Refuge Lieptgas’, a small cabin in the Swiss wilderness. The design is about linking back to the past whilst acknowledging the present through a modern twist. The architectural context of the place – the Swiss mountain cottage – is present, but also radically reinterpreted in a stark concrete minimalist design which is as considered as it is deep. [Warning: Deep meaningful article ahead… may require coffee and even induce a tear or two (but it’s worth it).]
The cabin stands where a once decaying wooden structure used to be, in a forest of Flims in the Swiss Alps. The inspiration for the new build was the vernacular abandoned building itself.
“The character of the place had to be preserved”, say Georg and Selina of Nickisch Sano Walder Architekten.
The solution to preserving memory was to base the new structure on the old. The footprint of the new building follows the original. The form of the modern concrete cabin also resembles the pre-existing Swiss cabin. Concrete is used to freeze the memory of the place and turn it into a new, sleek, minimal dwelling. In this way, the new shelter is an architectural reincarnation of the previous building, as the architects explain:
“The new hut now stands as a petrification of the abandoned structure in exactly the same place”.
This is where the textured exterior facade becomes important. To reinforce the idea of memory, the architects created a negative mould of what once stood in its place. “The timber log constuction of the old cabin was used as the formwork, the walls were cast massively in insulating concrete”, they explain. This gives the building its distinctive look, and adds to the story of the place.
In the interiors, we understand how the architects wanted to achieve a sense of blissful isolation through a modern minimalism softened by odd games of light and orchestrated framed views.
The ground level is an open plan concrete shell housing the living area and the kitchen. A round oculus acts as an off-centred skylight and becomes one of the main features which add to the simple beauty of this place. An open fireplace in the back wall heats up the room and becomes a comforting feature breaking the concrete monotony. The same can be said with the heated bench positioned on the side, and the large window which it sits under. The latter allows nature into the building, acting as a backdrop for reflection and daily life.
To the opposite side of the window, a staircase takes you to the underground sleeping quarters.
A large window frames an existing boulder, connecting the inhabitant to its wonderful natural setting and allowing the organic textures of nature to intrude with the geometric, angular man-made concrete interiors. Crepuscular light is allowed to filter underground as it falls through the gap between the building and the rock. The window incorporates a bathtub made from a big heated concrete plinth… a wonderful place to relax and soak in the atmosphere.
In its simplicity, it is easy to see that Georg Nickisch and Selina Walder are not just architects, but poets who play with form and light.
The building is clearly built to last (hence the concrete), however it is interesting to note how the architects want it to be part of the journey of the place. The exterior, which in itself is a link to the past, becomes also the element which will allow the building to develop in time organically. The architects explain, “the surface is rough, nature will soon reconquer the artefact”. And when it does, the cyclical nature of life and death will (perhaps) begin again, with a new project by new architects wishing to continue the story of this humble yet magnificent place.
Or… you can simply see this building as it it. A small minimal wonder of exposed concrete, set in idillic surroundings and creating the mood for relaxation in isolation and design.