Alpine Adventures

24 September 2008 (Last Updated September 24th, 2008 18:30)

Readily associated with chocolate box kitsch, the Alpine resort seems an unlikely exponent of modern architecture. But, as Phin Foster discovers, the Strata Hotel does more than break with convention.

Alpine Adventures

The Rainer Hotel & Residence, in the steep hillside of Sesto, 70 miles north-east of Bolzano, Italy, has been family-run for over 40 years. Plasma is a cutting-edge UK architectural studio that, despite picking up the Architecture Foundation's prestigious Next-Generation Award in 2007, has been considered 'too challenging' for commissions in its home market across almost a decade of practice.

A strange marriage, but it works

When Judith and Christian Schwienbacher decided to construct an annexe onto the Königswarte Residence, one of four accommodation blocks on site, they were committed to creating something of artistic value.

"The clients were certainly looking for a modern architect," Plasma associate partner Ulla Hell explains. "It's a family resort that targets young people. For those who have an interest in design, such resorts aren't always the best. The clients saw the potential for a nice niche."

The family does have architectural form. It was Judith Schwienbacher's father, Willi Rainer, who initiated the New Alpine Architecture award and the region itself has a tradition of innovative builds – prominent Austrian architect Clemens Holzmeister designed Sesto's Hotel Drei Zinnen. The family was intent upon continuing this legacy.

The result, completed in November 2007, is the Strata Hotel / extension to the Residence Königswarte. Indexed and organised by series of timber strips, its free-flowing topography is designed to mirror the building's natural environment, with continuous horizontal lines of larch wood blurring into the surrounding landscape. The result is simultaneously complex and simple: a minimum use of materials fitted to create clean, multiple angles.

"The client thought we'd make fewer mistakes if we limited the number of materials," Hell jokes. "The larch wood comes from the surrounding forests and has been traditionally used for building in the area. The emphasis upon sourcing locally heightens the sense of integration of the finished product."

The importance of belonging and locality flies in the face of many modern architecture stereotypes, but Hell, who has founded Plasma's Italian headquarters just 5km from the site, saw this as a central tenet of the commission. "We did not look to create something that stands out or declares its presence too loudly," she says. "It's always easier to fuse a building with its surroundings on a hillside than it is on flat land, and we wanted to heighten experience rather than dramatically alter it."

Strata design

The extension is divided into two parts. The guest accommodation in the right wing of the hotel has balconies directed towards the mountains, while the left wing houses a private home. Guestrooms come in the form of family apartments, ten in all, with a continued focus on minimising material variety.

"The emphasis upon sourcing locally heightens the sense of integration of the finished product."

"We were dealing with quite compact space," Hell explains, "and had to establish separate sleeping facilities for parents and kids, a living area, kitchen and bathroom. The look and feel was developed with strong collaboration from the client."

Each floor has a different colour scheme within the kitchen and bathroom, but the dominant tone remains that of larch. It has been used for the flooring and furniture, designed in-house by the architectural studio.

"It's a great scale to work on," Hell believes, "bigger than a family house, but still not a huge, typical hotel.

"There are always lots of interests to address in such a project, but managing that expectation helps define the end product and create something truly collaborative and functional."

She forgot to mention beautiful.