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Tradition tempts technology by Iain Aitch

It may have been designed with custom-programmed software, but Chesa Futura owes just as much to the kind of houses and chalets conjured up by our mind’s eye when we hear the word ‘Switzerland’ as it does to cutting edge computer technology. Set on the slopes of the Engadin Valley, overlooking the town of St Moritz and its lake, the shimmering ovoid structure looks every inch a piece of pure 21st century design. But it turns out that both the inspiration for and execution of this unique project are rooted firmly in Swiss tradition, from the pilotis that raise it from the ground to the wooden shingles that coat its exterior.

Serendipity played its part in the design process as well: When the project’s developer Sisa AG approached prestigious English practise Foster and Partners they couldn’t have known that they would end up with a project director who knew the Engadin Valley like the back of his hand. In fact, Milan-born Matteo Fantoni had even more insight than some locals into the exact nature of the site, having stayed in the apartment building that would make way for Chesa Futura during some of his numerous visits to the area in his youth.

“We had friends who had flats in the building that was there before Chesa Futura,” says Fantoni. “So I knew the view, I knew the orientation, I knew the mountains around.”

Proceeding with an open brief and a blank piece of paper Fantoni realised that the elevated, curved shape of Chesa Futura would be ideal for the site and the more he explored this approach the more practical it became. The steel legs that raise the wooden shell by eleven-and-a-half feet from the ground ape a Swiss mountain home tradition that prolongs the life of timber structures by minimising contact with the chilling and dampening snow, but it also takes the structure clear of the houses in front of it, meaning that each floor is afforded a much sought-after view of the lake.

The five-storey building that Fantoni holidayed in as a teenager had two lower levels that suffered from views restricted by the houses in front of them and the resultant lack of light. That’s something that Chesa Futura’s residents will never need to worry about, as the building’s convex southerly aspect contains enormous windows that look out on to a terrace and offer panoramic views of St Moritz. The north-facing rear of the building is radically different – concave to afford maximum insulation from the mountain winds, it is dotted with small windows, set at an angle so as to allow the maximum sunlight in whilst protecting the building from the often extreme conditions.

Despite its raised position Chesa Futura intrudes no further into the skyline than its predecessor. Just over 50 feet tall at its apex, the building has been constructed with a slight downward tilt as the valley rises to ensure that it fits snugly into the envelope left by the old apartment building. This was vital to comply with local planning regulations and ensure neighbours did not lose their view of the lake. Such a radical design in this idyllic location was bound to bring some objections, but by meticulously keeping within local code Foster and Partners minimised disruption to the project. Getting the local mayor onside helped too, even though he wasn’t sure when he first saw the plans.

“He was silent for twenty minutes,” says Fantoni. “He then eventually said ‘you can have my full support on it, because it is going to be great for our valley, Switzerland and St Moritz’.” This seems to have been an astute judgement, as the building has already become something of a tourist attraction, with locals and visitors alike stopping to take a snapshot or simply stand and stare.

From a distance, Chesa Futura almost appears to hover above the side of the valley like a wood-clad mother ship, the sun illuminating its larch shingles. These hand-cut wooden tiles, which cover the entire surface of the building, are another piece of Swiss tradition that Foster and Partners sought out in their travels across the Alpine region looking for inspiration and materials. One great discovery was 82-year-old Lorenz Kraettli, who has been making shingles all of his life.

“He selected 80 trees, took them home and with his family chopped all the pieces,” says Fantoni. “They produced 250,000 pieces out of 80 trees and then put them on the structure of the building over the batons in a period of five or six months. We learnt a lot of stories from him about how to cut trees. You can have better structural performance if you cut radial to the log. It creates a much stronger scheme that will last as long as possible. Kraettli says that the tiles will change colour and alter appearance and they will have a lifespan of up to 80 years.”

The structure is topped off with a copper-coated roof, another Swiss material used for practicality as much as tradition. Its malleability at low temperatures (it can reach below zero Fahrenheit in the valley) meant that it could be fabricated on site, rather than having to be awkwardly transported through the tiny side streets of St Moritz. It is this ability to adapt and think ahead that Fantoni believes has made the project such a success, in terms of both construction and in building relationships in the local area.

“The people who have been helping us from the city and the people related to the project have always been very courageous,” he explains. “This is a lot to do with the spirit of the place.” He cites the sporting attitude that pervades in St Moritz as an example of this ‘can do’ approach, from the kite surfers catching the brisk winds on the lake to the competitors in the annual ski marathon.

It comes as little surprise to discover that amongst the 13,000 skiers embracing this spirit each March is Foster Partners’ director, 68-year-old Lord Foster, who obviously enjoys his sporting pursuits to be every bit as challenging as his buildings. Having purchased one of the seven apartments in Chesa Futura he is at least guaranteed stunning surroundings in which to recover from his exertions, be they in the field of architecture or winter sports.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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