An enigmatic house by Pascal Flammer offers a perfect platform for landscape contemplation, finds James R Payne.
The damp forests and limestone bluffs of the Jura mountains in the north-west of Switzerland have a more distinctly sober character than the Alps proper. At a strategically important point near Solothurn, where the grain of long parallel valleys is broken by a transverse connecting valley, medieval fortresses tower dramatically over the quiet agricultural and industrial settlement below.
Here, just outside the village of Balsthal, the young Swiss architect Pascal Flammer has built his first project with unusual precision of concept and execution. The house sits in rural isolation within a field at the end of a valley, with forest rising steeply on both sides. Although designed as a weekend cottage for a city-dwelling client, the house is officially defined as a ‘stöckli’, a peripheral building belonging to a larger farm.
The only passers-by are inquisitive hikers making their way up the old Roman road as it climbs precipitously to a higher valley beyond. The object of their passing gaze is a dark timber-gabled volume with overhanging eaves protecting the flank walls. The apparently simple and coherent whole on closer examination resolves into a secondary geometry, a noughts-and-crosses game of diagonal structural positives and round window negatives. Views to and through the house confirm that this is not merely elevational, but a clever spatial and structural puzzle in three dimensions.
Descending a slight incline from the road, the front door under the eaves opens into a low, horizontal ground-floor space. Sunk into the ground to the height of the desks that line the panoramic glazed perimeter, the architect describes this as a ‘piazza-like’ space where the communal activity of the house takes place. The kitchen is cleverly positioned down one diagonal step and round the corner of a small wardrobe and cloakroom. Ascending the steel spiral stair, the first-floor plan is divided into four quadrants; bedrooms occupy three of these and the remaining quadrant has a triangular loft over the bathroom. The tall bedrooms extend to double height at the ridge, with glazed walls facing up or down the valley. The landscape is experienced comfortably from the slightly raised datum created by the sunken ground floor.
There is a certain humour in the timber partitions that slide neatly into the Vitruvian-man-scaled round windows. Even when these are closed, bisecting the circle, one is aware of the symmetrical other half and the totality of the whole house. The structural and spatial concepts are closely integrated to raise the gabled volume above the largely glazed ground floor. Although the laminated timber structure is both concealed and exposed, there is no hidden steel. The central spine wall is in fact a deep beam, as are the flanking walls despite being holed in the centre with the round windows.
Inside, the spruce triboard-lined walls, floors and ceilings match the laminated timber columns and struts; even the curved walls encompassing the stair are timber. Thin planes and chunky structural members alike take on a unified and almost concrete-like plastic quality. Overhanging rafters glimpsed through the circular windows remind the viewer of the actual structural tectonic. Outside, the house is clad with blackstained timber boarding with copper flashing and a standard tiled roof. The highly insulated building has a heat exchanger in the basement and requires little energy input.
While it might recall the chalet or barn forms found in the vicinity, the house draws on a much wider range of influences, notably those of the Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara and the office of Valerio Olgiati, for whom Flammer previously worked. This characterful house stands alone in this slightly eerie place, as self-contained as the Napoleonic soldier depicted in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting ‘Chasseur in the Forest’. The powerful domestic spaces created here allow for a similarly deep contemplation of the landscape.
James Payne is a director of Archipelago Architects. Pascal Flammer will give a lecture on his work on the 27th March at London Metropolitan University.
Architect: Pascal Flammer; collaborator: Yuu César Barreyre; structural engineer: Conzett Bronzini Gartmann, Rolf Bachofner; client: private.
First published in AT226, March 2012