Monday, July 20, 2009

Vrin and Gion Caminada

One of the biggest reasons I am in Switzerland to begin with was the study the work and context of the architect Gion A. Caminada. Gion lives and works out of the small town of Cons, about 1.5km south of the small mountain village of Vrin, population 240. Vrin lies in the Lumnezia valley in the canton of Graubunden, Switzerland, nestled into the Alps that surround it. For most exterior purposes, Vrin is like many of the mountain villages that dot the landscape in the Swiss countryside. It has a small population made up of mostly farmers and herdsman, struggles with what and how to regard tourism while retaining its unique culture, and has faced economic hardship and dwindling population over the years. But Vrin is different in that in 1979 they formed the "Pro Vrin Foundation" in order to try and preserve their culture and way of life, but also actively seek new alternatives and methods in both architecture and planning that would not allow them to fade into economic obscurity. They started with the mantra "Preservation by Design", which means to keep their heritage intact but develop new methods of building in this remote mountain community.

One of the methods of building that Gion Caminada and the population of Vrin have been working with most extensively is the art of "strickbau" construction. Strickbau is extremely common in most alpine regions and consists of "layered wooden beams, 'knitted' together at the corners for stability and typically extending somewhat from the core block." One of the main industries in the alpine region is wood, so thick timbered construction is used for its durability and plentiful availability. What Gion was faced with, was how to take this traditional building technique and incorporate it into buildings of the 21st century. Also important was the economic livelihood of Vrin, so using local labor and materials was necessary to jump start the economy again and keep the money in the hands of the community with the creation of new jobs. What I think is most important about all of this is that the architecture is not a radical departure from the traditions and techniques developed over the ages, but an improvement and building upon them. Many times I would walk by a building several times without realizing it was designed by Gion, which I believe to be a great testament to fitting within and enhancing a given context, not trying to overpower it. Which made me think of Vals, and the introduction of Peter Zumthor's baths. I'm not sure how the village was before the pritzker prize winner designed his masterpiece, but it has also transformed the countryside through the construction of numerous and not particularly well done hotels needed to cope with the large increase in tourism. Does dropping a wonderful piece of architecture into a rural mountain town radically transform that area by tourism alone and therefore destroy what made it unique in the first place? Though of course this is also a question about how to handle tourism, and I digress back to my initial point about the context of Vrin... In response to a question about repetition or discovery in an interview, Caminada replies:

"Repetition has always interested me. I find the vast visual diversity of our modern cities extremely boring. The monosyllabic style of an old Italian city is attractive by contrast. I believe we are not even capable of registering too much diversity. One must repeat certain things to prevent the world from becoming monotonous."

I brought the quote up because I believe it talks about the context of Vrin and the honest attempt to fit in with a context, not act as a radical departure for it. Which brings up a whole other slew of questions about globalization and if architects should even be allowed to design in a place they have never been. Even after doing multiple competitions myself in locations I had never traveled to before, I'm under the mindset that all of the internet research and googleEarth mapping I could do would never be enough for actual on the ground experience. Caminada has lived in Vrin almost his whole life, growing up there to his farmer father and working in carpentry for most of his youth, and mostly only branched out to similar contexts he can understand and design within.

But back to the"strickbau" typology [there are too many things to write about and not enough keystrokes in the day]. As I mentioned earlier in my ramblings, strickbau is a construction type made up of heavy wooden members knitted together and usually extending over at the corners. Think "Lincoln Logs" in real scale and you'll be pretty close to picturing it. Strickbau was and is used because it could deal with non intensively manufactured logs and minimal construction materials, many of the fasteners being different types of dovetail joinery. The question then is how to take this construction type and update it to meet the modern demands of residences and buildings with the improvement of building technologies? Currently, Caminada has been updating the joint where the members connect using a hybrid type of stick framing eerily similar to some construction in the United States. Though instead of regular platform framing studs, parts of the wall are pre-assembled and overlap at the corners for a minimum use of material but still strong structural strength. The benefit in the new technique is that it also limits the use of complicated joinery and time consuming fitting, allowing construction to keep up without sacrificing quality. Caminada continues to experiment in every building, trying out new techniques, but gratefully they always seem to be like steps of a seasoned hiker, slow and steady, never hopping from stone to stone.

Before I move on to barns, I wanted to leave you with another quote from Caminada's book Cul zuffel e l'aura dadl : Gion A. Caminada. You should definitely pick the book up as I could spend days blogging and only graze the surface of many of the different and pertinent topics it discusses. In response to the topic of transparent spaces:

"Dealing playfully with any event or occurrence is possible only when certain rules for play exist. By contrast, current playful approaches to completely open spaces reflect the weakness of today's lifestyle. By that I mean the freedom of life in the modern world and the people who have no idea how to deal with this kind of freedom. The classical Modern period generated this freedom but it didn't teach anyone the art of dealing with it once it was attained..."

Even without the work of Gion Caminada, the small village of Vrin somehow managed to steal a small piece of my heart and lock it away in one of the many farm buildings. And when I say many, I mean many. The "core" of Vrin clusters together as if animals seeking warmth from the closeness of the nearby homes, while the hills are dotted with structures to store hay and many times the animals that eat it. The landscape is not completely natural, and without the constant cutting of the grass for fodder, it would eventually turn back into the heavily forested area that it once was. To store the grass that is cut, there are wooden structures extremely similar formally to those that are present in Vals [see previous post], but with some very important differences. It is interesting that though Vals and Vrin are only separated by a mountain range, the valleys speak different languages, German and Romansch, and buildings with the exact same function should be so similar yet so different. In Vrin, what drew me to the grass barns was their almost religious devotion to a particular size and form.

From what I can understand, this is largely due to the size of the timber that could be cut and carried to the site and then assembled into the barn. The plot of land that is tended to by the structure is dependent on how much grass can be stored at any one time, therefore the spacing of the buildings is somewhat regular spatially, as they are all almost the same size. The hay storage is on the top level, with the door raised above the average height of the snow during the winter. All of the barns sit perpendicular to the slope, also to allow access from the backside for the animals to be sheltered in the small lower story. What is most interesting about the barns for me is their rigid similarity, but subtle differences. Each is almost the exact same dimension, yet in their construction or possibly the idiosyncrasies of the owners, each is subtly different. Repeated over and over again, they make a powerful presentation of design within a box, or in this case a barn.

Thoughts on Traveling #22 : Why is it always that one of the last pictures you take is a jumping picture? Its like you've run out of things to do so you figure you'll just lift your feet in the air and that will make a better picture. It makes no sense what-so-ever and I thereby dismiss them as a practical insensibility, after this one that is... [sidenote: the TaylorCAM was in action during this time, I'm really looking forward to what this whole series looks like]


Anonymous said...

Thanks, great article;)
You're writing about some subjects very interesting for me,.. I was just thinking about Gion Caminada works being good example to study.

Jacob said...

I follow your blog for a long time and must tell you that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers. Keep it up.

lee said...

thanks a lot for this great article, i also wanna know if the buildings for livestock by Caminada is a renovation piece or a completely new building?