John in Cortina: Aching Legs and Alpine Architecture

Friday, July 10, 2015

My inability to truly take a holiday has become something of a running joke. Architecture is simply too deeply ingrained in me to ever be able to entirely detach. No matter where I am or what the occasion is, I can’t help look at the local buildings and think, “Who made that and why?”

Last week I shared my exhausting personal victory at the Maratonas dles Dolomites, which you think would have occupied all my attention. But before and after that gruelling race, I was enamoured with the beautiful town of Cortina and its surrounding Alpine landscape where my friends and I rested our worn out legs.

Though within the Italian border, Cortina is considered Tyrolean, a culture that spreads across both Italy and Austria with a unique heritage that draws influence from both. This is immediately visible in its architecture, with quaint and sturdy structures typical of Austria decorated with detailing you’d expect from Italian baroque. Combine this unique architecture with its immaculate landscape and Cortina often looks straight out of a fairytale.

Europe’s tight cluster of nations has always been fertile ground for architecture, allowing ideas and talent to cross borders and find new opportunities. There was a long running tradition amongst the antiquity-loving British elite to send young men across Europe for education and status. During these Grand Tours, the architects behind London’s iconic buildings discovered styles they would later import into the capital.

Today, the ease of travel means we don’t need a Grand Tour to justify visiting the continent. Each time I explore Europe I’m fascinated by the local architecture and what it can tell me about the history and culture of where I am.

Every regional style starts as a set of practical designs guided by climate and available materials. Gradually, over the centuries, aesthetics overtake necessity and local architecture becomes a defined and proud part of cultural identity and – if desirable enough – starts to be exported to its neighbours.

Take the chalet pictured above, where my friends and I stayed during the Maratona dles Dolomites. The roof is pitched to prevent heavy snow gathering on its surface, with a deep overhang to shelter the walls when the snow slides off. It’s also built from timber because – as you can see – it is surrounded by trees.

These are the archetypical elements of an Alpine chalet, yet you can find aspects of it in homes where snowfall is not a concern or timber is not the most abundant material. People fall in love with the aesthetics of a structure and import the style into an entirely different context where it can find new meaning.

Many of our clients are European or have holiday homes there, so we have to work with a broad array of influences. By understanding the culture and the history of what makes a Swiss house Swiss or a French home French, we can elegantly integrate foreign visual references into a UK setting without them looking out of place or anachronistic.

It’s not just the history of European architecture that fascinates me but also how it is modernising. Again, lets look at the chalet. From a distance, its silhouette would look no different from a chalet a hundred years older but as you approach it reveals striking contemporary details.

Most apparent from the outside are the clean, angular white rendered walls that contrast the bottom half to the top. On the inside, its the windows that make a truly breathtaking impact. The current trend for expansive glazing is put to stunning use, filling entire walls with the vast, painterly Alpine landscape – the perfect backdrop for some well earned relaxation.

By John Dyer-Grimes