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Top of Tyrol: New Wildspitzbahn Cableway

The increasing popularity of architecturally designed viewing platforms goes hand in hand with greater profitability of mountain cable car services. With the new Wildspitzbahn, the coveted claim of being at the "Top of Tyrol" now implies a record height of 3,440 m, although such superlatives were not really the primary aim of the architects of Baumschlager Hutter Partners. And yet, elegantly restrained like a cornice of snow between ice and rock, the highest café in Europe has the potential to become a new architectural icon.

Architects: Baumschlager Hutter Partners, Dornbirn
Location: St. Leonhard im Pitztal, Tyrol, Austria

wildspitzbahn Baumschlager Hutter Partners

What actually characterises a contemporary architectural icon? Are there any examples of such key buildings that are more successful than others? To discuss this topic, a "Think Tank Iconic Architecture" was held at the new "Top of Tyrol" on 1 March 2013. A group of experts and all the project participants were invited by the façade construction experts Frener & Reifer based in Brixen and münchenarchitektur.com.

wildspitzbahn Baumschlager Hutter Partners

In the past, only Alpinists had the pleasure of spending time at heights over 3,000 m. The air is noticeably thin at such altitudes and even the slightest effort can cause the pulse to race. The magnificent view at the summit often has to be taken in very quickly due to biting cold, razor-sharp winds, looming fog or the need to be back in the safety of the valley before nightfall. Hans Rubatscher, a managing director of Pitztaler Gletscherbahnen (Pitztal Glacier Cableways), initiated the new Wildspitzbahn in an effort to "democratize" the Alps. According to Rubatscher, the creation of an attractive café on the site of the old mountain station has made this extreme location also accessible to older people, the very young, and physically handicapped persons.

The name “Wildspitzbahn" is somewhat misleading, because the cable car service does not actually lead to the highest point in Tyrol (at 3,770 m), but to another peak, the "Hinterer Brunnenkogel". Nevertheless, the mountain station offers a particularly breath-taking panoramic view of the Eastern Alps – the Zugspitze in the north, the Ötztal and Stubai in the east, the Ortler in the south, and the Arlberg in the west. The whole scenography is however focussed on the star of the show: the twin peaks of the Wildspitze, with an increasingly snow-free north face, the broad slopes of the Taschachferner glacier, and a summit cross barely visible with the naked eye.

wildspitzbahn Baumschlager Hutter Partners
wildspitzbahn Baumschlager Hutter Partners

The contrast between downy soft powder snow, razor-sharp ridges and towering ice falls, dominates the landscape beyond the levelled ski slopes prepared with artificial snow. How should one build in such a fascinating, yet hostile environment? Should the dominance of man over nature be demonstrated with a high-tech gesture or would a humble submission to the forces of the natural elements be more appropriate?

Photograph: Michael Walser, Bergführerbüro Pitztal

There are conflicting views on building new cableways: conservationists and Alpinists oppose them, because even the few remaining retreats are made easily accessible. With the cable car, ski tourers can reach the summit of the Wildspitze in just under two and a half hours, which is why the magnificent ski run via the Taschachferner is hardly ever track-free. Is the architectural design only a matter of styling, or should the construction of mountain cableways as such be questioned?

In this case, the new Wildspitzbahn doesn't open up a new area – it merely replaces an old and in the meantime dismantled facility. The mountain station was extended by a café as an incentive for mountain lovers. Architectural design is definitely a decisive element here, because the rather more remote Pitztal has to struggle for customers and distinguish itself from the other competing Tyrolean ski resorts: the architecture becomes a crucial marketing tool for the entire region.

And it seems that the contemporary design created by Baumschlager Hutter Partners hit the nail on the head. A singular strong image – the first rendering by the architects of the snowy white, softly curved summit station against the picturesque mountainscape – won over everyone, including lovers of architecture, ski enthusiasts, specialised journals and all kinds of public media. But how was this rendering realised? Does the building keep the promise of the visualisation? What materials can be used for such free-form surfaces in these extreme weather conditions? Is it even possible to build architecture with sophisticated details at altitudes without any roads and under extreme time pressure?

The lower station of the Wildspitzbahn is located at the focus of the skiing region served by the Pitztal Glacier Cableways. It replaces an already existing facility. The tunnel train from the valley arrives here, and T-bar lifts and chair lifts branch out to the peaks and cols of the skiing, freeriding and touring area, like the fingers of a hand. The silvery construction ducks low in the landscape and emulates the gently curved hills nearby with its silhouette.

The backlit shell glistens like the ice fields in the background. In a big welcoming gesture, the roof arches over the mirror façade and receives the skiers arriving from the valley by tunnel train. The architectural language communicates: the glacier begins here, the forces of wind and sun rule from here onwards.

Like the mirrored visor of glacier glasses, the façade reflects the unchanging monochromatic landscape behind coloured moving specks of skiers.

The shell is made of 3-mm-thick steel sheets, cold-shaped to fit the complex substructure, with the rounded corner areas preformed in the workshop using a special technique.

Plenty of natural light, maximum comfort and an optimum view of the mountain landscape characterise the stations as well as the cabins of the Wildspitzbahn. The architects Carlo Baumschlager and Oliver Baldauf were inspired by the number of tunnel openings that car drivers had to enter before finally getting to the Pitztal, as reflected by the design of the entry and exit points. Innovative details in the gondolas: greater height than normal, heated seats with embossed Pitztal logo and special recesses in the floor for skis, making the tedious and risky procedure of putting them in outside holders unnecessary. This makes getting in and out a lot easier.

But the "icon" is the mountain station itself, perched on the rocky ridge like the aerie of an eagle. Looking from the north, it seems to nestle in the gentle contours of the glacier, while the silhouette of the station extends the curve of the downward ski slope in the west.

The abrupt discontinuation of the rocky substrate in the east and south and the lack of space meant that the structural engineers had to cope with a considerable projection.

The view from the south is reserved for mountaineers taking the unsecured way up across the glacier. Looking through binoculars from the top of the Wildspitze, the structure resembles a landed helicopter, while with the naked eye the mountain station that seemed to tower above all else, is hardly visible within the blotches of ice and rock. The structure of the building is also clearly discernible from here: the tube of the mountain station, extending in the direction of the cable routing, and at a slight angle, the round panorama café, oriented towards the Wildspitze with a slight bend.

The dramaturgy of the circulation routes and views couldn't be more spectacular for those arriving at the mountain station: looking towards the south through the glass membrane beyond the heads of the guests on the terrace, the glistening ice falls of the distant Taschachferner can be seen. Ambitious skiers will however keep to the right, and be accelerated towards the starting point of the ski slope by the curved, matt-white glass walls bearing backlit ski racks, like the ball of a pinball machine. Powder snow is guaranteed on the surprisingly steep northern slope of the glacier until early afternoon.

The standard of the interior finishing in the café is impressive and in line with the high-quality catering provided. The architects designed it all, including the floor, furniture, railings, counter and even the lights. Long-lasting quality and outstanding design determine the atmosphere all the way to the designer washbasins in the toilets. But the point is: the details are almost imperceptible, everything bows to the aim of getting a maximum view of the mountain landscape from virtually everywhere – in front of the counter, behind the counter, at the tables and on the wind-sheltered panorama terrace.

The client got involved in the crucial questions regarding space utilisation: instead of high rooms, he opted for a gallery floor with a separate "back room", predestined for smaller events. Due to the completely transparent railing of gallery and outdoor terrace, a particularly dramatic view of the Taschachferner is available from up there. Like looking through a telescope, the view is bundled.

Thanks to low iron oxide glass, the transparency is so brilliant that nobody would notice that the view from the gallery to the glacier crosses several layers of glass: the glass balustrade of the gallery, the thermal and sun protection glazing of the façade and the approx. 2.40-metre-high glass membrane of the terrace that serves for wind protection.

Despite the extreme wind loads, the corners of the structure are fully glazed, the steel construction is minimized to the utmost, so that flowing transitions from inside to outside are obtained.

The side room at gallery level is excellent for projections. There is only one small window with an outside view and a small panorama window giving a view of the semi-dark gondola arrival area. This is where the project participants presented the Wildspitzbahn to the group of experts at the Think Tank Iconic Architecture on 1 March – afterwards everyone crowded into the open gallery again, so as not to miss the interplay of light and shade on the crevasses in the distance.

Carlo Baumschlager explained that although the architects had previously opted for a more cubic architectural language in their buildings, the organic shape characterising this project virtually evolved automatically from the topography of the exposed location, the two elements of cableway and café, and the preferred orientation towards the twin peaks of the Wildspitze.

Under what conditions can architectural icons be created today? With the excellent facilitation by the sign systems researcher Gerdum Enders, Professor of Design Marketing in Holzminden, participants discussed what constitutes an architectural icon and summarized the results using diagrams, at a literally breath-taking height.

Communications expert Andreas Filthaut, façade builder Michael Purzer, client and initiator Hans Rubatscher, managing director of Pitztaler Gletscherbahnen.

Architect Carlo Baumschlager

Presenter of the workshop: sign systems researcher and brand consultant Gerdum Enders

Marketing manager of Pitztaler Gletscherbahnen

Expert in corporate architecture: Amandus Sattler of Architekturbüro ASW

Executers and planners: Michael Purzer, Frener & Reifer and Carlo Baumschlager

The participants of the Think Tank Iconic Architecture. Like the movable limb of a crustacean, the tube -shaped upper mountain station of the cableway service (left in the photograph) fits snugly under the curved roof of the panorama café. Photograph: Frener & Reifer

Architect Carlo Baumschlager, architecture and design expert Robert Volhard of Stylepark, Michael Reifer Innovation Management Frener & Reifer, structural engineer Thomas Weissteiner, managing director of Aste Weissteiner

How could such a daring project succeed? Carlo Baumschlager explained that the project participants all agreed that the secret behind the success of the Wildspitzbahn was the "handshake principle". Instead of the usual red tape via lawyers, those involved looked for quick solutions right there and then, and pulled in the same direction with above-average commitment.

Wind protection and maximum transparency looking from the terrace to the glacier and through the entire structure from west to east

All photographs (unless indicated): Frank Kaltenbach

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