Extreme natural environments can inspire great achievements. This applies, in particular, to architecture. Mountainous areas are known for their harsh climates and sparse landscapes. Because of these extreme conditions, structures built in these areas must have a higher standard of functionality and durability. Alpine regions seem to demand more of architecture and at the same time, they afford less gratuitous artistic expression. A remarkable example of contemporary architecture is located in Inner Ötztal Valley, at the top of Timmelsjoch Col and on the border to Italy’s South Tyrol. Invigorated by the elements, it underscores the practical and unique challenges of designing and building in rugged Alpine regions.
The wind whistles over the sparse grass. There are snow-capped peaks, in brilliant contrast to the vivid blue sky and the misty white of occasional clouds. Standing here high atop the summit of Timmelsjoch, 2,509 meters above the Adriatic Sea of Trieste, one can almost feel the curvature of the earth as the sky bends in the horizon. A high gap that’s open only to drivers when the weather allows, the Timmelsjoch Pass links Austria to Italy through one of the few indentations in the long ridge that divides the two countries. Over thousands of years, unique similarities between the two valleys, Ötztal and Passeiertal, evolved, triumphing over the natural boundary created by the mountains. The area is full of history, with a winding road that was once a mule track and acts like a link between these two beautiful valleys.
The otherworldly looking structure at the apex of one of Europe’s most dramatic passes tells the story of a region that has born witness to centuries of intrepid travellers. The Timmelsjoch Pass Museum was constructed to celebrate the road’s fiftieth anniversary in June 2010. Lovers of contemporary architecture now also have a reason to venture into Timmelsjoch and behold this improbable yet fascinating design. Although, the Pass Museum is not a museum in the true sense of the word: All together there are five architectural sculptures to be explored, two on the Austrian side (called ‘Walkway’ and ‘Smuggler’) and two on the Italian side of the road (‘Telescope’ and ‘Garnets’). On the highest point of the pass, one can find the Pass Museum, which looks as though it might be the remnants of an alien craft that plummeted into the craggy pass eons ago. The five sculptures, which are strategically placed along the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road, are part of the Timmelsjoch Experience.
As Werner Tscholl, the South Tyrol architect surveyed the heady and vast Alpine panorama of the Pass, he had the feeling that “one may not build here, I may not build here”. Viewing the col itself, surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery and glistening white glaciers seemed as a completed sculpture, one that needed no addition whatsoever. Tscholl thought he had no right to intrude into this sensitive, unspoilt location.
One thing is for sure, Tscholl’s vision was to protect and preserve the pristine environment while incorporating extreme mountain architecture and construction. Using a restricted palette of colours and meager materials, all relating to the landscape they are a part of, the dynamic geometry and facetted shapes transform all of the five architectural sculptures into veritable landmarks, all the more spectacular as they are successfully integrated into their surroundings. Each of these references a certain natural, historic or social aspect tied to the Timmelsjoch Road and to the history of Tirol. And as beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, the beholder has to decide whether the Telescope resembles a telescope or, rather, an outsized heavy gun? The Telescope comprises two open-ended rhomboids, each of which frames a different landscape in the distance. One is pointing towards the border to the mighty glacier, the other is pointing towards South Tyrol, opening up a panorama of lush Alpine meadows and mountain villages.
The Pass Museum is definitely a stunner. And again, the beholder has to decide: Does it look threatening? After all, the concrete structure has its foundation on an erratic boulder on the North Tyrolean side but protrudes 16 meters into South Tyrol, hanging over the air like a cantilever. Does it provide safety and security? The shape and the discreet colouring of the museum, concrete and rusty steel, complement the surrounding landscape and provide shelter from the dangers of the surrounding mountain environment. In fact, the “erratic boulder”, as the Pass Museum is called by architect Werner Scholl, is precariously cantilevered, jutting out over a glacial moraine. The rocks and boulders around the Timmelsjoch provided the inspiration for the museum’s design. “We didn’t want to taint the mountainsides with any additional colour. As a result of the careful integration of natural materials and colours, all the new elements take a back seat, as it were”, explains architect Werner Tscholl with regard to the architectural concept. Underlining the cross-border nature of the Timmelsjoch Experience, the museum’s foundation sits on the Austrian side of the border, but its entire structure cantilevers into Italian airspace, its precarious, improbable look a subtle, intelligent nod to the extreme geology that surrounds it.
The daring suspended terraces are a common denominator of all five sculptural elements, each bringing the viewer dangerously close to the landscape to be observed. Tscholl’s roadside structures don’t set out to surpass their environment; instead they honor it—their plain, reddish concrete construction and subtle faceting reflect the hue and shape of the mountains in which they are set.
Fast, high, deserted, and running through some of the most eye-widening scenery in the Alps, the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road is the antidote to the typical urban roadway. Because the modern road ribbons through high, steep and snowy elevations, the pass is only open from June through October each year; at least for cars. Tscholl’s Timmelsjoch Experience structures provide the perfect excuse to stop. You can stand with your back to them and admire the mountains. But see them in context and you’ll understand why they deserve to be here. Each amplifies the other, and the combined effect is worth the climb and the hairpins and the dizziness and the constant, gentle thrill of this wild place.