The notion of escaping to the mountains and enjoying a true sense of connection with nature at its most magnificent has always been seductive, and ever more so with the evolution of sophisticated alpine and mountain resorts. The ski and winter-sport season is now an essential part of many people’s yearly planner, with the idea of a snow-blown home of one’s own holding a powerful allure.
Traditionally made of stone and local timber with a pitched roof and an overhang to keep drifts away from balconies and terraces, alpine chalets are handcrafted, organic buildings with a real sense of place and character. Now many architects and designers are taking the best of these qualities and rethinking the concept of contemporary-chalet style within a more modern, progressive approach.
One of the key exponents of these new-generation chalets is London-based architect Christina Seilern, who grew up in Switzerland before moving to the US and then settling in Britain. Seilern has designed and built a contemporary chalet for herself and her family in the picturesque hamlet of Lauenen, not far from Gstaad, after spending a good deal of time studying these buildings’ typology and working out what makes it so special.
“I have always been enamoured of traditional alpine farmhouses and chalets, but even though I grew up in the mountains and skied almost before I could walk, I never really understood where their design came from,” says Seilern. “So I went around and took pictures of chalets, and organised them by region and whether they were owned by locals or farmers. I also studied the different roofs, façades and windows.”
Seilern’s research fed into the design of her own home, which takes many vernacular elements of chalet design and splices them with modern construction methods, high-spec insulation and contemporary, bespoke interiors, with an emphasis on a more fluid and open-plan way of living than you would expect from a classic chalet. The result is an intriguing combination of old and new, with a timber exterior wrapped around a concrete shell and a glass-walled staircase juxtaposed with the organic warmth of wood-panelled walls, floors and ceilings.
“We pared it down to the structural minimum of a chalet building and used local pine for the timber parts of the house, but there is also quite a lot of exposed concrete,” says Seilern. “Chalets are usually on steep hills and partly pushed into the ground, so you often have limits on the size of windows that you can use. Restricted natural light was something that we really wanted to counter.”
Larger expanses of glazing that make the most of the surroundings and the mountain panoramas are an important aspect of new-generation chalets. With high‑performance glass and super-insulated shells now making a range of new design options feasible, the only arguments against such features may well come down to tradition and the more restrictive planning regulations found in some mountain regions.
Swiss architect Arnd Küchel designed a new house for himself and his family between the lakes of the Upper Engadine Valley, not far from St Moritz. It fuses time-honoured influences with generously scaled picture windows that make the most of this extraordinary location, providing open views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Like Seilern, Küchel grew up in the mountains with a love of the region’s traditional rustic buildings. He wanted to build a house with something of a barn‑like feel, as well as being as sensitive as possible to the landscape and the environment.
But Küchel’s creation is also decidedly contemporary. The architect placed the main living spaces on the upper level to make the most of the dramatic vista, with a vast window to one side that slides back to make an open balcony. Crisp detailing and high ceilings combine with timber floors and a bespoke fireplace and hearth in a welcoming and light-filled, open space. This is a chalet for the 21st century. “The stone and wood are local to the area and we used local craftsmen,” says Küchel. “Also, it was very important to us to blend the house with nature. If you see the house from the outside, you would never expect the spaciousness that we have inside. In the winter you can just step out of the house with your skis and go cross-country or head up into the mountains.”
Lawyer Olivier Unternaehrer and his wife Céline, a musician, have a similarly strong feeling of connection to the Alps. The couple were offered a piece of land by her parents on a sloping, forested hillside in Les Jeurs, the Swiss village near Martigny where Céline was born, and decided that they wanted to build a contemporary mountain home.
“It was important to us to go down the contemporary road,” says Olivier. “But it was equally critical that the house would blend well with the landscape and have roots that would go back to traditional Valais buildings.”
They commissioned Swiss architects Lacroix Chessex to design the new house: a timber-coated building on a concrete plinth, it reflects the way that many traditional timber houses and barns in the region rest upon a flat, stone base. The three-bedroom dwelling was also split into two interconnected parts, like Siamese twins, to lessen the impact of the building on the site and to focus the large windows on alternate views.
“We really enjoy the quietness and warmth of the house,” continues Olivier. “This is a result of both the location and the architectural choices, such as the more reasonable size of the two sections and of the rooms, and also using just one material – wood. In addition, the large windows give us this direct visual access to the outdoors, while simultaneously seeming to bring the outdoors inside the house.”
In the Italian Tyrol, architect Armin Pedevilla and his wife Caroline used a similar pairing device to create their home, plus a twin structure next door that is rented out to holidaymakers. They were inspired by farmsteads in the area, which might combine a number of small hillside buildings, such as a house and barn.
The project replaces a small farmhouse on the same site, but it nevertheless took a year to get the contemporary design – still something of a rarity in the region – through the planning process. “It was something totally new for the municipality,” says Caroline Pedevilla. “It was also challenging building on the hillside, although we tried to leave the slope as it was as much as possible and work with nature. But we are very satisfied with it – our task was to build a house that would be as self-sufficient as possible using materials from the neighbourhood.”
The two chalets are coated with stained timber and feature integrated balconies, while tucking themselves into the hillside as discreetly as possible. There is a pitched roof for each twin, but no overhang and the form and outline of the two buildings is sculptural, modern and crisp. Again, large windows enhance the strong sense of a link with the mountain landscape and interiors are fresh, open and fluid – representing quite a departure from classic alpine chalets.
Replacing or adapting an existing building can sometimes make the planning process a little easier. Italian architects Gerd Bergmeister and Michaela Wolf were commissioned by entrepreneurs Kurt and Claudia Brunner to replace a crumbling farmhouse that once belonged to Kurt’s parents and where Kurt had grown up. The design for the Brunners’ second home, in South Tyrol, which they share with their four children, is a true blend of old and new, where stone and timber meet concrete and glass.
“The planning rules in the territory only give you the possibility to build something on special sites like this if someone has already built something or you can renovate a historical building,” says Gerd Bergmeister. “But the architecture of the region – and the way that people appreciate it – is changing. We were really pleased with the complicity of the house with the landscape.”
The new creation has timber shingles on the outside, as well as feature walls of local stone. There are large sheltered balconies and expansive glazing looking out to the Flatsch-Spitze and Weisse Spitze mountains, fostering a powerful impression that the dwelling is part of the landscape. The main living spaces are arranged around a bespoke fireplace, created by the architects, which forms a focal point.
The enduring importance of the hearth was also a key consideration for English architectural designer Jonathan Tuckey when he reinvented a 1970s house on the edge of the mountain town of Andermatt in Switzerland. Here, too, planning restrictions can make building from scratch a challenge but Tuckey’s English clients – an investment-fund manager and his family – were eventually able to find a building in a sublime spot that they could radically remodel.
Working in conjunction with a local architect, Ruedi Kreienbühl, Tuckey constructed a new home upon the base of the old, while also reorienting it for a better view across Andermatt and the Ursner Valley.
“We wanted something that felt as though it had evolved and had a patina to it,” says Tuckey, who has established a satellite office in Andermatt in addition to his London base. “So we used the original building as a root that we could then pivot the new house around. The centre of houses in this area tends to have one big chimney with spaces leading off it, so we used that tradition to create the fireplace, which is something you can see and feel in the dining room, the living room and kitchen. It’s something that you can really gather around.”
As well as timber, the exteriors use a concrete finish with a red pigment that gives the house its name – the Rothaus – and was partly inspired by the rusty stain put on many timber buildings in the area. Inside, a custom fireplace is a pivotal element.
Antoine Ernoult-Dairaine and his family fell in love with a small hamlet not far from the French Alpine village of Saint Martin de Belleville in Les Trois Vallées during ski trips and used to enjoy lunches at La Transhumance when it was a restaurant. He waited patiently for a property to come up for sale until finally the restaurant itself was closed and put on the market. Ernoult-Dairaine bought the chalet and the barn next door and asked Parisian designer Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance to transform the building in his distinctive, contemporary style. The crowning glory is the loft-like, open-plan living room on the top floor, with a sculpted fireplace at its heart, and big picture windows looking out across the mountains.
“Noé had in mind a sort of nest – a cocoon – or a snowball in the air,” says Ernoult-Dairaine. “We wanted a bright living room with the best light and the best view, hence the need to go on top. We use it all year round; the winter is great and the light exceptional but the summer is fantastic, too, when the mountains are green.”
As Duchaufour-Lawrance suggests, classic period chalets are traditionally closed in and insular. But La Transhumance was about reinventing the house as something light that looks outwards to the mountains. La Transhumance translates as “pastures new”. It’s emblematic of the fresh beginnings for Ernoult-Dairaine’s home and for a new generation of chalets designed to be open and inviting, with an intimate sense of connection to the mountain scenery.