IMAGES COURTESY OF ISEPPI/KURATH
Creating a beautiful new visitor center meant facing dangerous terrain and frigid temperatures—plus the chance of falling rocks.
BY MEREDITH LANDRY
Perched on the edge of a cliff 60 meters (197 feet) above the floor of the Swiss Alps, the Viamala Gorge visitor center was in dire need of an overhaul.
“It was too small, the roof was leaking, small wild animals were able to get in and visitors weren't able to go inside the building, so they had to stand outside and ask the cashier inside for goods,” says Stefan Kurath, co-founder of architecture firm Iseppi/Kurath in Thusis, Switzerland. “It just wasn't efficient.”
So in 2010, the governing board of the center's operating cooperative asked Iseppi/Kurath to develop a project plan to optimize the 40-year-old kiosk that each year welcomes 70,000 tourists to the Viamala Gorge. In addition to ensuring visitors’ safety, the client also wanted to maximize the space to sell more products.
The project team determined it couldn't simply remodel the existing structure that served as the entryway to the century-old stone staircase leading visitors down into the gorge. Instead, it needed to build an entirely new visitor center—one that was bigger and sturdier.
During two years of planning, including a careful evaluation of the treacherous project site, the project team drew inspiration from the striking natural landscape that surrounded it. The gabled ends of the center would mimic typical Alpine architecture. The environment also informed the design of the outdoor balustrade, whose vertical metal fins allow impressive views of the gorge from the center's benches.
Mr. Kurath's eight-person crew began construction in September 2013, at the end of the tourist season, and worked through the winter, when the gorge is closed to visitors. The team completed the new CHF1.4 million visitor center in April 2014, just in time for the tourists.
To determine the dimensions of the new center, the project team had to strike a delicate balance. The Viamala Gorge visitor center had to be big enough to accommodate more people inside the building, but not so big that it lost valuable parking.
“There are 40 parking spots for guests, and the bigger the building, the more spots we'd lose and fewer people could park,” Mr. Kurath says.
The team decided the new structure would be 40 square meters (431 square feet)—only 10 square meters (108 square feet) bigger than the original kiosk. That would be just large enough to get people inside the center, where they could shop, and away from the cliffside road.
Braving the Elements
Working in the winter gave team members the scheduling advantage of executing the project during the tourist off-season. That came with disadvantages as well, however: snow, falling ice, slick rocks, temperatures that fell to around -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) and only one hour of direct sunlight, between 11 a.m. and noon. Workers spent the rest of each day in the steep gorge's dark shadow.
Fortunately, the weather cooperated. With little snow that winter, the schedule was not adversely affected by the elements.
“The conditions certainly made it hard physically, but we were able to work almost every day,” Mr. Kurath says. “One day it was too cold to work with the concrete, when temperatures stayed around -15 degrees Celsius [5 degrees Fahrenheit], but that was it.”
To function under such severe conditions, team members took breaks in several heated trailers on-site.
The tricky terrain also informed the team's choice of building materials. To withstand the possibility of falling rocks, the team constructed the center out of concrete rather than wood. There are no large windows on the side of the building facing the road, where large falling stones could roll against the building.
The team took such precautions even though, in the 111 years that visitors have descended the stone staircase, no one has been hurt by falling rock. “Sure, it hasn't happened yet,” Mr. Kurath says, “but we didn't want to risk anything.”
”[The old visitor center] was too small, the roof was leaking, small wild animals were able to get in and visitors weren't able to go inside the building, so they had to stand outside and ask the cashier inside for goods. It just wasn't efficient.”
—Stefan Kurath, architecture firm Iseppi/Kurath, Thusis, Switzerland
In addition to the weather, the project posed another safety risk to team members: a potential fall to the bottom of the gorge below. To ensure their safety, team members worked on large scaffolding-like wooden platforms that they built into the rock—a safety measure that cost CHF140,000, or about 10 percent of the entire project budget. In addition, team members tied themselves with ropes secured to the top of the gorge.
Team members also faced the challenge of building the new structure on unsteady shale. To clear this hurdle, they created a new concrete floor and drilled it into the cliff.
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