Wings of Desire

7th October 2008 (Last Updated October 7th, 2008 18:30)

Often associated with chocolate-box kitsch and homely traditionalism, the Alpine resort seems an unlikely exponent of modern architecture. But, as Phin Foster discovers, the Strata Hotel in Sesto, Italy, more than breaks with convention.

Wings of Desire

The Rainer Hotel & Residence on the steep hillside of Sesto, 70 miles northeast of Bolzano, Italy, has been a family-run establishment for more than 40 years. When owners Judith and Christian Schwienbacher decided to construct an annexe to the Königswarte Residence, one of four accommodation blocks on site, they were committed to creating something of artistic value.

They got in touch with Plasma, a cutting-edge UK architectural studio, which, despite picking up the Architecture Foundation’s prestigious next generation award in 2007, has been considered too challenging to win commissions in its home market throughout almost a decade of practice.

It’s an unlikely marriage, but it works.

“The clients were looking for a modern architect,” Plasma associate partner Ulla Hell explains. “It’s a family resort that targets young people. For those who have an interest in design, such resorts aren’t always the best place to find it. The clients saw the potential for a nice niche.”

The family does have architectural form. It was Judith Schwienbacher’s father, Willi Rainer, who initiated the New Alpine Architecture award, and the region itself has a tradition of innovative build – prominent Austrian architect Clemens Holzmeister designed Sesto’s Hotel Drei Zinnen. The family was intent upon continuing the legacy.

The result, completed last November, is the Strata Hotel wing to the Residence Koenigswarte. Indexed and organised by series of timber strips, its free-flowing topography is designed to mirror the building’s natural environment, with continuous horizontal lines of larch wood blurring into the surrounding landscape.

The result is simultaneously complex and simple: a minimal use of materials fitted to create clean, multiple angles.

“The client thought we’d make fewer mistakes if we limited the number of materials,” Hell jokes. “The larch wood comes from the surrounding forests and has traditionally been used for building in the area. The emphasis on sourcing locally heightens the sense of integration of the finished product.”

The importance of belonging and locality flies in the face of many modern architecture stereotypes but Hell, who founded Plasma’s Italian headquarters just 5km from the site, saw this as a central tenet of the commission. “We did not want to create something that stood out or declared its presence too loudly,” she says.

“It’s always easier to fuse a building with its surroundings on a hillside than it is on flat land, and we wanted to heighten experience rather than dramatically alter it.”

The extension is divided into two parts.

The guest accommodation in the right wing of the hotel has balconies directed towards the mountains, while the left wing houses a private home. Guestrooms come in the form of family apartments, ten in all, with a continued focus on minimising material variety.

“We were dealing with a compact space,” Hell explains, “and had to establish separate sleeping facilities for parents and kids, a living area, kitchen and bathroom. The look and feel was developed with strong collaboration from the client.”

Each floor of the building has a different colour scheme in the kitchen and bathroom, but the dominant tone remains that of larch. It has been used for the flooring and furniture, designed in-house by the architectural studio.

“It’s a great scale to work on,” Hell believes, “bigger than a family house, yet not a huge, typical hotel.

“There are always lots of interests to address in such a project, but managing that expectation helps to define the end product and create something that is truly collaborative and functional.”