An old farmhouse in the mountains of Switzerland, which for generations had belonged to an alpine farmer's family, had been passed on to their direct descendants. These descendants, now living in the city, approached the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor in 1990 to modernise the house for their holidays, yet "without loosing its magic".
Parallel lives of house and family
Gugalun means "looking at the moon". It is a name of a house built by farmers on a northern slope in Grisons canton in Switzerland. Its long life, originated from 1709, has been linked to the serene life of the successive generations. Nowadays, the direct descendants of this family have a very different life, characterised by the speed of life imposed by having both their work and their house in the city. Even though their life was so radically different from the one lived by their ancestors, the contemporary family wished to maintain the history of the family and house when spending their holidays there. It was this reconciliation with the memories of the house which was the magic that Zumthor was asked to preserve.
Life in the Swiss canton was characterized by an austerity which still is present in Gugalun House. The method of construction was typical of Grisons tradition of knitting massive wooden beams. It was heated by a primitive hypocaust, a Roman technique of a central heating system which relied on a wood fire and the circulation of warm air that heated the house by means of a big stone stove. All of these qualities of Spartan austerity brought an appreciation for timeless values. The clients summarised this sense of time, in explaining to the architect that the family had to light the fire and to wait for the water to heat.
The magic of the proposal
The project by Zumthor for the conversion treats all these features with respect. The access to the house continues to be the same steep short path that the farmers traversed on foot. Entering the house, and sharing a copper roof, only those things that were considered to be missing according to contemporary standards - a modern kitchen, bathroom and toilet, two rooms with larger windows and an additional hypocaust - were added. The choice to juxtapose, rather than to integrate the old and the new, presented itself from a respect for the building's original characteristics and techniques. In ten years time, when the sun will have darkened the new wooden beams knitted with the old ones, we will be able to see how this goal was achieved.
From being in bad condition and less historically significant, the old kitchen became the place for intervention. Here the necessary enlargement of the building volume was made into the hill side, thus enabling the living room, looking on to the valley, to maintain its original location. Also the interior is juxtaposed where one room interlaces the next. The ground floor was conceived as a sequence from the old living room to the new kitchen, crossing the corridor that contains the new staircase. In the first floor, two bedrooms, one bathroom and a reading room were added like concatenated spaces divided by sliding doors.
An intense feeling of time is present in this house; in the direct contact with nature, in the architecture which evokes the inhabitants' way of life and in the accurate detailing of the joints between the old and new which Zumthor manages to communicate by his sensitivity and his early training as a joiner. In the same way the descendants recuperate the sense of the family's way of life, Zumthor has managed to build an extension to a house which in time, will grow naturally into being part of the form and history of the place, just as serene as looking at the moon.
Captions for illustrations
a. Peter Zumthor (b. 1943). (Photographer: Hélène Binet)
b. A photograph of Gugalun House and family in 1927.
c. In ten years, when the sun will have darkened the new wooden beams knitted with the old ones, one will be able to see how this goal was achieved. (Photographer: Henry Pierre Schultz)
d. Ground floor.
e. First floor.
f. Interior view of the living room in the old part with a stone stove. (Photographer: Shigeo Ogawa)
g. Reading room on the first floor. (Photographer: Shigeo Ogawa)