Tucked away in a mountainous Swiss village near famous thermal baths, architectural wonder Villa Vals resembles a luxury home for hobbits. Built directly into the hillside outside the tiny town of Vals, this holiday retreat was originally dreamed up by Swiss Architect Christian Müller (CMA, Rotterdam) and Dutch Architect Bjarne Mastenbroek (SeARCH, Amsterdam) in 2004. The house, which was completed in 2009, can accommodate ten people and is an example of “best practices” in modern architecture.
Initially, there was some doubt that the project would ever get off the ground – or in this case, in the ground. Local authorities cautioned Müller and Mastenbroek that unusual proposals were generally not favored, and Swiss planning laws dictate grant planning permission only after a timber model of the building’s volume has first been constructed on site, giving the local community an opportunity to assess the impact. Fortunately for them, in this instance the model was considered unnecessary and they were given permission to build with the full support of the local community and authorities.
The actual building process was quite organic, with design and construction happening simultaneously. Few details were drawn in advance. The front of the house is built into the slope of the mountain, allowing vast quantities of natural light and offering dramatic views of the opposing hillside. The architects used only local labor, and the interior includes designs from many of Holland’s premier artists and craftspeople. In order to integrate with the surrounding landscape and protect the pristine natural setting, Villa Vals is accessible only through an old barn and an underground tunnel. Within the house itself is a steeply inclined central patio. The interior also features a compact setup of bedrooms with bunk beds, elevated bathrooms and raised podiums with king-size beds.
For Müller, Villa Vals embodies his innovative and project-based approach to architecture. Collaboration plays a critical role. “I place the constant redefinition of our profession above the individual signature of an architect,” he says. “The traditional joint-venture is only one of the many possibilities.” He finds playing different roles within a given project both stimulating and fruitful.
When larger and smaller firms collaborate, both sides benefit. “The European Tender procedure for public buildings mostly excludes small firms from participation,” says Müller, “whereas the office structures of large firms seldom permit extensive research and testing design alternatives. The synergy of two office cultures is promising. Bringing ideas together, coaching or being coached and linking networks are a few of many options. Sustainability is impossible without collaboration.”
Coaching is clearly a core value for Müller, who spends at least one day a week doing just that. “I stimulate students and younger architects to explore, to research and reflect. The students are taught how to make a design, and in addition I show them how a process works.” He also spends one day a week doing scientific research on urbanism, society, art and literature. “In my work I combine intuitive and rational aspects,” he says. “I consider an imaginative flexibility in project-approach to be essential.”
Aside from Villa Vals, Müller has worked on projects throughout Europe, designing an energy neutral City Hall for Rotterdam and a library in Oslo (both in collaboration with SeARCH), and other projects throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. “I’m fascinated by the cultural and mental differences of regions and countries,” he says. “I was born and educated in Switzerland. After my study I moved to the Netherlands, and I run my architecture office in Rotterdam. I achieve the greatest quality in my buildings while working as a “Dutch” architect in Switzerland, and as a “Swiss” architect in the Netherlands. It is liberating to start blank.” One country he has not yet explored is the United States, but he would like to create a project there. “I’m familiar with developments in the U.S., it’s appealing to combine best of both sides. It would close a circle. I decided to become an architect twenty-five years ago, while traveling in the U.S.”
According to Müller, the future of architecture contains two divergent tendencies. The first is design on demand, where the architect is chosen for their recognizable signature, regardless of the type of project. The second is design by commitment, where the design team is multidisciplinary, and their work is “based on holistic principles, juxtaposing elements of surprise as well as triedand- tested methods,” he explains. “Sustainability will have a strong impact on materialization and building techniques, ergo on architecture. The position of the architect will be
less isolated but more exciting.”
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