[spacer height=”20px”]I lived in Switzerland as an adolescent and in spite of being in the big city of Lausanne (2014 population: 140,000) I, like anyone would, loved the pastoral quaintness of its small mountain villages. I am a huge fan of Morphosis. I am a huge fan of well-done skyscrapers. And after years of discussing highly reflective exteriors claddings with clients as potential choices for their own buildings, I am dazzled and horrified by the new high-rise tower that Thom Mayne has proposed for the town of Vals, Switzerland to serve as a luxury hotel to the throngs of design pilgrims on junket to worship at the alter of Zumthor’s thermal baths . Dazzled, mind you, not by the height (it is intended, if approved, to be the tallest building in Europe and tallest hotel on our little blue planet), but rather by the idea of a skyscraper whose reflectivity is supposed to do nothing more than to vanish into the skyscape and otherwise reflect the spectacular surroundings of the Swiss Alps.
While I am a likely obvious minority for being keen on a high-rise in such an unlikely place, I am going to have to line up with the oodles of critics that have branded it hubristic. Does it really have to be 1250 feet tall? I mean, really? I get that having a small footprint on such a delicate landscape is a good thing. I get that the exterior skin disappearing into the landscapes and sky surrounding it is respectful in its heightening our views of the area’s natural beauty. But, could not the same point have been made with a mere 200 foot tower? After years of being surprised by high-rises showing up in the least likely places such as Greenland, I have rethought my expectations for contextualism. While a dainty 13 stories and 125′ tall, the Højhus Jagtvej Nord residential tower gives a sense of urban aspirations for the village of Nuuk, a town that still does not make it on many folks’ list of cultural destinations. Notwithstanding the obvious debates one can have about the sustainability of a tower in such a climate, it is not an unreasonable solution. It then seems to beg the question, why NOT have a tower in tiny Vals, Switerzland? If the pastoral landscapes are indeed as precious as they are, then why isn’t it reasonable to go UP with a structure whose sole gesture is to reflect back the very beauty of its scenery to residents and visitors? Since building requires some form of destruction, either in the earth as accompanies a low-rise structure, or in skyline, as might accompany a typical tower, isn’t there a falseness to the alleged harm done by having a tower instead of a two to three story building of the same scale gobbling up the entire town of Vals? If so, then perhaps Thom Mayne is indeed right to have proposed it.
Well, perhaps he was partially right. The one thing that still seems out of place is the SCALE of which he has perhaps taken his rights of design authorship. I mean, couldn’t 125′, such as the towers at Nuuk, Greenland, been enough to have made the point? Or perhaps, to be generous, 200′ to 250′? One does not have to go up very high to make the case that a high-rise can work. So why the extra 1000′? It is a proposal so extreme that one wonders if it was just a neatly timed April Fool’s joke. And, the obvious concern is what precedent it sets. Will one need to worry now about the rest of the town becoming a cluster of mini (or, egads! MAXI) towers? I suppose this concept was already tested in not too far away San Gimignano, Italy (famous for its towers) and it was not only not a disaster, but a seeming character in Italo Calvino’s magical Invisible Cities. This time however, while some could believe the potential is there to develop the first piece of a future almost literal invisible city, and while I can get behind some of what Thom Mayne is doing, somehow I am still not sure this tower, this high, is going to be the start of something quite as magical.
Over and out.
When David isn’t hoarding all of the scales in the office you can find him swimming, biking, fawning over Beatrice the dog, or enjoying a quiet moment with his husband Ransom.
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