WAF Newsletter - Underground in Andermatt - August 2019

Underground in Andermatt

Jeremy Melvin , 21 August 2019

If the Swiss Alps take us a little closer to heaven, it is probably not because of the native music.

The angular forms of the walls are offset by suspended acoustic reflectors. The mountainside is visible through the window. Photo: KanipakPhotography.

Yodelling, the soundtrack to the Sound of Music, the moan of the alpenhorn and the constant clamour of cowbells may evoke happy memories of strenuous climbs, delicious cheese or the discovery of some rare mountain flower, but they are not likely to induce transcendental experience. Richard Strauss tried to change that with his Alpine Symphony, but by his own admission a ‘first-rate second-class’ composer, the attempt to depict a day in the mountains falls slightly short.

So what is it like to hear music by first-class composers – in this case Shostakovitch and Mozart – inside a jewel of a concert hall, designed by Studio Seilern Architects in the heart of Andermatt, whose sharply facetted form peeps though its carapace to give views through a clerestory towards the surrounding mountains? The answer is quite thrilling. The relatively small hall (up to 650 audience, but with flexible seating and stage configurations) brings spectators very close to the performers, close enough to feel the vibrations of the instruments as well as their sounds.

This was particularly evident in Rudolf Barshai’s orchestration of Shostakovitch’s Opus 110 Chamber Symphony, part of the opening concert played by the Berlin Philharmonic under Constantinos Carydis, which has a powerful rhythmic sequence where the large string instruments are used almost as percussion. To bring such dramatic sound to this location might disrupt the much-vaunted peace and tranquility of the Swiss Alps, but is that characterization accurate?

In full orchestral mode the hall retains a sense of intimacy. Photo: Monika Ritterhaus.

The hall offers a dramatic and dynamic space for musical performance. Photo: Roland Haibe.

Some 1400 metres above sea level, reached by precipitous roads, Andermatt’s history certainly has its fair share of drama, not just limited to the car chase sequence in Goldfinger, which was filmed in the area. A cheerful local guide gave us an insight into the long history of human habitation and interaction in the valley. Andermatt sits in the Urseren Valley, whose name comes from Ursa, Latin for bear, and also gives it name to the Canton Uri. Its waters drain three ways, one via the River Reuss to Lake Luzern and ultimately into the Rhone, another to the Rhine and the third, southwards through the Ticino towards the Po in northern Italy.

Once pre-historic inhabitants had cleared bears and forests from the valley, its strategic importance emerged. It is an east-west, north-south crossroads, attracting all manner of people, goods, languages and cultures. From the establishment of the 14th century Swiss Confederation to the Renaissance, these characteristics saw the emergence of an affluent and cultured society, where speaking four languages was the norm. When northern European travelers started to make their way to Italy to acquire culture, Andermatt – close to three passes, the San Gotthard, the Oberalp and the Furka – became an important staging post. Many Grand Tourists passed through until the French Revolutionary Wars put a stop to travel. The Russian general Alexander Suvorov drove the French out of Italy but his army was trapped near Andermatt; the troops who died during his successful retreat are commemorated in a monument carved into the rocks of the Schollenen gorge.

The hall’s roof peeps above the ground. Photo: Roland Haibe.

All of this contributes to the sense that the Alps are a source of culture as well as of the rivers which irrigate much of Europe. During the peace following the French revolutionary wars, new transport technologies assisted travel and brought famous visitors to Andermatt: Turner visited the San Gotthard pass and drew the dramatic Devil’s Bridge in the Schollengen gorge. Ruskin loved the Alps and left numerous accounts of his delight in the experience their scenery offered.

In 1831 a stage-coach route passed through Andermatt between Zurich and Milan. It made the journey, though still long, far easier than before. Locals turned this to their advantage, developing a spa resort for travelers to rest before making the final ascent of the Gotthard. In 1872 the world’s first ‘grand hotel’ opened in Andermatt, from which Swiss pre-eminence in luxury hospitality springs.

Sadly this prosperity was not to last. The digging of a rail tunnel through the mountains in 1882 cut the journey time between Zurich and Milan to hours rather than days, so fewer and fewer people bothered to go over the mountains to stop off in Andermatt. It then became a garrison town for the Swiss army.

For much of the 20th century, the military presence and increasing number of tunnels (a road tunnel parallel to the rail tunnel under the Gotthard opened in 1980) kept Andermatt isolated and hindered exploitation of its potential as an Alpine resort. But early this century, the army pulled out, taking a large number of civilian jobs with them. Like Chatham or Brooklyn Naval Yard, Andermatt needed regeneration.

True to Switzerland’s localized decision-making traditions, the town’s inhabitants took a lead and approved each stage. The local government of Uri contacted the Egyptian property developer Samih Sawiris for advice. He said he could only give it on the basis that the community would give him some land for commercial development, to kick-start economic revival and the opening up of the area for ski-ing and other mountain activities. It still lags behind Davos or St Moritz in size, but now has a new ski-ing area at Sedrun, new hotels including the luxurious Chedi, on the site of the original Grand Hotel, comfortable apartments in several blocks clustered around the centre, and for the rich – even by Swiss standards – the opportunity to build detached villas.

One of the new hotels included a conference centre. And a conversation between Sawiris and architect Christina Seilern, on a mountaintop above Andermatt, began the pursuit of a different opportunity. As a student in Berlin, Sawiris lived near the Philharmonie and developed a taste for classical music, especially when played by the Berlin Phil under Herbert von Karajan. Seilern, who is also designing a conference and concert hall for Sawiris at a resort in Egypt, knew his tastes, and was also working on a performing arts centre for Wellington College in the UK. She joined the dots between Sawiris’ interests and her experience, and as Sawiris writes, ‘developing world class destinations over more than 30 years has made it clear to me that neither coastal nor ski resorts can thrive on sea or snow alone’. Music, he realized, could be added to spa, golf, biking, climbing and eating, via a unique venue that would steal a march on its tourist and visitor competitors.

The conference centre was already designed and under construction, its shape and foundations largely determined. Having established that the defined volume would be too small, Seilern realized that the back wall could be pushed out with seats placed in a cantilevered structure. The roof, too, could be raised slightly, creating both the clerestory light and views, and extra volume to help with acoustics. All this took considerable design development effort.

Andermatt nestles in a valley surrounded by High Alps.

The resulting form is complex, comprising on the inside multiple angular, small planes which recess or stand forward from their neighbours. It is flexible, with many of the seats able to fold back in the wall; the stage configuration can be changed for symphonic or chamber concerts, or even to create a single flat floor for events or dinners. This mix of possibilities is often a kiss of death for visitor experience, but having attended an orchestral concert, it does not seem to be the case here. Its size may be better suited to chamber ensembles than full orchestras, but there are some clever electronic systems to manipulate the sound where the pure architecture cannot quite cope.

So much for the hardware. The software for the concert hall, its programming, comes from an interesting and very young trio of Maximilian Fane, Roger Granville and Frankie Parham, who co-founded the New Generation Festival, which among other things is set to stage the Marriage of Figaro in Florence’s Palazzo Corsini this summer, as well as a three-day Festival in Andermatt in October, including, ambitiously given its scale, Brahms’ second symphony.

Sketch of the interior

Sketch of the interior.

The hall is a comfortable one in which to sit and experience music, the acoustic design eliminating dullness and delivering precision of sound. There is something exciting, too, about being close enough to read the music from which the musicians are playing.

But the crowing achievement is the bringing of highest-quality orchestra music to a place whose geography and social history have made a significant contribution to European and world culture. Listening to music amid natural scenery is all too rare. Even if Andermatt doesn’t quite match the surrealism reached when the physician/musician/theologian Albert Schweitzer played the great Bach organ pieces to an audience of the African jungle, it is nonetheless a remarkable attempt to place classical music in a fresh context.

Every surface makes a contribution to the acoustic performance.

Plan showing the hall, foyer and link to the hotel.

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