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Architects champion industrial heritage of the Alps

Ardon (VS) hydroelectric power station.

(University of Geneva)

The Alps may conjure up images of picturesque wooden chalets, cow-filled meadows and spectacular glaciers, but industry, based on hydroelectric power, has helped many mountain communities to survive. A new association wants to protect this important 20th century heritage.

The Association for Alpine Heritage was set up by three architects who want to reassess which constructions deserve to be conserved. For Michael Jakob and Michel Clivaz from Geneva University and Jean-Pierre Giuliani from Martigny, heritage is not something that should be limited to "classical" architecture.

"We're interested in the entire heritage - both old and new, because life in the Alps has undergone a very big cultural transformation," says Jakob.

"We want to protect things which currently don't have any protection, often because they're too new," he told swissinfo. These more modern constructions which he believes are worthy of protection include hydroelectric plants, factories, telecommunications towers and leisure facilities.

Although created by architects, the association is multi-disciplinary. These 20th century facilities bear testament to the cultural, economic and sociological transitions that these mountain communities have undergone.

"Architecture in mountain areas has changed people's lives. By protecting it and studying it, we can understand how people lived over the past 100 years," Jakob explains.

The association has focused much of its attention so far on canton Valais, and one of its first tasks is to make an inventory of its industrial heritage. Many of these installations are no longer in use and in danger of falling into a state of disrepair.

"Some of these plants are of major importance. They are monuments to progress and to a certain genius of engineering," Jakob says.

"We have to define which are the most important, decide how we can protect them, and find out as much as we can about them. Very often we don't even know the architects who built them," Jakob adds.

The association does not just confine itself to Switzerland. It is collaborating closely with similar organisations in other alpine countries such as France and Italy.

"There is a unity that binds communities in the Alps, whether they are in Switzerland, Slovenia Italy or France. You cannot do this kind of work without adopting this approach," Jakob says. It is for that reason that the association intends to organise a number of conferences next year to mark the International Year of the Mountain.

The international theme is continued in a major project undertaken by the association for the International Olympic Committee. It is studying how the eight Alpine resorts which have staged Winter Olympic games have aged.

"Studies have been done on how these places function during the games, but we want to see how they have grown old, from an architectural, economic and sociological perspective," Jakob says.

by Roy Probert


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