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Graubünden designs tour of architectural highlights

The thermal bath at Vals: a relaxing place to admire the architecture of Peter Zumthor

The tourist office in Graubünden has hooked up with the publishers of an architecture magazine, "Hochparterre", to promote and organise tours highlighting modern architecture. The tours take in the most important modern buildings in the canton.

The tours includes visits to churches, houses, offices, museums and bridges.

Graubünden has developed a reputation as one of the most important regions in Switzerland for modern design, even though traditional architecture continues to mark the canton's landscape. Many of the structures, like the St Mepomuk chapel in Oberrealta, are set amid stunning scenery. Rudolf Fontana's simple concrete chapel sits on the edge of a high meadow offering a spectacular view of the Hinterrhein valley.

A visit to the thermal bath in Vals designed by Peter Zumthor, a star architect who is also from the region, is a must on any architecture tour. The "Felsenbad" is made out of local quartzite and strides the only hot spring in the canton.

The quartzite stone naturally complements the warm water of the thermal bath. It has been described as a work of simple elegance and timeless quality, and has already received status as a protected monument. There's a waiting list to take a dip in the "Felsenbad", and overnight stays in Vals have quadrupled since its unveiling. More recently, Zumthor designed the Swiss pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover.

While traditional buildings still dominate the landscape in most resorts in Graubünden, Davos is the exception. At first sight, its modern appearance seems at odds with what one comes to expect from a Swiss Alpine town. But some argue that it is this very modernity that has made Davos one of Switzerland's top ski resorts and the place where the world's business and political elite gather at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

The Kirchner Museum in Davos has been praised for its unadorned yet clearly articulated style. Built by Anette Gigon and Mike Guyer, it houses the most comprehensive collection of the works of the German painter, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who exercised a pioneering influence on German expressionism. Kirchner lived in Davos from 1917 until his death in 1938.

It is nearly impossible not to cross bridges spanning deep gorges while on tour in the mountainous canton. A fear of heights aside, many of the bridges are worth closer examination. The recently completed Sunniberg bridge outside the resort of Klosters is one of these.

The 526 metre-long Sunniberg was built by Christian Menn, from the cantonal capital, Chur, and considered Switzerland's king of bridges. Slanting, exposed cables above the bridge surface have helped make the steel and concrete structure a top tourist attraction. Motorists have been provided with a lay by where they can pull over to get out and admire the work.

Christian Menn has followed in the footsteps of the pioneering Swiss engineer, Robert Maillart, in moving away from traditional stone-arch bridges, which feature on many postcards of the region. The construction of these arched structures was costly and the surrounding countryside was stripped to provide the raw materials.

Maillart and Menn have gone against this tradition, which survived well into the 1960s, to build bridges using only a fraction of the materials while remaining aesthetically pleasing.

Star architects have also made their mark on schools and kindergartens in the region. They have successfully managed to build structures in harmony with their natural surroundings, which at the same time provide an atmosphere conducive to learning.

The schools might also inspire Graubünden's next generation of visionary architects.

by Dale Bechtel


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