Krumbach Bus StopsFriday, 19 June 2015WORLDBINframed view out of the new Krumbach public library
Before entering the tunnel we had driven on the motorway through several miles of highly ordered, semi-urban sprawl. In the distance was Lake Constance with its hazy shores that bring together Austria, Switzerland and Germany, complete with a huge Zeppelin high above, endlessly and slowly making the rounds of the lake’s horizon-spanning breadth. In the foreground we passed a succession of hypermarkets, suburbs, and industrial parks, which didn’t look industrial at all but were rather pristine collections of freshly painted warehouses, tastefully plant-bordered car parks, well-designed service buildings and the occasional clean-cut multi-storey office complex. We left the motorway and immediately entered the tunnel, which was long, and had a continuous radius so that I found myself constantly waiting to see what was around the interminably forthcoming corner, which as it arrived was like being propelled into a parallel universe, constructed entirely from images found in old-fashioned postcards of an impossibly idyllic, rural Austria. As we wound upwards, steeply forested hillsides gave way to velvety, dramatically undulating meadows that stepped back higher and higher in swelling green mounds, peppered here and there with steep-pitch shingled farmhouses which although large structures, looked like small boats adrift on billowing oceans of rolling grass.
Krumbach had previously been more a collection of hamlets than a village, and it has been the Mayor’s plan over his 20-year tenure to form a village centre, a collection of recent and under construction apartment buildings, a supermarket, café, bank, and an impressive new multi-purpose hall with Library, bookable space and music rehearsal rooms for the local Brass band, clustered around the old Baroque church and an ancient Gasthof. Three “Generation Houses” of affordable flats for younger couples, and places for elderly people to downsize have been placed next to a large new central Bus Stop. Three important valley bus-routes connect in the village centre and the roads often had multiple vehicles double-parked, a messy situation resolved through an award-winning and very slick design completed in 2012 by three regional architects, Hermann Kaufmann, Rene Becher and Bernardo Bader. The experience of garnering attention from as humble and necessary a provision as a bus stop made an impression on the community, and after Krumbach hosted the valley’s annual Brass Music Festival in 2012, which had elated and energised the populace, a group of proactive villagers (later formalised as the “Kultur Krumbach” Association) started to meet and discuss what the village could do next.
There is a regional strategy to increase bus use in the Vorarlberg, and in line with this, part of the village plan was to replace its 8 bus stops, much loved but aging designs from the 1980s by Hermann Kaufmann. With the central one already completed, residents struck upon the idea of inviting 7 well-known international architects for the other stops. As in the Handwerk+Form competition, these would be partnered with craftsmen from the local building trade, as well as with architects from the equally respected and well-developed local architecture scene. In a village of 1000 people who meet and commune regularly, and in which the 25 directly elected councillors and their nominated Mayor have substantial powers to enact local initiatives, it is very feasible to both do something crazy like this, and at the same time have businesses and the community fully behind you, but without expert knowledge of the international architecture scene they did not know with what criteria they needed to go about selecting and approaching potential architects. Dietmar Steiner, Director of the Architekturzentrum in Vienna was asked to help, and he argued that international star architects of the Zaha and Libeskind ilk would not be appropriate, as their offices were too large and the project would not receive the attention it deserved, and their styles were in any case not place-specific. Instead he sought out a group with smaller offices, who would engage in a shared project with local architects and craftsmen through a more subtle form of dialogue, and with designs through which “stories [would be] told about the relationship of the architectural object to nature, society and politics”. It didn’t matter from what country they hailed, it was their sensitivity that mattered, and excluding from the four already mentioned he invited Sou Fujimoto from Japan, Ensamble Studio from Spain, and Smiljan Radic from Chile. Aside from Wang Shu they all went to Krumbach and spent three days under the wing of Marina Hammerle, former director of the Vorarlberg Arkitectur Institut, visiting workshops, craftspeople, examples of historic, vernacular, modern and contemporary architecture, as well as meeting the people of Krumbach, and being able to select their site, which happened on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Each architect fell in love with one thing or another on their trip, and incorporated their inspiration into the proposal. Radic was amazed by how the area’s public realm felt suffused with the domestic, and touching the 260 year-old low wooden ceiling of a stube, he decided to bring that intimate cosiness outside, metamorphosed into concrete and framed by glazed views of the mountains. Dagur Eggertsson was very taken with the combination of workshops specialising in the advanced use of cross-laminated wood, and on the other hand the ancient techniques still used by the famous furniture maker Markus Faisst and others with their wood-ripening houses. Ensamble Studio was enchanted with the unchanged wood-working techniques used to construct barns in the area, and wanted “to pay homage” to that tradition in its most stripped-down, elemental form. There was no fee for their work, but each was offered a holiday in the area in return, and as a rather eccentric project that would directly and measurably benefit certain sectors in the area, no public funds were used, with finance instead coming from local hotels, restaurants, individuals, and sponsorship in-kind from all the fabricators, architects, workshops and material suppliers who were in involved. Often sponsorhip came spontaneously, with the stacked-wood design by Ensamble Studio of Spain being built-up entirely by their local architects at Dietrich Unterrifaller Architects since they were enjoying, and had come to own the process to such a degree that they couldn’t let it go, and the shingles on Rintala Eggertsson Architects’ stop were voluntarily manufactured and placed in their entirety on the building by members of the village Brass Band.
Upon first stepping out of my taxi at the hotel in Krumbach village centre, I was accosted by the overpowering smell of manure, and by the frequency of building-sized tractors, log-haulage vehicles, manure-sprayers, cattle-trucks and shiny new crop-transporters that thundered past me, shaking the ground as they went, as incongruous to me in this pristine village as are the outsized cruise-liners in Venice. It was a noisy, smelly illustration of the economic mix in the area, with the hotel housing a famous restaurant behind me catering to a specific kind of small scale, cultural tourism, and the working farms all around the village providing jobs for those not in the building trade or tourism. The bus stops were multi-functional from the start in the sense that they were intended to provide shelter for the kids who use them to go to school in Dorbirn every day, and for the agricultural workers who take the bus back there in the evenings, but also to show how the skills on offer in the valleys can be used to do any number of things beyond the beautifully clean-cut buildings the Bregenzerwald is famous for, as well as drawing attention from the kind of culturally adventurous tourist that comes to quietly appreciate, and not just consume. As Débora Mesa from Ensamble Studio put it, “the kind of tourism that architecture can generate, or art generates, its rich, its productive.”
But they have another role, a purely joyful one that architecture rarely partakes in, namely they have become active agents in the creation of the village’s sense of itself. Through the richness of their genesis, and the unexpected ways they have been adopted, they’ve come to embody Krumbach as it is right now, looking proudly at itself and out towards to the world in 2014. As I walked around the village, bugging every other person I came across gardening in their little front yard arcadias as to whether they spoke English, a young mother beamed at me, she loved the bus stops, but “the best is our one, just there”, pointing towards Brodsky’s little tower, because she loved “seeing it when I’m in the garden”. So while I was told several times that a minority of the population were left indifferent by the whole thing, illustrated by one girl who explained that her grandmother loved them and was terribly excited by it all, but that her grandfather just shrugged and ignored it, it is the incredible enthusiasm and sense of personal ownership of those who have been aroused that is palpable, and as is the way with these things, will no doubt spread in the form of a quiet pride to the others as time passes. The people who live directly next to Radic and Brodsky’s regularly clean their stops, as if they were extensions of their front yards. Rintala Eggertsson’s stop, whose cantilevering second floor is a mini bandstand overlooking the local tennis club, has become the prime destination in which young couples meet, giving the place as Dagur Eggertsson puts it “a 3rd function, increasing the population of Krumbach.” DVVT’s folded steel, black and white abstraction of a mountainous landscape via Sol-le-Witt has been interpreted as a damn good and challenging slide by children. A villager with a keen interest in fairy-tales spent months researching stories from each country the architects came from, and held fairytale telling events in each of them. Every stop had its own topping-out party organised by the people whom it would serve, with each cluster of houses trying to outdo the others with the ingenuity of their celebrations.
Sou Fujimoto’s stop, the least practical of the designs, or rather the only one that is entirely without the basic bus stop requirement of shelter, has had to have a sign placed across its stairs after a complaint that it did not conform to Austrian building regulations, which it doesn’t. I inquired quite critically after the sign, and as to the suitability of Fujimoto’s design. The mayor responded that the community had discussed the design at length, and decided to own it with enthusiasm as the symbol of their willingness towards “taking another perspective”. It is as he said “the outlaw”. It was so alien to them that they fell in love with it, it encapsulated their desire for freshness, for risk taking in their own little way. Upon seeing the design, the metalworker who was originally going to make DVVT’s triangulated structure said “I want to do this!”, which in the end of course, he did. Very well indeed. As the mayor revealed, hardly any of the bus stops in fact conform to code, because he said, if they had followed the rules they would not have been able to build any of them. Ensamble Studio’s is a climbing frame essentially, for instance. They will take down the sign in a week or so, it was only placed there to placate the police, and it can go up again and down again as often as is needed to keep the law at bay, the point being that this picture-postcard perfect village, aside from being entrepreneurial and clever, is also cheeky, ever so slightly outlaw, with a taste for a certain amount of collective madness, one embodiment of which is in the form of seven wonderful, tiny little bus stops that do not conform to building code, but are much loved, and brought me there all the way there from Soho in London.
I must admit that I had gone to Krumbach with the Bilbao effect in mind, but as we drove back through the tunnel, and out into more familiar semi-urban territory of office blocks and car parks, motorways and service stations, the distance helped clarify how the village had never intended nor realized anything of the kind. Rather than a Deus ex Machina from the hands of an architectural God to divinely incur ‘regeneration’, these Bus Stops had a more limited, and yet infinitely richer agenda. They are like strange clay vessels of foreign origin, full of stories, industry, whimsy and optimism, which in their making were passed around many different hands, each leaving their mark and slowly rendering the forms profoundly familiar, which is how they now sit, beautifully routine and relaxed amongst the barns and farmhouses. As Smiljan Radic said, “Why bus stops? Do they have other problems?” “they don’t have problems… its about doing something else”, which indeed it was.
Amateur Architecture's Bus Stop
Alexander Brodsky's Bus Stop
Eggertsson's Bus Stop
Ensamble Studio's Bus Stop
Sou Fujimoto's Bus Stop
De Vylder Vinck Taillieu's Bus Stop
Smiljan Radic's Bus Stop