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Built with their own Wood

Appropriate, classic and just awarded the construction prize: a school, a shop, the municipal office and a village restaurant made from solid wood. Designed by Bruno Spagolla for Blons in the Great Walser Valley. by Walter Zschokke

If you look at the sun side of valley from the south and see all the farms in the tiny village of Blons, you notice that there are a couple of large buildings near the church with some smaller ones gathered around it.  Together, they form the village square.  The church steeple with its spiky pinnacle stands out from the group.  Underneath it, lies the long side of the nave under the steep shingled roof.  Both sides are attached to gabled constructions which are four or five times bigger than the single family homes close by.  The one on the left is the old elementary school which was built in the 1950‘s, and on the right we see the new one that was just opened this fall.  On the outer wings of this, as it were, classic construction, there are two buildings which are parallel to the slope; on the left the secondary school built in the 1970‘s which will expand into the old elementary school, and on the right we see the building that houses the new village restaurant and the municipal offices.  The wood of the new buildings is still bright yellow.  In a few years, the sun would have burned it to a golden brown and later even darker.  

Is this consolidation of the village that was built with harmony in mind, really contemporary?  Contextual construction is passé.  It is in to accentuate opposites, to fixate on the sparkly solitaire, and anyway, what happened to innovation?  Appropriateness, and that‘s what we‘re talking about here, is timeless.   To design something appropriate does not mean to build a mono-functional building and add trimmings to make it stand out.  After a few years the building runs the risk of becoming an embarrassing eyesore with its aggressive „look at me“ exterior whose exorbitant gestures have become absurd.  Today, since artistic polarisation has, in many cases, degenerated into an end in itself, and the running dogs of the architecture agitations-propaganda only address simple exteriors, it is a blessing to be allowed to comprehend the deep responsiveness to complexes, tradition and innovation of integrated appropriateness and to discover the complex thoughts, which resulted in the decision for this design.  With this, we enter the area of the complex enjoyment of architecture, which is superior to the high we get from superficial effects, because in the long run, it is lasting.  This also means that traditional principles, combined with technology are often less disturbing than new techniques that have hardly been tried out.  20th century architectural history shows that among other things, superseding experience can lead to blatant structural damage.  

The village of Blons lost 57 of its citizens in the avalanches on January 11th, 1954.  The snow ploughed through the protection forest or made new paths for itself.  To combat this, snow nets were erected high up on the mountain and the community owned forest was expanded.  But the forest must be maintained; through forestry.  This is why there are plenty of strong trunks from Spruce, Silver Fir, Larch and even a few Sycamores available.

The citizens of Blons own a lot of wood, and this is why they decided to use it as a construction material for the badly needed community centre.  The new buildings were meant to be the home to the two classroom elementary school with a gymnasium and a village shop as well as the municipal buildings and last but not least, a village restaurant.  Memories of the avalanche came up and had to be dealt with, and served as a warning for ski tourists and snow boarders.  Bruno Spaggola from Bludenz, who had built the secondary school years ago, was chosen to carry out the project by means of an architecture competition.  

The functions are divided between the two buildings that are pushed away from the road and up into the slope so that there is a flat area for the school yard and parking lot, and underneath, towards the valley, the whole level has sun light.  On the lower level of the gabled school house, there is a gymnasium and a cloak room.  The large, eccentric window brands the front side of the building and offers the gymnasts a view of the valley.  Up on the ground floor, there is a village shop which used to be away from the street and quite cramped.  On the drawn-in north east side, there is a Schopf - or Tuft - which is what the people in Vorarlberg call a weather proof area, in front of the entrance to the school rooms which fill the upper level.  A gallery uses the ample space under the gabled roof as a seminar room.  The pediment is paned and lets you have a view of the valley.  

But now to the timber:  With a provisional cable way, the wood was brought out of the forest and cut into blocks and beams in a nearby sawmill.  The Spruce planks were cut into 20 x 80 cm. elements and clamped together by means of diagonally, predrilled and force fitted pegs made of Beech wood.  The dried out pegs expand in the slightly damper Spruce tree wood and are held in place by friction.  The craftsmen call it diagonal dowel wood.  The walls and ceilings were made from these elements and then transported and erected into the reinforced concrete foundation.  To make it weather proof, a plank that has been tongue and grooved and also held together by the diagonal dowels was erected in front of the wooden wall.  Together, they have enough insulation and accumulator properties for the building to meet Passive House standards.   The gabled roof is also made out of diagonal dowel timber elements.  The static behaviour of these planks and sheaves, is comparable to reinforced concrete but only weighs a third as much and doesn‘t generate any thermal bridges.  Ample concrete was used for the parts that come in contact with the ground.  And so the materials complement one another.

Simple, knot free boards and scantling, which were used for the windows and interiors came from the largest Silver Firs, a tree that is more common in Vorarlberg than in other parts of Austria.  Banisters and stairs were made from hand processed Sycamore.  Almost all of the wood found in the protection forest can be found in the school house.

The other building houses the village restaurant on the ground floor and the municipal offices in the basement.  The frame construction was built from strong  plywood posts, and the pent roof supported again by the diagonal dowel wooden boards which were clamped together.  The design remains contemporary, which suits an open minded community with a large number of young citizens.  Above all, the need for a common place for social events was fulfilled.  The wonderful view from the tables along the south façade will also attract other guests.  While enjoying the view they can learn about the history of the buildings, and how well appropriateness and cross linked thinking and actions are represented here.

Report published in „Spectrum“ 12.11.2004

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