Sils-Cuncas Settlement Design
Sils, Engadin, Switzerland
Competition 1991

Urban architecture
What is the relationship of the houses to the landscape?
Sils-Cuncas is a group of houses. As in a village-Isola, for example, or, at a higher altitude, Grevasalvas the houses seem to be placed coincidentally in the landscape. In spite of their comparatively high and heavy cubes, they form a nearly romantic, somehow familiar building composition.

Perhaps this first glance, this first impression formed by a person traveling by in a bus or car or on cross-country skis is not so wrong and, especially from an urban architectural and landscape design point of view, not so uninteresting: houses grouped together to form a settlement that under closer observation, upon second, more critical inspection reveals itself as an independent reflexive settlement structure.

Perhaps this image of the hamlet is not so wrong since here in Cuncas, just as in any hamlet belonging to a past, traditional, non-tourist oriented culture, the buildings are also highly specifically oriented upon the topography. How else should the buildings be placed than in ingenious relationship to a landscape such as that along the sloping path leading from Sils-Maria to the Furtschellas station from where a view over the whole settlement opens up? From there the path continues to Surlej. The openness of the landscape also corresponds to the openness of the buildings’ grouping. No unnecessary transversal placements, nothing chained off, no formation of courtyards interrupts the settlement’s flow in the landscape.

Nonetheless, a space is created, a sort of concentration of the river and path network passing by. Through the progressive lengths and heights of the house rows a rhythm arises with a beginning or an entrance to the settlement that could be felt when coming from Sils-Maria and with an end in the direction of Surlej. This end is expressed in the clear and simple form of the last building in the settlement before the Silvaplana Lake. As a pendant to the Hotel Waldhaus, the building looks like a monolithic keystone or a tower.

Thus the buildings in Sils-Cuncas follow the logical, nearly self-evident geometry of the path network. On one side, the spaces between the rows of houses open up to the Furtschellas and Corvatsch mountains and, on the other, to the open landscape between the lakes of Sils and Silvaplana. The suggested building grouping becomes the immediate spatial expression of a minimal urban architectural gesture. Like a path marker, it points to the topographical relationships within the landscape.

Building typology
How are the houses put together?
How are the individual buildings from which a whole settlement then arises put together? Does an architectural language for them exist? Is there perhaps a unifying style such as that applied to the building in the Seglias settlements? The architecture of the Engadine landscape exhibits great diversity that upon close observation is nevertheless not based upon especially decorative facades but rather on the combining and interpretative possibilities of various building typologies. These typologies, so clear that they might have been torn from the pages of an architectural handbook, can be described in three broad categories:
- the traditional Engadine house in its various developmental phases
- the Historicist hotel with its heterogeneous, additive, polycrystalline building structure
- the Neoclassical hotel with its homogenous, repetitive, monocrystalline building structure

The traditional house unifies a multiplicity of spaces for humans and animals under one roof: stall, barn, kitchen, parlor, entrance corridor, and other additional rooms according to need and economic situation.

The traditional house is thus the conjoining of an architectural mesh of heterogeneous spatial types to a single, clear, outwardly homogenous, closed entity. It was only through the long process of developmental history still legible in single Engadine houses that this integration of so varied spaces, themselves each equipped as small houses, was completed. From one heterogeneous conglomerate of single cells arose a classical architecture with a nearly monolithic monocrystalline appearance.

This differentiation between monolithic classical entities on the one hand and polycrystalline heterogeneous architectural conglomerates on the other can also be found in the large 19th and 20th-century hotel buildings that characterize the Engadine landscape. The Cresta Palace Hotel in Celerina, for example, looks as if it were a row of single homes set upon a unifying stone base. The Hotel Waldhaus in Sils, a conglomerate of medieval fortification, castle tower and residential palace, marks the entrance to the Fex Valley. Both these examples of Historicist, additive conglomerate architecture stand in opposition to the monocrystalline type of of-a-piece neoclassical hotels whose princely clarity is revealed in their locations in the open landscape. Examples of this type are the Suvretta-Haus in St. Moritz and the very strong Hotel Palace at the end of the Lake of Sils in Maloja.

Simplified, Engadine architectural typology can be understood as a combination of single, finished monocrystalline cells into more or less homogeneous classical architecture in which the single cell relinquishes its outwardly visible independence or as a combination tending toward a more or less heterogeneous architecture in which, as in a stone conglomerate, the single component, the single space or the single architectural element remains visible.

The buildings for Sils-Cuncas follow this Engadine architectural typology: single buildings stand independently, equivalent to the plain monolithic cubes of the traditional Engadine house. Viewed laterally, these single closely grouped houses meld into a new whole reminiscent of the appearance of the heterogeneous Historicist hotel type. The same phenomenon can be seen in the settlement as a whole. Each of the four house rows is recognizable as an independent linear or vertical building element while from a distance the four parts again meld to a whole, precisely to that image of a hamlet from which we first departed.

How are the houses built?
The architecture of the buildings corresponds to the outer plain cubic form seen in the model. As we have seen, by grouping them into rows, monocrystalline cubes become polycrystalline entities. Should all the roofs be flat and covered with stone tiles? Should all facades be stuccoed and all windows recessed into stone walls? We do not want to lay down rules but would, in a most friendly way, like to recommend building authorities that they let the architects of the settlement concept chosen for Sils-Cuncas build as examples a few of the structures scheduled for realization.
Herzog & de Meuron, 1993


Herzog & de Meuron Team:
Partners: Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron
Project Team: Martin Hsu, Gerold Wiederin

Competition Ranking:
1st Prize

Gemeinde Sils im Engadin


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