Pedestrian Connection in Chur, Switzerland, by Esch Sintzel Architects, 2012
On a recent trip to Switzerland I was fortunate enough to visit Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals, a masterpiece of light, dark, and water. It was an experience equal parts stimulating and relaxing, thanks to both the architecture and the gorgeous valley setting. The town and baths are most easily reached by car, in a route that takes one past the city of Chur, the capital city of Graubünden, the canton that also encompasses Vals. In Chur I visited a more recent project by Esch Sintzel Architects, a pedestrian connection linking two parts of a school separated by a vertical expanse of 35 meters (115 feet).
The architects wove a stairway along and across a funicular, which allows people without the means of using the stairs to ascend and descend the ten stories separating the school building at the base and the one next to the Cathedral of Chur. Visiting on a Sunday, the funicular was not in operation. No bother, since the stairs offer plenty of opportunities for rest, particularly through the way the walls frame views of the surrounding city and countryside on different sides.
Both human and mechanical means of access tunnel through the landscape, making the voyage one that veers from open and light to enclosed and dark. From bottom to top, the stairs start in a straight shot toward the top, paralleling the funicular; then they take a right away from the funicular, only to turn another 90 degrees and meet up with it again for the final ascent to the top. A plan of the stair's route would look like a loop with straight lines at the ends. This detour functionally allows more ascent than would be possible with only a straight run, but it also lets the architects put the urban and natural scenery on display, perhaps the most important aspect of the design.
Not surprisingly, concrete is an important material in the realization of the project. But so is weathered steel, which is used for the walls and roofs of the portions that just from the rock at the bottom and the top. On the sides these thin plates (only 12mm, or 1/2", thick) are cut with hexagonal openings that affect how one looks at the surrounding landscape; it's like a skewed picture window that adds some dynamism to fairly idyllic views. While the outside of the steel is weathered (rust) the inside faces are painted white. This lightens the series of spaces and enables the perforated corrugated guardrails to stand out a little bit, their color echoing the rust.
While the pedestrian connection by Esch Sintzel Architects may not be able to compete with Zumthor's Therme Vals—both in the evolving canon of contemporary architecture and in my memories—perhaps that is an unfair comparison. More praiseworthy is the way the piece of infrastructure in Chur manages to utilize its surroundings to great effect, just as the windows in Zumthor's bath elevates the beauty of the hills around Vals. Chur may not have as much natural beauty as Vals—it is a city rather than a small village, after all—but through the openings of Esch Sintzel's walls of weathered steel, the city is turned into something special, a place to be celebrated.