Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost province, is striking for its many structures with timber construction. The architecture is simple, natural and sustainable, traditional and cosmopolitan all at once – like the people who live here. Join us on a tour of Vorarlberg’s building culture and mentality.
One thing that anyone visiting Vorarlberg for the first time realizes immediately is that this is a land of pioneers – pioneers when it comes to combining architecture with the province’s magnificent natural landscape, construction technology with energy efficiency, and building culture with the singular Vorarlberg mentality.
The first stop on our architectural tour of the province is therefore in the Bregenzerwald – more precisely in the villages of Schwarzenberg and Sulzberg. Here it is apparent at first glance what Vorarlberg architecture and construction technology is about. Wood is utilized in a sustainable manner in the Bregenzerwald and is now the most important construction material in the region, as is evidenced by the plentiful wood architecture throughout the area.
Unique timber architecture as an integral part of the landscape
In the past, wood was used primarily in the construction of farm buildings, but now timber architecture is used for everything from residences and office buildings to public buildings such as community centres and schools. This results in a lively coexistence of tradition and modernity. Traditional are the old dairy huts, with their small windows, found up in the Alpine pastures. More modern is the contemporary timber architecture that combines wood with large glass surfaces. Classic examples of this are the Firehouse and Cultural Centre in Hittisau and the Juppenwerkstatt in Riefensberg. This workshop for the traditional Bregenzerwald women's costume, located in an old barn, has been given an architectural facelift. The front of the building is now covered with a huge glass face, with the barn’s massive wooden beams visible behind it.
All of these timber structures have one thing in common: the ground plan is consciously kept simple. This straightforwardness in the construction gives the buildings an unobtrusive, authentic character. One could surmise that the architecture corresponds to the mentality of the locals. The people here approach one directly without being obtrusive or pushy. They are natural and authentic, but equally open-minded. They treat their natural surroundings very carefully – just as the region’s building industry does. In Vorarlberg, the sparing use of natural resources and energy-efficient architecture are top priorities.
Europe’s centre for contemporary architecture
For good reason the architecture in Vorarlberg has become well known and respected among experts all over Europe. The opportunity to train with a Vorarlberg architect is as coveted as an apprenticeship with a celebrated chef. Vorarlberg is indeed a land with an unusually high density of outstanding buildings, with Bregenz, the provincial capital, boasting a number of internationally acclaimed architectural gems.
The Festspielhaus and the Kunsthaus are characterized by steel, glass and concrete. But the fact that the emphasis on sustainability does not end with timber buildings is evidenced by the opera events in the Festspielhaus and the productions of the Bregenzer Festspiele on the Lake Stage. Here, the guests are served organic, seasonal products, such as some of the many varieties of cheese from the region.
Architecture, nature and Vorarlberg "Gemütlichkeit"
Of course, no discussion of Vorarlberg’s architecture would be complete without mentioning its religious buildings, especially when they are as outstanding as the Rankweil Basilica. This imposing medieval church castle stands on a hill like a huge monument watching over the surrounding villages. The view from here is stupendous – as is the regional cuisine. The local inns offer an array of culinary specialities in an ambience replete with Austrian "Gemütlichkeit". A very typical dish is the so-called "Käsdönnala", a kind of a cheese quiche. And the locals are proud to point out that a proper "Käsdönnala" is made solely with organically-produced ingredients. After all, not only builders here treat nature with respect, but chefs as well.