One thing that anyone visiting Vorarlberg for the first time immediately realizes 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 in the Bregenzerwald – more precisely the villages of Schwarzenberg and Sulzberg. Here it is apparent at first glance what Vorarlberg's architecture and construction technology is all 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 many wooden buildings throughout the area.
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 as well as 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 & Cultural Center in Hittisau and the Juppenwerkstatt in Riefensberg. This workshop for traditional dress, 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 local inhabitants. 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.
For good reason the architecture of Vorarlberg has become well known and respected among experts all over. 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 Bregenz Festival on the Lake Stage: here the guests are served organic, seasonal products, such as some of the many varieties of cheese from the region.
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 pilgrimage church stands on a hill like a huge monument watching over the surrounding villages. The view from here is impressive – as is the regional cuisine. The local inns offer an array of culinary specialties in an ambiance complete 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.