John Ruskin, a leading art critic in the late 19th century, spoke of the chalet as the most beautiful piece of architecture he had ever seen. This beauty was not sought after directly, nor conceived out of deep artistic study, rather out of pure practicality of its purpose; "without making a study of the beautiful in architecture, this son of the Swiss mountains has in his effort to construct an abode best suited to his needs, and with the least expense, succeeded in drawing from Ruskin one of his greatest compliments.” -William Scull, “The Swiss Chalet, the ideal mountain house” in 1907.
Scull captures this feeling exactly- “the value of this modest human habitation comes from its perfect harmony with its surroundings, and all its beauty consists in its perfect adaptation to its purpose, in its total absence from pretension.”
You see these chalets all over the alps, thanks to glaciers in the last ice age that tilled up the mountains, creating rivers and valleys of luscious greenery for cows and sheep to come and graze on, and with them the cowherds and shepherds to take care of them. They all have the same look, heavy timber walls sit upon stone bases, two to three stories high, the lower level whitewashed, the upper of vertical or horizontal wood. The upper floors often project over the lower, with elegantly carved balconies and meticulous window boxes. Low pitched gable roofs face the front, with deep eaves protruding a far ways over the walls. They’re often square or rectangular in plan, and may include barns and stables extended under the same roof. The lower floor houses the kitchen, the guts of the house, and when there was no additional barn, would house the stables as well, with retreat and sleeping areas on the upper floors. There is a natural order to it. The stone is taken from the site, the timber harvested from nearby, but specifically not from behind the house, as to protect it from avalanches. In especially harsh areas, stones are placed on the roof, to literally weigh it down.
Even centuries after the first farmers brought their cows up the valley, to graze in the summer, this architecture has maintained its identity incredibly strongly. Part of this comes out of the strong agricultural culture that still exists, which we directly experienced at the house we stayed at, one that came with an adjoining barn, and Nico, the man who lived there to take care of the cows and pigs. The pure and simple form has remained unchanged, there’s been no renaissance of “chalet architecture”, besides some efforts at hotels here at there that have nonetheless left the vernacular largely unchanged. It has maintained its own lasting character despite the influence of the cultures around it.
"Adaptation to its purpose...total absence of pretension". In this manner, the chalet matches perfectly with my feeling of a genuine place. It is not trying to show anything off, but becomes beautiful in its intense attention to its purpose and place, and nothing else. As long as we try to get its look by copying it though, we will never achieve this same aesthetic. In the years that have ensued, ski chalets have become grossly popular in resorts in the US, but have been largely unappealing, as they are built just for the look and do not come close to following the purpose that gave way to the beautiful original chalet. The chalet's beauty comes from being in sync with its surroundings. It is beautifully simple and naturally practical. Our only hope at replicating this feeling is by striving for the same integrity to purpose rather than attention to the aesthetic of the finished product.
The chalet comes perfectly full circle too, as here in Craftsbury, the Outdoor Center is currently in the building phase of a new cluster of cabins, affectionately called “Wilbursdorf” during construction, thanks to conceptual inspiration from exactly such alpen chalet villages. We want the quaint feel, the picturesque look, as if you’re transported to such a place in visiting and staying there. Time will tell if we can achieve it, with a twist of our own local materials, relationship to the sun and place, and needs of those that stay there- outdoor activity, community use and retreat. Its ultimate success will not come in directly resembling the chalets that inspired it, but rather if they give the same sense of aesthetic and practical pleasure, in being so essentially rooted in the needs and desires of the place that is Craftsbury.
"The Swiss Chalet" http://www.dahp.wa.gov/sites/default/files/The_Swiss_chalet_book_1913.pdf
"The Swiss Chalet, the ideal mountain house" http://www.dahp.wa.gov/sites/default/files/SwissChalet_TheIdealMountianHouse_1907.pdf