Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The mountains are full of temptation. The idea of escaping into nature and enjoying a true sense of connection with the mountains has always been seductive and the fresh, high air has long been respected as the great restorative. With the rise and rise of winter sports and the evolution of sophisticated alpine and mountain resorts, the invitation to head for the hills has become ever more appealing. The ski and winter sport season is now an essential part of many people’s yearly planner, with the idea of a snow blown home of one’s own up in the mountains holding a powerful allure. The reinvention of the mountain chalet, updated and reimagined for 21st century living, has created a very particular temptation with a unique appeal all of its own.

The alpine chalet is an evocative kind of home with a long and proud history. The word conjures up an image of a classic, traditional mountain home of stone and timber with a pitched roof and an overhang that clears away the snow fall and protects some key outdoor spaces, such as balconies and terraces, even in the winter months. These are hand crafted, organic buildings with a real sense of place, made with local timber and materials, with an inviting patina and character. Now, many contemporary architects and designers are taking the best of these qualities and rethinking the whole concept of the chalet in contemporary style within a more modern, progressive approach.

One of the key exponents of these new generation chalets is London-based architect Christina Seilern, who grew up in Switzerland before moving to the States and then settling in Britain. Seilern has designed and built a contemporary chalet for herself and her family in the picturesque hamlet of Lauenen, not far from Gstaad, after spending a good deal of time studying the chalet typology and working out what makes it so special.

‘Even though I grew up in the mountains and skied almost before I could walk, the chalet was something I knew about but without really understanding where it came from and why it was designed like that,’ says Seilern. ‘I went around and took pictures of chalets and organized it all by region and whether they were owned by locals or farmers and we studied roofs and facades and windows and compared it all. I have always been enamoured by traditional alpine farmhouses and chalets.’

Seilern’s research fed into the design of her own home, which takes many vernacular elements of chalet design and splices them with modern construction methods, high spec insulation and contemporary, bespoke interiors, with an emphasis on a more fluid and open plan way of living than you would expect from a classic chalet. The result is an intriguing combination of old and new, with a timber coat wrapped around a concrete shell and a glass staircase juxtaposed with the organic warmth of wooden paneled walls, floors and ceilings.    

‘We pared it down to the structural minimum of a chalet building and used local pine for the timber parts of the house, but there is also quite a lot of exposed concrete’ says Seilern. ‘Chalets are usually on steep hills and partly pushed into the ground, so you often have limits on the size of windows that you can use. Chalets can be very dark and that was something that we really wanted to counter.’

The shift away from small windows and apertures seen in so many vernacular alpine chalets is a key aspect of new generation chalets. With high performance glass and super insulated shells, the only argument against larger expanses of glazing may well come down to tradition and the more restrictive planning regulations found in some mountain regions. One of the great advantages of modern chalets is the combination of vernacular themes with larger expanses of glazing that make the most of the surroundings and the mountain panoramas.

Swiss architect Arnd Küchel designed a new house for himself and his family between the lakes of the Upper Engadine Valley, not far from Saint Moritz, which fuses traditional influences and generously scaled picture windows that make the most of this extraordinary location, with open views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Like Seilern, Arnd Küchel grew up in the mountains with a love of the barns and traditional rustic buildings of the region. He wanted to build a house with something of a barn-like feel, as well as being as sensitive as possible to the landscape and the environment.

But Küchel’s house is also decidedly contemporary. The architect placed the main living spaces on the upper level of the house to make the most of the dramatic vista, with a vast window to one side that slides back to create an open balcony. Crisp detailing and high ceilings combine with timber floors and a bespoke fireplace and hearth in a welcoming and light-filled open space. This is a chalet for the 21st  Century.

‘We really wanted to use local materials as much as we could,’ says Küchel. ‘The stone and wood are local to the area and we also used local craftsmen. Also, it was very important to us to blend the house with nature. If you see the house from the outside, then you would never expect the big, spacious volume that we have inside. In the winter you can just go out of the house with your skis and go cross country or head up into the mountains.’

Lawyer Olivier Unternhauer and his wife Céline, a musician, also have a strong sense of connection to the Alps. The couple were offered a piece of land on a sloping, forested hillside in Les Jeurs, the Swiss village near Martigny where Céline was born, by her parents and decided that they wanted to build a contemporary mountain home.

‘We could not have imagined building a traditional house,’ says Olivier Unternhauer. ‘It was important to us to go down the contemporary road but it was equally critical that the house would blend well with the landscape and and with roots that would go back to traditional Valais buildings.’

They commissioned Swiss architects Lacroix Chessex to design the new house: a timber coated home sitting upon a concrete plinth, echoing the way that many traditional timber houses and barns in the region rest upon a flat stone base. The three bedroom house was also split into two inter-connected parts, like Siamese twins, to lessen the impact of the building on the site and to focus the large windows on alternate views.

‘We really enjoy the quietness and warmth of the house,’ says Unternhauer, ‘which is a result of both the location and the architectural choices, such as the more reasonable size of the “two” houses and of the rooms and also using just one material – wood – in the entire house. There’s also the large windows that give us this direct visual access to the outdoors while simulateously bringing the outdoors inside the house.’

In the Italian Tyrol, architect Armin Pedevilla and his wife Caroline used a similar pairing device to create their home, plus a twin next door that is rented out to holiday makers. They were inspired by the model of traditional farmsteads in the area, which might combine a number of small hillside buildings, such as a house and barn.

The project replaces a small farmhouse on the same site, but it still took a year to get the contemporary design – still something of a rarity in the region – through the planning process. ‘It was something totally new for the municipality,’ says Caroline Pedevilla. ‘It was also challenging building on the hillside, although we tried to leave the slope as it was as much as possible and work with nature. But we are very satisfied with it – our task was to build a house that would be as self-sufficient as possible and using materials from the neighbourhood.’

The two chalets are coated with stained timber and features integrated balconies, while tucking themselves into the hillside as discreetly as possible. There is a pitched roof for each twin, but no overhang and the form and outline of the two buildings is sculptural, modern and crisp. Again, large windows enhance the strong sense of connection with the mountain landscape and interiors are fresh, open and fluid – together representing quite a departure from traditional alpine chalets.

Replacing or adapting an existing building can sometimes make the whole planning process a little easier. Italian architects Gerd Bergmeister and Michaela Wolf were commissioned by entrepreneurs Kurt and Claudia Brunner to replace a crumbling farmhouse that once belonged to Kurt’s parents and where Kurt had grown up. The design for the Brunner’s second home, in the South Tyrol, which they share with their four children, is a true fusion of old and new, with stone and timber meeting concrete and glass.

‘The planning rules in the territory only give you the possibility to build something on special sites like this if someone has already built something in the past or you can renovate a historical building,’ says Gerd Bergmeister. ‘But the architecture of the region is changing and the way that people appreciate it. Here, we were really pleased with the complicity of the house with the landscape.’

The new house features timber shingles on the outside as well as feature walls of local stone. There are large sheltered balconies and expansive glazing looking out to the Flatsch Spitze and Weiss Spitze mountains, with a vivid sense of connection with the surroundings. The main living spaces are arranged around a bespoke fireplace, created by the architects, which forms a key focal point in the house.

The enduring importance of the fireplace and hearth was also a key consideration for English architectural designer Jonathan Tuckey when reinventing a 1970s house on the edge of the mountain town of Andermatt in Switzerland. Here, too, planning restrictions can make building a new house from scratch a real challenge but Tuckey’s English clients – an investment fund manager and his family – were eventually able to find a building in a sublime spot that they could radically reinvent and remodel.

Working in conjunction with local architect Ruedi Kreienbuhl, Tuckey effectively spliced a new home upon the base of the old, while also reorienting the portion of the house for a better view across Andermatt and the Ursner Valley from its commanding position. Tuckey and his clients were much influenced and guided by local vernacular ideas and the beauty of traditional rustic buildings and barns in the region but also wanted to create a contemporary home. As well as timber, the exteriors use a concrete finish with a red pigment that gives the house its name – the Rothaus – and was partly inspired by the rusty stain given to many timber buildings in the area. Inside, a custom fireplace was a pivotal element.

‘It was important to us that it shouldn’t just be a blandly efficient new building – we wanted something richer than that,’ says Tuckey, who has established a satellite office in Andermatt to add to his London base. ‘We wanted something that felt as though it had evolved and had a patina to it and so we used the old, original building as a root that we could then pivot the new house around. The centre of all the houses in this area does tend to have one big chimney with spaces leading off it so we used that tradition to create the fireplace, which is something you can see and feel in the dining room, the living room and kitchen. It’s something that you can really gather around.’

A statement fireplace also became a key part of the redesign of Chalet la Transhumance in a small hamlet not far from the French Alpine village of Saint Martin de Belleville. Antoine Ernoult-Dairaine and his family fell in love with the hamlet in Les Trois Vallées during ski trips and used to enjoy lunches at La Transhumance when it was a restaurant. He waited patiently for a house to come up for sale until finally the restaurant itself was closed and put on the market. Ernoult-Dairaine bought the chalet and the barn next door and asked Parisian designer Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance to transform the building in his distinctive, contemporary style. The crowing glory is the loft-like, open plan living room on the top floor, with a sculpted fireplace at its heart, and big picture windows looking out across the mountains.

‘Noé had in mind a sort of nest – a cocoon – or a snow ball in the air,’ says Ernoult-Dairaine. We wanted a bright living room with the best light and the best view, hence the need to go on top. We use it all year round; the winter is great and the light exceptional but the summer is fantastic too when the mountains are green. ‘

As Duchaufour-Lawrance suggests, classic period chalets are traditionally closed in, cellular and insular. But La Transhumance was about reinventing the house as something open and light and that looks outwards to the mountains. La Transhumance translates as ‘pastures new’. It’s emblematic of the fresh beginnings for Ernoult-Dairaine’s home and for new generation chalets as a whole. Modern chalets are open and inviting, with an intimate sense of connection to the mountain scenery. They have become more tempting than ever.

Mountain Modern, by Dominic Bradbury & Richard Powers, is published by Thames & Hudson.


Studio Seilern Architects –
Küchel Architects –
Lacroix Chessex –
Pedevilla Architects –
Bergmeister Wolf Architekten –
Jonathan Tuckey –
Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance –