Monday, 26 March 2007 11:04

Kaltern's Lakeside Baths | icon 040 | October 2006

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words: Kieran Long

“Buongiorno!”
“Gruß Gott!”

This was not the reply I was expecting, even given my terrible Italian accent.

But Kaltern, or Caldaro to Italian speakers, is a picturesque spot in the South Tyrol, a piece of Italy that is forever Austria.

I have driven here from Verona, the most elegant of northern Italian cities, up the eastern shore of Lake Garda and into the South Tyrol. As soon as you pass by Trento on the way to Bolzano the tone changes. From elegant and ancient Italian culture you enter the hyperreal world of Austrian tourist-resort towns, with a soundtrack of the lumpen Austro-Bavarian German spoken by more than two-thirds of the people in this part of Italy.

Vienna-based architect The Next Enterprise has completed a new lido here, a couple of miles outside the village of Kaltern, near the pretty lake of Kalterersee. The lake nestles in a quiet spot on the valley floor, loomed over by the romantic mountain landscape of the Dolomites, and is bounded by vineyards and orchards. The postcard perfection of all this tips into Martin Parr-style garishness, though, with legions of Austrian holidaymakers on the banks of the lake, windsurfing, riding pedalo boats, eating icecream and generally having a whale of a time.

The pool itself is raised a storey above ground, creating a balcony-like sundeck, with a main pool and a children’s pool, a café pavilion and an entry kiosk. Underneath the platform is an undercroft, with changing rooms, lockers and other services beneath the pool. The most interesting aspect of this area is the two grotto-like rooms inside the concrete structural columns – extraordinary faceted spaces lit from above by light chimneys. The chimneys emerge on the upper deck out into the swimming pool as sculptural elements. From the west, these concrete chimneys look monolithic and pretty much symmetrical, an abstracted reference to the ruined castle keep on the mountain in the distance. From the east, the concrete looks more faceted and irregular, referencing the Dolomite mountains in the background.

Other links between the undercroft and the deck are made through circular transparent panels in the bottom of the pool, which cast reflections onto the ground below, and by two staircases. One leads down from the entrance plaza, and the other is monumental, doubling as an informal rake of theatre-like seating looking out to the lake.

Raising the lido off the floor has several advantages. The first is that it mediates the storey-high drop from the north-eastern corner of the site where the entrance is, to the lake’s edge. Also, it frees up the maximum area for sunbathing at the south of the site.

Undercroft buildings are trendy right now it seems – this one followsc in Barcelona (icon 014) in 2004 and Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany (icon 029) in 2005. The progenitor of these projects, though, is Rem Koolhaas’ unbuilt Agadir Conference Centre (1990), a scheme that split the ground and created an undulating forest of columns between two highly programmed built layers.

The Next Enterprise’s project is cosmetically most similar to Hadid’s building, with concrete cones that are both structural and provide accommodation. But it has also had to deal with securing the perimeter of the site. The pool charges a very reasonable €5 to get in, and has its own, fenced-off area of lakefront, which can only be accessed if you pay. The fences make the gesture of a continuous ground from lakefront to the back of the site rather perverse. To the north of the building is a sloping access road, which leads down to the neighbouring café, but walking alongside the back of the pool is much like walking alongside a carpark – you can see through the orange steel grille, but there’s not much to look at.

Actually, though, the undercroft itself is in some ways more successful than its Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron cousins, because removing the requirement to provide continuous routes across the site has meant a lot of thought has gone into making a real place underneath the concrete mass of the pool above. The Next Enterprise’s response is theatrical.

The main space, between three masses of concrete, is basically empty (except for a few babyfoot tables), but the faceted soffit really draws the eye out to the landscape in a way that, if you were being kind, recalls Carlo Scarpa (whose major works are in nearby Verona and Venice), placing a heavy mass just above your eyeline at the moment of an important view.

There is something mysterious about the pool, and particularly the undercroft, that points towards the strange discoveries that family holidays provide for children. The dark rooms in the concrete structural columns are places to hide – secret, intimate places for the kinds of discoveries made by teenagers away from their parents.

This, and other things about the building (the distended beach hut-style café, the funny fountain by the kids’ pool), is suggestive of the surrounding gaudy vacation styling – the man on the pier renting pedalo boats, or the day-glo tones of Austrian summerwear. Kitsch elements are interwoven with the building – the most prominent piece is a large timber climbing frame in the shape of a semi-submerged galleon that sits between the two pools. This was not designed by the architect, of course, but it does not feel out of place.

But there are things that feel far too ersatz about the urban gesture of the project. The smaller children’s pool, for example, situated at the west of the site, is clearly conceived as a kind of mini piazza, complete with fountain. But it’s lost behind rows of galvanised fencing and ends up looking like Disney urbanism – and not in a good way.

There is something unreal about the Kalterersee and its populace. Perhaps this is just an urbanite’s scepticism, but the edges of the lake seem to me a too-intense, golf-course green, and the people too unselfconscious. The main businesses in this region are tourism and wine production, and there is a subtle but ruthless exploitation of the place’s charms. A contemporary rebranding exercise has seen tasteful granite monoliths planted in the hills around Kaltern with the lower case legend wein.kaltern inscribed in them, and new architecture in the area has become a part of the campaign to sell more wine to the plentiful Austrian tourists. There are other pieces of contemporary architecture that are part of this effort, the most prominent among them the new wine centre on the road into Kaltern, by another Viennese architect, Feld72. This, though, is just good-taste Swiss modern style – an articulated box with a hint of pitched-roof vernacular. If it was in Britain, we’d be thrilled with it, but compared to the rest of Austrian and Swiss architecture it’s ordinary.

The difference between it and The Next Enterprise’s project is stark. The latter architect has not tried to hide the bizarre, unreal atmosphere through lazy typological reference or stylistic gesture. It has, I think, embraced the world of tourism with something near affection. I’d love to see this building with the fences removed, and really test its public attitude. But, having said that, I’ve never had a more pleasant visit to a building, and even being forced to drink Milchkaffee rather than café latte couldn’t spoil it.

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