Gion Caminada’s Meaningful Architecture

by_ Jordi Malet i Ponsatí

fonts_ Hagen, Petra + Toyka Rolf: The Architect, the Cook and the Good Taste. Basel · Boston · Berlin: Birkhäuser 2007.
Claret Martí, Coque: Viatge a Vrin. L’arquitectura de Gion Caminada. In: DAU, publicació de la demarcació de Lleida del COAC, 24/2005

pictures_ Jordi Malet i Ponsatí, during his trip in Vrin on November 2015.

It makes no sense to talk about Gion A. Caminada (*Vrin, 1957) without talking about his precedents and his environment. Coming from the Swiss canton of Graubünden, it is important to mention that he starts studying architecture in the ETH Zurich after a first period of direct contact with wood, learning the trade of carpenter and cabinet maker. A few years after finishing his studies, in the late 70s, he establishes his own studio in the same village where he was raised as a child: Vrin.

Vrin is a former municipality at the end of the Val Lumnezia (Valley of Light in romanch). This valley, wide and very well situated, has been from roman times one of the few natural passes to the neighbouring canton of Ticino, through both the Pass Diesurt and the Passo della Greina. This situation brought Vrin and ist neighbouring villages a great importance directly related to the trading routes established back then.

Formed by a constellation of independent units, with an almost square floor plan, magnetized according to orientation and the heavy topography, the village is built alomost exclusively with piled wood through the millenary technic of the strickbau (literally “knitted construction”). Few buildings that are not built through wood; the main church and some small chapels strategically situated through out the valley. These buildings are built with heavy whitened masonry walls, showing a great contrast with the rest of elements in game and their timeless presence.

In 1998, the village was awarded the Wakker Prize for preservation of its architectural heritage.

In order tu fully understand Caminada’s work, we first have to see the way in which he approaches his architecture: leaving behind aesthetics principals, theoretical edifices and arbitrary artistic inspirations, he understands architecture as something which embraces a totality of events, aiming to one first principle: architecture has first to fulfil a function. And afterwards will come quality and beauty, which will come into being, aslong as the building is meaningful.

“I cannot persuade a farmer that he should build a beautiful cowsed. But if the cowshed works well, then it can be beautiful too.”
Gion Caminada, The Cook, the Architect and the Good Taste, p.82.

In 1979 the Pro Vrin Foundation is founded. Through out the 80s a very meticulous analysis is developed, in order to generate an action plan, which is finally seen in the project for the renovation of the central part of Vrin in 1992. More than an architectural project, this is seen as a global action plan that tackles not only strictly designing issues, but grows to a whole new dimension. Aspects such as culture, politics or economics are now reorganized through the analysis of an architect.

The geographical situation helps to understand the obliged necessity of self-sufficiency in an holistic way, through the promotion of the local activities over tourism – a classical get-away for little mountain villages that usually ends up generating strong external dependencies – and the utilization of their own resources – acting with what they have and not with what is needed.

In the same manner, one can see the clear confidence Caminada places on the influence of the vernacular constrictive culture on the economical and social growth of the village. This believe is translated on a continuous struggle for investigating and rethinking the native constructive systems.

Although having a very intimate relation with vernacular architecture, this relationship is mastered with great understanding and responsibility towards the traditions and how they have developed. He is able to analyse a traditional house in order to establish what is the basic idea behind it and how it is different from todays needs and which are the core elements that cannot be touched. And through this analysis it is possible for him to create diversity and new things within tradition, without falling into the trap of picturesque architecture or superficial reproductions, integrating a new form of life within the traditional typology.

The Stiva da Morts (Mortuary in romanch) is the exemplification of Caminada’s work in Vrin. Starting with a thorough analysis of the real needs, Caminada is able to see the real necessity for a place to deal with death. Understanding the change of paradigm on the matter of death; the traditional 3 day mourning period before the final good-bye in the private house of the vriners and the discomfort this tradition generates, and the current thought of society to supress death, the Stiva da Morts addresses this changes through one main theme: mourning and its ambivalence, which includes both laughing and crying.

This new piece of architecture is placed symbolically, physically and atmosphercially between the everyday world of the village and the reiligious precint, tangent to the existing cemetery, following the boundary produced by the delimitation of the sacred space. It is a house fort he living in ordert o remember the dead, so it is built with wood, a material related tot the secular world, in contrast to the stone used in the sacred buildings.

Caminada addresses this ambivalence through a typical house typology, which creates a secular place for domestic mourning for the dead. On the bottom floor, two independent and very different doors, one for the living and the other for the dead, give passage to the mourning room. On the top floor, a small reunion room, similar to the traditional stube (living area of the traditional houses), invites mourners to rest and be with their family and friends around a central table. From the corridor of this upper floor one has direct access to the cemetery.

This new piece of architecture is yet another revision of the strickbau constructive system. In this case, the wall is supported on a concrete plinth, and adopts a double sheet system. These two sheets are stabilized on each other and work collaboratively thanks to the incorporation of vertical elements, usually the windows and the corners, which bind the two sheets together, allowing the massif wood section to be thinner. The air sheet in between is used to increment the isolation system.

The window itself plays a very important role in the architecture of the building. Already from the outside of the building one can notice the importance this element plays. The introduction of the muillon generates an asymmetric break in its totality in order to accentuate its thickness and three-dimensional role in the architecture. The position in the façade, is never a casual approach but goes according to the inside needs, a reflection of the relation the architect wants to show from the two separated worlds.

In the interior, two different aspects accentuate the plasticity and massiveness. First of all, the position and design of the windows as standing places with a high degree of privacy from incoming looks from the exterior. On the other hand,it is important to mention the treatment of the surface of the larch wood walls through a slightly perfumed solution of bright shellac.

In the exterior, the larch wood walls are tainted with a dissolution of lime soaked with buttermilk, whitening the whole surface and relating it with the church right next to it. Furthermore, this dissolution acquires transparency when wet, recovering the initial wood colour of the walls until it is dry again. In this way, Caminada expresses again the double theme of this building: crying and laughing, secular and sacred.

Gustav Mahler once said that tradition is about handing on the fire, not worshipping the ashes. Caminada stands up to this task through a sensible but yet powerful architecture, where all elements, from the tiniest detail to the volumetric approach, gain their own significance. A recurrent question is posed nowadays; what is the role of modern architecture in contrast to vernacular architecture in the rural landscape? Is it possible to have meaningful architecture in this globalised world? From my humble opinion, Gion Caminada gives clear examples that both questions can be answered positively.

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