Swiss Chalet kitsch, what it means, and how to escape it

Swiss chalets are the epitome of Alpine kitsch, says the prize-winning Valais architect Damian Walliser. But there are good reasons why the chalet is so popular and beloved. Peter Hulm explains.

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Explore real Swiss rural life at Ballenberg

Erschmatt
Erschmatt, Valais. Not all wooden buildings are chalets. Many are barns or stores. Some date back to the 16th century. Note the stone foundations.

As the architect told an Upper-Valais newspaper, “At the end of the 18th century, wealthy foreign travellers discovered the Alps as Romantic retreats. The landscape, with its meadows, chalets and inhabitants stood symbolically for the democratic and locally rooted values of Switzerland. Because the chalet is so simply constructed to a standard form, it became a perfect export product and souvenir. So worldwide it became a cliche for healthy Alpine living and an ideal to yearn for.”

Damian Walliser
Traditional house and barn from Blatten
A traditional house from Blatten, Valais, transported to Ballenberg.

“If tourists make the mistake of wanting to experience authentic Alpine architecture, they would have to spend their holiday in a primitive hut with an open fire and waterless WC,” Damian jokes.

Evolène’s main street. Guess which is authentic and which is new. Note the roofs.

The Brig-based architect, in business with his Belgian wife Leentje Walliser Garrels, prefers to be inspired by traditional Valais elements. And that means responding to the available local materials and traditions.

St Ursula house with wood
Traditional materials in the Wallisers-designed St. Ursula apartment block. Photo: Michel Bonvin

In the Valais this means long-lasting wood such as larch, which changes color with age from yellow to black, and wood storeys on top of a stone base, with levels added to accommodate growing families.

Leentje Walliser’s redesign of traditional Valais furniture. Photo: Michel Bonvin

For a house in Grengiols dating back to 1592, the couple sifted through books and documents on historical furniture. “I was amazed by the variety and design,” she observes. She produced a table, chairs and bed for the 400-year-old building inspired by the traditional designs.

It led master craftsman Schosi Rotzer and his colleagues at the R-Team joinery company in Gampel to create a whole line of new traditional Valais furniture sold as Walliser Möbel.

The furniture includes a “Gütschi”, a second bed stored underneath the main one in space-cramped rooms. It could be pulled out in the evening for the children to sleep on.

Leentje Walliser

Leentje (left) and Damian installed a narrower version of the “Gütschi” at their home in Brig — in their living room. After all, says Leentje Walliser, “in modern terms, it is also a sofa.”

The collection of furniture made from untreated larch timber includes a chest with drawers, a stool and rocking chairs. The rocking chairs are designed so that two can be joined together in a couple of steps to make a cradle.

The architect-designer explains: “Today, families need a cradle for only a short time. So it makes sense for the item to have another use afterwards.”

The furniture is designed to accompany owners through their whole life, from birth to death, so a simple coffin completes the collection. “From cradle to coffin” is also the slogan adopted by Schosi Rotzer for its line.

Walliser Möbel, from birth to beyond. The crib is made from two armchairs. The Gütschi is in the bottom row, next to the coffin.

As far as possible, the team avoids using nails and screws, instead making hinges and fittings from wood.

The innovative project won the couple a 2014 prize from the Upper-Valais Heimatschutz.

The St. Ursula prizewinning apartment block. Photo: Michel Bonvin

They also won a 2020 Constructive Architecture prize for an apartment house in St. Ursula. This too gives preference to wood for interiors. But the trees had to be felled three years beforehand to prepare the wood.

And to draw on local traditions, they also use the wool from Valais black-nosed sheep as insulating material.

Valais black-nosed sheep: voted ‘Miss Erschmatt’ in 2012.

The typical Valais block construction for houses can also be found in Russia and the Rocky Mountains of the US. What differentiates Valais houses is the addition of storeys to the original ground floor as needed. In contrast to other Swiss regions, Valais generations lived on separate floors in the same house, the architect notes.

A Valais block house in Binn.

Individual details tend to vary from region to region of the Valais, he adds. “Like our dialect. You can tell which village people come from by the small differences.”

For example, in Goms stone plates are not available as across the valley, so larch tiles are cut and laid for the roofs.

Heidi and Peter Wenger’s 1955 A-frame at 2000m.

But rather than chalets for tourists in the mountains — “a pure fantasy construction” — Damian spoke in favour of buildings such as those of long-time Valais architects Heidi and Peter Wenger, whose 1955 A-frame in Torgon at 2000m remains a jewel of adaptation to its environment.

Another view of the Wenger A-frame.

The Wengers also designed the Children’s Home in Leuk, Valais, with an equally adventurous style that has been labelled German Modern.

Ballenberg’s Swiss Open-Air Museum

You can explore the full variety of traditional Swiss rural dwellings by visiting the Open-Air Museum at Ballenberg, near Interlaken/Brienz, and see how much they vary: 110 buildings — from a 1336 house to one dated around 1900, all spread over 66 hectares (163 acres). Entrance for adults is CHF32. But Ballenberg is only open from the middle of April to the end of October. So you may have to put it on your calendar for next spring.

Ballenberg opening 1978
Ballenberg opening 1978.

Most of the buildings have been rescued from reconstruction projects and moved from their original sites to Ballenberg. “Each housemoving was a technical and structural challenge and cost a lot of money,” says onetime Chief Executive Officer Katrin Rieder.

Ballenberg guide

The Swiss Open-Air Museum has produced a handsomely illustrated and educational 200-page guide in English by ethnographer Werner Bellwald, selling at the moment for CHF5 instead of CHF15 with free shipping.

The Swiss farmhouse does not exist,” the guide emphasizes. But it covers all the variations found in 13 regional areas of Switzerland, from ways of building to signs of wealth such as decorated door latches, painted window shutters or profiled door jambs.

Ostermundignen chalet
A 1797 Ostermundigen chalet transported from Berne to Ballenberg. Photo By Pmau, wikimedia.

Apart from a good restaurant with traditional dishes, the Open-Air Museum features workshops of various rural trades and 200 farm animals. It has stables, barns, storehouses, washhouses and drying ovens as well as houses.

“At Ballenberg, land is traditionally cultivated with old tools and equipment,” the Museum points out. “Seeds are still sown in the fields using horses, a team of oxen ploughs furrows in the field. Farmers’ gardens are laid out according to historical patterns and almost forgotten varieties of vegetables and fruit are often grown in them.”

In Erschmatt University maths professor Edmund Steiner helps thresh rye wheat for traditional baking workshops.

Ballenberg experts present over 30 different traditional crafts, skills and professions. “Many old crafts are actively practised in the workshops,” says Ballenberg. “Do you know what filoching is? [No idea. Nor has Google] How does traditional rope-making work? What about trying your hand at pottery, forging or being an alpine herdsman? Many of the crafts demonstrated can be learnt in the Course Centre.”

Werner Bellwald observes: “Facades and rooms are visible signs of problems and their solutions, just as contemporary construction fulfills the demands and needs of our society. The Ballenberg Open-Air Museum is more than just a homage to ‘the good old days’ — the Museum suggests ways to new and better solutions.”

Heliodome
Erschmatt’s Heliodome: captures the sun in winter and hides its rooms from the sun’s rays in summer. The future comes to ancient setttlements.

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