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How do you spell sustainability? Have we become blind to simple solutions? In the book “A way of life: Ballenberg Notes”, Rolf Fehlbaum, together with renowned designers, invites us to take a close look at the buildings in the Swiss open-air museum. Does the simplicity of Alpine construction harbour the seeds for the building of the future?

Review by Thomas Wagner

A straight staircase, a space for the dog and a few flower pots work together to create a welcoming home © Federica Zanco

It is a triviality that craftsmanship and design are fundamentally different, even if individual and industrial production methods touch and overlap here and there. In any case, clearly recognising differences sharpens the critical view of the usual and customary, stimulates thinking and relativises an overly complacent point of view. The “Ballenberg Notes” edited by Rolf Fehlbaum achieve this with surprising ease. At no point is it a question of rediscovering the Alpine, often hard and deprived rural life as a windless idyll. Here, the ordinary is not glorified as the standard for a new modesty in urban life. But what is it all about?

Opened in 1978, the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum is located in Hofstetten in the Bernese Oberland. On the 66-hectare site of the eponymous Ballenberg, situated between Brienz and Meiringen above the Aare valley, more than 100 original historical dwellings and outbuildings from the 14th to the 19th century from all parts of Switzerland have been brought together. Surrounded by high mountains, which are adorned with white caps of snow even in summer, fields stretch out, gardens bloom and local farm animals graze. Nearby, Lake Brienz, the Brienzer Rothorn, the Brünig Pass and the Reichenbach Falls greet visitors. Every year, the open-air museum attracts an average of around 250,000 visitors from all over the world during the season from mid-April to the end of October. The book, inspired, edited and foreworded by Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman Emeritus of Vitra, is the result of a trip to Ballenberg by designer Jasper Morrison, architects David Saik and Tsuyoshi Tane and architect Federica Zanco.

The heart and mind must be very open to create wealth from simple materials © Tsuyoshi Tane

Things that are part of a vital way of life, however meagre this may seem at times, have their own dignity and naturalness. Useless, superfluous, even impractical things have no place in many of these buildings and their furnishings, whether courtyard, barn or shed. Perhaps this is what we need at this historical moment, when so much seems to be in question, when so much that we have become accustomed to (as a species and as individuals) is in danger of disappearing: encouragement that things can be simpler, more modest.

According to Fehlbaum, the idea for a book about Ballenberg came about when he visited the open-air museum together with Federica Zanco, the director of the Barragan Foundation. It was to be a book “that appeals to people with similar interests and that invites you to look at things that you normally pay little attention to. Things that only reveal their beauty and functionality on a second, closer look.” It should encourage conscious perception and thereby also sharpen the eye for the inconsistencies of our modern construction.

Signs of life ©Jasper Morrison

If you have a sense for such observations, you can succeed in wiping your eyes clean of habit. Just how differently such a view opens up things can be seen in the photographs, in how unpretentiously they themselves emphasise the simple, and how naturally they are placed on the pages of the book, where they form a unit with the commentary texts. In short: simple photographs of simple things, brought to life by sparing commentary: Federica Zanco (FZ), according to Fehlbaum, set the tone “with her eye for detail and her lively, undisguised photographs”; Jasper Morrison (JM) added further images and notes, invited David Saik (DS), a Canadian architect living in Berlin, to do the same; and the Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane (TT) came to Ballenberg via Rolf Fehlbaum. The panorama of close observation and amazement is complemented here and there by quotes from Christopher Alexander, Lina Bo Bardi, Charles Eames, Hassan Fathy, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Charlotte Perriand, Bernard Rudofsky and Minette de Silva.

© David Saik

What is so fascinating about the old houses, weathered façades and lived-in rooms? Isn’t the simple life in rural conditions and plain buildings glorified after all? Is it enough to point out, as Fehlbaum does, that the authors share “a fascination for the simplicity, practicality and functional beauty of the material world in which the rural population lived”? Is it enough to speak of “functional beauty”, of “the relationship between design, form and function” – or should the emphasis not be more clearly on the needs and necessities of the way of life that produced such architecture, such furnishings? What does it mean to be enthusiastic about “how appropriately these buildings, interiors and furnishings served their purpose”? What does this mean for the reflection on the present, if “questions of style” really did not play a role, nothing was intended to “make an impression”, new things were not invented to attract attention, “but because it was necessary in the given situation”? What is important for Fehlbaum is that the “result is by no means an architecture of sad functionality that only satisfies the subsistence level, but rather a pleasing expression of good work.”

© Tsuyoshi Tane

Here a simple revolving door opener made of wood, there a shelf set into the wall or a veritable door frame shielding against wind and foliage. Staircases that are as precise as they are simple, seating strips leaning against the wall of the house, overhanging roofs, a chimney flap controlled by a cable, functional decorations, structural elements, stone foundations and much more – a living environment can be discovered here in which material, form and purpose form a dignified unity. Every element and every detail seems to have been tried and tested, harmonised with the geographical and climatic conditions and adapted to the recurring routines and work processes. This makes a (more or less uniform, depending on the building) way of life recognisable, in which economy and aesthetics form a vital unity. When the authors describe what they discovered on the Ballenberg, the weaknesses of contemporary construction in a consumer society are revealed as if by themselves – from the material to the coordination of functions, from abundance to short-livedness.

© David Saik, Federica Zanco

Whether Federica Zanco admires the constructive understanding and aesthetic skill in the connection of supporting beams, Jasper Morrison describes a slightly curved bench, David Saik reflects on the traditional place of the sink in front of the window or Tsuyoshi Tane thinks about rhythm in architecture, it is clear that the sense of simplicity has not been completely lost, even in our present day. Even among the modernists, many favoured simplification, not only, but especially as far as architecture in the Alps is concerned. The list is as long as it is illustrious, ranging from Le Corbusier and his small holiday home “Le Cabanon”, from Mies von der Rohe to John Pawson, from an artist like Donald Judd to architects like Rudolf Olgiatti or Gottfried Böhm, to mention just a few. What is being gambled away today by uniform investor architecture on a large scale cannot be stopped by individual outliers. Slogans such as “less is more” now sound like advertising slogans, even if they point in the right direction. The heroic gesture of many architects to command place, space and material reveals all the fatal ambivalences that make our time, with its consumer masses calibrated for comfort and luxury, so hopelessly torn apart.

“The experience of Ballenberg,” notes Fehlbaum, “is mixed with the feeling of having lost something. But what exactly have we lost? A sense of community, respect for nature that belongs to everyone, the certainty of having a place of refuge and protection?” The answer to the loss cannot be “a return to the traditional town or village”, “but rather the acceptance of new restrictions”. Some explore the “Ballenberg Notes”. Without pointing a finger, they remind us of the simple and essential things – of building, of life, of time. Recognising this is right and important. What is lacking, however, is the social will to draw concrete conclusions from all this. The future cannot be won through technical, functional and efficient solutions alone. This book shows that simple and durable solutions are the result of a balance between practicality and beauty. In other words, at a time when we are increasingly confronted with objects as black boxes, it helps to understand the world if we can understand how a building was constructed, what materials and elements it is made of, how it has stood the test of time and how it has aged. “Simplicity,” remarks Tsuyoshi Tane, “transcends time and culture, revealing the traces and spirit of craftsmanship.”

© Lars Müller Publishers

A Way of Life. Notes on Ballenberg

Edited and with a foreword by Rolf Fehlbaum

Photographs and texts by Jasper Morrison, David Saik, Tsuyoshi Tane, Federica Zanco and a contribution by Beatrice Tobler
Design: Integral Lars Müller
Hardcover, 208 p., 168 ill,
Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich 2023
ISBN 978-3-03778-723-6, German
ISBN 978-3-03778-726-7, English
30,00 Euro

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