Photography James Brittain
Jonathan Tuckey explains how social history helps him to give old buildings a new lease of life, while preserving their character and heritage…
How does your background in anthropology influence your approach to design?
I’ve always been interested in how buildings, and the people and communities that have used them, have changed over time. These observations and this way of thinking seem to me as applicable to the streets in the city, the layout of a village hall and the rooms in a house.
Buildings are a manifestation of the culture that created them, and that culture is always changing. What does it say when a house has no corridors, and how does that compare to a house with very wide corridors? How has the role of the kitchen or bathroom changed over time in the house? Why do the houses in this valley use stone on the north and east façades, and wood on the south and west? How is this reflected in the interior? These ways of looking at buildings I find infinitely interesting.
It led me to establish a practice working on changing existing buildings. Sometimes these buildings are precious and other times they might be more ordinary, and in working with our clients we adapt the buildings for their needs or for new uses.
How do attitudes towards heritage vary in the countries you work in?
They vary very significantly from country to country. Sometimes there is great acceptance and license for change and in others there is considerably less.
Within this spectrum there are differing attitudes to how one changes an ordinary heritage building (in the UK we call this Grade II) compared to an extraordinary heritage building (Grade 1) and whether the change should be legible or discreet. In some countries it is evidence based, in others it is emotional.
Furthermore these attitudes, like history, are fluid and always changing. Acceptable ways of working on heritage buildings in the UK now were not acceptable 20 years ago.
In 2016 we established Building on the Built, a forum for talks and exhibitions to look at how different countries deal with their building heritage. The website shows attitudes from all over the world, built projects old and new, theoretical projects, student work and writings, and is a way to exchange ideas.
Did you use specific methods when investigating the context and history of the Nossenhaus?
Yes, local historical records, archive photos, building surveys and collation of village plans, as well as oral histories – the village has a population of 1,000 and we collected oral histories, which explained how the building had been occupied and by whom, over the past 100 years. One of the principle carpenters on the project was aware that his grandfather (who had also been as carpenter) had carried out some of the work that was now being restored. The local stonemason who repaired all the stone ovens is from a family of seven generations of stonemasons (all called Gideon Regli) in the village who would have installed and repaired the stone ovens at some time.
The Kanton [County] archaeological department carried out detailed carbon profiling of each timber that made up the house in order to build up a picture of the origin of the timbers and the sequence of its construction.
Were there particular ways of drawing or making that were important to the design process?
Model making and sketching are integral to the design process in the studio. Our studio is littered with fragments of both as we work on the project.
In the case of the Nossenhaus we built the building as a 1:25 large-scale model in the office. We used plaster to represent the stone structure and timber for the timber. It helped us to understand how the building had gone together and to test how we could make the interventions and alterations to the existing building.
Is there a role for vernacular building techniques when working to modern energy standards?
Certainly. In fact I would argue that buildings of age tend to respond better to vernacular building techniques when bringing them up to modern energy standards. Knowing and understanding the materials of the building and how they respond to the environment is an important stage in the development of any project. This building was restored within the vernacular tradition, old cement based render was removed, and breathable insulation and lime plasters were added to the stone façades. The timber façades were stripped of paper insulation, timber shingles and asbestos tiles. The whole solid timber construction was wire brush cleaned and insulated on the interior before timber panelling was added to the interior rooms. While these techniques were the same as have been used over many centuries, the new materials allowed improved performance.
The new timber slabs (100mm thick structural plates) that form each new floor were needed to provide new structural stability and fire compartmentation to the building are, I believe, still in the tradition of the building’s construction.
Did you feel a heightened pressure when working on a building with such historical significance for the town of Andermatt?
Responsibility yes, but also it felt like a privilege to spend time understanding a building and place with a long and varied history, and to be given the chance to add to that.
Did you have specific residents in mind when transforming the Nossenhaus?
People with an active love of life in the mountains. We imagined people who might have spent the day ski touring, walking, climbing, or biking in the high mountains, and were looking for a place to retreat, gather and share stories and recharge. As such we felt that spaces where elemental sensations are valued and heightened were important – the smell of food in preparation, moonlight on the windowsill, the taste of good wine, the sound of glasses raised and passing shadow passing across the floor.
Do you think the identity of the Nossenhaus has changed through the process?
The building had a very strong identity in the village previously, like a dishevelled grandparent, its patchwork of façades told endless stories. For the past 10 years it had been lived in as a communal house by a close group of mountain lovers predominantly from Scandinavia. Their skiing prowess was legendary and an infamous local brand of freeride skis were handmade in the basement. In its latest incarnation we wished to build on this identity, giving it a new lease of life for the next passage of its history.
The Scandinavians still return to it for six weeks every year and the skis still fill the ski racks outside the bar. The adoption of the basement as a bar has given the village (and its visitors) access to the building, the glowing light and laughter there are difficult to resist in the evening.