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Arne Emerson of Morphosis on the New Tower in Vals

Arne Emerson of Morphosis on the New Tower in Vals

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

In this episode, Morphosis Partner Arne Emerson joins the podcast to discuss the new tower at the 7132 Hotel in Vals Switzerland, the firm’s recent leadership expansion, and how Morphosis is advancing the field of architecture.

HIGHLIGHTED QUOTES AND TIMESTAMPS

I was recently in Vals, Switzerland to visit Peter Zumthor’s Therme, and we saw that Morphosis is developing a tower for the 7132 Hotel that will be the tallest tower in Europe at just over 380 meters tall. Can you take our audience through the development of that projects and how does a tower that tall fit into a 900-person village? (3:15)

  • “Vals is obviously a very unique place and then something that's so well-known I think for every architect’s bucket list. We were approached by the owner, who happens to own the Therme, and the two hotels that are directly connected to the Therme. He was looking for an international competition to build a new hotel. He reached out to us and a few other prominent international architects and it was a very simple brief. It was really like, ‘We are dreaming big, we are dreaming up a sky.’ They were interested in building a big audacious goal. They weren't quite sure what that was but they knew that they wanted to build one of the top destinations for a hotel in the world. What was interesting for us was that, number one is building in Switzerland. Building in Vals was interesting, but knowing that they wanted to build some sort of high-rise. At the time we didn't really know how tall they wanted to go, we just knew that they had a program that was for a hotel with 107 rooms and a series of amenities. All of those needed to connect to the existing hotels plus connect to the Therme that was there. Also, they were looking for something that would essentially provide a new gateway, or a new front door, to the hotel and then entire complex. One of the issues that the client has is that so many people who come into Vals, often times I drive straight by the entry because the actual entry to the hotel is not right on Main Street. This was one of their main challenges is how do they create a new drop off a new identity and a new Gateway? Not only for a new hotel but then for the two existing hotels that were there and then all those would be interconnected to the Therme. There were several existing factors that played into this. One of the larger issues was building in an alpine environment. That's very controversial. That is something that is always on the forefront of our minds and something that we were obviously thinking about when we approached the project. Given all of those constraints, understanding that we had so many existing parameters, creating a new identity, creating one of the top destinations for a hotel, that was all very interesting to us. We really used those as the constraints and parameters to start out. Coming to this project with a new fresh set of ideas I think is one of the things about Morphosis is that there are no preconceived ideas. Every Morphosis project is very unique, it's very different, and it's really all about understanding the pragmatics, understanding the constraints and solving for those problems. Creating something that's more sublime or poetic or whatever you want to say but something that really synthesizes all of those constraints into one. In addition to all of that, knowing that you're building a top hotel destination in the world, obviously, it's about program. It's about hospitality. It is about experience and how do you create and weave that narrative into a piece of architecture and ultimately something that weaves into the valley. The site was very small that we were given. One of the things that we started looking at initially is how do we create something that is more contextual to the existing Village? There are a number of buildings that are maybe two to four stories but then there are two buildings that are flanking either side of the tower that are like eight to ten stories. How do we create more of a Podium that is more in scale and relationship of what's happening with the existing village, but then what happens above that? What we were interested in is somehow capturing the essence of the valley and that spirit of Vals that everyone goes there for and really is quite magical. We started thinking about this notion of the sublime. How do you describe something that's so beautiful that it’s beyond human measure? We took that idea and said ‘how can we start to infuses this into the idea of the hotel?’ Then we started thinking about exclusivity. What it would mean to be in your hotel room and be suspended about this valley. Knowing that we have 107 hotel rooms we said, ‘What if we just started stacking one room on top of the other having a one-room per floor?’ That was this audacious goal. What is a normal hotel? The conversation was, how can we make this something that is truly unique and memorable? Taking an elevator up, walking down a long corridor into a room. If you’re going to build in Vals that's the wrong place. That’s not what you want to do. You want to completely change the paradigm of what a hotel could be. We've got a podium that is four to six stories tall and on top of that we’ve got a few floors that have four rooms per floor. Then we go to two rooms per floor. Then one room per floor, and then go to one room every two floors and a penthouse at the top. That really started to drive the idea of this really thin razor blade tower that would rise up out of the valley. That was very interesting because it was about how do you start to orient this? How do you start to recreate these views? So, even the shape of the tower, it has an asymmetrical core... We got rid of all the columns so all of the floor plates are suspended completely off the core. We essentially have floor to ceiling glass completely unobstructed, no columns. Every single room in each hotel room as an unobstructed view looking out. Whether it’s the bathroom, the closet, no matter what that is, it's all about capturing the essence of being suspended above the valley…”

I know the tower has generated a lot of discussion and a little controversy in the last couple years. How do you respond to the people that think a tower does not belong in Vals? (10:30)

  • “We knew going into this that absolutely this was going to be a challenging project. It was going to be somewhat divisive, but also, we were interested in how can we change the paradigm? Why would we shy away from this, opposed to, why don’t we take this on as a challenge? I think it is very easy to say that if you are going to build a tower, it’s a lot easier to understand building in an urban environment and a tower that fits into that context. It is completely different when you start thinking about a tower in the context of a Swiss valley, or any pristine environment. For me personally, it is quite challenging because I grew up in Wyoming, and we were constantly having these conversations, and I went to school in Montana where we were talking about this notion of growth, footprint, and sustainability. How do you strike that balance between building in these natural environments but yet creating this kind of symbiosis between architecture and nature? For us, the idea was really trying to minimize the footprint. Trying to make this thin blade of a tower that rises up out of the valley something that fits into the context. It’s a very simple blade that is reflective. It reflects its surroundings, nature and the sky. Everything that happens there is completely dramatic, so this notion that a tower in a hamlet of a village of eight to nine-hundred people can start to fit in and be contextual. Again, this is happening on multiple levels because at the village level, creating a drop off, a new entry, and creating this hub that connects these three to four buildings plus the Therme. That was one operation that we needed to solve. It needed to become this new identity and arrival point. As you begin to rise up above the valley, we really starting to think about what does that mean? In order to show this idea physically, we literally built a model that is about ten to twelve feet wide. We built both sides of the valley up to the rim and back down. Vals is exactly one mile long, from top to bottom. We put on the buildings in there, and we put the tower in there. It’s interesting but it starts to put it into context. It starts to frame it very differently when you start to see a tower that is 385-400 meters tall and you see it in context with the trees and the mountains that are there. All of a sudden you get a different perspective… It’s definitely something that is controversial, but again, as architects from a larger narrative and perspective, I think it is our job to solve these problems. I don’t think it is our job collectively as architects to shy away from these problems because I think that is one thing that we all have as problem solvers. How can we shift to solve these problems creatively and help people look through a different lens?”

As you are trying to win the commissions for these types of projects you are competing against some of the top design firms in the world. What do you think Morphosis does that makes the client want to work with Morphosis over one of your competitors? (31:30)

  • “We are always competing against the same cast of characters. It has somehow become a very small world. There are two ways that we go after work. We do a lot of competitions, but we also go after a lot of interviews as well. Straight up request for qualifications or requests for proposals, things like that. The competitions are, I wouldn’t say the best way, but it’s a great approach to be able to showcase who you are and your ideas. Just to get an idea out there. Not always is it going to be the last idea that you stick with, but it at least allows you to wrap your head around what the problem is and come up with a solution that you think works. Sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t work. What we found is that the way that we present, it’s not just coming in with one slick final idea... We like engaging in process. We use a lot of our models and a lot of how we think and how we work to engage a client to say, whether we end with this or not, this is really about a process. This is about how we work. This is how we are going to work with you. This is how we engage you. With competitions we try to do that as much as possible because when you get short listed with all of these great architects, each one of them are extremely talented. So, all things being equal if you take the kind of talent or the design off the table, it’s about chemistry. It’s about who are you going to work with. Even though we are being interviewed, we actually interview the client just as much as they are interviewing us. It’s about a chemistry test. Can you walk away saying, ‘Yeah, not only would I like to work with them, I would like to have a beer with them?’ You bring up our embassy project. I sat in on that interview in 2014 and by the time it’s complete it will be late 2023. You are signing onto long term relationships with people that you really need to get along with. So, when you are sitting in that room, even though you only have an hour, you really need to judge these people and see who they are, how can you work with them, how are they going to act under pressure? There is no real right or wrong answer on why Morphosis or why not. I think ultimately it just comes down to a whole host of issues of design, chemistry, experience, and all of these things together that makes it either work or not work.”

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Cite: Design:ED. "Arne Emerson of Morphosis on the New Tower in Vals" 28 Dec 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/930962/arne-emerson-of-morphosis-on-the-new-tower-in-vals> ISSN 0719-8884
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