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Moving mountains: Muzeum Susch, Engadine Valley, Switzerland, by Voellmy Schmidlin Architektur

At Muzeum Susch by Lukas Voellmy and Chasper Schmidlin, buried in the belly of the Swiss Alps, ancient tectonic forces escape at the seams

A cave, brutally hewn from ancient rock, draws you in through its toothed mouth. We have been captivated by caves for millennia, painting their walls, seeking refuge in their hidden hollows, or searching in their darkness for wisdom and God. ‘Man puts his hand to the flinty rock, and overturns mountains by the roots’, the Bible reads. ‘He cuts out channels in the rocks, and his eye sees every precious thing.’ Where the caves were not naturally formed, grotte – glistening stalactites morphing into nymphs and grotesque beasts – were chiselled into Renaissance gardens for the aristocracy’s delight. In 1864, Jules Verne went on his Journey to the Centre of the Earth, insisting that there is ‘nothing more intoxicating than the attraction of the abyss’. 

At the seams of the Earth’s crust, the ground still churns in heavy geological time, so slow that its hot violence appears frozen. A white, snow-tipped cuff across the top of Italy’s boot, the Alps were first formed around 100 million years ago; the soft floor of an ancient sea was thrust into peaks, slowly folding and creasing like butter on a knife, as the colossal Eurasian landmass was forced downwards, towards the centre of the Earth. The Engadine Valley, carved through the Alps of south-eastern Switzerland, traces a seismically active fault line, the ground continuing to grind against itself. Originally a deep gorge cut by the river Inn – or ‘En’ in the local language of Romansh – titanic glaciers then forged their way between the mountains, pulverising any rock in their way. The En continues to sweep down the valley today, its source near St Moritz, winding north-east to the Austrian border before curving down to Innsbruck, through Bavarian Germany, and emptying into the Danube. 

Evanescent glamour and high-speed finance might whip across the powdery slopes of St Moritz and Davos, but time hangs slack and slow around the tiny nearby village of Susch and its ancient mountains, crouched on the valley floor on the banks of the En. But in the rock beneath, monumental forces have once again been at work. 

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chasper schmidlin drawings architectural review

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chasper schmidlin drawings architectural review

With little evidence above the surface, contemporary art gallery Muzeum Susch inhabits a new subterranean labyrinth beneath a traditional medieval monastery – an accretion of extensions and reconfigurations grafted onto a 12th-century core – and a 19th-century brewery, connected underground. Buried into the ground is 1,500m2 of new exhibition space, triple the area of the existing brewery and the result of a herculean effort, excavating 9,000 tonnes of the locally ubiquitous grey-green rock, amphibolite. 

The new gallery, designed by Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy, is the most recent addition to the sleepy village. With a population of just 200, Susch has been a resting place for travellers along the valley for thousands of years. Today, jumping from the red Alpine train onto the railway tracks, high on a ridge, the village unfurls below, anchored around the stone tower of the 13th-century Tuor Planta (flamboyantly onion-domed in the 1600s) and the clock tower of the neighbouring church of San Jon dating from 1515. The buildings now constituting Muzeum Susch nestle at their feet, tumbling towards the bridge crossing the river.

The entrance to the gallery follows the same route that riders on horseback once took into the old monastery, the cobbled path peeling from the street down into what is now the gallery’s reception. From here, vaulted chambers, lit by the original windows scooped sculpturally, Ronchamp-style, from their stone walls, hold single artworks, like the compartments of a jewellery box. Many are site-specific, such as the stony stacked totem of Adrián Villar Rojas’s The Theater of Disappearance XXXI (2018) or the nightmarish gloopy stalactites of Inn Reverse (2018) by Sara Masüger. The stables, now a space for temporary exhibitions, are complete with stone feeding trough and manure drain. The deep walls are roughly coated with a plaster spiked with black amphibolite sand from the riverbed, the ceilings bearing their restored timber beams. 

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 04

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 04

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 03

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 03

Source: Both images: courtesy of the architects

Humans have always had a desire to dig, to scrape at the topsoil, crack the bedrock, pierce the Earth’s thin crust and discover what is within. To make way for the new gallery spaces, tripling the floor area of the 19th-century brewery, 9,000 tonnes of rock were exploded from the mountainside. The microexplosions were carefully controlled, the impact on the buildings above and nearby measured and tested

In contrast to the shadows of the cellars, the domestic wood-lined rooms above are typically warm and Alpine, meticulously restored and converted into a restaurant, kitchen, staff offices and a small library. A stunning double-height salon has been inserted into the house’s northern end, the enormous wooden window frames adopting the endearingly lopsided geometry of the old hay loft’s ancient roof timbers, and revelling in their misalignment with the carved balconies attached to the facade, like an askew eyeglass. The extraordinary views of the tree-bristled valley just about steal the show. 

Back in reception downstairs, a tunnel strikes into the mountain’s heart, the unruly bedrock erupting unexpectedly from around the crisp edges of concrete. Plunging underneath the path above, the tunnel emerges in the pre-existing cellars of the 19th-century brewery back at street level. An almost entirely new and astonishingly vast basement has been blasted out of the rock face below the building, providing generous, crisply detailed subterranean gallery spaces. 

The violence of the mountain is safely stayed behind finely finished white plaster, breaking out only occasionally and without warning. In one buried chamber, the naked mountainside presses in, the Earth’s crust crumpling and rupturing overhead. Explosive tectonic force is now still and silent in finely lined strata of grey and rust. Originally used to cool beer, fresh spring water – the reason the brewery was founded here 200 years ago – trickles in slippery rivulets along its crags. 

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 01

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 01

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 02

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chaspar schmidlin architectural review construction 02

Source: Both images: courtesy of the architects

The 19th century brewery before its transformation

‘We were able to see how the rock behaved over time as the building was being completed’, Voellmy remembers. ‘It’s difficult to control.’ As the snow melts in the spring, water can suddenly surge through the caves – not necessarily conducive to the display of expensive artworks – but identifying a consistently ‘dry area’ in the grotto allowed the installation of Mirosław Bałka’s eerily rotating mirrored cylinder designed especially for the space (the original idea for a mirrored floor was thankfully abandoned due to its unstable conditions).

The rooms of the gallery revolve around the brewery’s original ice tower like the spokes of a wheel. The tower, to which a new clerestory has been added and the roof raised by 4m, provides an anchor in the warren of rooms, a town square from which to leave and return. The black twisting ribbons of Monika Sosnowska’s Stairs (2017), created specifically for the tower, coil to the ground. Walkways wind around its height, like balconies around the courtyard of a Florentine palazzo. Dark tarry concrete, laced with omnipresent black amphibolite, slicks across the lower floors, while unfeasibly long, unbroken larch boards – locally felled – carpet the rooms up in the eaves. 

There is care and artistry in these details. The exquisite metal- and woodwork were undertaken by local craftsmen, from the artfully simple window handles to the precisely crafted steel staircase in the gallery – ‘This is our artwork’, Voellmy pronounces. Some of the rock exploded from the mountain has been reused on-site in the building’s concrete, plaster, or in the drywall facades that peek between folds of hillside above ground.

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chasper schmidlin plans architectural review

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chasper schmidlin plans architectural review

Click to download

Outside, landscape architect Günther Vogt designed the terraces revealed with the melting of the snow in spring. Otherwise, above the surface, little has changed in at least a hundred years, the existing built fabric rigorously protected by local conservation laws. Thickly plastered walls like untouched snowed slopes collide with the naked shards of bedrock escaping at the seams of the neatly stone-cobbled streets. Stairs emerge from the rocky outcrops before being quickly swallowed again.

Muzeum Susch, founded by Polish businesswoman and art collector Grażyna Kulczyk, joins a burgeoning number of galleries in the Engadine Valley, including the latest Hauser & Wirth outpost in St Moritz which opened in December 2018. In addition to the permanent installations, pieces from Kulczyk’s collection are joined by international loans for the two temporary exhibitions displayed each year – which will focus on under-represented artists, predominantly women, from Poland and eastern Europe. The gallery already boasts an impressive roster of external curators including senior curator at Tate Liverpool Kasia Redzisz, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Melissa Blanchflower from the Serpentine Galleries, and most recently Sabine Breitwieser, former director of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg.

In its first year, the gallery has attracted 25,000 visitors, sometimes up to 300 people in a day – more than the village’s entire population. Susch has been slow to respond to its new-found popularity: its one tiny hotel is still supplemented only by the gallery’s resident artist studio cum guesthouse, inhabiting a third building neighbouring the gallery and accommodating privileged visitors from far-flung corners of the world. The village’s alluring seclusion, marooned in the mountains, is something of an illusion however: since the Vereina railway tunnel opened in 1999, slicing journeys from six to just over two hours, Susch is easily visited in a day from Zurich. 

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chasper schmidlin sections architectural review

Muzeum susch lukas voellmy chasper schmidlin sections architectural review

Click to download

Although a happy convenience for city dwellers, this connectivity is also what threatens the valley’s enigmatic character, previously fiercely guarded by the mountains that surround it. Romansh, a direct descendant of the spoken Latin brought to the valley by the Romans in 15 BCE, remains the dominant language spoken by some 45,000 people but is slowly declining in favour of German and Italian. Young people are haemorrhaging to the urban centres, and losing their mother tongue in the process. The gallery runs the risk of suffering under its own popularity if numbers continue to swell: its remote obscurity is crucial to its magic.

At Muzeum Susch, architecture, art and mountain patiently take it in turns to enthral. Some rooms are typical white boxes, albeit finely detailed, allowing the art to dominate unchallenged; some frame the valley through deep windows like paintings; in others, the line between art, building and rock blurs and bends. In one underground vault, the mountain’s serrated innards are exposed, water coursing through its veins into a clear pool in the gloom, a memory of a Renaissance grotto water feature. Here, at the centre of the Earth, it is the frozen might of the planet’s tectonic forces, carved in stone, that is the work of art.

Muzeum Susch, Engadine Valley, Switzerland

Architect: Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy

Civil engineer: Jon Andrea Könz

Geologist: Andreas Handke 

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today