This article was first published in March 2018.
After a break of a year, it is always a shocking experience to stand at the top of the Cresta run again, preparing to hurl myself head first down an ice chute at over seventy miles an hour. Existential questions that my mind asks like ‘why are you doing this?’ receive answers like ‘because it is fun’ but just don’t seem convincing at all. Ensuring that one does not come a cropper on the infamous corners of Thoma, Shuttlecock or even the dangerous finish banks certainly focuses the mind.
I am not convinced that riding the Cresta is an architectural experience but it is definitely a sensory one. At minus 15 degrees Celsius the ice glimmers enticingly in the morning sun but don’t be fooled, it is as hard as concrete. The blades on the metal runners, polished to perfection the night before, will slice through a misplaced finger like a knife through butter but they are the only things that will safely guide you down this beautiful run to the finish. The feeling of exhilaration, relief and sheer joy is overwhelming when I come to a halt on the matt at the finish in the charming village of Celerina, some three quarters of a mile away from the top. The sun shines and the faint waft of cattle from a nearby farmhouse add to that warm feeling and general love of life that is generated, I presume, by the huge amount of natural endorphins that have just been injected into my brain.
St. Moritz is a curious place. The first maps dating back to the early sixteenth century do not acknowledge its existence. Zuoz, Samedan, Pontresina all get a mention but St. Moritz, a tiny hamlet is of no importance. When the hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, in 1885 challenged his, mostly English, summer guests to come up in the winter for guaranteed sunshine and some fun on the snow and ice St. Moritz took off. The first guests were invalids seeking recuperation in the pure mountain air. A few good lunches at the Kulm Hotel and the mad idea of riding down the bends of a frozen river bank to Celerina on a tea tray seemed very appealing, became an organised sport and the Cresta Run was born in 1887.
Badrutt’s Palace or ‘Sanitorium Gothic’ (Image source)
This is why architecturally St. Moritz is so strange a town. The few genuinely old buildings are deluged by the massive sprawling hotels which come in one form or another of what might be described as ‘Sanatorium Gothic’. Add in a large amount of injudicious post war development and you get a sort of winter Las Vegas by the frozen lake where anything goes architecturally.
However, the indigenous architecture of the Engadine, which can be found in the many surrounding villages and valleys, is unique. In this day and age, it is easy to assume that Switzerland was always a country of rich, secretive bankers with a prohibitive exchange rate. In fact the opposite was so. Switzerland had no natural resources and was unproductive agriculturally. Its major export was mercenaries to the larger warring nations surrounding it.
For those not off fighting foreign wars, farming was vital for survival in these cold, inhospitable climes. The summer is only three months long and everything has to be harvested and stored during this small clement interval. Farming and the land was so important in the Engadine that the traditional house was based on a single prototype. Whether you were a small poor farmer or a rich aristocrat with a large amount of land, your house would be the same design. The only difference was size.
Because the climate in the Engadine is so harsh the timber chalet, which has become synonymous with the image of Switzerland, is too fragile to survive. This form of wooden building is associated with the lower altitudes of Switzerland, such as the Bernese Oberland. In the Engadine, the traditional houses are built of stone as timber just does not last in such a hostile environment. Similarly, because of the climate and the incredibly short season for growing and harvesting, the varied activities of farming all come under one roof and into one building. Going outside was, and is, often a perilous task and best avoided if possible. So, it may seem strange to live above the animals and the dung heap but that is what they did and some still do.