Interview with the Architect Werner Tscholl

By Andrea Carloni & Carlotta Ferrati

October 2018

Talking to Werner Tscholl, we immediately realize that in front of us there is a very kind and helpful person. Amongst Francesco Dal Co and Marco Mulazzani publications, there is a monograph dedicated entirely to him. In 2016, thanks to his projects on the history and culture of the places, he won the prize “Architetto Italiano.”

A long chat with one of the most interesting contemporary Italian architects.

Let’s start with the first question of our interview. Thinking of some of your renovation projects, such as Sigmundskron, Casa Knoll or Kellerej Tramin, it seems pretty clear that your relationship whit what pre-existed is a bit complex. Could you tell us more about your approach to projects that concern renovation?

You are completely right.
We absolutely do not support the pre-existing language. The old remains old, the new becomes new and it speaks the language of this time. Nowadays it is difficult to speak a Baroque language, because the time has passed and we are no longer in that period. We cannot understand what is the old because it comes from a completely different society.
The only way is to leave it where it is and try to interpret it. To leave it there as if it was something with a strong character and put something of our period, or of our problems or society in front of it.

A long chat with one of the most interesting contemporary Italian architects.

In your renovation projects we can see this approach very well, since you often use materials that didn’t exist at the time of the construction of the building.

Yes, in order to set us apart from the old, we usually use different materials.
It happens really often that when we start working on old buildings, we find several interventions that were previously made and that now can no longer be distinguished. We have difficulties trying to date them since it is hard to understand the exact period. This is what we would like to avoid since we are not the owners of those buildings.
Those who will come after should have the possibility to easily understand what we made. If they won’t like what we made, they will be free to remove it and find what we found. Interventions must be traced back to our period.

So, you are against a restoration aimed at renovating the building of the past?

The word restoration itself is not correct.
“Restoration” cannot be used in Architecture. Architecture is an organism that we make for the people. An organism that we create to live. Restoring means to preserve something that is dead and I personally don’t like it. To preserve ruins without letting anyone living there, is to transform architecture into sculpture. Architecture means living in a space.
For this reason we try to give a new life to old buildings and in this case we are not talking about restoration but revitalization.

I believe that many people are astonished and wonder about the balance when looking at Timmelsjoch Experience Pass Museum project. Could you tell us how this project was born?

When we intervened, the border between Austria and Italy didn’t exist anymore and we wanted to make this element visible with the architecture.
The establishment of the building is in Austria while the protrusion is in Italy. We freely built between the two countries to better highlight the disappearance of the borders. For what it concerns the architectural aspects, the establishment is a block heavier than the rest that has two side walls that work as lintels. Two big beams connected together by the roof and the floor, not too difficult to make. Everything is in reinforced concrete and fiberboards so that it gives lightness to the concrete.
This objects literally “floats” on the border.

A long chat with one of the most interesting contemporary Italian architects.

In Timmelsjoch Erfahrung Granat and Kellerei Tramin projects, the exoskeleton becomes the main subject. Why did you make this choice?

The wine cellar has about two hundred farmers as partners and for the approval of the project we knew we needed to convey a clear and strong message.
The most important thing was to make the farmers understand that the fundamental element they use to make wine is the vine and our exoskeleton is a stylized vine. On this basis, the vine becomes the main constructive element.
During the presentation of the project, from the first images of the structure, everyone immediately recognized the vine that surrounds the building and they all approved the project since they were able to identify themselves in the project presented.

A long chat with one of the most interesting contemporary Italian architects.

So according to you, we can tell that a project is a good  one when we can describe it just in few words?

Casa Knoll in few words: from an old artifact of the Middle Ages, we removed the roof that was placed about one hundred years ago. Light started coming in and trees started to grow inside. We decided then to enclose everything with glasses in order to create a place to live. Few essential words to explain the project. The idea has to be told today, tomorrow or in a 100 years. The artifact might age, but not the idea that generated it.

Looking at your biography, your attendance to multiple architectural competitions emerges. In your opinion, amongst the various competitions, which are the best ones to select a good project?

In my opinion, the best competition ever is the one related to the ideas, that only has free participants with an invitation. This way, there is no waste of ideas and projects. Few studios must be selected and their hard work must be rewarded. I am often part of the jury and being a judge in a competition with over 300 participants is really hard and sometimes few projects might slip out. The lower the number of the participants, the more accurate is the judgement of the jury.
Today, our studio only participate to competitions with invitation.

Speaking of competitions, would you make them into two phases or in another way?

No, I would do them in a single phase. Also due to the fact that usually the two phases competition do not allow young people to participate because references are often required. For example, I have never built a church, but this does not mean that I am not able to design it. The project itself doesn’t need lot of phases and to represent an idea, you only need a sketch.
Moreover, the winner of the competition will take part to every single phase of the project, until it is completely finished.

So you would like the design architect to be also the clerk of works?

Absolutely yes. We take an assignment only if it is assured that we can participate in all its phases. Making a joke I do not want to say that we want to be part of it until the paintings hang, but almost! The building becomes of the client only when it is finished, all the previous phases must be discussed together. A beautiful idea if not realized by its designer results in a building without a soul.
To give a soul to the building, the architect who designed it must be present on site.

How is your study organized?

We are always four people maximum.
Thanks to this choice I can be a proper architect, because if the studio was bigger I would have been a manager. With my small studio I can do whatever I want, from sketches to scale models, from going on the building site to creating new bonds with the client. This is what an architect does, this is what I wanted to do when I decided to become an architect. There are architects that do not go anymore on the building sites and do not have any sort of relationship, not even with the artisans. This happens mainly when the studios are bigger and bigger.
I decided to have a small studio for this reason, I can manage the projects almost by myself. As a child, a project needs to be followed every step of the way, in order to detect the problems right on time.
This is what being an architect is about.

Looking at the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian and Timmelsjoch Pass Museum project, I would like to ask you another question. During the development of a project, how do you relate with the structural part? In some cases it seems that you are the main character.

I would say that the structure limits our imagination. We firmly believe that everything is feasible, there are no limits. A good architects must be able to evaluate everything. If we take the cinema as an example, it seemed impossible to have it hung with four ropes but then there it was.
Everything that we think is feasible can always be evaluated by a structural engineer.

A long chat with one of the most interesting contemporary Italian architects.

Now, a question that I will ask also to some other studios. Why do you think in the Northern part of Italy, at the borders with Austria and Switzerland, as in the region of Trentino Alto Adige, it is easier to find high-quality architecture studios than in the rest of the country?

The reason is that quality generates quality.
For example, when we started, our valley was very conservative and it was not allowed to have a flat roof. The first house we made was mine; it was a no-roof house and it was on everyone’s lip. Few people noticed the great quality of the building  and others started to dream about having it.
People start wanting quality when they see quality. This is the criteria.

What is the duty of architecture and therefore of the architect?

This is a very difficult question.
It would be better if this question could remain just a question.
Let me explain myself better. In my opinion there is not a common rule for architecture because there are too many different approaches and explanations on the dos and don’ts of an architect. In Italy there are 50.000 architects and if we have a look on what we can create, I would say that a high number of architects don’t ask themselves what is their duty. When a client comes to me, I always ask myself if I would live in the house I am making for them or if I would change or improve it.
The client’s needs are the most important thing and we need to do our best to meet them. If each architect could try doing his’ best on his job, at this time we would have achieved a lot more.

Speaking of which, one last question. Don’t you think that defining an architect as a technician is wrong?

We aren’t technicians. Technicians produce ugly houses. They make machines. That is exactly what an architect shouldn’t do! We have to produce livable buildings and if this happens we would all be a lot happier.