Europeans rely on mountain huts while climbing, whereas American climbers camp. The problem the American system is that dispersed tenting has a higher impact on fragile alpine areas than concentrated use around huts. With that in mind, some people are now wondering if the mountain hut culture should be imported to America. Replacing the old Glacier Lodge near the Palisade Group in the eastern Sierra Nevada, California, has provided the opportunity to invigorate this discussion. The old lodge burned down in 1998, and the plan is for it to be rebuilt using the winning design in 2003’s The Mountain Hut Competition, conducted by the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design.
As an avid user of European Alpine huts, I helped to sponsor this competition, though I was not a jurist. After nearly six years of groundwork, we were gratified to receive close to 500 individuals and teams who paid $35 apiece to enter the competition. The competition yielded a smorgasbord of interesting ideas for relating buildings to the surrounding landscape and for allowing people to interact with the environment more sustainably.
The central problems relating to structures on glaciers and other fragile montane ecosystems are energy, human waste disposal, solid waste disposal, and water sources and disposal. Also vital is how the building integrates into the landscape—even a beautiful structure should not call too much attention to itself. The old Glacier Lodge’s misfortune provided the competition with a specific site to build on. The goal is for the Forest Service hut concessionaire to build this prototype hut. The Forest Service is interested in more huts in the 150 million non-Wilderness acres of National Forest land, hoping this might diminish the impact of individuals in the backcountry.
The winning entry came from Switzerland, earning the design team $15,000, while the four runners-up were American. Many worthy designs could not become finalists. One design dubbed “the whale” by the judges was a long, bulbous wooden structure that hovered above the landscape. It would fit perfectly into the arctic forests of Northern Finland, but it seemed out-of-place for the Sierra Nevada. Several structures would be constructed out of tent-like fabric. One finalist utilized PVC panels combined with zippers; it could be disassembled and moved from site to site. One proposal would have marched climbers up five stories of stairs to reach a hut on a pole—perhaps not ideal for sleepy 2 a.m. starts.
The tension between aesthetics and pragmatics—between a beautiful structure and what works technologically and is suitable for climbers—was apparent throughout the judging process. The winning design—by Hans Berrel, Maurice Berrel, and Charles Wulser—has two floors of four rooms each: a kitchen, a dining area, an equipment room, and a hutkeeper’s apartment on the first floor; four dormitory rooms occupy the second floor, sleeping 16 people each. The rooms can be constructed at a lower elevation and flown by helicopter to the alpine site, where the pieces can be assembled. The entirety will be wrapped in roofing felt, into which stones from the site will be pressed to help blend the building into its landscape. The bunk platforms are built into the windows so that one is “sleeping with the stars,” while hallways bring light into the building and provide a sense of space. The idea is to feel harmony with the outdoor experience, rather than confined to corridors and a warren of tiny rooms.
For more information about the competition, including photographs, please visit http://www/ced.berkeley.edu/competitions.
Jay Wiener, AAC