20 Sep 2007

The Guardian – Steel and glass pyramid for Alpine peak

High-living Swiss plan to make a mountain out of little Matterhorn

Steel and glass pyramid for Alpine peak to take it above 4,000 metre mark – and attract wealthiest tourists
The Klein Matterhorn, already the site of the world’s highest cable car, would be topped by a 117m high pyramid under plans devised by artist and architect Heinz Julen.
If Heidi were alive today, the likelihood is she would no longer be skipping in the mountains with grandpa’s goats, but taking a lift to a cabin-pressurised viewing tower and conference centre in the Alps.The once untouchable Alps are being turned into a huge and haughty playground for the rich, featuring luxury tower blocks, pyramids, and revolving hotels, as Switzerland’s cantons seek to produce ever bigger and better tourist attractions in a bid to outdo each other.The latest project involves “stocking up” the Klein Matterhorn. Already home to the highest cable car in Europe, the smaller neighbour to the Matterhorn is soon to be topped with a 117 metre steel and glass pyramid which will take it to a height of 4,000 metres.A so-called “four-thousander” is considered by alpinists to be the magic height for a mountain – because it marks a level most mere mortals will never reach. There are currently 76 of them in the Alps. Klein Matterhorn is set to become the 77th and tourist chiefs hope it will lure the visitors attracted by the hitherto distant prospect of conquering a four-thousander – albeit a manmade one.”The aim is to mark the next step in the region’s 200-year-old history as a tourist resort,” says Daniel Luggen of the tourism office in Zermatt, which is towered over by the Matterhorn. “It’s already the highest excursion point in Europe, so it’s not like we’re developing an untouched mountain. Our aim is to make the mountain more attractive,” he says, referring to the pyramid as “Switzerland’s Eiffel tower” and claiming that it will be 100% energy efficient.Local artist and architect Heinz Julen is behind the €100m (£70m) Matterhorn Glacier Paradise project, which includes the pyramid sky platform, and plans to design a restaurant and conference centre into which pressurised air will be pumped like in an aeroplane cabin, in order to avoid headaches.”Klein Matterhorn will become the summit of people’s dreams and allow the visitors to experience a spiritual dimension,” the artist said in an interview.But alpine associations and environmentalists are not impressed. They have not forgotten that it was Mr Julen who once proposed blowing up the Matterhorn so that those living in its shadow would feel less lethargic.”We’re living in an age of superlatives in which the Alps are being turned into an events playground and in a phallic fashion man is trying to dominate over nature with his brilliance, but all for short-term gain,” said Raimund Rodewald of the Swiss Foundation for Landscape Conservation. “In a few years it’ll seem boring to visit Matterhorn Glacier Paradise and people will want to move on to something else, leaving an ugly scar on the mountain.”

Jörg Ruckriegel, head of nature and environment at the German Alpine Association, said: “These plans overstep the mark in every way.”

A Zermatt website has attracted a string of angry responses. Paul Broadley, a British skier, wrote: “Not only would it destroy the very thing people come to Zermatt to see, but it would require an infrastructure … that would make a mockery of Zermatt’s ‘green’ credentials.”

Protesters point to other utopian projects in resorts such as Davos, Laxeralp and Arosa, to show that Klein Matterhorn is part of a wider trend, and talk of a creation of “Alpine metropoli”.

In an age of exploding property markets even glaciers are up for sale. Locals in Gstaad were divided when last year formula one racing head Bernie Eccelstone paid £1.9m towards Glacier 3000 – a skiing area above Les Diablerets with a gourmet restaurant and cable car station designed by architect Mario Botta.

Basel architects Herzog and de Meuron – who are behind the Olympic Stadium in Beijing – are currently working on plans to “upgrade” the Schatzalp in Davos, with a 105 metre Living Tower, or a luxury high-rise. The €100m to finance the project has been put up by Pius App, owner of the art nouveau hotel on the Schatzalp which was the setting of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, about a tuberculosis sanatorium. In a statement responding to accusations that the tower damages the landscape which inspired Mann, the architects argue: “The tower barely touches the ground [and] does not disturb the landscape.”

Locals in Arosa are trying to prevent the 2,653 metre Weisshorngipfel from becoming home to a hexagonal metal and wood mountain restaurant arguing that it spoils the mountain’s silhouette.

Other projects have fallen flat because they proved impossible or too expensive to realise. The investor of a €60m (£40m) project to build a 117 metre high tower hotel with a revolving top floor on the Laxeralp in Wallis has shelved his plans after Unesco threatened to intervene.

The Swiss are not known for their megalomaniac tendencies, but Daniel Luggen of the tourist office said it was “an honour” for him to accept the charge and that he was only trying to make high altitude mountains appear even more awesome than they already are.

“We’re building a landmark and it’s human nature to always want to go bigger, better and higher, and if you want to remain competitive in tourism you have to keep reinventing yourself,” he said.


Photograph: Johanna Huber/Sime-4Corners Images
in Berlin
Thursday 20 September 2007