Location 3026m ASL, Ahrntal, close to Bruneck, South Tyrol, Italy    Architect stifter+bachmann

   Finished 2017    Cost ca. 3 Mio €

The howling wind across the scree and glacier fields between the Tribachkopf and the Schwarzenstein brings thick fog and snow, creating an estimated 40 days of treacherous weather out of every 90. This inhospitable and demanding terroir makes this space hard to reach, as it is only accessible by climb or helicopter. It is simply amazing that a grand piece of architecture like stifter+bachmann’s Neue Schwarzensteinhütte could exist here. Oxidized by the relentless conditions around it, the alpine hut’s once gleaming golden copper facade has turned near black. The challenge of reaching Neue Schwarzensteinhütte’s plan, and the opportunity to showcase the environment’s effects on this three-year-old piece of perfect alpine architecture called me pack only my most essential gear and make the extreme climb to this shelter, adding this great landmark to my Alpine Architecture Photography collection. 

Challenging Architecture That Looks At Home On The Summit

Neue Schwarzensteinhütte is a mountain hut designed for a planning competition held by the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. Architect Helmut Stifter shared with me that while there were constraints put on the energy concept, usage, and space allocation for the design, the architects were given the freedom to choose the “materials, construction, functional processes, [and] general design conditions” — as long as the structure was innovative. The biggest challenge to Helmut Stifter was the unpredictable weather of the Zillertal Alps at the construction site 3,000m up. Dense wind, fog, snow, and impassable terrain bent the building process to the mercy of nature. With their own team of experts, sifter+bachmann constructed a “material ropeway” from a forest road to haul up the building materials, since the problematic and ever-changing weather made it impossible for the materials to be transported via helicopter.

When they wrapped construction on Neue Schwarzensteinhütte in 2017, their roughly 3 million euro creation sat wedged in the receding glacier fields between Tribachkopf and the Schwarzenstein like an alien sculpture dropped from space — the bright copper facade gleaming in the harsh alpine sun. The 3,000m refuge for climbers had a polarizing effect, as it was revered as a gorgeous art piece by some, and disapproved of by many nature lovers for its ostentatious exterior. Over time, the copper facade began to oxidize, and today it appears almost black — like a rough diamond at home between the peaks of South Tyrol. As most buildings are photographed right after construction, it was of great interest to me to visit and document the hut years after its completion to showcase its current appearance, and as a testament to shifter+bachmann’s well-thought-out design. It became imperative to me to show the way this monolith looks perfectly at home on the outcropping, and translate the incredible feeling of having a warm local meal while resting in the hut, looking out at the expansive view of Ahrntal as you are sheltered from the powerful forces of nature working around you. the incredible views of Ahrntal that this shelter offers.

“The uses are layered vertically on top of each other and create a narrow ‘pinnacle’, which impressively shows the mountaineers the way in all directions with its symbolism” Helmut Stifter explains. “The narrow structure leaves the building site largely free and untouched and, in its elementary gesture, provides a simple answer to the complex construction task. The landscape determines the scenario on all sides – inside and outside – and allows visitors to feel their exposure and the power of nature in this special place at all times.”

Part Photographer, Part Packhorse

My love of alpine architecture photography is in tandem with my love for climbing — and it is a good thing, because to reach the shoot, my assistant Marcus and I needed to travel 6m at an altitude that covers 1,460m from the parking lot in the valley to the shelter. We began the climb each carrying a 20kg backpack of only the bare essentials. I remember the saying: The photographer’s profession is divided into 50% creativity and 50% packhorse.

The gravel road became steeper with every step and soon ended in a narrow hiking path that meandered in short serpentines between cow meadows and the last small bushes. After three kilometers we reached the glacier moraine. From here we saw the Schwazensteinhütte as a small point on the ridge for the first time. The fun really started here for both of us climbers! We crossed a mixture of scree, snow, and ice fields. The afternoon sun had thawed the snow. Again and again, we stuck our feet 40cm deep in the snow and made our way over solid ground as best we could. With less luggage, we would have liked to take the old via ferrata through the chimney. The demanding climbing is only feasible with light equipment. So we went up the mountain via the somewhat easier via ferrata. At the end of the alpine via ferrata we reached the foot of the new Schwarzenstein hut, visibly exhausted. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountain, so that we could warm ourselves with a freshly cooked soup without a guilty conscience and then immediately fell into bed.

Photographing Neue Schwarzensteinhütte Under The Alpine Stars

The shooting day started early. At 04:30 a strong storm blew around my face at 80km/h. Wrapped in a down jacket, thermal pants, gloves and hat, Marcus and I set off for a special night picture. Without a headlamp it would have been completely dark. The moonless sky offered the perfect conditions for a wonderful starry sky. At the same time, the lack of ambient light made it difficult for me, packed with a camera and tripod, to make my way over the large boulders without being swept over by the wind. After three tries, I found the right composition easily under the hut. Marcus used small LED lights to illuminate the lounge of the hut and to provide a little more context. The hut appears as a glowing beacon reaching up to the stars over Tyrol. The otherworldly feeling these night photographs emanate help relay how strange and beautiful it feels to be approaching the alpine refuge in this hard environment.

Showcasing The Shelter's Interior

Completely frozen from our shoot under the stars, we fled back into the hut. Between 06:00 and 06:30 we had half an hour to photograph the lounge before the breakfast guests came. I wanted to translate the warm and inviting feeling of the interior of the hut. Note the congruence in the building materials, as the warm orange wood envelops around you in these images. There is a beautiful contrast through color theory that accentuates the warmth of the wood tones against the cool blue morning we see through “the ribbon of windows [looking over] the 30 three-thousand-meter peaks” — the favorite feature of the architect himself.

Sunrise At 3,000m

After snagging our interior photos, we rushed out of the house again to photograph the sunrise with the drone and to show the Neue Schwarzensteinhütte from a new perspective.

Moderne Architektur Alpen, Modern Alpine Architecture, Modern Alpine Design, Berge, Mountains, Contemporary, Außergewöhnliche Gebäude, Architekturfotografie Österreich, Deutschland, Italien, Schweiz, Alpine Fotografie, Fotograf Alpen, Bergfotograf, Architekturfotograf für Interieur, Exterieur Werbefotografie und Filmproduktionen Moderne Architektur Alpen, Modern Alpine Architecture, Modern Alpine Design, Berge, Mountains, Contemporary, Außergewöhnliche Gebäude, Architekturfotografie Österreich, Deutschland, Italien, Schweiz, Alpine Fotografie, Fotograf Alpen, Bergfotograf, Architekturfotograf für Interieur, Exterieur Werbefotografie und Filmproduktionen

Post-processing was fairly straightforward for this shoot. I directed my emphasis to creating the whimsical and bold colors we experienced during sunrise that my camera’s sensor was simply unable to communicate. By removing a few distractions (but leaving some figures in to show the scale of the hut), this properly color graded and simplified images fleshes out the mood and story of Neue Schwarzensteinhütte.

Just look at this breathtaking view. The pinks and blues of the sunrise over the alps matches perfectly with the colorcorrected image above. By showing this panoramic stretch of mountains, we are able to get a good sense of place and understand just how incredible a feat it is for Neue Schwarzensteinhütte to have been built in this environment.

Form and Facade

As the sun rose higher and became a bit harder, the shapliness of Neue Schwarzensteinhütte became more apparent, along with the subtle coloration of the facade. Instead of appearing a deep black, specular highlights allow us to see the oxidized copper and its deep olive and copper patterns actually tie in perfectly with the subtle colors of the rocks around it. We are able to note the great foresight and wisdom of stifter+bachmann’s design and material choice. Note the way the hut resembles the sculptural and monolithic form of the cairn and rock outcroppings surrounding it. This structure’s bold shape feels harmonious with the landscape.

Emphasizing The Harsh Mountainous Location

After a small breakfast, we climbed the summit of the Tribachkopf to see the hut surrounded by glaciers and rock faces accompanied by the hut dog. This location, awash with the light of the morning, is accentuated by the directional light and deep shadows that show the texture and hardness of the skree and snowmelt. On the left, a well timed shot features the helicopter that delivers food and supplies to the hut once every two weeks. We see a sillohetted figure that helps us read the enormous scale of the building. Juxtoposing that in the image on the right though, we see just how small Neue Schwarzensteinhütte is compared to the surrounding mountains, just a small sculptural blip on the landscape. What a humbling feeling!

A Perfect Example Of Alpine Architecture

Our new friend the hut dog went back down the mountain at 1,500 meters. It was time for us to wrap up our shoot and begin our descent as well.

Neue Schwarzensteinhütte is one of my favorite examples of bold alpine architecture because of its innovative design which was miraculously carried out despite the challenges that Mother Nature threw stifter+bachmann’s way. It’s hard-to-reach-location, accessible only by climb, made me love this project even more. Photographing this climbing hut was a true alpine photoshoot, and a project I won’t soon forget!

Equipment

1. Camera
2. Camera

1. Lens
2. Lens
3. Lens

Tripod

Software

Canon EOS R
Canon EOS 5D Mk III

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
Canon RF 24-105MM F4L IS USM

Feisol CT-3441T Rapid

Capture One 21, Adobe Photoshop CC


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    About the Shooting


    Project Series: Modern Alpine Architecture
    Style: Architectural Photography
    Building: New Schwarzensteinhütte
    Location: 3026m ASL, Ahrntal, close to Bruneck, South Tyrol, Italy

    Moderne Architektur Alpen, Modern Alpine Architecture, Modern Alpine Design, Berge, Mountains, Contemporary, Außergewöhnliche Gebäude, Architekturfotografie Österreich, Deutschland, Italien, Schweiz, Alpine Fotografie, Fotograf Alpen, Bergfotograf, Architekturfotograf für Interieur, Exterieur Werbefotografie und Filmproduktionen