Like a snowdrift on the slope
by Robert Volhard | Apr 11, 2013

“Everyone has mountains and cable cars. But no one has something like this.” And Reinhold Streng, manager of the Pitztal Glacier Lift, is definitely right. In the competition for tourists, the operator of the Pitztal glacier ski area came up with something rather special. At 3,440 meters above sea level, the slope is now crowned by a new upper station for the “Wildspitzbahn” – with a spectacular design by the architects at Baumschlager Hutter Partners.

The numbers speak for themselves. At a cost of around twenty million euros, the new cable car route complete with base and summit stations is the largest investment to be made in the Pitztal Glacial Lift in recent years. Climbing the slope at 22 km/h, the two-kilometer ride in the gondola lift takes just six minutes. Passengers are whisked from the base station at 2,840 meters up to Austria’s highest summit station at 3,440 meters above sea level. The lift can transport 2,185 holidaymakers per hour, more than doubling the former capacity. The plan was to successfully slash waiting times, or rather eliminate them altogether. Those who take the journey in the eight-person gondolas, which boast heated seating and high roofs allowing passengers to transport their skis and snowboards with them in the cabin, are rewarded with a view the likes of which only mountaineers usually have the privilege of enjoying. A breathtaking panorama awaits visitors with plenty of three-thousand-meter peaks to feast their eyes on. They say that with good visibility you can see more than fifty peaks.

In 2009, the operator Pitztaler Gletscherbahnen GmbH decided to completely renovate the old cable car route and add a restaurant to the summit station. It was then Baumschlager Hutter Partners who emerged as the winner of the architectural competition. “This unparalleled view of the Alps was the starting point for our ideas and for the construction’s formal vocabulary,” explains Carlo Baumschlager. The free-flowing forms bow down to the weather conditions and to the power of nature. The restaurant’s levitated terrace, which protrudes nine meters out over the abyss, looks like it could topple from the summit at any moment. An adventurous design that lends the building a truly unique character. Yet there is an entirely pragmatic reason behind the decision to have the terrace protruding to such an extent. The café was built hanging over the edge because the construction area at the peak would have been simply too small. This way, the architects succeeded in creating a usable area of 1,200 square meters on a daringly small contact area of just 200 square meters.

The exposed position of the building site threw up even more challenges during the build: extreme altitude, steep mountain slopes, brutal sun exposure, thin air, unpredictable and severe changes of weather with sudden onsets of winter-worthy conditions in the height of summer. Furthermore, the sheer weight of the snow and the wind velocity, which can be tremendous at this height, had to be taken into account, which presented stress analysts with a truly daunting task and certainly placed a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders.

The bar was raised even further by the extremely difficult geometry of the valley and summit stations’ façades. The buildings’ facings are after all freeform surfaces. Each individual metal-sheet panel has its own unique shape, each is a one-off piece. All facing panels were prefabricated using 3D technology in the workshops of Frener & Reifer, arriving ready to install with an aluminum surface appearance.

Now that the job is complete, Tirol’s highest glacier is able to offer an architectural attraction with the new “Wildspitzbahn” route and the highest café in the Eastern Alps – open to visitors in both summer and winter. As long as the weather plays along, they can simply sit and enjoy a splendid view with a cup of hot coffee and a slice of cake from the in-house confectionary.

The impressive architecture offers interesting views on the mountains. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

The levitated terrace is placed nine meters above the abyss. Photo © Frener & Reifer

The architects of Baumschlager Hutter Partners were inspired for the construction of the Wildspitz mountain station by the exclusive view. Photo © Frener & Reifer

Organic, flowing shapes set up in contrast to cliffy, sharp mountain stone. Photo © Frener & Reifer

The highest Café of the Eastern Alps is placed adventurous, but also easy on the top. A real challenge for the structural engineers. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Mountains, as many as you can see – possible through an ample use of glass. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

The floor space is up to 1,200 squaremeters effected by a bulge on a little contact surface. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

The glass railing protects from wind and snow. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Each of the floated formed panels is unique. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

„Such a station has no one” – so the complex of the Wildspitzbergbahn is attractive also for architectural enthusiasts. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

2,185 persons can be transported, the double amount of capacity since the new construction. Photo © Frener & Reifer

The Wildspitzbahn-construction-team: Thomas Weinsteines (Aste Weissteiner ZT, structural engineer), Michael Reifer (Frener & Reifer, construction) and Carlo Baumschlager (Baumschlager Hutters Partners, architecture). Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark