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If these walls could talk

If these walls could talk

If these walls could talk

First it housed cows, then a photo studio displaying photos of the many events and personalities from the Bregenzerwald. The stable of an old Bregenzerwald building in Bezau has now become the studio of architects Markus Innauer and Sven Matt.

The house on Bezau’s main street is well known throughout the valley. At first, there were cows in the barn, later on some sculptures, and until recently it housed the photography shop run by the Hiller family for decades. Today, however, the grand old Bregenzerwald residence has now been renovated and rebuilt. But even before renovations began, architects Markus Innauer and Sven Matt had already moved into the erstwhile photo shop on the ground floor.

The legendary Leopold Kaufmann’s first contract

Generations of villagers and valley folk have pressed their noses against the glass of the shop’s large storefront, a high window facing the street, in order to study the latest photographs. These photos were taken at family celebrations, village festivals, first communions, baptisms, funerals, hay harvests, carnival parades, masquerade balls and ski races. The photographs were taken in both black and white and in colour. More recently, there was a slide projector displaying images on a screen in rapid succession. It was like a chronicle of the valley’s events behind glass. In the mid-1990s, the photo shop was shuttered for good. Its display window, however, is still there today. Instead of photographs, there are now architectural models on display – on fine wooden shelves that have been lovingly restored, as have all the other furnishings of the former shop. The room and furnishings date from the early 1960s. At that time, the photographer Hedwig Berchtel-Hiller had commissioned the young Bezau architect Leopold Kaufmann to perform the remodelling. The incorporation of a photo studio and shop into the former stable was to become the architect’s breakthrough first creation. Kaufmann helped shape building culture in Vorarlberg until his death in 2019 in addition to supporting its development as a critical observer. The design of the photo studio had led to several heated discussions in 1963: Above all, the all-glass exterior of the former stable wall was perceived as very unusual for the valley. However, the excitement would soon die down.

A room with uniform light and hardly any shadows

The construction materials, the design and the opening up of the space over two floors still appear modern in the truest sense of the word, i.e. visionary, with the generous ease of the 1960s, straightforwardly elegant, well thought-out and perfectly executed down to the smallest detail. Today, architects Markus Innauer and Sven Matt occupy their desks in the space where the studio’s cloakroom once was, making the most of the unobtrusive natural light from the north. “The space affects all who enter it. It’s open, airy, bright, and the light spreads evenly without creating shadows. All that light makes a big difference when working with blueprints and models. When you look at the details as an architect, you can envision how Leopold Kaufmann developed his ideas here and had them executed with precision,” says Sven Matt. “The load-bearing beams, which are very prominent here, are a prime example. Leopold doubled them and made them narrow, which makes them look much lighter. The transitions are also very fine, and you notice the astute design considerations in the precise execution.”

Preserving the work of a peer with care

The shop, with its exposed brick walls, features black bitumen tiles on the floor. “They were actually discontinued a long time ago. We needed some replacement tiles and were fortunate to find a few extras in the cellar. Luckily they were left behind from when they were installed sixty years ago.” The doors are flush with the wall. “Today that’s standard, but back then this was an absolute novelty. The craftsmen had to put the hinges in differently. It must have required quite some fiddling around from the craftspeople before they got things right. What used to be the darkroom was an in-built unit in the middle of the great room, which now serves as a coffee kitchen. Everything is mostly in its original condition. Only the glass panes have been replaced with new ones and the work tables where negatives used to be viewed and retouching of photographs was performed have been slightly raised. “After all, we are taller today than people were almost seventy years ago.” The business equipment of the past has been repurposed: The postcard holder now holds photos of architectural projects and flyers of events. “Many people still come to us, and the office is still a kind of hub of village life.”

The former counter of the shop is still in the centre of the room. Today it serves as a meeting area where hands are shaken, plans are spread out, and coffee cups are placed. The architects’ desks and the large computer screens on them are new. Markus Innauer: “Of course, we still develop ideas by drawing by hand, but we continue to plan exclusively digitally. The fact that we both have our office here in the Bregenzerwald, in our home area, has a lot, maybe almost everything to do with this room. But it also has to do with the ability, working from Bezau, to plan an art gallery for Kassel, a lakeside lido at Lake Constance or a mountain station for Innsbruck. We like being here, and we find the distance to the cities grounding. Although we never planned to come back here, we couldn’t imagine it any other way today.”

Bregenzerwald in pictures: An archive with 100,000 photographs

It was 2012 when colleagues Innauer and Matt stepped into the long-vacant photo shop in Bezau and instantaneously conceived the idea of setting up their joint office here. “We fell in love with this space in an instant,” says Matt. “We had to promise Hedwig that we wouldn’t change anything in the studio so we’d be allowed to ‘move in.’ We were happy to keep that promise.” In 2017, after Hedwig Berchtel-Hiller’s death, her eldest son Rudolf Berchtel inherited the house, along with the new architectural firm in the former photo shop. Five years earlier, Rudolf and his two siblings Ursula and Georg had already inherited yet another valuable legacy after their father’s death: 100,000 photos spanning almost a hundred years from Rudolf Berchtel’s grandfather, Kaspar Hiller. He was the Bregenzerwald’s first photographer. The photos were stored in boxes in the attic of the old house. This was a treasure that Berchtel was keen to uncover. “It was a very exciting time… the boxes had remained unopened for a long time. Inside, were heavy glass plates, my grandfather’s photo negatives. What should I do with these negatives, I asked myself at the time? After all, they can’t be used in this form, the images on them are not recognisable.”

Rudolf Berchtel opted to digitise the images. “I bought a scanner and recorded, registered and entered each glass plate individually. But proper archiving was only possible because my grandfather kept meticulous records: Each glass plate had a number, which corresponds to numbers in a book in which the names and the occasions for the photographs were recorded. For example: Number so-and-so: Opening ceremony for a new primary school with date. Or number and name so-and-so, portrait for a 60th birthday. This record keeping was necessary; it was the only way to fulfill repeat orders for photos.” For Rudolf Berchtel, working with the glass plates turned into a journey through time in pictures. It was a journey into the history of the Bregenzerwald: his grandfather had recorded all the important developments in the valley, from the construction of ski lifts to the anniversary celebrations of the Bregenzerwälderbahn railway. But it was also a journey into his family’s personal biography. His grandfather was initially a painter and sculptor; he produced sculptures in the barn, which he created as a self-taught artist. But even at an early age, Hiller was fascinated by photography. He made his first camera out of a cigar box, and later it became his profession. In 1923, he opened his photography business. His wife Maria and his son Kaspar junior ran it from 1946. After Kaspar junior’s early death, Hedwig took over the photo studio in 1958. She became the valley’s first female professional photographer and carried on the legacy. She also continued to work on the book with the entries.

New construction in the spirit of the house’s grand tradition

After Hedwig Berchtel passed away, the photographic heritage became part of the collection of the Bregenzerwald Archives and was arranged for an exhibition in the vorarlberg museum from 27 May 2023 to April 2025. A decision also had to be made about the house in Bezau. “It was clear that it would be preserved,” says Rudolf Berchtel. “It is my family and childhood home. Sven and Markus wanted to expand their office into the roof above the photo store and I thought about moving into the front building. But it quickly became apparent that the building could not be renovated. So the architects had to tinker instead.” This is how a new building came into being around the original preserved photo shop, which adopts elements of the formal language of an old Bregenzerwald building and plays with them without pandering, and inside creates comfort for living and working in line with today’s demands. “For the extension of our office, we wanted to take Leopold Kaufmann’s ideas and continue to develop them,” say Innauer and Matt.

A hanging staircase of dark metal forms the transition to the upper floor. There, the spatial concept of the photo shop is mirrored: Facing south under the large canopy, a grand window welcomes light into the workplaces. There is also a high ceiling and the delicate, elegant beams that already characterise the basement. Around ten to twelve employees now work in Innauer-Matt’s office. Two flats have been built on the ground floor of the front building for architects who are employed here on a project basis. “We very much enjoy having one or two employees in our office who come from the outside and speak a different language. This is good for all of us. But since it’s very difficult to find an apartment for a year in Bezau, this is now the perfect solution.” Rudolf Berchtel’s realm lies above the flats for the staff. A two-storey flat which, after the entrance hall, leads into a spacious, open, bright kitchen-living room that extends over two floors and the entire width of the house. Where there used to be small rooms, such as the parlour and the master bedroom with low ceilings, there’s now overhead space all the way up to the roof. It is cosy nevertheless, thanks to materials such as wood and stone as well as a central, room-high tiled stove, which has been plainly whitewashed. “Before the flat was ready, it took me a while to wrap my mind around the old house,” says Berchtel. “Ever since I moved in, it’s been completely different. Everything is just right for me, even if the rooms are new.”

The only things the architects have left are the positions and approximate sizes of the windows. What is new is their design. “We wanted to preserve the look of the windows of the Bregenzerwald building,” Markus Innauer explains. “But we didn’t want to create replicas of the old double windows. Together with Claus Schwarzmann, the expert in Bregenzerwald when it comes to windows, we developed these three-part windows. The middle sections can be opened, and the flanking panes are fixed; the longitudinal wooden struts are reminiscent of the old windows, yet they speak a completely new design language.” Rudolf Berchtel’s workrooms are located on the upper floor of the flat above the entrance, bedroom and bathroom area. These comprise an office with a desk and a music room. There is an organ against the wooden wall, next to it a harpsichord. A velvet sofa in dark green has just been added to the furnishings. “It was my grandfather’s from the old house, and it has just been restored and delivered,” says Berchtel happily. For him, when sitting on the sofa in this spot in his new house, a circle of tradition has been completed, and his gaze drifts out the window. In summer, the wind will carry the sounds of Berchtel’s organ across the meadows towards Kanisfluh, to where his grandfather used to point the camera lens towards Bezau. In dialogue with the past

Author: Carina Jielg
Issue: Winter 2023-24 Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine