Under a new roof, MoDusArchitects’ reworking of Icaro Hotel in Italy takes a refreshing approach to making over a mountain lodge for a new design-conscious generation
Reminders to save energy and the environment are peppered all around Icaro Hotel in Alpe di Siusi. One asks you to ‘save nature’ by reusing the towels. Another explains that fresh water from 2,000 pure springs comes out of the taps, so by drinking it you will be minimising bottling, transport and waste from imported water, doing the environment good. There is also a notice hanging from the shower door to simply ‘save water’.
Alpe di Siusi is a mountain resort in the western Dolomites, in what prior to the First World War was Austria, but is since Italy. People here speak German and Italian seemingly interchangeably. It is the largest high-altitude Alpine meadow in Europe. During winter months the place transforms into a white snowy wonderland for skiing, snowshoeing, sledging and walking. In spring, the area bursts into luscious green life, becoming a haven for hiking and mountain biking.
A new letter printed on lime-coloured card that has recently appeared on guest bedroom desks in Icaro hotel, however, explains that despite the surrounding beautiful fluffy frozen water, low rainfall last autumn means there is a water shortage in the municipality. It asks for even more prudent water handling than usual so it won’t have to be rationed.
Herein lies the predicament. Visitors arrive to Alpe di Siusi from Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, all over the world. The nearest airports are Innsbruck and Verona. You can get to the resort by train and public transport, but judging by the number plates of the vehicles on the roads, more frequently perhaps people come by car. One year ago, in April, the hotel was having its roof removed in 1.5m-deep snow as part of its latest renovation. At the start of March 2022, what is traditionally peak season, there are only crusty remnants of the white stuff in the main town of Siusi at the bottom of the cable car that takes you onto the Alpine plateau. Up at 1,910m where Icaro hotel is, the suncream is on, the sun is shining and the sky is vivid blue. But, according to snow report websites, it hasn’t snowed for two weeks and none is forecast for about the same again. The powder on the pistes has been scraped from the mountain sides, leaving grey bald patches. Snow cannons are poised to artificially recreate the snowy adventure land people come for – 7.7 million in 2019.
It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that the ski season is shortening. If the world manages to limit global warming to the targeted 2°C, a study in the European Geosciences Union (EGU) journal reports that 30% of snow cover would be lost by 2100. If temperatures rise above this, it would dwindle by 70%. About a third of the Eastern Alps’ resorts wouldn’t be able to open ski lifts by Christmas holidays. The weather is unpredictable, flippant. Mountain ranges all over the world are at the frontier of environmental challenges caused by climate change. Yet the very activities that often sustain them, like tourism, are major contributors to that global warming. And the fact of the matter is, hotel accommodation has a short design shelf-life of just a handful of years, so waste and renewal are frequently also part of that equation – a tricky triple edged sword.
The first cable car to Alpe di Siusi was built in 1935, bringing with it investment of a kind that helped transform impoverished, isolated mountain villages. That is not to say other areas of the world already affected by climate change aren’t in greater need (South Tyrol had a GDP per capita of €42,600 in 2016, making it Italy’s richest province and one of the wealthiest in the EU). There is understandably a human necessity to continue, livelihoods depend on it. The question is how to do it sustainably.
On its website, Icaro declares that since 2010 it ‘has been the first climate neutral hotel in the Dolomites’. It gets green electricity from hydroelectric power, it uses environmentally friendly detergents, it compensates for CO2 emissions through certified climate protection projects. For its efforts it has received the EU Ecolabel certification. From not just the environmental messaging lying around the hotel, it seems Icaro’s latest reincarnation designed by Bressanone-based MoDusArchitects holds answers.
Icaro is an old family owned hotel. Originally built in 1936, it was one of the earliest mountain lodges on Alpe di Siusi and comprised a simple square building with a stone base, two additional floors and a mono-pitch roof. The current director Angelika Sattler’s grandmother worked there in the 1950s as a waitress, taking over in the 1960s from its owner, a ski instructor who built ski jumps in the resort and was said to fly close to the sun like Icarus. In the 1980s, Sattler’s parents pulled most of the original building down when the nearby road was built, rebuilding it in a Germanic chalet style with three timber pitched roofs and en suites bathrooms. Two additional pitched wings to increase the number of bedrooms from 16 to 21, expand the dining room and include a wellness area and swimming pool were added in 2002.
By 2018, however, the next generation was taking over. It launched an invited architectural competition to find an architect that included the previous architect, another local practice, Snohetta’s Innsbruck studio and MoDus. The brief was to increase accommodation for staff, nearly all of whom live-in, from seven bedrooms to 13; guest bedrooms to 30 and attract new customers.
‘My husband is an artist,’ explains Sattler. ‘Our friends are artists and creative people. When you do something that’s more like you, more people like you come. My grandparents and parents worked for years and years, it was not so necessary, but I had this great opportunity to redefine the hotel, bringing more of myself into it. It was a personal decision and dream.’ MoDus was successful because it was the only practice that had the ‘courage’ to change the roof while ‘not being too spectacular’. The others added (sometimes very bold) extensions to the extensions.
This remodelling is the crucial move. Rather than demolishing and starting anew as in the 1980s, or adding an extension that would have prolonged the hotel’s viability for another 16 years like the renovations of 2002, MoDus has added an extra wing but simultaneously transformed the existing façades to bring the building’s disparate components together using a new uniform that also upgrades its technical performance. Even though everything looks new, don’t be fooled, it isn’t necessarily.
The project touches the building rather lightly. Existing hotel bedrooms have been left untouched, even those where the roof was removed and they were exposed to the elements during construction. The 1980s staircase has been absorbed too, with its terracotta treads and timber bannisters forming part of the new colourful and timber interior design. And the first floor bedroom winter gardens were already there, they have been cleverly incorporated into the new timber piste-side elevation so you believe they were new as part of this renovation. For the moment too, existing furniture like the sun loungers and outdoor chairs have been reused, even some interior sideboards - you can sort of tell, but the larger design can handle it, it is diverse so as not to be prescriptive. From a sustainability perspective for such prominent visual pieces, it’s utterly refreshing. The stuffed animals? They are Sattler’s father’s hunting legacy, just relocated from the staircase and carefully curated around the ground floor to give a cabinet of curiosities effect among newly commissioned art.
MoDus’ elements that make all this possible are two-fold. The first is that to extend the building, creating a new reception and lounge rooms on the ground floor and additional bedrooms above, the architect chose to mirror the previous dining room and bedroom expansion footprint on the other side of the building to make a symmetrical plan – in drawings echoing Icarus’ wings. The second is, of course, the transfigured piste-side façade that the symmetrical plan enables.
Here, the two wings either side of the original 1980s footprint are joined together by 13 7.5m-tall larch timber ‘trees’, or skis stacked upright in the show, that sit on the existing first floor bedroom balcony structures, joining them by creating a continuous terrace between the wings. Privacy screens between bedroom balconies are hidden by the posts.
Likewise, on the second floor, the existing winter gardens roofs form the balconies of bedrooms, filled in to make another stepped-back façade-long terrace. These three-dimensional trees rise again to support the oversailing replacement roof, boxing off the wings to create a cuboid block. Meanwhile, the roof is mono pitch to bring back the elegance of the 1930s hotel, as well as challenge the presiding idea that mountains are spikey, so roofs in these regions should be pitched. Glance out of the window, as practice director Matteo Scagnol explains, and this building now more accurately evokes the long, low, perhaps forgettable, horizontal mountain opposite.
Elsewhere, other elevations have been re-rendered at ground floor with a textured finish and the upper stories are wrapped in the same zigzagging timber used for the uprights of the balcony balustrades that is inspired by the feather theme of the building’s name and create pleasing shadows, but also looks like the freshly raked snow from the machines that pass over the pistes at night. The frills the moulded cladding makes at the edges, above the windows and beside the soffits are delightful. Improvements to facilities transform the interior from dated 3* to 5* design hotel. At the same time, the renovation prepares for a lower-energy future with other essentials like electric car and e-bike charging points in the new basement parking too.
That the building does all this sustainably is partly a result of saving costs, partly because construction was sequenced into two phases around pandemic lockdowns. Phase 1 began in September 2020. It expanded the wellness area on the lower ground level into what had been staff accommodation by constructing a separate block for that, and built an underground garage under the piste, reusing an existing entrance. Phase 2 began in March 2021, with the roof, façade, additional bedrooms, refurbishment of the family apartment, plumbing, ventilation, new kitchen and redesigned ground floor interior all completed in four months to open in time for the summer season. What wasn’t urgent, wasn’t touched.
‘There are three themes that link our work,’ says Scagnol. ‘The building has to hug what’s around, it’s not so much about being contextualised… Then there is a thing about being double, a duality, tension – an irrational and rational side. The other is not to take us too seriously. We are different from Swiss architects. There is a laziness to us that lets us leave the building to grow up by itself a little bit, to not define everything, to leave open the possibility of something happening through time. The building is not finished. The more we grow as a firm, the more we understand architecture is handmade stuff, it’s human, you have to feel that in a building.’ This, here, is what sustainability is and could bring the differences mountain resorts need to survive an uncertain future.