Editorial feature for Dwell, print issue, March/April 2021
— Four generations after its construction, a stone barn in the Swiss Alps is reimagined as a residence.
On a gently sloping field in the Swiss canton of Valais, a stone barn stands amid rows of grapevines before a looming mountain peak. Local farmer turned cattle trader Pierre-Joseph Huguet built the barn in 1854 to shelter his herd, and it’s still in the family four generations later, although its use has shifted—from wine production to machinery storage—over the decades.
The barn recently entered a new era as the home of translator Christine Bonvin, Huguet’s great-great-granddaughter. After 33 years of living in Basel, Christine returned to the mountain, driven by a sense of duty to usher the “lost world” of her ancestors into the 21st century. She recalls playing in the barn as a child. “It was our medieval castle, bathed in a fairy-tale light,” she says. “I’ve always felt a certain obligation not to let it rot, but to continue the work of my ancestors.”
Preserving the building’s spirit and fortitude was top of mind as Christine embarked on a renovation with designer Ralph Germann in 2018. They transformed the agricultural shelter into a residence in three phases: a restoration of the original timber-and-stone structure, the recladding and reroofing of a side wing added in the 1920s as a storage shed—it now holds the bedroom and bath—and the construction of a box, two sides of which are glass, on the upper floor of the barn to form the main living and dining space.
The result is a house within a house— a fortified sanctuary. “The idea was to be as discreet as possible with the work, to preserve the strength of the original architecture,” says Germann. “It was beautiful in its original form.” Both designer and client were keen to maintain the daylight and natural ventilation provided by the arrow-loop windows on the front and rear facades. Their placement lends the building’s illumination a soft, sacred quality, complemented by five skylights. The openings are small in relation to the volume of the space, but the natural luminosity they provide is ethereal. “Never is a corner completely dark, and never is a corner overexposed,” Christine says. “The atmosphere has a wonderfully caressing, enveloping mildness to it.”
Throughout the space, contrasting elements pay tribute to the spirit of the barn. The raw stone, visible through the interior’s glass walls, is tempered by the warmth of the century-old larch wood, which was salvaged from the original side wing and taken to a carpentry workshop in the mountains to dry before being reconfigured into furniture and kitchen fixtures. “It was magnificent, this hundred-year-old wood. We polished it up and managed to do something modern with it,” Germann says. Raw concrete floors encase a heating system, while metallic touches—including the stove and the terrace’s steel balustrade—allude to the iron tools formerly stored in the barn. In the bathroom, a large tub wrapped in green tiles has a direct view of the crackling fireplace in the living room.
It was important to Christine that the surrounding landscape, with its abundant groves, grain fields, and rim of rugged mountains, remain a backdrop framed by narrow apertures rather than being brought into the space—“despite its beauty, or precisely because there is something overwhelming about it,” she explains. Instead, a distinct sense of tranquility prevails. The space’s ascetic, almost cave-like feel is grounding, meditative, and enveloping. “I wanted the feeling of moving through a hewn rock,” she says. “Walking through the building is an experience, a narrative. I would never have thought that one could live so naturally in a work of art.”