Alpine fusion

Connecting tranquillity and technology in Innsbruck's new Cable Railway.

A view of the southern mountain range from Hungerburg Station. (Roland Halbe)
A view of the southern mountain range from Hungerburg Station. (Roland Halbe)

From the Golden Roof commissioned by Maximilian I, to the staggered façades of Maria-Theresien Strasse; from the vast opulent concert halls within Ambras Castle to the wedding cake-like Gothic/Rococo Helblinghaus, Innsbruck, Austria has served as an architectural canvas for centuries.

Local architects Franz Baumann, Lois Welzenbacher, Siegfried Mazagg and Clemens Holzmeister spent their lives sculpting the Tyrolean landscape and, arguably, besting some of the alpine topography found in neighbouring Switzerland.

The western Austrian state also boasts the stamp of major international architects including Baumschlager & Eberle, Riegler Riewe, David Chipperfield Architects and Dominique Perrault.


But, Innsbruck's most renowned iconic structures - the projects that most completely capture the alpine experience and define the city - belong not to one of Austria's snow-hardened alpine minds but to an architect born in Iraq and based in London.

Zaha Hadid first contributed to the Tyrolean landscape with her design of the Bergisel Ski Jump. The Bergisel, perched high on the southern mountain range above the city of Innsbruck, replaced a concrete jump that hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976. It was completed in 2002 and awarded the Gold Medal for Design by the International Olympic Committee in 2005.

Her most recent installation again perfectly quantifies Austrian winter sports, à la Bergisel, but also offers everyone, not just highly-trained Olympic athletes, access to those prized slopes via a new funicular.

The Nordpark Cable Railway (NCR) project was designed by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher, led by Thomas Vietzke and contracted by Strabag Ag and LEITNER GmbH. It comprises four stations (Congress, Löwenhaus, Alpenzoo and Hungerburg), two 34-metre pylons and a steel cable-stayed suspension bridge spanning the River Inn.

The mayor of Innsbruck, Hilde Zach, sees the project as not only an architectural success, but a way to highlight Innsbruck's endeavour to become the ‘Capital of the Alps'. "The [NCR] does not merely constitute a recreational facility, but particularly serves as a means of regional public transport for the continuously increasing residential population of Innsbruck," she says.

The idea

According to Hadid, the idea for the NCR was actually quite simple. Designed to mimic natural alpine phenomena including icicles, melting snow and glacier movements, the funicular stations aim to contrast the elements of ‘Shell & Shadow'.

Owing to the architectural advances in adapting computer-generated imagery to the built environment, the NCR stations explore the concepts of lightness, flexibility and fluidity. The language of the stations conveys motion similar to that found in aeroplanes, automobiles and boats.

One can do a series of stations and a bridge that are identical and of the same entity, but because of the locale and differences in altitude, the variation was necessary," says Hadid. "One station connects to the underground, one connects to the water, one connects to a steep hill and the last connects to a plateau, but they are all linked together in terms of language. That was the ambition."

Constructed using cutting-edge CNC milling and thermoforming technology, the organic double-curvature glass roofs float atop concrete plinths and provide an artificial landscape on which competing natural movements and air circulation are captured.

"Each station has its own unique context, topography, altitude and circulation... we wanted each station to use the fluid language of natural ice formations on the mountainside," says Hadid.

Hadid sees the project setting both architectural and technological standards, not just in Austria, but around the world. "The railway reflects the city's continued commitment to the highest standards of architecture and pushes the boundaries of design and construction technology. These stations are the global benchmark for the use of double-curvature glass in construction," she says.

The function

In a city of 120,000 inhabitants that sees around a million overnight stays annually, tourism in Innsbruck is paramount. And, while the economic artery of the city is its tourists, that which draws them are its mountains.

"I used to have complaints about Innsbruck because of the time it used to take for visitors to access the ski slopes. [Innsbruck] couldn't compete with destinations that offered ski-in chalets, for example," says Ina Gerlach, a US-based mountain vacation specialist.

"You can't ski into your own chalet yet, but the funicular will allow visitors quicker, easier access to the mountains. That makes it easier for me to recommend this destination to my clients," adds Gerlach.

In fact, an all-in-one admission ticket will allow visitors free parking in one of two central parking lots and will include transport to and from the highest point of the mountain. This alone will help reduce the number of travellers on the steep mountain roadways and could conceivably eliminate the need for a vehicle while visiting.

Not only functional in reducing traffic in the city and the mountains, the NCR has been crucial in redefining the structure of business partnerships in Austria.

Built and managed under a unique public private partnership (PPP), the NCR is owned by the city of Innsbruck and operated by the private company Nordpark Errichtungs- und Betriebs-GmbH.

The completion of construction work on this project is simultaneously the beginning of a new - hopefully very successful - chapter of funicular railways for the city of Innsbruck and respective operators," says Thomas Schroll, director of Nordpark Errichtungs- und Betriebs-GmbH.

"The PPP Model is the best solution for all concerned parties," says Michael Seeber, president of LEITNER AG. Seeber explains that the funicular railway system begins at a level gradient from the Congress Station. It then runs from the Alpenzoo Station (750m) along extremely steep terrain (up to 46º incline) up to the Hungerburg Station (860m).

"For this purpose," Seeber says, "We had to design an automatic level adjustment mechanism for both carriages, which ensure that the passengers don't physically feel the differences of inclination during the journey.

While the complexities of the technical infrastructure are impressive, Hadid points to basic architectural precepts as some of the biggest successes of the NCR project. "Our biggest ambition was to provide shelter for the people and the landscape. We wanted something that people could use to look up to the mountains or back toward the city."

"The functional aspects of the roof structures were angled so the forms only rest in two places, which allowed us to try to move away from the limitations of gravitational forces," she adds.

The expectation

It is well-documented that Mayor Zach was the driving force behind commissioning Zaha Hadid Architects to design and build the NCR funicular. Born and raised in Tyrol, Zach has seen her homeland gain worldwide recognition for its architecture - most recently with Hadid's Bergisel Ski Jump.

"Innsbruck is the capital of alpine sports and our new stations reiterate that status," she says in her broad Tyrolean dialect. "Being able to transport guests from the city [560m high], with its cultural the Hungerburg [860m] and on to the Hafelekar [2256m] on the high alpine terrain represents a further unique feature to distinguish Innsbruck from other cities of the Alps."

While Hadid's organic style contrasts with the opulence of Rococo or the controlled symmetry of Renaissance - both of which can be found in abundance in Innsbruck - she revels in the idea of fusing seemingly opposing styles in the same location.

"Cities grow, they don't stand still...I think cities in the past grew through a layering technique over the course of 50-100 years but now, we are able to use new techniques to actually reinvent a city," says Hadid.

"Projects need to continuously reinvent themselves... I don't think that freezing something in time is an appropriate way to move forward. A lot of work in the last 25 years combines history and modernity. [NCR] is a very good example of both preservation and invention," she adds.

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