In conversation with Marte Marte Architects

Projects by

Marte Marte Architects 


Photography by

Roland Horn 

Marc Lins 

Paul Ott 

Faruk Pinjo 

Jörg Stadleur

Bernhard Marte and Stefan Marte set up Marte.Marte Architekten in 1993. Both brothers studied architecture at the University of Innsbruck in Austria before starting their combined practice, after a childhood growing up around building sites and construction, thanks to their carpenter father.

Now based in the medieval town of Feldkirch, in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg, the 30-strong studio has garnered an international reputation for its refined, sophisticated, and richly textured architecture. The team is renowned for the innovative use of raw concrete in their buildings, frequently pairing materials like wood, metal, and stone to emphasise the sculptural form and physical solidity of the structures. As part of VOLA’s ongoing series of inspirational creative interviews, we spoke to Stefan Marte about the studio’s rigorous approach and appreciation of VOLA’s products.

Can you tell us about the philosophy of the studio?

To be honest, we don’t really have a philosophy. Do we need one? I don’t think we do, because Bernhard and I, together with our team, try to re-invent ourselves with every project that we do. Of course, we have certain preferences. But we’re always very open with regards to the materials that we use. The way we design necessitates the use of certain materials – our structures and plans aren’t really feasible if we use timber, for example, so we often end up using concrete as it’s the only thing that’s suitable. But I wouldn’t say that concrete was at the core of our philosophy.

Wood can do a lot of things – it’s a great material. But you need many supporting columns and structural grids, and that’s not what we want from a plan. We want to be completely free when we design and plan a project, so even though we grew up in houses made of wood - our father was a carpenter – it can’t always do what is needed for our concepts.

Would you say that you have a sculptural approach to designing buildings?

Actually, yes. Herbert Resch, the Head of Corporate Architecture & Design at Zumtobel, once told me that he sees a sculpture in every one of our projects. It goes back to the house we built for me and my family in 1992. It is a concrete house on the hillside, and I remember telling Bernard that I wanted to build a timeless classic. He said I shouldn’t say something like that, because nobody should consciously try to build a ‘classic’. But I do think it’s possible – you can create a classic by leaving out everything that can be left out. It’s the same with VOLA’s approach to design. What makes it classic? Because it has nothing it doesn’t need. When you translate this to architecture, that’s exactly what we are going for. Ideally, our projects look like they were made by a sculptor, not an architect.

We worked on an installation titled ’In Search of the Unexpected’ at the Venice Biennale which combined architecture and art into a sculptural expression. Five concrete blocks, each carved by sculptor Gregor Weder, were installed within the Arsenale’s brick walls and placed next to five screens playing cinematic films, directed by Andreas Waldschütz. The exhibition celebrated material, sculpture and form to represent facets and recognisable features from our projects. ‘The theme explores the continuous pursuit of the one true answer to a question. At the same time, it also witnesses the constant threat of failure, as well as the bliss of successful moments.’


What is special about timeless design?

I think that anything that is reduced to its core qualities cannot be dated. It could be our architecture, a radio by Braun, or a device by Apple. The saying ‘less is more’ might be old, but it’s still relevant. However, only a few people want this – it’s not a mainstream approach.

What about the architecture’s relationship to its environment? If a building is a sculpture, how it influenced by its surroundings?

Our buildings generate their qualities solely from their functions. If a building doesn’t function well, let alone perfectly, then it cannot connect to the environment, or absorb the positive qualities of the location, or even neutralise existing negative aspects. If that’s the case, then you’ve failed.

Generally speaking, we get almost no direct assignments – 90 or more of our projects are won through competitions. If the function isn’t right, all the aesthetics and beautiful exteriors are worth nothing. As a result, it is our deep belief – and this should be self-evident in the architecture – that everything starts with where a new building is constructed. For every competition that we enter, Bernhard and I travel to the site, regardless of where it may be or how far away it is. Sometimes we’re only there for 30 minutes. We once took a whole day to travel to a location, looked at it for an hour and came home. The point is that we have to see it and feel it. We can’t just use Google Maps or Streetview. Then we try to get a sense of the location, not by simply imitating the structures on site. Unless of course it’s a historic structure, then we might try to approximate the style and do a pitched roof instead of a flat one, or we would adapt formal elements from the location.

Can you talk about your choice of materials?

Yes, absolutely. For me it’s important that a building gets old like we do. It gets wrinkles – it has to show us its life. I always try to reduce a project down to one or two primary materials, like wood and copper.

Do you think that you create a strong relationship between your buildings and the landscape?

We often build in Alpine regions, and we don’t take inspiration from the sometimes rather mediocre structures that might already be there, but instead try to align with the incredible natural elements - the mountains, the landscape, the forest, all those impressive aspects. We start a dialogue with these elements. After all, every new structure is an intervention in the landscape. Architecture is not something that should be hidden away.

Our designs function well, as they’re translated into an architecture that meets the demands of the task at hand. We’ve been blessed with winning competitions for buildings in very special locations, like one of most recent competitions, the Salzburger Festspiele (Festival Centre of the Salzburg Festival), or the recent conversion of a Protestant church in Regensburg. These are exciting projects in exciting places, which allow the answer to the question posed to the architect to be a bit more unique.

What are the challenges of increasing the amount of wood used in architecture?

People tend to feel that stone is all about security, safety and prestige and it’s not easy to change that kind of thinking. Today, we can already feel a change in society, especially with the emphasis on nature and the environment. More and more clients ask about building in wood, and there is great growth in the wooden construction industry.

How do you engage with the people who live close to these sites? Is there ever opposition?

I think 20 years ago we were quite polarising, especially here in Vorarlberg. That’s putting it mildly - not many people liked what we did. But we still kept winning competitions. If you want us, then you can have a Marte.Marte project. If not, we won’t try to force ourselves upon a project.

Times have changed. These days we are swept away by a torrent of pictures. Social media gives the impression that new marvels of architecture are being constructed every day. In the past, it felt more like maybe two remarkable buildings a year. I have no clue where they’re all popping up, and it’s hard to even know what’s real and what’s fake. So although we used to be polarising, nowadays people contact us when they are interested in our work. And that’s okay.

When you engage with a site, how do you make decisions about things like structure?

It has to be said that when it comes to the exterior, working in this idealistic sculptural way is always our second or third priority. We don’t come somewhere and think to ourselves, “Such-and-such a structure would be nice, or a beam here would be great, or even a tower.” Instead, we’re rather meticulous – we think like artisans. For example, take the Schutzhütte in Laternsertal. This is a compact four-storey concrete tower. At the start of the project, the client’s key requirement was a mountain hut made of natural stone with a sun terrace. It might make sense to build a traditional little house with a stone patio. Instead, we visited the site and found it was so steep that a conventional house wouldn’t work. From the entrance road, you would have had to enter on the second floor and then step down into the landscape, which felt like a negative response.

Very quickly, we realised that the house would ideally be a four-storey tower, made of concrete. We could have had a concrete structure clad with stone, but that isn’t honest. The result is like a huge monolith made of stone, as if it had formed by a glacier. In the summertime, you arrive in the middle of the tower. In winter, when there’s two metres of snow, that becomes the ground floor.

How do you think you will develop the studio in the future?

I’ve decided to stay a small firm, with an emphasis on sustainability and ethical architecture. We do everything with love!

We’d like to learn more about how you make use of VOLA’s modular system. Could you give us some project examples?

It’s probably no secret that VOLA is our first choice. Everywhere we can use VOLA, we will, because it is the epitome of a fitting that can’t be bettered, not today, not in a hundred years. For example, we used VOLA fittings extensively in the Haus der Höfe in Röthis.  It’s not a difficult decision because all VOLA’s fittings are beautiful.

VOLA not only works well in family houses, we’ve also put them into other projects, even into primary school classrooms. Right now, we’re building the Hotel Flint in Dornbirn, Austria. In this project, we really wanted to use VOLA, because we knew the guests would be familiar with high quality architecture and design. VOLA fittings are the undisputed number one for anybody who is into architecture and design. There are a lot of imitations, but VOLA fittings are iconic in this field.

What about how you use VOLA’s modular system – does it allow you play creatively with the various parts?

Yes, and I welcome that. But individually and as an architect, ultimately all I really care about is the fantastic aesthetics and the unsurpassable design quality of a product. To be perfectly honest, if the basic VOLA in chrome or stainless steel was the only model in existence, that would be totally fine by me.  I don’t need to make any more decisions. Naturally, we use different VOLA products across our projects, such as brass or stainless steel. I often compare VOLA to a car. If you’re looking for emotionless, everyday security, you’d be better off going for something like a Golf. But if you want something that is emotionally enticing and technically sophisticated then chose a Porsche sports car. VOLA is equivalent to Porsche. We always try to get our clients to choose the sports car. Also, VOLA is a bit of a diva product – you have to take care of it and it will work. It is as functional as it is beautiful and it brings emotion to life.

Ultimately, everything must follow function in our projects. What’s most important to us is that our houses and our details don’t require a user manual. I need to be able to go in and just turn on the water, adjust the temperature, and then everything is great. Our architecture is about wanting things to stay as simple as possible.


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