Alpine huts: Architectural innovations and development in the High Tatras in the second half of the 20th century

Mária Novotná


Nowadays, the topic of buildings in the mountains, especially mountain huts, is very popular among architects. Such a commission is considered a matter of prestige. Was this also the case seventy years ago? Were architects interested in alpine architecture? How did they reflect the huts that had already been built in their work? The post-war reconstruction and recovery could also be seen in the architecture in isolated and exposed locations. While interventions in the first half of the 20th century offered a technical solution rather than an architectural expression, in the second half of the century, architectural trends found their way to the high mountains, even if only to a limited extent or on paper.

The High Tatras became an important recreational centre for both Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries. The management of tourism with the preference for mass tourism over individual recreation involved extensive plans for expanding construction activities into the high mountain environment. Neither the planned cable car to the mountain peak Gerlachovský štít, nor the accommodation facilities for thousands under the peaks of the High Tatras eventually became a reality. A mountain hotel was built at the foothill of Gerlachovský štít, with a roof that was supposed to withstand an avalanche. Three architectural teams prepared four studies of a Tatra hut, but none of the designs was completed. The administrative transfer of the Tatras facilities from one state organisation to another was a recurring phenomenon in the period under research.

The paper is organised thematically into chapters representing the prevailing architectural trends of the decade and a hut project illustrating the direction. The focus is on the process of architectural planning against the background of turbulent organisational changes in the tourist facilities management. Therefore, the objects under analysis are the huts that underwent the design process, and not the makeshift and unplanned solutions. The research concentrates on the architectural quality of buildings in unique environments, ranging from a provisory shelter with a chimney and a door to a sophisticated project applying the latest technological, material and design innovations. Another angle is the assessment of buildings with respect to current architectural trends. In addition, the paper studies the typology of mountain huts that adapted not only to the environment and terrain but also to socialist realism, post-war modernism, high-tech architecture and postmodernism.

The hut at Popradské pleso was supposed to reflect the era. Its architects responded to the retreating socialist realism by searching for a form to express the folk traditions. A competition with an unclear outcome resulted in the construction of the hut. The realised building is still valued for its aesthetic qualities and has become an integral part of the iconic place in the High Tatras. Authors have analysed the reconstruction of the burnt-out hut Sliezsky dom (Silesian House) at Velické pleso. The hut, which was once built by tourists from the Silesian faction of the tourist association in Wroclaw in 1895, was designed by Czech architect Jaromír Sirotek from Brno. The new Silesian House thus became an example of high-mountain post-war modernism in Slovakia and the whole of Czechoslovakia. The reconstruction transformed the hut into a hotel, which was later absorbed into the state enterprise. The hut gave the impression of being for the upper classes of the classless socialist society.

Chata pod Rysmi is a hut located above the mountain lake Žabie Pleso and below the Váha pass, on the avalanche pathway. The text concentrates on the hut extension that was supposed to solve the problem of insufficient capacity and protect the hut from the destructive force of the rolling snow. It was the only hut in the High Tatras with a spiral staircase. Kežmarská chata used to stand at the mountain lake Veľké Biele pleso and burned down in the period of intense mass tourism. Although there were projects for its reconstruction ten years later, none were implemented. The investor could choose between a more conservative but still modern solution by a Slovak design group or Czech innovators. The architects from SIAL in Liberec developed two designs to create the most energy-efficient hut possible. The chalet at Zelené pleso is not examined as a collage of extensions but as a compact object that reflects the architectural debate. Like the previous one, Kežmarská chata, this project also was not realised.

The last decade under research, the 1990s, did not significantly impact the architecture of the Tatra huts. The post-revolutionary period, with the privatisation and transformation to the market economy, also saw the high-mountain facilities being returned back to the hiking associations. Modernism in the alpine environment was a part of the general architectural trend rather than a result of an order by the state. Phenomena associated with the architects of post-war Czechoslovakia were not applied in the restoration of mountain huts. The high mountain terrains of the Tatra Mountains did not become a place of experimentation with prefabricated panels or typified construction. The huts were either the result of a conservative approach based on the building traditions, with occasional slipping into poorly executed improvisation, or the result of a specific and atypical architectural proposal.

Keywords: post war modernism, innovations, hut, Czechoslovakia, High Tatras, alpine architecture