Private Museums of the World: Muzeum Susch

From monastery to museum
Architects Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy transform a 12th century monastery in the Swiss Alps into a private museum founded by Polish entrepreneur Grażyna Kulczyk.

by Nadezna SiganporiaPublished on : Dec 08, 2020

It’s straight out of a postcard – a charming village with beautifully preserved old buildings, surrounded by a pristine Alpine valley that’s blanketed in winter snow and wakes up to a babbling summer brook. Located in the Engadin valley of the Swiss Alps, the old village in the remote town of Susch could not be more Swiss. It’s got those sloping roofs, the quaint clock tower and cobblestone pathways. Tucked away in a 12th century former monastery lies Muzeum Susch.

The site dates back to 1157 AD and was first used as a rural monastery at the foot of the Flüela Pass | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
The site dates back to 1157 AD and was first used as a rural monastery at the foot of the Flüela Pass Image: Andrea Badrutt, Chur, Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

This private museum was founded by Grażyna Kulczyk, a Polish entrepreneur and long-time supporter of contemporary art. Her personal collection has a central mission of tracing a matrilineage through art history. The museum officially opened its doors to the public on January 2, 2019, with the inaugural group exhibition - A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, curated by Kasia Redzisz.

NARCISSUSSUSCH by Mirosław Bałka, 2018 | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
NARCISSUSSUSCH by Mirosław Bałka, 2018 Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani; Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

“It was emblematic of the program we set out to achieve at Muzeum Susch," explains Kulczyk. “Redzisz took my collection as her main point of departure to draw on larger conversations, exploring the notion of the feminine in its diverse facets: social, political and cultural. The exhibition provided a fresh perspective and revealed many biases that continue to exist in gender discourse".

  • Grażyna Kulczyk, a Polish entrepreneur | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
    Polish entrepreneur Grażyna Kulczyk Image: © Anoush Abrar
  • Flock I by Magdalena Abakanowicz, 1990 | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
    Flock I by Magdalena Abakanowicz, 1990 Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani; Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

Honouring its heritage

With decade-long plans for establishing an art museum, the discovery of this location was quite serendipitous. As Kulczyk was exploring her neighbourhood in the Lower Engadin, she noticed a group of old, industrial-looking buildings. The location dates back to 1157AD and was first used as a rural monastery at the foot of the Flüela Pass. It also operated as a point to rest and change horses on the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, known as Jacob’s Trail. From the 19th century it became an industrial brewery building, situated above a naturally occurring mountain-water source.

Ethnic Wars. Large Vanitas Still Life by Zofia Kulik, 1995 – 2017 | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
Ethnic Wars. Large Vanitas Still Life by Zofia Kulik, 1995-2017 Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

“The depth of cultural history and the remoteness of this pristine Alpine location - where the scale of the surrounding mountains places human presence in the proper perspective - presented itself as the perfect place for the kind of activity I had in mind: a museum with a disruptive outlook and approach to the future,” says Kulczyk.

The original buildings were preserved while additional spaces were excavated from the mountainside | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
The original buildings were preserved while additional spaces were excavated from the mountainside Image: Andrea Badrutt, Chur, Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

In order to transform this vision into reality, Kulczyk turned to Zurich-based architects Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy. She felt it was imperative the architects be sympathetic to the local environment and heritage of the site. The sensitivity they showed towards the context permeates from the buildings into the ways the art is experienced.

Zurich-based architects Chasper Schmidlin (left) and Lukas Voellmy (right) | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
Zurich-based architects Chasper Schmidlin (left) and Lukas Voellmy (right) Image: Conradin Frei

Using the old to create the new

The sloping site is located right next to the meandering river and comprises three original buildings and grotto-like underground spaces. Since these buildings are protected by Cantonal Historical Preservation Law, the architects had to figure out a way to strengthen the existing historical structures while expanding into a functioning museum.

The first stage involved careful excavation into the mountainside | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
The first stage involved careful excavation into the mountainside Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

To achieve this, they created additional exhibition halls by excavating down into the mountainside rock. A hidden, underground tunnel was carved out to connect the buildings. The first, year-long stage involved careful explosions and excavation. Nine-thousand tons of amphibolite, the local rock, was shifted before beginning construction. “The ‘expansion’ is more a modulation of the existing slope. The architecture concentrates on the essentials and integrates the individual buildings into the location due to the minimal external restoration. This interaction creates the identity of the museum,” explains Schmidlin.

An underground tunnel was carved out to connect the buildings | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
An underground tunnel was carved out to connect the buildings Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

The new rooms stand in contrast to the historical vaults and grottos. “All valuable substance has been preserved - the small-scale structure of the rooms, vaults, wood, stone, and the old plaster. In the dialogue between ‘existing’ and ‘new’, we looked for the identity of the museum,” says Voellmy. The brewery's former cooling tower forms the focal architectural feature of the museum. “By adding another floor into the mountain, daylight reaches the ground floor. The 17-metre high room serves as an important orientation in the labyrinthine exhibition rooms. At the same time, the attached crown made of industrial glass creates a kind of lighthouse effect, especially at night,” he continues.

Local materials like amphibolite stone heavily used in the restoration | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
Local materials like amphibolite stone were heavily used in the restoration Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

Going local

The materials used have either a strong local or industrial reference. Raw steel railings, solid indigenous wood interiors and copper roof and facades are repeating elements. Fragments of the excavated rock were incorporated into the polished terrazzo flooring of the galleries, mixed with sand from the bed of the Flüela Pass river. This gives the floor its specific light green colour of the amphibolite. Gravel from the river was also added to the plaster on the inner and outer walls. Wood from surrounding forests have transformed other rooms, being used for flooring and wall panelling in the cloakrooms. The facades of all buildings were restored with the same white lime plaster. This creates a strong unity of the different buildings and the museum is legible as an ensemble.

Wood from the surrounding forests transformed exhibition rooms | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
Wood from the surrounding forests transformed exhibition rooms Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

Art informs architecture

The permanent installations play a fundamental part in determining the evolving character and distinctive layout. The 14 works on display communicate directly with the architecture of the building, the idiosyncratic structure of the site and the surrounding alpine landscape. As the programming is partially determined by temporary exhibitions, the rooms are adaptable while still possessing strong distinguishing features that embed the art with the context of the surrounding nature. 

Stairs by Monika Sosnowska, 2016-2017, is a permanent installation filling the central tower of the museum | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
Stairs by Monika Sosnowska, 2016-2017, is a permanent installation filling the central tower of the museum Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani and Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

“The built-in, permanent artworks invite a sense of choreography with the temporary exhibitions. The first of these site-specific works – Monika Sosnowska’s Stairs (2016-17) – was installed before the museum building was even completed, due to the monumental scale of the impressive steel structure that now fills the central tower of the building,” adds Kulczyk.

The auditorium with expansive bay windows | Museum Susch | Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy | STIRworld
The auditorium with expansive bay windows Image: Courtesy of Studio Stefano Graziani, Courtesy of Muzeum Susch, Art Stations Foundation CH

Slowing down with art

From the onset, she proposed ‘Slow Art’ - a way of engaging with art that is about the quality of the way we look at it, not the quantity. “In these surroundings, away from the everyday order and activity, there is a chance to slow down, think differently, and space for new ideas to flourish. It is a counteraction to the experience of viewing art in big centres. I could never have anticipated the current situation; however, this approach is even more important now…providing alternative ways to process the solitude that was - and in many parts of the world continues to be - enforced on us. Muzeum Susch provides a refuge and a way to deeply engage with art that is aligned to the demands of this new way of living,” concludes Kulczyk.

Private Museums of the World:
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.

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