Drive south on the European route E60 on the easternmost shore of Lake Constance, turn left just before Feldkirch and circle your way up the mountain on narrow serpentines. After a few kilometres, you will find yourself in front of a brightly lit concrete wall. We park the new GLC 300 e 4MATIC in a parking space next to the wall and step out. The wall is actually the back of the 38-metre-long Haus der Höfe, a residence planned and created by the two architect brothers Bernhard and Stefan Marte. This residential building is the first stop on our road trip through Vorarlberg with the new GLC, which will take us to several of the two architects’ buildings.
The house blends into the landscape like a giant concrete monolith, disappearing almost completely into the hillside to the rear and opening up to the valley to the front. A flat staircase leads to an inner courtyard, a high wooden door opens onto a view into the interior of the house. From the door itself, the view extends beyond the open kitchen to a panoramic window where the Rhine Valley and the Appenzell Alps spread out in front of you. Another courtyard opens up to the left of the kitchen, accessible from all living areas of the house through high glass doors.
“A room you really want to live in starts with clarity and high-quality materials,” says Stefan Marte. After our visit to the Haus der Höfe, we take the GLC to Feldkirch to the Marte.Marte office. This is in an old townhouse that the two architects have carefully extended architecturally. The 360-degree camera makes parking the GLC light, simple work, even in the narrow old town streets. Cardboard models of bridges, houses and tunnel entrances stand on dark parquet floors, steel shelves with black files line the walls, metre-high light walls illuminate the whitepainted rooms. The two brothers founded their architectural business in 1993, and their buildings with a clear and reduced formal language are icons in the world of architecture today.
One important element of their work: the brothers never lose sight of the relationship with the surrounding landscape. “A decisive factor for how liveable a space becomes is how the interior interacts with the outside world,” says Stefan Marte. The two architects create an atmospheric relationship between interior and exterior. Their designs do not stop at the front edge of the living space. Marte’s view is that a living space must protect and create a feel-good climate, much as a car does. The two architects achieve this by only opening up their rooms to where the view is into nature, as demonstrated in the Haus der Höfe. “If you have to draw the curtains, then the living space has failed.”
A feeling for the whole is also important, says Stefan Marte, explaining the principle of his own work. A form is only beautiful when it fulfils its function perfectly and also touches you emotionally. “Architecture has a lot in common with building a car: first comes the function, then you have to find the shell to complement it.” The whole form, a sculpture that has so much power that it inspires, then emerges out of the necessary functions and the shell.
After visiting the Marte.Marte office, we venture into the Vorarlberg mountain landscape with the GLC, always on the trail of the architects. Fully charged, the plug-in hybrid can drive up to 130 kilometres in pure electric mode – more than sufficient for our upcoming trip into the mountains. The GLC also impresses on rough terrain thanks to a new off-road programme which runs without any combustion engine.
Our last stop on the tour with the GLC through Vorarlberg takes us to the Laternsertal, an eastern side-valley of the Rhine. Driving along a narrow dirt road, Alpine meadows with their grazing goats and wooden farms on either side, we reach a four-storey concrete structure standing on a meadow on the slope, looking like a squat lighthouse in the mountain world. The architects had the outer façade of the mountain refuge roughly hewn with sledge hammers.
This makes the building look like a grey boulder in the landscape. A short flight of stairs takes us to the sun deck, which also serves as the entrance level and remains accessible even after heavy snowfall thanks to its elevation – a fine example of functional architecture.
Inside, a solid wood spiral staircase leads to the first floor with its kitchen and a window offering a view over the Laternsertal valley – the perfect place to linger, creating an ideal symbiosis between indoor and outdoor space. Much like the Haus der Höfe building, the mountain refuge opens up through glass panes on the valley side, offering views into the natural space, while the walls remain closed on the mountain side, creating a homely and protected atmosphere.
After visiting the refuge, we continue uphill to the Furkajoch pass. Dark clouds creep across the sky. The sun flashes through intermittently. The GLC’s windows mute the noise from the outside world, the air conditioning wraps us in a cosy warmth, and the dynamic chassis flattens out the bumps of this rugged mountain pass. We glide through the mountain world as if on cotton, and through the large windows we watch as the onset of darkness dims the surroundings to simple shapes: mountain peaks dwindle in the evening light to a jagged line against the orange sky, the road becomes a grey band between dark rocks. A string of spruce trees on the ridge looks almost like a paper cutout. The exterior world through which we steer the GLC is reminiscent of a building by Marte.Marte: reduced to the bare essentials and so perfect that nothing more could be removed.