Article image

When we talk about modern, innovative or outstanding architecture, we usually have urban areas in mind. The same applies to public space or mobility structures. Rural areas, on the other hand, are seen as conservative, if not backward, and the urban sprawl of recent decades is often superficially considered to be primarily an aesthetic problem.

The triumph of private transport since the 1950s has dramatically changed life in the countryside. While shopping centers and business parks with huge parking lots have sprung up like mushrooms outside the town centers, and dreary single-family housing developments have taken up valuable land, the village centers are slowly dying. The inns, butcher shops and small grocery stores are closing down. Craftsmanship has largely been replaced by cheap furniture stores, prefabricated houses and online commerce. Declining population figures in out-migrated communities lead to school closures. And at some point, the bus, which already only stopped a few times a day, will no longer be profitable.

It’s a crucial error to believe that where density is low, there is no need for well-designed public space and transport, and it takes courageous and long-term thinking from politicians to bring about a change. The small village of Krumbach in the Bregenzerwald, Vorarlberg, with its 1,000 inhabitants, had such a politician. Arnold Hirschbühl, mayor from 1995–2018, set a number of developments in motion that made the community livable in the long term and also made it famous far beyond its borders.

Bus stops are very important in rural areas.
Unterkrumbach Nord stop, Krumbach, Austria, Architect: Ensamble Studio, Antón García-Abril, Débora Mesa/Local partner architect: Dietrich Untertrifaller Architekten, 2014. Photo © Dietmar Steiner

Therefore Krumbach was already well known in Austria as a showcase for modern and successful village life. But it only became internationally famous with the BUS:STOP project, an idea that emerged in 2011 to invite internationally known architects to redesign the bus stops. From the beginning it was clear that the project needed an architectural curator with an international network, an excellent PR agency, and the backing of the population.

So, the Krumbach Association was established in order to have all potential opponents of the project on board from the very beginning and although he was initially pessimistic, Dietmar Steiner, Director of the Architekturzentrum Wien until 2016, became an enthusiastic supporter. The project was finally made feasible by Hansjörg Baschnegger’s PR agency, which developed a sponsorship concept that financed the project without burdening the municipality’s coffers.

The concept was based on the idea of public mobility as a symbol of quality of life and sustainability in rural areas. Bus stops are one of those things in everyday life that we often pass by unthinkingly. Yet this seemingly simple task offers undreamed-of possibilities. They are not only functional traffic structures that offer protection from wind and weather, but they can also become “landmarks” visible from afar: a sculpture, a grandstand, a public living room.

Innovation and design at a bus stop in a rural area in Austria.
Kressbad stop, Krumbach, Austria, Architect: Rintala Eggertsson Architects, Sami Rintala, Daggur Eggertsson/Local partner architect: Baumschlager Hutter Partners, 2014. Photo © Dietmar Steiner

Dietmar Steiner carefully selected outstanding offices with very individual approaches to architecture. People whom he could trust and who could trust him: Amateur Architecture Studio, China; Alexander Brodsky, Russia; Rintala Eggertsson Architects, Norway; Architecten De Vylder, Vinck, Taillieu, Belgium; Ensamble Studio, Spain; Smiljan Radic, Chile and Sou Fujimoto, Japan.

The only fee was a week’s vacation in the Bregenzerwald, and everyone was required to come in advance for a three-day visit. But still—or because?—they all agreed immediately.

The seven offices engaged in an intensive dialogue with the local partner architects and regional craftsmen, as well as the landscape, the building tradition and the new building culture. In the case of some of the stops, this dialogue was quite obviously poured into the design.

Sou Fujimoto in a rural area of Austria.
Sou Fujimoto visiting the site, BUS:STOP Krumbach, Austria, 2013. Photo © Adolf Bereuter

For example, Smiljan Radic transferred the intimacy of the traditional Bregenzerwälder Stube (Bregenzerwald parlor) to the exposed nature of a bus stop with coffered ceilings of black concrete and rustic wooden armchairs. Rintala Eggertson extended the bus stop shelter with a metaphorical, yet functional grandstand for a tennis court, clad with traditional shingles. Ensamble Studio picked up on the elemental quality of raw, untreated oak boards and their layering in the dry storage areas of the wood workshops, creating a spatial situation that is both sheltered and open. And Sou Fujimoto abstracted the wooded landscape, creating a “forest” of thin steel and wood poles with a staircase to infinity.

An incredible amount of hype was generated around the project. Krumbach became famous and tourism was boosted, which added value to the entire region. Now, almost 10 years later, the hype has slowed down; the stops have aged well; the population takes care of them and knows about their specialness.

The design of a bus stop in rural Austria.
Bränden stop, Krumbach, Austria, Architect: Sou Fujimoto/Local partner architect: Bechter Zaffignani Architekten, 2014. Photo © Dietmar Steiner

Has Krumbach set a precedent? The BUS:STOP project has certainly remained unique both in terms of its complexity and its media-effective implementation. However, not least as a result of the pandemic, awareness of rural areas has increased. Today everyone is talking about mobility and energy turnarounds, food sovereignty and the need to stop land consumption and revitalize village centers. Many Austrian communities are trying to counteract the misguided spatial planning of the last decades. But they face an incredible number of obstacles and have very modest financial resources.

This is where the Austrian Baukultur Municipality Award—which has been awarded by the Landluft Association since 2009—comes in. It is an initiative focused on outstanding municipal achievements and sets an example for holistic and sustainable development. The award winners are presented in a traveling exhibition that shows how important it is to beat the drum loudly and persistently for a change in thinking about rural areas and how municipalities in the front row today are rethinking their identity—just like Krumbach in 1995.

Main image: Glatzegg stop, Krumbach, Austria, Architect: Amateur Architecture Studio, Wang Shu, Lu Wenyu/Local partner architect: Hermann Kaufmann, 2014. Photo © Dietmar Steiner

Video courtesy Voralberg Magazine

Subscribe to our newsletter