An interview with architect Pascal Abgottspon

An interview with architect Pascal Abgottspon, site manager for the restoration of the St. Georg parish church in Ernen

Renovating the old St. Georg, landmark of the village, was a key engagement. Are you an «Ernen» yourself?
No, but my wife and I live right near the parish church. My office is in Visp and she’s the business manager of the Landschaftspark Binntal, so we have a very strong connections to the village.

What road did you take to get here?
After my architecture studies at the ETH Lausanne, the economic situation in this area was very tough, so after graduation, I took a job in a small, but well-respected architect’s office (Chandler Pierce Architect) in New York. Since that city’s buildings are so dense, there were fewer contracts for new buildings. Instead, much of the work meant refitting existing structures, but that experience proved useful, since about half the work my firm does here today is along those same lines, albeit it at a different scale.

So, you started your own business some twenty years ago?
Yes, and in the interim, my partner and I have grown to ten employees (abgottspon werlen architekten). We design and build new structures, but also do regular jobs for the Federal Government abroad, refitting the embassies and their respective residences, as we’re doing currently in Dakar, Senegal, for example. I’d say about half of our contracts, in fact, are in renovation and refitting, the aim being to respectfully ensure dated and/or historic spaces modern functionality.

Does renovation come with its own rewards?
Yes, I very much like doing that kind of work, but it’s very different than what we call «green field» architecture, when, starting from scratch, you have to consider the site location, the surrounding topography, and orientation. In renovation work, all of those are already given, so other skills are required. You have to consider the real substance of the existing building, its character, personality, and ultimately, its unique expression on the site it stands. Past history has affected it, too, so you must take that into account. Further, the people commissioning the work have to brave the inconvenience of a construction site, where safety is always our number one concern. There can be no accidents, not because our insurance premiums have reductions if we stay accident-free, but in light of the pain that we’d be responsible for if something should ever happen.

What have the primary tasks in the St. Georg renovation been?
It’s quite a long list: restoring of the outer walls, resurfacing the main stairway’s valley-facing wall, attending to damages in the interior wall surfaces, repairing and re-shingling the roof of the nave, making modifications to the electronic system (lighting, audio systems, bells, clockworks), updating of the heating system, and the restauration and cleaning of the various altars. We’ll begin the last of these tasks at the end of this year’s music festival.

What specialist craftsmen did you have to pull in?
Generally, a building that dates from 1515-1518, as this one does, or 500 years old, requires specialists who have long-standing experience in their respective competencies. Along with the Cantonal Monument preservation authorities, (Kantonaler Denkmalschutz) under Klaus Troger’s authority, we had the collaboration of local companies to do the conventional work: plumbing, roof drains, copper piping, and so on. But the roof required something of a different order: no fewer than 240,000 handmade larch shingles, which are more durable that the softer wood ones that were used previously.

How did that work progress?
Josef Bucher AG in Escholzmatt was charged with the production of the shingles, each one of which was laboriously hand-laid and nailed in, as well. Olivier Veuve from La Forclaz VD, also known in the scene as the «Pope of Shingles,» praised the delivered shingles in the highest terms. Having soaked the shingles in water overnight so they wouldn't split, Veuve’s small team covered the south side of the church roof and the canopy above the main entrance, nailing in each one of 240,000 shingles by hand. It was critical for wood from the region to be used, wood grown in a similar alpine climate and altitude. The Goms Forester supplied half the stock; more was acquired from the Müstair and Matter Valleys.

How was such a major project funded?
Funds were generated by the monuments preservation, the St. Georg rectory—as the owner—, and the community, which supplied some 10% of the financial resources. The cantonal and federal governments provided another 20%. But he majority of the funding came from the Loterie Romand, whose mission is to organize and operate lottery and sports betting for the benefit of thousands of different institutions. Private organizations and friends also contributed. When’s all said and done, our project will be well within the projected budget of CHF 2.2 million.

Start to finish: how long will the whole project take?
While I was asked in January 17 to make a schedule for the restoration, the actual work began in April, 2017. Sadly, that was to an unfortunate start: the scaffolding had already gone up when a hefty spring snow storm and then lots of rain exposed the church interior to moisture. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage. And since then, we’ve worked steadily except for during the festival weeks, when finishing the interior —in light of the required scaffolding—was out of the question. And we fully intend to finish by our deadline this fall, so we can celebrate the restoration and re-consecration of the church at the beginning of December.

Were there other models whose «lessons learned» could be applied to this project?
Not really, since with an object 500 years old, there were no supporting documents, close to no architect’s plans, and precious little information at either at the local, cantonal, or federal level. So essentially, heading the project was like driving in the fog. You don’t quite know where the road will take you. And there’s a lot to consider: The architect of our Cantonal Monuments Preservation, Klaus Troger, said it perfectly, «you can take all the expertise you want, every case must still be approached individually.»

Were there any unexpected «surprises» along the way?
Yes, to our chagrin, we discovered that the spire’s lightning rod wasn’t functional. Other than that, hand-crafted shingles take a long time to produce, and obviously, there are no available stocks. Our roofers could nail them in faster than could be acquired, which—as legitimate as it was—was also frustrating. On a lighter note, though, there was one surprise that amused us all: a closer look at the fine iron cross on the forward apex of the roof revealed an inscription, «Hic iacet Sepulptus Thomas Tschudi von Engelberg Anno 1757.» (Here Thomas Tschudi from Engelberg lies buried, 1757). Obviously at some point, the cross was simply nicked from an unattended grave!

What was the most difficult assignment in the whole project?
Probably attending to the bells, because there was very little you could predict about them in advance, and preparing for their descent from their tower was iffy. Bell-expert Matthius Walter wrote twice about what he had found, but only once down and out of the tower, did they present another picture. Luckily, thanks to his expertise, and the specialized company commissioned to the execution of the work, the bells are functional again now, although the fine tuning and testing will only be done after this Musikdorf summer.

Can you describe the restoration experience in three adjectives?
Challenging. Demanding. Stressful. This is hardly daily business: if something goes wrong, there’s no recourse when your material dates from the early 16th century. And the project was confronted with today’s legal stipulations: fire and police safety regulations, visitor numbers, and so on. If taken collectively, those restrictions would essentially render this church all but impassable; it would need another handrailing, a wall that’s taller than knee-high, and so on. Negotiating for historic preservation in that context was hard, but in the end, both sides exercised a healthy rationale.

So, to finish, what’s been the most rewarding?
I guess standing up on top of the roof once it was completed and looking out over the valley. That was a wonderful experience. And I’m looking forward to the clean-up of the church interior. When all the dust and residue is removed from the pockets and folds of the statues, it will be even more brilliant, and we’ll have even more to celebrate!

Ernen, Thursday, 2 August 2018, by Sarah Batschelet