Ilanz's magical, medieval, electric cinema – Cinema Sil Plaz

Photo: Fondation Pour L'Architecture

The Graubünden architects, Capaul & Blumenthal, broke with convention for their rammed earth Cinema Sil Plaz in the small town of Ilanz, bringing the atmosphere's of Peter Zumthor and the tacit warmth of Martin Rauch earth works together under one roof.

"What is the young generation?" Ramun Capaul and Gordian Blumenthal are laughing. You get the point, as both are well into their forties. But still, they are seen as part of the new generation in Graubünden. The pair have been hiding out in Ilanz, the first or last town on the Vorderrhein river, high up and near to its Alpine springhead source.

Ilanz, a small junction town, contains a population of 2000. It’s here where architects – or anyone else - speeding towards Peter Zumthor’s Vals Thermal baths, need to take a sharp left off the main valley road into and through the town, and join a small valley road towards Graubünden’s internationally known village. A second road, also soon splinters off, heading up the valley, and climbs and climbs and eventually leads to Vrin, the tiny hillside edge village sitting under the yawning heights of the real mountains. It is from work in Vrin that Gion Caminada has made an international reputation as its village architect, with Vrin comprised of many of his buildings the Caminada studio there in the village. These include farm sheds, the school, numerous strickbau chalets and a wood yard. Compared to Zumthor, Caminda remains relatively unknown outside Switzerland and Vrin doesn’t experience

Ilanz, from above and outside the rail station

anything like the procession of international visitors heading towards Vals throughout the seasons. There are other differences: Vrin, high up in the mountains is a Romansh village, comprised of this old Swiss minority. Caminada is Romansh and remains in the village of his birth. Vals, a few miles below, down and still a valley village, was founded by German speaking farmers. Likewise, Zumthor is an incomer from Basel.

CapaulBlumenthal are from this part of the upland Graubünden where the canton region of Surselva, with its various valley tributaries flow and narrow into one of the two Rhine springhead rivers before continuing through what’s called the Swiss Canyon, the sheer white gorges of Ruinalta, below the ski-resort town of Flims. Surselva is one of the few parts of Switzerland where one of its old minorities, the Rhaeta-Roman make up the majority of the population, along with German Swiss communities. Selva is Romansh for forest, Surselva for ‘above the forest’.

Capaul & Blumenthal both come from a Romansh background – Capaul, tall, prone to intellectual speculation, is from a Romansh family in Lumbrein, the village immediately next to Vrin, where he continues to live, while Blumenthal – shorter, with an intense biker’s beard, and a liking for heavy metal music - grew up in Lichtenstein before moving back to his Graubünden birthplace, Flims. There seems to be a serendipitous harmony between the two. They say they see their work continuing to build on the work of Zumthor and Caminada, their two different, yet complementary, Graubünden architects and mentors. “They showed a way to think about architecture, ideas that are interesting ways to build on.”

Of all the younger architects – can they really be called the younger generation? – Capaul and Blumenthal seem the most wedded to the mix of craft, tradition and vernacular integrated into the contemporary world, so expressing appreciation for the Graubünden influence isn’t surprising. The fact that Blumenthal worked at the Zumthor studio in the nineties (“the best studio in the world”) burnishes this story.

Photo: Flurina Rothenberger
The collaboration began in 2000, after studying at ETH Zurich and a period travelling, Capaul heading to London and Blumenthal for a season in New York, and later Paris and Madrid. After each returned to Switzerland, Capaul spent time in a Zurich studio while Blumenthal worked at Zumthor’s Haldenstein studio. Their first projects as a practice were two small houses and a school commission, and similar work continued through the next decade. In 2007, however, they took on a community project, which when completed cast a spotlight on CapaulBlumenthal and the small town they work in, Ilanz.

The reason for this interest stands in the middle of the town. In 2010 when the town’s film club, the Cinema Sil Plaz, opened its permanent home, the unique nature of the redesign touched the imagination of the continental architectural world. Twenty years earlier the town’s last cinema had closed in 1989, depriving Ilanz and the surrounding valley and mountain Surselva region of any local film outlet, and in 2004 the town began to use an old forge for showing films. This proved to be popular, and within two years, the idea was hatched of converting the forge into a dedicated permanent multi-functioning venue, also to be used for talks, concerts and performances.

The two architects, both club members, became involved early in discussions about the conversion into the club. Soon they were the community architects for this community project. The first design ideas began, before the two architects, searching for an effective material to protect the second floor apartments from the sounds of the cinema, hit upon an unorthodox if untested solution. Instead of normal sound proofing why not use rammed earth on the walls, and – in panel form – on the cinema’s ceiling? Rather than fade away, the novel idea grew in appeal and the architects began to look for rammed earth specialists who would be receptive to such a novel use of the natural material. 

They did not have to look too far. Not completely surprisingly, the search led them to the entrance of Vorarlberg’s earth alchemist; Martin Rauch and his earth workshop community, Lehm-Ton-Erde. A meeting with Rauch, at his Austrian studio, went well and the father of Europe’s rammed earth network was invited to visit Ilanz. Rauch, who is popular for his interest and positive ‘not a problem’ can-do manner, enthusiastically signed up for this community project. “It was a very low budget,” says Blumenthal, “because film club members worked on the construction.” Beginning in 2007, one of Rauch’s team travelled south from Lehm-Ton-Erde’s base in Schlins, and led four volunteers over four months building the walls. “When we met the rammed earth it was a good feeling. There is a very special atmosphere.”

Photos: Laura Egger
There are other engaging elements to the building, but as the first contemporary rammed earth cinema, Capaul & Blumenthal’s interior redesign sparked a wave of interest across the parts of Mittel-Europa. News of cinema rippled out into the wider international architectural community. In 2012 Cinema Sil Plaz was awarded best community award in the Phillipe Rotthier European Renovation Prize for Architecture. One of the jurors, the young humanitarian architect, Anna Heringer, one-time apprentice to Rauch’s sorcerer, and on the award’s jury, apparently argued passionately for the project, may be helping sway the decision.

Despite its modest scale, the mix of cinematic high tech and ancient earthen techniques, the Cinema Sil Plaz is pioneering an atmospheric hybrid, breaking with the fiction of “form following technological function”, most blatantly stated in the symbolism of media-centres housed in high tech, often metallic, surroundings. Cinema Sil Plaz says something else about a different future, a sensuous fusion of the ancient and the modern. The cinema’s packed clay walls have been left raw and porous for optimal sound absorption, with strengthened reed stem panels on the ceiling’s underside. The seating, for a capacity of around fifty, is a mix of oak chair seating, filled with sheep’s wool and upholstered in Moroccan leather.

Photo: Laura Egger
The film technology is sophisticated, with up-to-the minute black box speakers hanging sparely from the ceiling and the latest projection camera and screen installed. These details helped win the practice the Cartier and other awards, as did the refit of the restaurant and bar. For this foyer area the walls have been stripped down to their original lime plaster, while oak surfaces sit starkly on low-end sheet metal at the bar, projection room and toilets, in which natural stone sinks have also introduced.

Enter the rebuilt theatre auditorium and – at least, when it’s not in use – you may be transported into a different, semi-separate, reality. When I walked into the room the immediate impact stopped me in my tracks. The room feels like a cave or a pit, dug out of the ground. The space bestows a calm silence and stillness, almost reverential in its ambience.  One or other of the architects had set the lights down low, with enough light in the dimness to praise the shadows, but nothing beyond that. Neither of the two architects made any attempt to change the lighting as we stood in the empty chamber. After a while we left the auditoria and began speaking again by the bar. When Capaul, himself a cinephile, referred to the sensibility as ‘archaic’ the conversation edged towards screens and the magical. It didn’t get there, rather there was a shared recognition between us that built environments assume either a de facto connection between hi or lo-tech. Here was this something else; ancient materials holding cinematic reality, a built environment collapsing categories, a medieval electric cinema. Capaul spoke of Arte povera, the Italian seventies art movement which explored the materials of the everyday, and which remains influential on the continent, at least this far south on the borders where German-speaking and Italian cultures meet. There was also a Shaker-like plain-is-plain, truth to materials feel to the atmosphere, while the tactility of earth walls were echoed in the simple, smooth textures of the cinema’s leather seating. Furthermore the rammed earth offers an inferential extra, invoking sustainability. The architects didn’t disagree, though Blumenthal points to how they are immersed in the everyday life of environmentally sensitive buildings. “For us it is normal, living here, looking around, appreciating the existing old buildings, and working out of tradition, to create this atmosphere, with craftsmanship,  - that’s what we’re looking for. You know,” he continues, “when I was studying at ETHZ it wasn’t the architecture which was missing, but the roots.”

Photos: Laura Egger
There’s another source, also unsurprising; the roots are in art as well as architecture. In 2008 Gordian Blumenthal and Ramun Capaul created a small predecessor to the cinema, the art installation ‘Arschella Splattada e projecziun’ for the Swiss Art Award 2008 in Basel.  In this art piece a video was projected onto a block of stone-flecked earth, a naked screen. Stampflehm, Projektion und Ton went on to win a Swiss Art Award that year foretelling the marriage of media art and archaic materials, of which the Cinema Sil Plaz would become a more fully realised expression.

With Cinema Sil Plaz, the cinema has become the installation, film, the moving image in the piece. Atmosphere and space have uncovered another site to furnish, further instances of broader fusions. You can find other media where atmospherics, textures, and the remaking of old and new are similarly present. Ambient music, for instance; consider how the likes of Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Jon Hassell  have long cultivated acoustic atmospherics, and dissolving the differences between inner and outer landscapes. This isn’t really what the architects were after, though, they state, even if Blumenthal does say that music-wise, the club has become a regular venue for members of a young new Swiss jazz scene, with outfits including Peter Zumthor’s percussionist son, Peter Conradin, regularly performing there.

Photos: Laura Egger

A few weeks after my visit, Zumthor was talking at a special evening event. The club was crammed to standing room only, as Zumthor spoke about a small number of current projects, the lights down low. He had visited before, and in a subsequent phone conversation Blumenthal confirmed in passing how much Zumthor likes the cinema. Cinema Sil Plaz invokes Zumthor’s atmosphere and materials and the earthbound tactility of Rauch. What is perhaps a surprise is that Zumthor, with his love of materials and atmosphere, has so far not investigated rammed earth. Rauch and Zumthor have met, even if they haven’t collaborated. Zumthor apparently said to one of Rauch’s team that he could have used rammed earth on the Kolumba museum in Koln, but didn’t think of it, explained, variously by the difference in generations, Zumthor’s older generation seemingly not making the connection. It may be too late any how, as the most ambitious of the projects, the Ricola  herb factory warehouse in Laufen with the largest rammed earth wall facades yet constructed is a Herzog & de Meuron project. When Herzog & de Meuron do, Zumthor doesn’t.

After my cinema visit, during the early evening, the architects and myself drove up to Val Lumnezia, to one of CapaulBlumenthal’s latest projects, a strickbau barn conversion where another Rauch team, was arriving to lay down a rammed earth floor. The strickbau chalet is the third project in Graubünden where Rauch’s rammed earth has been used; this time the emphasis is with Caminada’s vernacular traditions.

Photos: Laura Egger
For Capaul and Blumenthal, the Cinema Sil Plaz is old history. Other projects have preoccupied them since, such the Türalihus,  a 500 year old house has been restored and reactivated for the Swiss heritage Society in Valendas, up alongside the clear waters of the Ruinaulta mountain river.

Of all their buildings, however, it is the Cinema Sil Plaz, which continues to draw the wider world to Capaul & Blumenthal. The cinema goes beyond architecture. More recently there is the prospect of another cinema, this time in the Swiss border town, Stein am Rhein, and though they have decided not to use rammed earth this time round – no repeats – the questions are again about figuring atmospheres and ambience, though with a different palette of materials. The project is some way away, but will they be able to recreate the sense of the ‘something else’, the sharp intake of breath, and silence, which accompanies the simple crossing of a threshold, as you enter the Cinema Sil Plaz? 


For those interested in experiencing CapaulBlumenthal’s work first hand, you can book and stay in the Türalihus, (and visit the Cinema in the evening!)