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The joy of the Felder brothers

The joy of the Felder brothers

The joy of the Felder brothers

The writer on architecture, Robert Fabach, describes a particular feature of architecture in the Bregenzerwald, namely the region's unusual commercial buildings. In this issue he writes about the workshop and offices of the Felder brothers in Andelsbuch.

Konrad and Jodok Felder are open-minded types. Freethinking and feisty, but firmly rooted in craftsmanship and their region. Their international reputation is based on their experience and love of experimentation, and they are particularly well-known for their stainless steel swimming pools. This is all reflected in the diversity of their headquarters, which demonstrate examples of their masterly façade solutions.

Before the Bregenzerwald became a “landscape”, before the tourists knew about it, it was a rather bleak region where people lived and worked. Out of necessity, most of the inhabitants had to make a lot of things for themselves: from sewing their own clothes to repairing their houses. Many of them were in the habit of earning their living abroad. For example, the building trade – for which Vorarlberg’s Baroque master builders were a byword – was the main source of income during the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily for members of craft guilds who migrated with the seasons. Then, from 1763, doing paid embroidery work for Swiss traders became an established occupation for many women, work which they did alongside farming. This is worth remembering if you are surprised by the number of craftsmanship businesses which operate globally, but are scattered among the homes and farmers’ fields of the Bregenzerwald. Take, for example, the offices and workshop of the Felder brothers in Andelsbuch.

A workshop in a traditional landscape

The brothers Konrad and Jodok took over the business in 2003 from their father Anton Felder, who had started working with metal in 1979, laying the foundations for the company and inspiring his two sons. In 1984, at the foot of the Niedere mountain, he erected a two-storey wooden barn, about six metres wide and ten metres long. In 2005, Konrad and Jodok increased this nearly fivefold, creating a building that measured twelve by 24 metres, and also adding a wooden annexe for office space. In 2016, this annexe was entirely replaced by a three-storey extension made of reinforced concrete clad in a combination of different façade options. The drawing office and the secretary’s office are located on the ground floor, while the bosses’ offices are upstairs, along with the project development office and a meeting room. The rapid growth of the business has kept pressing them to make changes to the interior. This was made easier because the cable ducts went round the edge of the building, and the suspended ceiling was made of metal panels that could easily be dismantled. None of this had been planned by an architect. The two brothers knew what they wanted. Jodok, who, before taking his Master’s, had qualified in Mechanical Engineering at technical college, drafted the plans for both conversions to such an advanced stage that they could be handed over to the engineers at a technical planning office in the Bregenzerwald to be completed and built. The local design consultants – architects Bernardo Bader and Klaus Metzler – advised rounding the corners of the office tower, which presented the craftsmen with a challenge, as the copper plates that they intended to use had to be bent. 

The Felder brothers had achieved something similar in 2013, when they made a rounded façade for the Raiffeisenbank in Sulzberg, to produce a design by Gerhard Gruber and Reinhold Locher. And, of course, not without reducing the radius to a challenging 1.5 metres. They also improvised for the canopy on the workshop in 2005, which was shortened and supported by tension rods before ending at the elegant, slim glass doors of the new stairwell, which displays yet another façade solution that they had worked on for a residential building project for Baumschlager-Eberle. In front of the flat-roofed assembly workshop, which is clad in contemporary shingles, the three-storey office block stands proudly, a collage of copper panels and matte stainless steel, shiny black, oiled sheet steel and modern glazing. It says more about the diversity of the craftsmen’s skills than it does about strict design rules. Outside, lorries unload their goods, workmen rush around with consignment notes, and the staccato hammering and shrill whining of metalworking tools can be heard coming from the two-storey workshop. Steel and stainless steel are separated into the two separate storeys, to avoid the risk of contact corrosion between the two different metals. The workshop is located on the sloping site in such a way that the top floor, where the steel construction work takes place, can be accessed by lorries from the road, and the ground floor from the back.

An international reputation, experience and a love of experimentation

Constructing distinctive stainless steel projects and unusual swimming pools for hotels and villa developments now accounts for two-thirds of the volume of work, which is growing by about twenty percent a year. The company concentrates on serving an area from Lake Zurich to the Arlberg mountains, so that enough time is left for the often exclusive bespoke commissions that Konrad and Jodok love to take on. With their teams of workers, they plan and experiment here in-house and tinker with prototypes before making the full-size product. This is how the Felder brothers have established their reputation as a secret weapon for the country’s leading property developers. Their work speaks for itself. Hoteliers and other clients in the luxury tourism industry like to seek out something spectacular, such as a swimming pool where the floor can be raised to different heights to create a children’s pool or a terrace for parties. The Felder brothers are also the first port of call for Vorarlberg’s architects, when it comes to packing sophisticated functionality into a structure of radical simplicity. The architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann won the “House of the Year” award in 2013 for a building which used one of the Felders’ beautifully varied façade solutions, inspired by steel mesh. For his colleague Hermann Kaufmann, the Felders created an impressive and eye-catching rounded façade for the restaurant at the top of the Nebelhorn cable car, made of strips of pre-oxidised copper folded at different angles. The Felder brothers seem to be naturally very laid back about working in different design fields and have no inhibitions about experimenting with form and shape. They ponder over how to make retractable windows for the “Oesterreich”, a ferry on Lake Constance, or they give steel panels a special finish by using salt bath nitriding, a technique that is actually used for hardening the transmission shaft in cable car construction, or they get stuck into the technical details of how to create a jet-black stainless steel pool. And they laugh uproariously as they talk about it.

The “Werkraum Bregenzerwald” cooperative and supporting the next generation

Their love of a challenge is also apparent in their contributions to the triennial Bregenzerwald competition “Craftsmanship + Design”, where they like to counterbalance the prevailing concept of aesthetic perfectionism. For example, in 2015, they made a five-metre long, freestanding seesaw consisting of just three lengths of curving steel tube. This year, their entry was a children’s rocking horse made of a single continuous length of steel tube – stunningly radical and, at the same time, a thought-provoking reinterpretation of a traditionally wooden object. The jury in the competition does not often share their sense of humour, but that doesn’t bother them. They are well aware of the media impact of this major event with its international audience, and also of the significance of the initiative for craftsmen, the “Werkraum Bregenzerwald” cooperative, which they support wholeheartedly. The two entrepreneurs also emphasise the importance of training apprentices for their team. On average, two apprentices start work every year, whom they now have to make a considerable effort to find. In the past, young people used to approach them of their own accord. For the last three years, the Felder brothers have been actively recruiting at apprenticeship fairs, at information days in schools and by holding an Open Day. Competition from the big industrial companies in the Rheintal valley and the importance of academic qualifications nowadays pose a serious challenge to the continuing survival of skilled craftsmen. There is a need for the astuteness and manual skills on which the outstanding international success of Vorarlberg’s craftsmanship is based. At the end of my visit to the Felder brothers, I stand for a moment in the middle of the workshop with my eyes closed and breathe in deeply. Machines humming, lubricant, the clanging of metal on metal, the smell of steel and iron filings. This magical atmosphere is entirely unmistakeable and the same at all metal workshops. Perhaps it brings back childhood memories of my own father, who was a locksmith. I well understand the joy of the Felder brothers.

Author: Robert Fabach
Edition: Reisemagazin Summer 2019