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Lofty Ambitions

Timmelsjoch Alpine Pass

08/08/2014—Fast, high, deserted, and running through some of the most eye-widening scenery on Earth, the Timmelsjoch Alpine Pass is the antidote to the typical urban roadway, which is to say straight, flat, and usually beset with traffic.

A high gap that’s open only to drivers when the weather allows, the pass links Austria to Italy through one of the few indentations in the long ridge that divides the two countries. From late October until summer, it’s locked beneath snow and ice, but when it thaws out, be prepared to carefully negotiate its 30 hairpin bends.

Pass Museum

This is high-stakes driving, but the rewards more than justify that faint sense of jeopardy. Timmelsjoch provides all those glamorous Alpine driving tropes we’ve absorbed from 1960s James Bond films. Hairpins sweep out into nothingness. Straights sway as they cleave to mountainsides—square-cut rock face on one side, plain sky on the other.

At the pass itself you think it’s the view of snowy, jagged peaks that has taken your breath away. Then you notice the clouds are now beneath you, and you remember you’re more than 8,000 feet up and the oxygen is noticeably thinner here.

Timmelsjoch Alpine Pass

The first paved section of road from the Austrian side of the pass to the summit opened in 1959. Fifty years later, local architect Werner Tscholl was asked to build five roadside structures to mark the feat. You might wonder what even the best architecture could add to the views here, and whether humanity ought to be leaving further marks on this landscape.

Tscholl didn’t. To him and his team, the structures offered an opportunity to celebrate the pass’s great history. People have used Timmelsjoch for transit since the pre-Christian era, and it encouraged trade and cultural links between settlements on either side.

As with the other famous Alpine passes, building it required a disregard for danger and human frailty. It was largely constructed by hand; images from the 1950s show smiling workers in lederhosen standing in front of 16-foot-high banks of snow.

Tscholl’s structures don’t set out to surpass their environment; that would be impossible. Instead they honor it—their plain, reddish concrete construction and subtle faceting reflect the hue and shape of the mountains in which they are set.

Smugglers

The first, Walkway, offers a pier that soars out over a steep valley for a vertiginous view. The second, Smugglers, an irregular cube (shown above) that houses a single museum room devoted to the history of smuggling over the pass, shows real wit. The entry and exit, cut into the concrete on each side in the shape of a hat-wearing Kraxentrager smuggler, look like the shadows you might have glimpsed centuries ago as runners darted over secret paths that led to the goods and profits to be had far below.

At the summit is the biggest structure, the Pass Museum, another single room that’s much more ambitious in its form. Its foundation sits on the Austrian side of the border, but its entire structure cantilevers into Italian airspace, its precarious, improbable look a subtle, intelligent nod to the extreme geology that surrounds it.

Driving down into Italy, you meet Telescope (shown below), two open-ended rhomboids, each of which frames a different peak in the distance. And finally there is Garnets, tucked away at the end of a parking lot as you approach the Italian village of Moos im Passeier, which marks the end of the pass.

Telescope

A talented, performance-minded driver could, of course, just cannon over a pass like this, never stopping. But as each hairpin reveals another “Oh, wow!” view, most drivers are torn between the desire to just drive and the need to take more photographs.

Tscholl’s structures provide the excuse to stop. You can stand with your back to them and admire the mountains. But see them in context and you’ll understand why they deserve to be here. Each amplifies the other, and the combined effect is worth the climb and the hairpins and the dizziness and the constant, gentle thrill of this wild place.

—BEN OLIVER / PHOTOS BY OLAF UNVERZART