The small studio Vienna architect Christian Tonko designed for an artist friend becomes a looking device into the landscape, set in the foothills of the Austrian Alps.
The minimalist studio in Austria’s Vorarlberg region is a visual device in itself that frames the surrounding alpine landscape in two directions. In addition to a single skylight in the roof, the bilevel space has two vertical openings: The tilted glazing to the southeast lets in optimum sunlight, modulated through exterior screens. On the lower northwest end, a system of weathering steel frames allows the artist, who works in traditional media, to hoist up bronze sculptures outside and suspend them in his direct sight in front of the glass. The sculptures also receive their natural patina this way. The artist uses the upper level for sketching and painting in watercolor and the lower level for working on larger canvases and for sculpting.
Architect Christian Tonko’s choice of raw and untreated materials contributes to the character of a workshop. The interior surfaces are raw concrete, raw steel, and untreated oak. On a tectonic level, the structure responds to the descending site.
A Conversation with Christian Tonko
For whom did you design Camera Lucida?
The artist is a family friend. He recently retired and now wants to concentrate on art. The wish for his own studio has been present for many years . . . until it finally happened.
How is the space being used?
His desire was to create a space that is focused on creating art, yet, at the same time is also suitable for reading a book and looking at the landscape. It’s a small studio for drawing, painting, and sculpting for one person. It’s also intended to be a space for retreat and contemplation.
“His desire was to create a space that is focused on creating art, yet, at the same time is also suitable for reading a book and looking at the landscape.”
The structure’s design is inspired by an ancient optical device, the eponymous camera lucida. What’s the story behind the name?
Historically, the “camera lucida” is an optical drawing aid. It enables the artist to look at an object and a piece of paper simultaneously and, thus, facilitates tracing the object. At the same time, the term can be literally translated to signify “bright chamber.”
What was your original vision for the design of the studio?
At the beginning was the idea to build a small factory. This is where the semi-industrial character of the design stems from.
“At the beginning was the idea to build a small factory.”
How did that initial idea evolve into the final design?
This idea of the small factory influenced the design on various levels. It influenced our choice of materials and surface textures but also directly informed the form-finding process. The volume is basically a box with a skylight, just like an archetypical factory building. Then it is set into the hillside and, therefore, the final appearance comes into being.
What’s it like to be and to work in the space?
It is a calm and bright place. The landscape is very present, but it is easy to focus on work and tune out everything else.
What is the synergy between Camera Lucida and its gorgeous mountain setting?
The building itself acts as an optical framing device, so the views are very clearly framed. At the same time, the building is directed towards the sunlight. A great amount of light floods in through the south-facing tilted glazing, which demands exterior sun protection. So sometimes the building is completely closed and the view is blocked.
The Alps are very close, as the site sits at the end of the Lower Rhine Valley, which means it is at the foothills of the Alps. But the building intentionally looks away from the mountains towards Lake Constance. Moreover, the site next to it is inhabited by four Cameroon mountain goats. They are grazing right in front of the window, which is a great feature as it creates a calm and relaxed atmosphere.
What’s on your drawing board right now?
I am currently working on a building that serves as a base for ski tours. It’s located close to the Camera Lucida project, but at a much higher altitude, in a great mountain setting. △