Minimalist Metamorphosis: Cowshed turns cultural center

Most people must choose to live amongst urban intellect or natural beauty. Gerold Schneider and Katia Polletin, founders of Allmeinde Commongrounds cultural center, are proof that you can be surrounded by both.

Schneider grew up in the tiny Austrian mountain village of Lech, also known as the cradle of Alpine skiing. His parents owned and operated Almhof, one of the ski town’s top five-star hotels, and his childhood revolved around skiing and helping with the family business. Like many small town kids, Schneider fled the mountains for the city and moved to Vienna to study art, architecture, and philosophy. “A lot of people from rural areas move to cities and get a taste of art, music, design, food, and they never return,” he says. But the sudden death of his father and illness of his older brother drew Schneider—and his architect-wife Polletin—back home to help his mother, Hannelore, run the family hotel.

“A lot of people from rural areas move to cities and get a taste of art, music, design, food, and they never return.”

Old cowshed turns splendid cultural center

While Schneider never intended on becoming a hotelier, he did toy with the idea of one day doing something with the arts in Lech. As he and Polletin set about respectfully updating the hotel they also set their sights on a rustic, family-owned barn just up the road from the Almhof. The cosmopolitan couple’s plans to convert the old cowshed into a cultural center for exhibitions and artists in residence were met with small-town mentality suspicion. “There are many things I love about Lech, but locals have an aversion to change,” says Schneider. “They are stuck in the past.” Each winter, Lech attracts an international, discreet (compared to Courchevel or Aspen) jet set crowd that Schneider believed would welcome a dose of culture to complement the powder-dusted slopes and après-ski cocktails.

The barn—functional, minimalist Alpine design

In 2000, Schneider and Polletin began transforming the two-story barn into the Allmeinde, an Austrian word that means a public, open pasture. Sensitive to the ski town’s postcard perfect landscape, the pine wood exterior of the Allmeinde is nearly indistinguishable from any other neighboring weathered barn. The only difference is the sliding barn doors have been turned into an enormous window that rolls open to views of the Schlegelkopf mountain ski runs. The interiors, however, are an ingenious example of minimalist Alpine design and functional, fluid living space. On the second floor, the original vaulted beams frame a 1,500-square-foot (ca. 140-square-meter) space divided by a birch cabinet unit. At first glance, it looks like a stark gallery space, sparsely decorated with a few rough-hewn wood chairs and framed alpine-inspired photographs. But, the cabinet unit is like a perfectly packaged gift that neatly unfolds like origami to reveal a studio apartment living space complete with a kitchen, bathroom, shelving, desk area, and Murphy bed.

The atelier-inspired downstairs space holds a private library curated with nearly 2,000 books on music, philosophy, travel, and art. There’s also an office and screening room as well as a kitchen and bedroom, which are used by the family in the summer and visiting artists in the winter. The Allmeinde hosts one exhibition per winter season—all free to the public. Past exhibitions have included British sculptor Antony Gormley, American artist James Turrell, and most recently Italian photographer Walter Niedermayer, whose images brilliantly dissect the landscape of alpine tourism.

An evolution of tradition

While some locals have viewed the Allmeinde as a threat to tradition, Schneider and Polletin see it as an evolution of tradition, bringing a fresh, international aesthetic to local materials and craft. “Just because you live in the mountains, does not mean you have to be cut off from the world,” says Polletin. “The Allmeinde is part of our identity in Lech. It’s important for us to have this outlet. It’s a celebration of the space we live in—manmade and natural.” △

“Just because you live in the mountains, does not mean you have to be cut off from the world.”