What Could Happen

This report from the New Territories’ “What Could Happen” appeared on artforum.com:

Left: An outpost on Bernina Pass. Right: Camille Lacadée and François Roche. (All photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

STEPPING INSIDE the plush lobby of the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina—a mere four miles from Saint Moritz in the Engadin valley—felt like walking into a time warp. The beautifully appointed Kronenhof, overlooking the Roseg Glacier and a pine-clad valley, is what the Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s film may have been like in its glory days. A bottle of champagne was chilling in my room, but alas, there was no time to wallow in the luxury of the place that evening, as the Schwarzenbachs were expecting our party for dinner at Villa Meridiana in Saint Moritz.

Champagne was being served at the preprandial drinks in the Schwarzenbachs’ reception room as we arrived. A Picasso hung salon style beside a Schnabel and a Basquiat. “That’s the largest Basquiat I’ve ever seen,” pronounced Financial Times Chinese correspondent Peifen Sung. Over an exquisite candlelit dinner, our hostess, who adamantly denied being a former Miss Australia (though she certainly looks the part), told us about the billionaire couple’s collections of Dutch masters, aboriginal art, Russian Constructivists—you name it—housed in as many homes, and at the privately owned Garangula Gallery in New South Wales.

This “informal gathering” was meant to introduce us to some of the actors in “What Could Happen,” conceived by the New-Territories’ “anarchitect” François Roche and his partner Camille Lacadée with the artist Pierre Huyghe. The last of these was conspicuous by his absence, and would remain so for the entire run of the performance staged and shot live on a vintage Alpine train over three consecutive days. But Roche and Lacadée were in attendance, as was Michèle Lamy of Owenscorp, who provided the refreshments for the train journey, as well as former Vogue editor Helen White and some of the sponsors, including Polish collector Ania Starak and LUMA Foundation’s Maja Hoffmann. (Once completed, the film will be shown at LUMA Westbau in Zurich.)

The stage was set for the “sparkling decadence of the train” catering to, as Roche put it, the “moneyed gregarious tribes.” We had been consigned to the first carriage, where the film shoot was to take place, and asked to wear dark clothing accordingly. No one told Norman Foster, apparently, who stood out in a white outfit with an off-white pullover; in contrast, Lady Foster sported a black fur hat that more than rose to the occasion. So did Lamy’s sculptural Comme des Garçons coat. A rakish nearly black headscarf with a skull motif completed the ensemble.

Left: LUMA Foundation founder Maja Hoffmann and style editor Gianluca Longo. Right: Norman Foster and Elena Foster.

Death and disease were on the agenda. Prior to boarding the train, we had been briefed by the perpetually grumpy Lacadée not to overact and to stay in character: “You are passengers en route for the sanatorium and your main subject of discussion, your only subject of discussion actually, will be your pathologies.” The sanatorium in question was the one where Thomas Mann penned his 1902 novella Tristan, a prelude to Magic Mountain. (The dates of “What Could Happen” coincided with the tragic denouement of the novella.)

Talk of pathologies kept us going for a while. Giorgio Pace, the event’s producer, looking snug in a wooly turtleneck with a black cape thrown over it, chose to talk about his depression (real or imaginary) just as we were being filmed. Something of an impresario with an extensive carnet d’adresses, he has taken upon himself to turn the Engadin valley into an art destination for the happy few.

Altitude made us giddy. Hunger kept us on edge. (Tucking into our “picnic” bags was not allowed during the filming.) I would occasionally glance over my shoulder to see what the heavily made-up actors in our midst—portraying a domineering mother and her rebellious teenage son—were up to, but the plodding dialogue punctuated by long silences did not hold my attention for long.

More intriguing was the bulbous glass object that the Son held in his hands and fiddled with obsessively. This was Huyghe’s McGuffin, in film noir parlance a term designating a coveted object or some other plot device that motivates the characters and moves the narrative along. This “riddle in glass,” as Roche put it, furnished the Son with an exit strategy, a means of weaning himself in a symbolic rite of passage.

As we reached a small frozen lake, Lago Bianco on the Bernina Pass, surrounded by snowy peaks and glaciers, the train suddenly ground to a halt. A piercing shriek was heard at the front of the train—an impression, no doubt, of the wailing she-devil after whom the Diavolezza mountain rising in front of us is named. Everyone rushed to the windows, through which we could see a path in the snow leading up to a crystalline structure, delicately etched out against the lake’s snowy expanse. Soon a naked man appeared on it and slowly, deliberately made his way toward the cavelike structure, before crawling into it to take his place among the piled-up congealed bodies of which it was constructed.

The transparent dome, gesturing toward the utopian glass and Alpine architecture of Bruno Taut and Paul Scheerbart, was made with a six-axis robot from bioplastic: starch, corn, wheat, and the like. “It’s coming from agriculture,” Roche explained to us as we huddled together drinking Glühwein outside a Rhaetian railway outpost and trying to shake off the morbid vision.

Left: Francesca Schwarzenbach and fashion editor Helen White. Right: Owencorp’s Michele Lamy; Frith Kerr of Studio Frith, and curator and producer Giorgio Pace.

“I think it’s fascinating. I’m only starting to understand it,” Foster said, speaking for many, once we resumed our seats in the carriage for the return journey. It takes an architect, perhaps, to fully appreciate the fine features of design, the attention to detail, the sense of proportion, how the color of the outside echoed the wooden fittings inside the recommissioned Swiss train made in 1910. We came away fully convinced of its being a design marvel.

Those same qualities were everywhere in evidence at Chesa Futura, the Fosters’ Saint Moritz pied-à-terre, where we reconvened for drinks and canapés later that evening. The bubble-like, timber-clad building designed by Foster + Partners, naturally, does away with corners. Half of it is owned by Urs Schwarzenbach, who had hosted the dinner party on the previous night. The Fosters awaited us in the penthouse with its sinuous furniture and sweeping views of the town. Norman Foster had changed to a black outfit—too late for the shoot. There was more champagne on offer, along with an assortment of pinchos (Elena Foster hails from Madrid).

We happily mingled for an hour or two, in much the same rarefied company as the night before, with maybe one exception. At one point a softly spoken graying man, who looked strangely familiar, introduced himself to me. It was Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former president of Poland. Ah, the Elysian Fields of Saint Moritz.

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