83. ALPINE FOOTHILLS HOUSE

Borgiallo

Borgiallo is a municipality that has just 591 inhabitants: a population which, put together, would only occupy three or four floors of the Unité d'Habitation designed by the Swiss- French architect and town planner Le Corbusier, i.e. not even a quarter of the floor area of a building which, according to Le Corbusier himself, was intended to be characteristic of a contemporary city. Although Borgiallo has never been a very populated place it lost its inhabitants gradually, like most of the small municipalities dotted across the map of Italy. In 1861 there were 1,532 people; in the early twentieth century there were 1,080; and by 1939 there were 860. Moreover like most of these small Italian villages it has no particularly significant monumental buildings that would make it worth a visit. But in its architectural balance and its particular relationship with the surrounding landscape, it is in itself a delicate work of art, although it is also the witness to a dilemma: on the one hand a village like this must not be meddled with, on pain of losing its high environmental value and yet, on the other hand it cannot just be preserved as it is, on pain of being reduced to an empty shell, a mere container not enlivened by everyday life and activities.

So far as its built form is concerned, the locality of Borgiallo is characterised by a particular building typology that consists of individual dwellings placed next to one another, making a continuous curtain of built fabric that follows the contours of the land. This generates irregular compositions which are at the same time compact enough to be able to interact gracefully with the surrounding landscape. This unity of the whole is also ensured by the use of a shared architectural language: all the buildings are of small size with pitched roofs and in particular, all of their facades punctuated by white columns. Although these columns are slightly different one from another, their appearance is uniform and their effect is particularly pleasing. Precisely because these white columns ensure that there is an order to their variety of architectural themes, they are a listed feature and new buildings are required to take this into account.

 

The new house in Borgiallo by deamicisarchitetti had to measure up to these problems by seeking the optimal way of balancing the requirements of this complex environmental and architectural context with the desire not to fall into the twin traps of reproduction or straight vernacular.

An operation made all the more complex by the particular location of the existing row of buildings into which it was to be inserted. This is on the edge of the village, in a watershed area between the woods to the north and the meadows and vegetable gardens to the south: a double outlook which meant that each elevation had to be treated differently not only to make the most of the views, but also in order to find the most appropriate geometries and materials.

Hence the choice of split stone for the north-facing pitch of the roof and ordinary tiles for the south-facing pitch, with stone cladding for the north elevation, to make it more weather-resistant, and plaster on the south elevation. But above all, these decisions were imposed by the need for an architectural link between the newly inserted building and the rest of the group, which gets its character from the white columns. 

As with all good architecture, every functional decision consists of more than merely responding to some elementary practical requirement. To anyone looking at the new building it is clear that the goal was to create a physical object with a strong aesthetic value that would not only link it to the local history and context but also to the contemporary. To achieve this, the house makes the most of being an insert that is both continuous and discontinuous: an added piece which in one sense is solid but, at the same time, is sufficiently transparent to resemble a void. Indeed the elevation is not so much punctuated by windows, as slashed through by glazed openings that break it down into strips. “The subversive gesture" says Giacomo De Amicis "consists of interrupting the continuous row of houses by forming an inhabited opening that reveals the magnificent chestnut forest at the back, which was hidden before, and shaping a new type of interior space for the house that extends its confines and the ways in which it can be used".

Compared to the houses on either side, this offers a new way of relating to the space, beginning from the care with which the views out have been selected so that there is an enjoyable outlook from each room. The vertical arrangement, which is identical in the interiors and on the exteriors, is designed in such a way as to create full-height openings that succeed in extending the sense of space of what is a fairly small volume.

To return to the materials: luserna stone, terracotta, larchwood, coloured concrete, and plaster. In other words, the typical materials of the place. But the shapes and modes are original. They respond to an ideal of austerity and simplicity that does not neglect a certain aesthetic taste of sustainability that tries to avoid the arbitrary, the useless, or the almost-Baroque gesture. So this is sustainability that is not only about performance; above all, it's about the language. And the language, I think, is a characterising note not only of this house but, to some extent, the whole output of deamicisarchitetti Indeed, one of the keywords that describe this practice is "luxury". But a luxury that is found in the care taken with the solutions and the choice of details. In fact, this house halfway up a mountainside is best appreciated at its junctions: the points at which the different materials come to meet each other; in the always sophisticated design of thresholds, railings, and handrails; and the connections between the horizontal and vertical planes. This is a house that recalls the Italian tradition of the 1950s and 1960s. It makes one think of Franco Albini and the other architects of those years, who designed homes with so much care: apparently simple and at the same time refined, always dense with a sense of domesticity that prevented them from being transformed into abstract objects, geometric theorems without life. The contemporary style of deamicisarchitetti should not be misunderstood as trendiness, an instant response to whatever is fashionable at the moment. Architects always keep one step behind: that step that allows them to look at the world of architecture with a quiet sense of confidence, while avoiding to make decisions on the spur of the moment, which might be more intense and equally interesting, but would run the risk of burning out more quickly. In that sense this project represents an excellent model of a possible strategy for upgrading our historic villages. It steers clear of extreme attitudes that might arouse the aversion of critical voices upholding more traditionalist positions, and maintains a dialogue with the contemporary whilst in keeping with history. For these reasons of method I believe that the decision to include this project in the Italian Pavilion at the  Venice Biennale 2018, focused on the upgrading of internal places in Italy, was both fertile and appropriate.

Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi

 

Photography

Alberto strada, Luigi Bartoli, Gabriele Leo