Required Resilience

Post de: Cosmin Caciuc

Thirty years after Luigi Snozzi’s interventions in Monte Carasso, a small municipality in Ticino, Switzerland, these continue to testify to the relevance of his compromise-free, contextual and sustainable critical regionalism.

Monte Carasso, Luigi Snozzi’s life-long work, marks a lasting contribution to European architecture, one which goes beyond a successful if lengthy (over two-decades long) urban planning process which caught the attention of professional architectural journals in the 1980s. The small municipality in southern Switzerland counting about 2,500 inhabitants would hardly be noticeable were it not for the attention of many a respectable architectural publications which turned it into a manifesto of critical awareness, a genuine model that stands up against all huge post-war urban interventions, ranging from Brasilia, the utopian city, to the arrogant Parisian district of La Defence. Though indisputably a living chapter in the history of contemporary architecture, closely intertwined with the destiny of the Ticino School and a particular moment in the European public debate on cities and architecture, Monte Carasso is still insufficiently known, a model hardly enough publicized. 

The Ticino School and the continuation of a professional model

In the 1970s the Ticino School grouped a series of major Swiss aarchitects along Luigi Snozzi: Aurelio Galfetti, Livio Vacchini, Tita Carloni, and Mario Botta all shared the guiding principles of Italian urban planning theory as promoted mainly through the writings of Aldo Rossi and Vittorio Gregotti. Reacting against the functionalist ideology of city planning, its members went against the prevailing aestheticizing trend and approached the essential significant urban form, searching for the stylistic rigorousness of images inspired by both historical and modern typologies that could be understood on a collective level that transcends historical periods. Their approach relied primarily on a thorough multi-layered knowledge and interpretation of the character of the construction site which further shaped the local contextualizing process; this was doubled by their highly ethical responsibility with regard to the built environment and its historical legacy. Respect for the social value of architecture and its implication in public affairs projects (a subject often passionately debated) went hand in hand with a deep understanding of architecture as a means to investigate and change reality. Unlike Mario Botta (whom he greatly admired and with whom he collaborated) Luigi Snozzi aimed at a critical modernity, capable of answering the idea of historical continuity without recourse to the post-modern idiom. Snozzi inspired a whole new generation who continued the late modernist tradition and came to international prominence: Raffaele Cavadini, Livio Guidotti, Michele Arnaboldi, and Roberto Briccola are but some of the names in a long series of professionals who work discreetly and with great commitment in the name of a robust set of principles that successfully withstood the test of time. Projects which took the fabric of the city as their starting point, where urban “void” space acts as the main element that generates significance (on condition its spatial limits are clearly delineated) had a profound influence on the professional community, one that reached well beyond the district’s boundaries. Roger Diener is one of the most important Swiss architects from outside the province of Ticino to have gained international recognition by refining a concept like that of “houses for the city”. This implies that form gains significance only within its urban context, by articulating fundamental relationships and an austere outlook rather than historicizing details. 

The Monte Carasso master plan (1977–1979, 1990) 

The issues Monte Carasso was facing in the 1970s were typical of many similar small European towns: loss of traditional identity, rural exodus, and uncontrolled interventions in the fabric of the settlement.Commissioned to draw a master plan, Snozzi clarified priority areas of intervention in devising the centre-periphery relationship, avoiding the laissez-faire attitude and setting a limit of 4,000 inhabitants maximum. Debates involving local administration and the people lasted for fifteen years and articulated the requirements of the population with regard to hosting public facilities in the town’s historical centre by rehabilitating and aggrandizing the Renaissance Convent of St. Augustus (fallen into disrepair in 1977 and facing demolition). The linking element in this intervention was a new ring road which encircled the area dominated by the monastery and the church; in the long run this was seen as a means of lending order to the space and enhancing the volume of the church ensemble. The ring road was to be defined both by the public buildings that bordered it and by the green space provided by a newly planted park that doubled it. The graveyard on the plateau south of the church, previously threatened by relocation, was to be preserved and enlarged while a sports hall and a playground were to be built in its vicinity. The new regulations banned all withdrawal from street alignment in an attempt to accurately define the built perimeter for public space (the urban “void” represented by streets and squares). A higher density of the urban fabric and an increase in height to three- and fourstorey buildings also aimed at supporting an improved spatial reading of the area. The new regulation also replaced functional arguments with criteria for typological, morphological and syntax evaluation while openly rejecting the stylistic pastiche of so-called traditional architecture. The most spectacular and innovative element of the regulation consisted in giving “architectural quality” paramount importance, in so much as to allow the rephrasing or even invalidation of any of its stipulations would the submitted project be “better” than the regulation itself. This was exactly the case with Snozzi’s buildings. A new master plan became necessary in 1990 to include the surroundings and regulate interventions outside the town’s historical centre. 

The Sports Hall (1982–1984) 

As of 1977 the plateau adjacent to the church was reserved for a new sports hall; this was built in parallel to the aggrandizement of the convent complex and the reorganization of the bordering graveyard (1983, 1990). Both the graveyard (which Snozzi refused to relocate on the outskirts of the town) and the sports hall with its adjacent playgrounds are part of an integrated urban ensemble, which despite stark functional contrasts does not exclude the idea of a significant urban unit. The lockers building is visually separated from the main hall and defines the entrance into the ensemble through a pergola that protects a space for occasional spectators while clearly delineating the N-W limit. The half-sunken hall is connected to the lockers by an underground passage; it emerges discreetly from the ground so as not to disturb the existing scale generated by the surrounding buildings while also rotating so as to form an angle with the urban grid and thereby state its presence as an autonomous object. A series of slits span the length of the building opening it to natural light; they form a continuous plinth that surrounds the prism built of exposed concrete and tectonically articulate the building and the ground while the relationship with the sky is established through the vertical presence of slanting skylights. The black ceiling of the hall seems to levitate over the lower half of the space which is flooded with light through reflections on the vertical white walls and the light-blue floor. Structural details that articulate the vertical walls such as the emerging posts with their rounded upper part motivate the reversed relation between light, colour and the gauge of the volume, thereby confirming the exceptional quality of this space, which gracefully transcends its functionality. 

The restructuring and conversion of the convent into a primary school (1979, 1987–1993, 2009) 
By 1977 only the church and the 16th century courtyard of the medieval Augustan convent were still in place, all other buildings having been unfortunately demolished in 1965. Snozzi insisted that whatever was in situ be preserved and brought back to light (such as the clerestory that had been closed off by masonry in the 19th century) and used intelligently. Thus the upper storey fulfills the functional programme of a primary school, with classrooms that reflect current standards, whereas the ground floor houses a mix of public activities – an exhibition area and a cafeteria directly related to the courtyard. The project aimed at the revitalization of an old structure respectful of local history yet mindful of present needs and using a modern architectural language. Carefully avoiding a nostalgic conventional restoration as much a pious reconstruction of the original, Snozzi had to face the opposition of the Historical Monuments Commission in Ticino for years. Support from the Federal Commission helped move forward the project that envisaged the removal of the second floor (already altered by parasite interventions) further replaced by a new structure fit for modern class rooms. Longitudinal walls that define the main hallway (the courtyard facade and the inner middle wall) were preserved. Although the double- height rooms in the N-E wing were first imagined like metal containers resting on the ground floor, the more realist solution of a terrace roof over the hallway was finally adopted, whereas class rooms were covered by a flat roof comprising a series of five large skylights, partly in the shape of a quart circle arc that corresponds to the ground floor vaults. In 2009 Snozzi added a new graceful extension on the S-E wing; his task was all the more difficult as it doubled the existing church facade, being built on top of recent archaeological excavations. The volume contains two more class rooms accessible from the main hallway on the first floor from the sloping downwards, its angle reversing that of the N-E wing. The skylight roof identically reproduces the quart circle section; however in this case its form permits the access of light in the narrow articulation space between the church facade and the new building, towards the open ground floor area where archaeological fragments are displayed. Supported exclusively by the end diaphragms like a bridge, the oblong exposed concrete volume looks as if suspended over the ground, barely touching the vertical or horizontal surfaces in its proximity. 

Towards a critical modernity 

Monte Carasso were not possible had it not been for a “dialogue of forms” doubled by a genuine inter-subjective dialogue based on the capacity to synthesize apparently full-proof arguments. Luigi Snozziexcels in persistently addressing fundamental questions, searching for concrete answers and a “project idea” embodied through the most modest possible means of expression. Escaping Aldo Rossi’smetaphysical tension and the attraction for grand solutions typical of Vittorio Gregotti’s present work, the Swiss master remains an energetic school inceptor, an illustrious representative of critical regionalism of remarkable modesty and unfaltering enthusiasm, to whom the demarcation line between urban planning and architecture is irrelevant. Within a broader theoretical and philosophical context Snozzi’s reasoning always returns to the intellectual project of critical modernity, in an attempt to mediate between collective and individual conflicting aspects. The so-called weak rationality characteristic of his revisionist urban planning regulations is intertwined with the hard rigour of his architectural projects (defined by discreet if lesscelebrated detailing), accurate analysis and pertinent interpretations that cut across stringent social, political and philosophical issues typical of the modern human condition.

Photo: Serge Demailly