Architecture of the Alps

Many of you would remember the book Bunker Archeology by Paul Virilio, out of print for a long time, first published in 1975. To me it was a revelation that architecture can be found in unlikely combinations of mass and bulk in places they shouldn’t be.

I thought of this book when in Italy during July this year I visited the fortes defending the Valley Roya, a key pass through the Maritime Alps from France to Italy in the corner of Piemonte.

Built in the 19th century, but once finished hardly used, this chain of six fortes span altitudes from 1850 to 2250 m above sea level and a walking distance of around 6 hours: Forte Colle Alto , Margheria, Taborda, Pernante, Giaura (the highest) and Pepino. These Alps are relatively mild. Roman, Salt, mule and military paths criss cross all through this area.

Photo: Louise Wright

Forte Giaura

There is the same image of Forte Giaura in many hiking guides of this area and that picture has been a consistent reference for our office. It is the most buried of the fortes with a pentagonal plan it is emdedded into the hilltop and has a grassed roof that completes the hill.

Visiting these fortes revealed the hand of a careful thinker. The appeal to me is the undeniable mass yet lightness at the same time – being there yet not there –  the architectural reality of trying to look like a mountain. They are all different in form and arrangement depending on aspect, most have a mote, allowing a more domestic façade to be lower down facing onto the mote. The effect of the mote and grassed roof means that depending on the vantage point it seems just a grassy hill, I imagine the mote was as much about a sheltered and screened place to carry out activities as it was a defensive system.

Forte Giaura Photo: Louise Wright

Forte Giaura
Photo: Louise Wright

They are and feel abandoned. Nettle invades the interiors, walls are crumbling. In a way this is something I appreciate about Italian archaeology, or perhaps more about how Italians treat their archaeology. You can walk up to them, there are no signs, education boards, boardwalks, seats, bins, railing or toilets.

The concealed facades are beautifully domestic with elements of human scale: windows, a formal entry, doorways, small aqueduct systems. To the hiker, it still offers protection from the wind.

Louise Wright is director of  Baracco+Wright Architects