It’s Kind of a Circular Story: Recovering an ex-NATO base, dealing with Memory and decarbonization at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Being sustainable and decarbonizing must start from giving new life to what is already there.
AMAA, Collaborative Architecture Office For Research And Development, is an architecture duo based in Venice by Marcello Galiotto and Alessandra Rampazzo. On the occasion of the 18th Architecture Biennale, AMAA is part of the “dangerous liaison” exhibition in Arsenale, with a project titled “It’s Kind of a Circular Story”. The work analyses the reuse of the ex-NATO base of Monte Calvarina, overlooking the valleys of Vicenza and Verona, active from 1959 to 1995. Thanks to Fondazione SAFE (Security and Freedom for Europe), the base will be recovered and see a new beginning and serve a new purpose. Ultimately, it will result in a hub to organise training and simulations for emergency response and testing of innovative technologies.
At a time like this, when warfare infrastructure has once again sadly become a common topic of discussion, the project can also stand as an opportunity to think about what happens to the gigantic structures that war implies building, and that are often left on their own once they are no longer needed – to a slow, impactful, and harmful decay. This is exactly what the Architecture Biennale should be about: providing occasions for a meaningful discussion about what the industry can do to tackle the biggest issues of our times.
For AMAA, who were engaged for recovering the site and redesigning the new spaces, this is a perfect chance to bring up the issues of decarbonization, sustainability and circularity, showing to the larger public how they address them. We spoke to the duo at the Biennale: they told us about their approach and how the Monte Calvarina NATO base project is developing.
How did the project start? And what stage is it at?
AMAA: We were contacted by the SAFE foundation last year. They called us to develop the project of the military base recovery. As for the most technical aspects, the owner of the area is the Roncà municipality, and it is handled by SAFE foundation through a mutual agreement. The project was approved both in terms of landscaping and by the local superintendence. With these approvals, SAFE has now started the fundraising activities to start with the first site. It is extremely large in scope, but the first bit will be the vaulted space that is at the heart of the repurposing. For us, it is about recovering structural, less comfortable elements that nonetheless represent a resource.
How is the work represented here at the Biennale? What do the visitors see and how is it connected?
AMAA: What you see here is the “dangerous liaison” area, investigating the dangerous relationships among different arts and crafts. This is also a workshop area, which invites you to showcase your work, but also your thought process, the study and the site. We tried to interpret these themes and bring to the table all the matters that we feel are important in architecture.
The first element is indeed, and quite literally, a table. It is made of 3-mm thick laser-cut sheets of brass. It was all waste production material from a local business, archived for many months. We then made the composition by instinct. The sheets are also themselves the supporting structure and, assembled, they become this sort of light machine that generates forms and shadows on the floor. We used carpentry stands as supports, making it look like a worktable. The ensemble then becomes a map as well. One of the biggest themes of our work was using this place for asking questions rather than to give definite answers – asking questions to ourselves, but also to visitors.
The starting point is the abandoned NATO base on the Monte Calvarina, which we represent in a section titled “on topography”: the subject is indeed a different topography, new and imagined. Since the base had an artificial topography for defense reasons, we continue the orography of the base with this artificial topography, generated by the recovery of the land from the TAV (high speed) construction site. This way, the visitor who hasn’t had the chance to actually go on the site – an amazing 650m high hill, from which you can see Venice – can reappropriate it.
A lamp, designed by Harry Thaler, illuminates a book, edited especially for the Venice Biennale, illustrating the whole project – telling the story of the place, showing drawings. We are also showcasing some photographs by Ernesta Caviola, who works with large-format analog photography. With her, we retraced the whole path from the lowland up to the hill. The photos were then printed by Luigi Ghirri’s printer in Modena.
Finally, there’s a 2.5 tonne wall hanging from the ceiling, in the middle of the room, hooked on a beam. It’s a shifting situation, even physically, because we do not know yet what role it is going to have. Inside a hole in the wall, you can see a short video, showing the entire journey from the site to here.
The fundamental idea is giving back to the visitor a place that was lost, while at the same time decarbonizing. We do not decarbonize by using technology. We do it by reviving and recovering things and buildings and trying to achieve the circularity of elements. Here, the circularity is represented by a sculpture by Alessandro Neretti. We asked him to reinterpret the gallery that you can see inside the project section in a 1:5 scale.
The title is “It’s Kind of a Circular Story”. How do you interpret circularity?
AMAA: Circularity was our very first answer to the call of the curator when it came to the theme of decarbonization. For us, sustainability does not mean using the latest technological achievement or the most high-tech new tool – we believe that recovering places, recovering territories, elements, and buildings, must be the answer to reduce the waste of resources. Circularity also means maintaining a connection with history and memory.
This is the case, for example, with SAFE foundation and this project. The foundation does research and training for operators in war, security, or defense contexts, for instance by they train journalists. This represents a point of contact with the original purpose of the building, closing the circle. Even though, in this case, there is no military influx.
When it comes to recovering and repurposing in architecture, it must not just be about recovering elements that are socially recognized for their historical importance or memory, like old city centres, with aesthetic importance – and this project is a perfect case of transformation. In the first years of our practice, after studying in Venice, we focused mainly on the old town, but then we opened up to suburbs, with the same sensitivity and awareness. All of the Po Valley is full of opportunities – even old industrial buildings have characteristics that deserve to be preserved, as they are part of the memory of the place. They are there to explain why and how places are structured as they are. In the evolution and reuse of these elements it is important to consider memory as an element. History is important and it is circular as well. Even in terms of the military, this is not the only base that should be recovered – there are others in the territory. The region is filled with defense bases built during the Cold War for security purposes in the territory.