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Il Forte di Fortezza by Markus Scherer and Walter Dietl, Fortezza, Italy

Markus Scherer and Walter Dietl’s tactful restoration of a sprawling Habsburg fort. Photography by René Riller

‘Begun under Francis I in the year 1833; completed by Ferdinand I in the year 1838’ reads the Latin inscription over the gate of a monumental fortress that dominates the village of Fortezza (originally called Franzensfeste) in Alpine northern Italy, near the border with Austria. Strategically positioned to oversee the entrance to the Eisack Valley, this brooding redoubt was constructed by the Habsburgs to protect their empire from growing anti-imperialist fervour fomented by the French revolution.

In just five years, 6,000 workers and soldiers constructed the complex under the direction of regimental engineer Franz von Scholl. Resembling a small town, it consists of three separate fortified enclaves hugging the contours of the hillside site. Executed in a functional yet heroic stripped classical language, it was built to last, an impregnable bastion of imperial power.

Despite the Habsburgs’ impressive mobilisation of men and resources, the revolutionary threat failed to materialise. The fortress soon became redundant, ‘built for an enemy who never came,’ according to local historian Josef Rohrer. By the end of the 19th century this supreme manifestation of military and imperial hubris was serving as a humble powder depot. In 1918 Franzensfeste came under Italian rule and became Fortezza (though German is still widely spoken in the region) and the complex was used by the Italian army until 2003.

Relinquished by the military and acquired by the province of South Tyrol, it now has a new incarnation as a historic monument and place of cultural exchange. In 2008 it was one of the four venues for Manifesta 7, the European biennale of contemporary art, and in 2009 it hosted the Landesausstellung, a regional arts festival. With its massive walls and labyrinthine underground passages, the fortress provided an apt backdrop to the festival’s theme of freedom, set against the historically defensive culture of the Tyrol.

Local architects Markus Scherer and Walter Dietl were commissioned to restore the structure so it could cope with the new demands of exhibitions and tourism. Preserving the existing buildings while also emphasising the distinctive character of the architecture was key to Scherer and Dietl’s brief. The thick granite walls were restored, roofs waterproofed and windows repaired. Walled-off spaces were opened up and unsympathetic later additions removed.

Throughout, the process has been a tactful cleaning up and drilling down to the raw form and structure of the fort, which itself acts as a cue for the new interventions.

From the entrance courtyard behind the main gate, the extent of the complex is not immediately obvious. Minimally articulated stone structures that once housed barracks, stables and stores now accommodate a visitor centre, bar, restaurant, children’s play area and an exhibition space spread over an enfilade of rooms. Carefully restored vaults of exposed brickwork and plastered walls, some embellished with murals, convey a powerful sense of the past. A 22m-deep vertical shaft was driven through the rock to connect the lower fortress with a subterranean cavern. A dark concrete staircase with a golden handrail spirals up through the shaft, terminating in a partially destroyed powder magazine, which was restored and reconfigured as a new circulation pavilion.

New parts have the same tough, stripped-down spirit as the original architecture.

Thick concrete blocks are used to form simple buildings and enclosures. Between the blocks, layers of sand were flushed out to produce an irregular horizontal joint pattern and the surface of the concrete was roughened by sandblasting with fine granite particles to match the colour of the existing stone. The weatherbeaten effect mimics the passage of time, so the new interventions have the feel of a modern ruin.

The most dramatic new addition is a double deck arrangement of dog-leg shaped catwalks that swing out precipitously over a lake at the lowest level to connect the exhibition spaces and complete the visitor circuit. Like the new doors, grilles and handrails, the bridges are made of galvanised steel coated with a rough black patina. Thin and sharp like a blade, the dark steel crisply counterpoints the massive stone walls. This intelligently judged reciprocity between architectures, eras and functions is emblematic of the surprising rebirth of an extraordinary piece of 19th-century military history.

Architect Markus Scherer, Meran, Italy; Walter Dietl, Schlanders, Italy
Project team Heike Kirnbauer, Elena Mezzanotte
Structural engineer Baubüro-Klaus Plattner
Services engineer Planconsulting

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