The project by studio Carlana Mezzalira Pentimalli tells the story of the relationship between architecture and context. A public place inspired by the urban fabric of a city in which the new feeds the old and vice versa, restoring an architecture capable of connecting historic and contemporary buildings

With increasing frequency, cities are the object, through urban renewal projects, of the re-organisation of entire lots, districts or portions thereof in function of a new use of places and buildings that in the past had other uses. The more the weight of history weighs on these pre-existences, the more the interventions are conditioned by them (especially in historical centres) and, consequently, the greater is the designer's dilemma between a conservative or transformative approach. In these cases, the relationship between contemporary architecture and pre-existences cannot be separated from a series of considerations: continuity or discontinuity, scale or off-scale interventions, respect or disrespect for the context and genius loci, pros and cons in terms of the cost of the intervention, waste of land, and so on. Fortunately, there is the possibility of transformation as an opportunity to renew and regenerate buildings, spaces and places of the past in favour of the changing needs of the city and those who live in it and, at the same time, as an attempt to enhance the characteristics of the historical context and contemporary architecture in a dialectical relationship between old and new.

Urban living room

This was the path taken by the Carlana Mezzalira Pentimalli architectural studio that completed the new Bressanone Civic Library near the cathedral, in the heart of the old town, a point of reference for the entire Valle Isarco with its collection of over 36 thousand books. It is a contemporary space for learning and sharing, an urban living room that reinforces the cultural identity of the place and conveys a strong sense of social cohesion: "It is not a library to be understood exclusively as a large container of books. It is a work firmly rooted in its context, conceived to welcome and generate human relations, exchanges, intertwining of different cultures, practices and ages," say architects Michel Carlana, Luca Mezzalira and Curzio Pentimalli.

A 'tree of culture'

The project consists of the realisation of a unitary complex comprising a new building with the recovery and annexation of the currently existing buildings of the former Finance House, a portion of the former Court House and the former Prison (where a passage gallery and an accessory room have been created). Completing the intervention is the redefinition of the existing outdoor spaces, two pedestrian access areas and the garden that was once private and owned by the bishop's curia. Inserting itself discreetly and respectfully into the context, the intervention fits into the gap between two existing buildings, where, before the demolition, there was a building belonging to the diocese. "A true connecting infrastructure, the new building acts structurally like a tree that rests its concrete branches on the adjacent buildings, establishing an indissoluble relationship between new and old. Hence, the name with which we renamed the project: Kulturbaum (culture tree)", the designers explain. The analogy with the tree continues at the planimetric level: in plan, the building presents a double perimeter shell between the external concrete walls and the wooden boiserie covering the interiors. A sort of bark that envelops the space, freeing it from functional obligations. This is where most of the service spaces have been allocated: from the vertical distribution to the toilets, to the furniture with bookcases, fixed benches and tables.

Living organism

The connections between the new building and its pre-existence are physical, formal, functional and distributive. The new building reveals itself as the result of a mass that deforms through contractions and dilations to recompose itself adapting to the context, changing like a living organism that adapts to the needs of site and project. The new branches compensate for the slight height differences between the three buildings by means of slight inclines. The closed fire escape, in addition to serving all floors of the courthouse as an emergency exit, is a staircase that connects the ground floor with the attic of the new building. The open staircase, on the other hand, allows connections between floors, allowing those who walk along it to discover particular glimpses of the new space.

Between new and old, on three levels

Access to the new building is on the ground floor, which houses the newspaper and periodical library, information library, reception, loan/loan access and cloakroom (the latter in the recovered spaces of the former Finance Court), while the former Court premises house a series of service areas: automated storage, automated loan control area with external counter, toilets and technical rooms. On the first floor, the narrative area has been designed as an open space that leads, through a second reception area, to the rooms created in the former courthouse (the children's and youth spaces, the music department with the archive, the toy library and a multi-purpose room) and former Finance (operational offices, while the second and third floors provide spaces for non-fiction/fiction and a multi-purpose room) or to the upper floors via stairs and a lift. The second level is mainly occupied by the non-fiction/treatment area, while on the third floor, another reception area serves as a junction between the multipurpose room and the literary events area. Toilets, cleaning rooms, storage rooms and information desks are evenly distributed over the various levels.

Light, light, light

Special attention is paid to natural lighting, which is essential not only for reading but also for the preservation and conservation of books. The south wall of the building (lacking interesting views) is blind to prevent direct light from entering, and equipped on the inside with a bookcase occupying the entire height of the building, a continuous boiserie "manifesto" of the library as a treasure chest of knowledge. The traditional bow windows (erker in German) that characterise the historic centre have been reinterpreted in a contemporary key. Two of them, on a giant scale, privilege strategic views of Brixen: the White Tower and the cathedral bell tower on one side, the Bishop's Palace on the other. Formally, the two bow windows on the outside represent an extension of the building's volumetry, on the inside they recreate the spatiality typical of Nordic culture, forming alcoves from which a view of the panorama is possible. These large windows, the boundary between inside and outside, are designed to encourage indirect radiation in the most frequented areas. Finally, two large skylights allow the sun's rays to cross the entire building in height and reach as far as the ground floor, thanks to a system of retracting ceilings.

Photos: ©Marco Cappelletti