landscape design, bergamo

Designing with Bergamo's 'wild' genius loci

When shaping public space, a knowledgeable landscape architect will not ignore this tenet of the process: that good design begins with understanding the place the site is located in. Consulting a place's genius loci - its intrinsic character, its physicality, nature, and wholeness - helps guide place-based design. Even more, a multi-disciplinary approach illuminates more of that site's complexities. To explore this paradigm first-hand, the Centro Internazionale's 2015 Summer School met in Bergamo, Italy during the International Meeting of the Landscape and Garden event this past September. As architects, artists, landscape designers, agronomists, botanists and gardeners, we set out to connect with this tangible and sensory element as we navigated Bergamo's Citta Alta (Upper City) and its surrounding landscape. Led by the expertise of  Landworks Sardinia's Annacaterina Piras and Stefan Tischer, we worked to uncover and visualize 'wild landscape', the overarching theme for 2016. Our focus was direct but complex: creating an interface for the wild landscape and users in urban space.

The site: the Upper City

Bergamo’s central urban core is divided into two parts. Citta Alta sits high up and functions as a walled yet airy urban epicenter. 16th century Venetian walls erected with skillful masonry fortify the internal organs of Citta Alta, separating it from the lower city, Citta Bassa, and the surrounding suburbia. Winding cobblestone streets mimic arteries for passage and movement; they lead into monasteries, museums, churches, eateries and storefronts with upper living quarters. The city itself teems with histories of Celtic settlement, Gothic wars and Roman occupation, of Bartolomeo Colleoni, centuries old art, Baroque architecture and local gastronomy. Its two prominent piazzas serve as the door to the city, Piazza Mascheroni, and the heart of its activity, Piazza Vecchia. Civic life opens up these specific sites to engage residents and visitors. Consequently, these piazzas were the canvases for our ideas, a dynamic social meeting space, to introduce a tactile concept of human interaction with wilderness through design.

The environment: Wild life

Stepping foot onto the northern Italian region, it becomes clear the regard for the land itself. And it is deeply rooted. Away from urban life, we encountered the cultivated landscape, replete with vineyards, patched with terrace agriculture and partitions of the terrain cleared on mountaintops where sheep grazed. Still further, beneath the human-altered beauty of the scenery is a layer of wilderness reinforced by humid temperate continental climates of the Lombardy region in which Bergamo is situated. Its naturally steep and winding topography open up into plains, surrounded by bodies of water, glacial inclines and mountains. Specifically, the Orobie Alps that border Switzerland make way for pastoral stretches of shallow rivers and rolling hills.

The first wild destination point we reached was the Serio River. Starting from Mount Torena, the 124 kilometer river serves as a tributary of the Adda River along with the Brembo River. And within the vast boundaries of the region's wilderness we reached deep and lush 'primeval' forested areas of Alanzo Lombardio, blanketed with indigenous trees of Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), Ash (Fraxinus ornus), European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa). The wilderness and particularly the forest in medieval times - reminiscent of widely-held views illustrated in Dante Aligheri's Divine Comedy (Dantes Inferno) - was perceived to be foreboding. In many historical Western contexts, it is usually a frontier to tame. But its uninhabited rawness exposed these rooms in the natural landscape to be the lungs of the planet. Forests are also homes for the insects and microscopic living organisms that play a vital role in pollinating the plants that produce the fruits we buy at markets year-round. 

Human culture of Citta Alta

"How do you create a public space for people that resonates with them?" Renowned landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson once asked this question to her audience as she spelled out genius loci's three roots of existence: the site, the environment and the human culture. She emphasized that the project should look, act and feel like the place where it is built. That essentially, a place fits. If we pay attention to this question during the design process, then the quintessential role of a landscape architect remains pivotal in helping reconcile the relationship between people and nature in urban spaces. The process and the work of the practice continues to behave like an intercession between life and land, making the connections between human life and physical landscape tactile and firm. As times change, our understanding of wilderness and the living, breathing systems within it can begin to morph into an awareness of it, a renewed appreciation for it, and concern about its prolongation.

With our unique ideas in mind, the opportunity was presented in Bergamo to reintroduce the wilderness into urban space through artistic, place-based design. We considered different components to help shape that - an encouragement of both the intellectualization of sustainable ecosystems and a child-like curiosity of landscapes, unaware of danger and a willingness to learn, to be adventurous and to allow ourselves to be amazed. If the heart of Citta Alta is Piazza Vecchia, then its lungs are the wild features that envelope its medieval walls, the source of its identity and its existence. Not limited to Bergamo’s Citta Alta, understanding the genius loci, the intrinsic character of the land in any place, helps guide landscape design for its most meaningful and functional present use, to challenge our formal perceptions of what a place is, what we want a place to be, and seek to understand the opportunities and limits it presents. With that knowledge we then can venture into more sustainable ideas for future interventions in the land, along with skillful efforts towards protecting it and preserving its wholeness, its nature and spirit. 

The 2015 Summer School's designs will be installed in 2016. Looking forward & so many of my thanks go to Arketipos Cultural AssociationDott. Ric. Elisabetta BianchessiLorenzo Rebediani, Stefan Tischer, Annacaterina Piras, Laura Bani, Natia Kapanadze, Aleksi Solomnishvili, Andrea Verginella, and the entire group of participants for making the Summer School an incredible adventure. Grazie mille.