Architecture with a high average—
A book and catalog guides us through a complex region boasting recent architecture of surprisingly high quality. What are the secrets of this South Tyrolean laboratory?. A book
review by Guido Musante

Neue Architektur in Südtirol, Architetture recenti in Alto Adige, New Architecture in South Tirol 2006-2012 , Springer, Wien-New York, 2012, 336 pp. (47,23 €) 

The complex and virtuoso laboratory of South Tyrolean architecture is examined in a large book and catalog written by Flavio Albanese and published by Springer. The factors that help distinguish South Tyrolean architecture for its high average quality — incomparable to that of the stagnant Italian context and with few equals even on the international level — are explained through the analysis and comparison of 36 sample projects, selected out of a total of over 280 by an international jury. The results of the selection were presented first in an exhibit included in the Merano Arte 2012 calendar (Merano, February 11 — May 6) and later in the volume Neue Architektur in Südtirol, Architetture recenti in Alto Adige, New Architecture in South Tirol 2006-2012. The triple title expresses the region's geopolitical and cultural complexity but also an ambition to translate and disseminate the case histories of its contemporary architecture to a vast public lying beyond the mountains. It is no coincidence that the exhibit content was published digitally with a special project curated by programmer Paolo Mennea along with the Berlin graphic design office Onlab, also designer of the book's refined graphics. Onlab's fine work is shown in the evocative and attentive use of numbers, already apparent in the dates 2006-2012 dominating the cover: a universal language which does not require written translation and most importantly refers to temporal confines rather than to strictly geographical ones. The dating artifice is also a way to remind us that the exhibit is in its second edition, and that, like the South Tyrolean architectural phenomenon itself, analytical work is still in progress.To save weight (and cost), the book was divided into two parts. In the first, printed on fine paper with two-tone graphics, projects are briefly described in an analytical format made up of a short text, photos in black and white (not always with perfect definition), sketches and technical drawings. Then coated paper and color take over and synthetic-descriptive analysis leaves room for a journey of images through architectural and natural landscapes in which getting lost is sometimes a pleasant, and even romantic, experience (remember the Wings of Desire?). Four essays stand out in the critical introduction. With numerical and statistical data, curator Flavio Albanese (architect and Domus director from 2007 to 2010) details the quantitative importance of building growth in Alto Adige over recent years underlining the fact that this does not contrast the pursuit of quality. Giuseppe Santonocito (an architect from the ASA office) focuses on the coexistence of local and global perspectives in Tyrolean architecture. Roman Hollenstein (critic and architect) reconstructs its historical genesis focusing on significant cases. Joseph Grima (architect and Domus director) notes that, contrary to what often happens in the rest of Italy, in Alto Adige quality is not limited to "urban decorators" like museums or libraries but involves infrastructure and industrial buildings, objects that must take into account the design of the landscape also because of their utilitarian nature.In the South Tyrolean case, this is indeed a crucial point and a key differentiating factor when compared to the desolate Italian scenario. In Alto Adige, beyond the aspects tied to the economy and building growth, architecture is seen as an added value, an element of prosperity pursued and shared by all social figures — from clients, to designers, to users. Furthermore, South Tyrolean architecture has been transformed into a factor of territorial identity and a fundamental vehicle for mediating between urban culture and landscape form. Without taking this aspect into consideration, the pervasiveness and ease with which forms and abstract (or contemporary) expressive styles are socially and culturally introduced into a scenario with such a strong "natural" presence could not otherwise be understood; nor could the co-generative roots that led to the birth and development of design techniques and technologies like the popular CasaClima (now exported as a trademark throughout the world).So what is the real limit to Tyrolean architecture? Predictably the book does not offer a plethora of answers to this question. It is neither a self-celebratory manifesto nor a critical-analytic essay but rather a systematic atlas or even a map for the curious visitor. Flavio Albanese concludes his introduction by indicating the curators' difficulty in finding among the submitted works projects that interpret "the insecurity, fragility and insubstantial quality to which daily life is more and more attuned" complaining about the lack of architecture "differing from the trend, which is to make a strong but generic statement" and "an elegant and reassuring pragmatism." In South Tyrolean architecture, episodes of expressive eccentricity, stylistic heterogeneity — if not downright visionary radicalism — are indeed rare. On the average, the quality of this architecture remains stubbornly high without reaching sensational heights or even contrasting horrors. Perhaps it is necessary to investigate the reasons underlying this last phenomenon in another book.