This is the entrance to the village of Canova in the Ossola Valley in northern Italy. Most of these stone houses date back hundreds of years, and the stone not only forms their walls, but their roofs as well.
Here is a view from Oira, which is another village but only a couple of hundred meters away. This is a view of the church in Oira from Canova.
I was at first mystified that these were separate places. Then I realized that this landscape told a story of agricultural life in a preindustrial era. The scale of these villages in itself hearkens back to the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, when people did not travel far at all.
We stayed in this house, called Casa Blu.
More views of Casa Blu
A couple decades ago, Ken and Kali Marquardt started restoring houses in this village, many of which were abandoned and falling apart. They formed Associazione Canova, a nonprofit dedicated to saving these wonderful buildings and villages, which invited me to participate in the 14th Annual Architectural Encounter, where I spoke about The Über of Architecture.
The stone roofs are ubiquitous, and amazing. You would think the weight of flat stones overlapping each other would be more than a roof could bear, but not so. They rest on purlins and beams just as other roofs, but they last hundreds of years if maintained properly.
Take that Mr. Code Inspector!
Perhaps the most lyrical of all the stone roofs we saw (and we saw a lot) was this circular one in Oira that covered an icehouse many meters deep.
Some of the houses in Canova have become bed-and-breakfasts. Each house had a massive fireplace like you would see in a 17th century Colonial on the east coast, but here they have two small windows on either side.
Not only were roofs and walls made of stone, but we even saw this abandoned house in Oira with a stone waste pipe – cylinders of stone hollowed out. Why not?
When you are dealing with thick stone walls, adding modern conveniences like electricity needs to be in conduit, and in our house I saw the most beautifully designed conduit.
The village itself is about eight old buildings (and one new one). A marvelous mountain stream cascades through the town, once powering several mills, including this one that was restored up in Oira.
This part of Italy still has great amounts of hydropower, and the running fountains in every town were a welcome sight to our drought-weary California eyes! In addition to the mill, Oira also has this surviving winepress made of massive timbers in a stone room barely larger than the press.
We visited several other abandoned villages that are slowly being reclaimed, including in many cases old frescos and wall murals in Ghesc and its neighboring village, where a couple of Italian architects have taken on the “serial preservationist” role of Ken and Kali and are working to restore houses in places that don’t even have electric service yet.
Mural on wall in village of Croppomarcio
A mural from one of the houses preserved in Sacro Monte monastery
Mural above the house with the yellow door in Canova.
Another staircase for the code inspectors….
Maurizio and Paola’s house, Ghesc. They are the only residents of this village.
Their house dates to 1560 as shown by this carved stone.
A Ghesc fixer-upper
This open upper area is a loggia called an astragal that is a feature of the buildings near Ghesc.
It reminded me of the traditional houses of Guizhou with their open upper floors for storing grain and produce.
Associazione Canova works with students in summer field schools who have done projects such as the arch restoration shown here, along with another flying staircase of cantilevered stone steps.
This is the village of Cuggine, completely abandoned but local officials hope to find people to restore these houses as well.
This is the “sun temple” in Roldo, dating to the Roman era. Its tower was added in the 15th century but the mortar on the lower section shows how early a structure was built on this pre-Christian site.
Our Architectural Encounter itself took place in Domodossola, the main town, at Sacro Monte, a World Heritage site that includes several monasteries and chapels that were constructed after the fall of Constantinople so that pilgrims could traverse a more local version of the Via Crucis since Jerusalem had become inaccessible to Europeans.
The central square of Domodossola
A Roman bridge, repaired after partial demolition during World War II.
My fellow speakers were Dan Phillips of Phoenix Commotion in Texas, who builds houses from recycled materials using untrained labor, and Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone, a 91-year old architect who built many modern buildings around Milan and beyond. He also was a professor at Yale twice, once at the invitation of Paul Rudolph and once at the invitation of Vincent Scully. He was a most amazing man and we visited him at his home in Milan a few days later.
Many thanks to Ken and Kali, to Maurizio and Paola, to Giada, Francesco, Dan and Marsha, and our Canova hosts Dorothea and Peter. What better place to ponder the future of architecture than beneath the stones of its rich past?