Through the landscape. Itineraries and identity-making projects, from memory to spectacle

by Enrico Brighi

Our awareness that the natural environment and the works of man are two indivisible entities in the landscape has been acquired only with long effort. It is interesting, therefore, to observe how man has, on the one hand, attempted throughout his existence to manipulate it, adapting its features to his own needs, while remaining attracted, on the other hand, to its aesthetic qualities. Torn between thirst for dominion and devout contemplation, his approach to the territory has assumed plural connotations. Leaving aside those forms of appropriation in which man aims at establishing his functional activities, we are attempting here to examine the cases in which man has approached the territory with more virtuous intentions, in a logic of pacific coexistence and appreciation.

We will begin by examining interventions of a monumental nature where the object is inserted in a precise frame in order to blend it into a new landscape. These are artefacts of variable dimensions erected as testimonies to an event, as tributes to a person distinguished for personal worth or for services to the country or community. To this first category belong all works created in Italy under Fascist domination to commemorate those fallen in the First World War. The memorial is conceived, in some cases, not merely as an adornment to the landscape, but as a landscape of the memory.

An exceptional case is that which rises on the banks of Lake Como. This work, completed in 1933, was conceived by the rationalist architect Giuseppe Terragni, starting from a design by Antonio Sant’Elia, the futurist architect from Como who lost his life during the conflict. The story of this work is unusual and rich in vicissitudes, but the result is noteworthy – a monolithic sculpture in Aurisina and Repen marble with a Futurist flavor and clean lines that stand out for 30 meters, reflecting in the water of the lake. At its base a flight of steps leads to the shrine, at the summit of which we read “The city exalts the glory of its sons in Karst rocks”, while, sculpted on the lake front are the words of Sant’Elia himself on 10 October 1916: “Tonight we’ll sleep in Trieste or in heaven with the heroes”. The monument to Sant’Elia is nevertheless just one of the works to be admired, a few meters distant from one other, along the Lombard waterfront of the lake. In the nearby gardens of the Volta Museum (Tempio Voltiano) is located, as well as the neo-Romanic Temple, the Monument to European Resistance against the Nazi-Fascist regimes that exterminated millions of people during the Second World War. This, created in 1983 by the sculptor Gianni Colombo, includes stones from Nazi concentration camps and the city of Hiroshima and consists of three flights of stone steps leading to three great sheets in weathering  steel on which are engraved phrases pronounced by victims of the regimes in question.

Aligned with this, at the end of the jetty of the harbor wall, is Life Electric, an installation of 2015 designed by Daniel Libeskind in honor of the scientist Volta. Two changing sinusoids, 14 meters high, emulate the electrical voltage of two terminals of a battery, represented by the Volta Museum and the Volta Lighthouse (at Brunate). Placed on a fountain, the work is light and permeable and its lines have been studied to frame the surrounding natural landscape without ever obscuring the view. The emotional charge has been increased with plays of light, through the insertion of LED bulbs with biodynamic variations, emphasized by a nebulization plant that aims to make the entire scene still more ethereal.

The military shrine is perhaps the most solemn manner of honoring the memory of soldiers who died on the field and it became a landscape of the memory in the 1930s and 1940s when it was decided, at national level, to ensure worthy burial to those who had sacrificed their lives in the Great War. Architectural constructions intended to hold the remains of national heroes, as well as to celebrate the most significant sites of the conflict, are extremely numerous in northeast Italy. Two projects commissioned from  the architect Giovanni Greppi and the sculptor Giannino Castiglioni, respectively on the summit of Monte Grappa and at Fogliano Redipuglia, constitute an interesting interpretation of this type of monument. For their dimensions, complexity and capacity to integrate, they are to be considered genuine architectures sculpted in the landscape.

The former, created in 1932-1935, is host to 12,615 bodies (of which 10,332 are unidentified) from the Armata del Grappa (IV). It is laid out in five circular, concentric circuits, four meters high and 10 meters wide, sloping towards the ridge of the mountain and reshaping its profile. The long flight of steps leading to Cima Grappa is distinguished by a series of bronze plates, set within the stones of the Grappa and dedicated to the identified fallen soldiers, an evident homage to the heroes’ ascent to heaven. At the end of the climb, the visitor, after walking round the monument to Marshall Giardino, reaches the great square of Cima Grappa (1,776 meters), site of the shrine to the Madonnina. Beginning here is the Via Eroica (Heroes’ Pathway), a white carpet in marble along which 14 stone pillars represent the mountains of the most important battles. It concludes in Portale Roma, marking the boundary between the Italian and the Austro-Hungarian slopes. At the top of the temple is an observatory offering a view of the entire plateau. With the help of a map engraved in bronze, the visitor can identify and contemplate the sites that still bear the scars of the principal battles of the Grappa.

In the Shrine of Redipuglia (1935-1938), also known as the “Shrine of the Hundred Thousand”, the same designers as those responsible for Monte Grappa have organized the characteristic elements of the Shrine – the Via Eroica, the large square and the burial site for identified and unidentified soldiers. As with Monte Grappa, the Shrine has a pattern of 22 large terraced steps, 250 centimeters high, starting from Via Eroica, where 38 bronze plaques bear the names of the battlefields of the Carso. The entire layout is rigorously symmetrical and is constructed according to a focal perspective axis that culminates in three great bronze crosses placed at the summit of the mountain. Beneath these rest the unknown soldiers, divided between two great common tombs, close to the votive chapel. At the base of the composition are placed the monoliths identifying the tombs of the Duke of Aosta and of the Generals, while the great flight of steps holds, in alphabetical order, the bodies of the identified soldiers. These steps, accessible only by two lateral ramps, are the heart of the Shrine and the word “PRESENT”, appearing in relief on each rise and repeated obsessively throughout the entire length of the stairway, extols the martyrdom of those who responded courageously to the call of their country, arousing strong emotion in all those who witness the scene.

The Shrine of Redipuglia is perhaps the best-known monument in the Karst Plateau. In recent years, moreover, the masterplan Carso 2014+, promoted by the Province of Gorizia and signed by Andreas Kipar, has involved the entire territory in an ambitious project of cultural, landscape and historical reappraisal aimed at triggering new forms of development, including economic development, under the banner of memory and local identities as well as the natural environment. The various places that were scenes of the Great War have at last been considered organically and strategically to create a single landscape of the memory, an open air museum in which to experience the historical sites actively, using new tools of virtual reality as an aid to their proper appreciation. The masterplan was the result of a competition held in 2010 and won by the group headed by Paolo Bürgi. More specifically, the proposal concentrated on the reorganization of three areas, through the rediscovery and enhancement of a series of itineraries: the area of the Shrine, the Lake of Doberdò at Castellazzo and the “sacred zone” of Monte San Michele. These were small interventions aimed at promoting the identity of the places without compromising their nature or altering the original sites. In a landscape stratified by signs and relics deposited on the rocks by the war, the itineraries have been redesigned with thin sheets of cement, while superfluous elements have been removed to give pride of place to the marks of history and the natural features of the region. The routes move towards the gray karst rock of Monte San Michele and conclude with two jutting terraces looking onto the River Isonzo to the north and the sea to the southeast.

The Second World War was the other grievous event afflicting the entire planet. In particular, it affected specific groups of individuals through racial discrimination. A particularly interesting case of landscape setting is to be found in Croatia, at Jasenovac, once the site, on the banks of the River Sava, of a concentration and extermination camp in which thousands of people were killed and burnt. All traces of the camp were erased, and many years later it was decided to build a commemorative monument on the site, known in the local language as Spomenik. Tito personally assigned the task of creating it to the Serbian architect Bogdan Bogdanović who, rather than re-evoke programmatically the brutalities and the suffering endured there, designed a great six-petal flower in cement extoling the idea of reconciliation. The sculpture, inaugurated in 1966, is 24 meters high and has at its base a crypt, reached by a pedestrian walkway in wooden sleepers recalling the former rail tracks that carried the deported people to the camp. The entire landscape of the memorial, which includes today a Museum of Genocide Victims, is designed with two great lakes and a series of circular earth mounds retracing the location of the buildings – now disappeared – of the camp. Everything is immersed in an atmosphere of great silence and pathos in which Bogdanović invites the visitor to meditate on the atrocities committed.

An interesting tribute to the Italian Resistance was created at Ancona, within the framework of the Parco del Pincio. This is a genuine landscape project set in the area of the hill of San Lorenzo, which dominates the city. Contributing to it were the sculptors Pericle Fazzini and Giovanna Fiorenzi, respectively responsible for the bronze statues at the higher end of the park and the entrance gates at the lower end, and the architects Gilberto Orioli and Paola Salmoni, who were appointed to set out the works in the garden. During 1964 and 1965 the park, which developed over a slope particularly prone to landslips, was completely redesigned with a system of ramps and containing walls accompanying the climb towards the statue  with a series of terraced stations from which fine views can be enjoyed of the sea and the city below.

The same approach to a rewriting of the landscape can be admired in the German military cemetery created between 1961 and 1967 on the Apennines of Tuscany-Romagna, near the Futa Pass. The Gothic Line became the scenario in which the architect Dieter Oesterlen, with the landscape designers Walter Rossow and Ernst Kramer, created the Cemetery of the Defeated. The burials were set out on terraces that mark out a gentle stone spiral encircling the mountain, following the orography, concluding with a great slab 12 meters high, overlooking the square of the crypt. In all these projects, the landscape is austere and silent, and the upward climb comes as a moment of peace, inviting the visitor to reflect on the implications of the wartime atrocities. After so many episodes consecrating the heroes, in the Futa Pass the defeated, severely condemned by history, become protagonists of a new message of peace visible to, among others, all hikers crossing the territory.

In the works described, memory has been evoked and celebrated in its most involving form, in relation to exceptional artefacts that have indelibly and transversally marked the history of all humanity. Memory, however, more often assumes the value of simple testimony, translating itself into a system of objects and traces that, by relating the patterns of the territories, enable the conservation and restitution of their identity. In this perspective, a particularly relevant case is the Route der Industriekultur in the Ruhr Valley , a project for territorial rediscovery and enhancement that has taken shape in the region of the Ruhr, known internationally for its mineral resources and its iron and steel industries. The revaluation of the Ruhr, the river that washes the territory, is notable as a virtuous episode in a region whose image had for decades been darkened by the fumes of its industries. With the dismantling of many of these realities and the creation of the Emscher Regional Park, the territory began, at the beginning of the 1980s, a regenerative path founded on nature, history and art that was to be crowned, in 2010, with the nomination of Essen as a Capital of European Culture.

Twenty years after its conception, the route crosses territory that has been reclaimed and restored to nature, full of attractions oriented towards ecology and memories. Numerous points of interest are identified within it, organized according to what they offer: principal nodes of particular significance and interest (ankerpunkt mit besukerzentrum e ankerpunkte, panoramic points from which the industrial heritage can be admired (panoramen der industrielandschraft); and historical settlements (bedeutende siedlungen).

In the first category, for example, are parks created on disused mineral or iron and steel sites. Once reclaimed, these large areas have been reinstated in the territorial context with integrated projects able to provide services or contribute to the ecosystem. Two fine examples, internationally celebrated, are the Landschaftspark of Duisburg, where the industrial archeology is reborn in a highly natural multifunction park whose entrancing itineraries wend among the old iron and steel structures, and Zollverein, near Essen, a great cultural center rich in events and unusual experiences, such as summer bathing in a swimming-pool obtained from a container, or winter ice-skating in the oven of the former coking plant.

A different sort of conception are the landscape projects aimed at creating panoramic viewpoints on artificial sites previously intended as mere tips for mineral waste. Those of historical origin, such as Kaiser Wilhelm Denkmal’s tower at Hohensyburg, are flanked over time by new landmarks providing exceptional aesthetic and recreational experiences in the region’s reclaimed landscape. The numerous deposits of raw materials whose heights dot the territory of the German plain, become supports for notable picturesque scenery where the work, placed at the summit of the highlands, is always accessible via walks or steps that offer changing views of the landscape. A particularly significant case, partly park, partly landmark, is the Landschaftspark Hoheward, previously known as Emscherbruch Landscape Park, created from the largest mineral tip in the Ruhr, an artificial plateau of more than 200 hectares and over 150 meters high. Forged from the grass-covered tips of Hoheward and Hoppenbruch, this park has an extremely irregular pattern that winds around the urban development of the plain. There are many paths to the top, with routes of varying gradients and difficulty, along which are placed several balconies from which to admire the landscape. One of the most interesting is located in the district park of Hochlarmark where the Dragons’ Bridge, a pedestrian walkway in steel that has all the appearance of a great red dragon, allows the summit to be reached at Hoheward, which is dedicated principally to astronomy. Here is situated the Horizontobservatorium (2008), two arches in steel with a diameter of about 90 meters, beneath which is set out a circular space from which certain astronomical and geographical effects can be observed, illustrated with explanatory panels suggestive of ancient Stonehenge. A few meters away is the Sonnehur, an obelisk that acts as a sundial, projecting its shadow onto a stony platform. Further away, and lower down, is Ewald Empore, a cubic construction in metal that can be ascended as an observation tower.

The phenomenon of the Ruhr has aroused much interest and artists wishing to contribute to the regeneration of the landscape have included Richard Serra, who provided an installation in 1998. His work consists of a sheet of weathering steel at the center of the summit of Schurenbachhalde (Essen). As the visitor reaches the peak of the tip, the sculpture seems far away, a metaphysically-flavored groove across the flat surface of the scorched landscape. Only as the sculpture comes closer does the observer fully realize its imposing scale, 15 meters high and 4.5 wide, experiencing a sensation of finiteness and cosmic inferiority.

Serra’s sculpture was created to be observed. Other works invite the visitor to interact, to witness the thrill of moving around the structure. One case is the Tetraeder, located at the top of the Beckstraße tip at Bottrop. The visitor, on reaching the summit of the plateau of the former mine of Proper after a walk immersed in green nature, is captivated by the juxtaposition between the light, fluctuating, 60-meter-high steel frame and the flat rock surface extending beneath his feet. The view from the heights is entrancing in itself, but it becomes spectacular as the visitor climbs to the Tetraeder, conceived as a contemporary observation pyramidal tower. It is reached via 387 steps in perforated metal, connecting three terraces with variably slanted grilled flooring, creating a sense of giddiness and great instability.

At Duisburg, in the Magic Mountain Tiger and Turtle (2011), experience is the guiding principle for the artists Heike Mutter and Ulrich Genth. On the Heinrich-Hildebrand-Höhe, in an area already dedicated to recreation, the sculpture becomes a genuine pedestrian entertainment for those who decide to climb the stairs. The work, in fact, is a homage to the roller coaster. Unlike the traditional examples, however, the sinuous lines delineating the galvanized frame create an exciting circuit for walkers, who are awarded a dynamic, constantly changing perception of the landscape. The vibrations of the structure, 13 meters at its highest point, and the transparency of the surfaces, add an emotional charge to the aesthetic component. It is a truly stimulating experience in which the visitor becomes an active part of the work. Both these architectures have also been conceived as poetic lanterns which, with their geometries of colored lights, and together with other illuminated landmarks, help to design the Ruhr nights.

As in the case of industrial culture, the landscape itinerary is today the most effective territorial strategy  with which to compose and relate contemporary spaces in a way that will rediscover their particular nature and identity. This form of traversal, oriented towards slowness and ecology, is becoming widespread in all types of landscape, with renewed attention towards those with agricultural traditions. In in this increasingly multiform supply, contexts with high quality environmental features represent the preferential support for projects aimed at territorial appreciation and promotion. Planning and architecture become tools for the construction of landscape scenery in which the observer’s perceptions are amplified.

From this point of view, the Alps provide numerous opportunities for transformation into spectacle. Apart from the various vertigo-provoking attractions found here, there and everywhere, two examples of which are the double walkways of the AlpspiX designed by Wallmann Architekten at Garmisch Partenkirchen (Germany) and the panoramic platform of the Top Tyrol designed by LAAC Architekten on the Stubaier Glacier (Austria), a case where a string of works mark out a real itinerary is that of the Passo Rombo/Timmelsjoch, which starts from the Moso in Val Passiria (Alto Adige) and finishes at Hochgurgl (Tyrol).

While the road on the Austrian side goes back to the 1950s, that on the Italian slope was created a decade later, following the path of an old mule track built in the 1930s for military purposes. The enhancement project dates from the mid-2000s and was curated by the architect Werner Tscholl, who organized it as a series of stations characterized by buildings perfectly integrated into the Alpine language, where dedicated pavilions provide information on the region and small sensory experiences. The itinerary, prohibited to heavy traffic, is a poetic traversal that unites two countries – once rivals, now reunited – whose histories are whispered in the silence of the mountain by what Marco Mulazzani defines as “tiny ‘speaking’ architectures”. Starting from the Italian side, the observer finds: Granati, which takes its name from the crystalline conformations typical of the Val Passiria and consists of two sculptural objects including a crystal quarry serving as a belvedere and a solid cement structure describing the system; Telescopio, two orthogonal cornices looking respectively towards Monte Principe and Monte dei Granati; Museo del Passo, in which the history of the pass is related in a multi-faceted mass that, anchored in Austrian soil, overhangs Italian territory by 16 meters; Ponticello, a well-structured building, close to the Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum designed by Michael Brötz, where the history of the human settlements in the region is related and from which the natural scenery below can be enjoyed. In 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Italian road and the centenary of the end of the First World War, the Timmel Transit Museum was created, starting from a military barracks close to the Museo del Passo.

These experiences might seem limited if compared with the strongly-defined system of the Nasjonale turistveger norvegese (Norwegian scenic routes). This is an extensive program of infrastructuring, enhancement and tourist promotion based on a meeting between nature, architecture and art. In a territory where the beauty of the natural landscapes, with fjords and forests the principal identity-making elements, constitutes the main cultural resource, the state has activated an infrastructure plan able to provide the services necessary for the subsistence of the territory and its inhabitants, while at the same time emphasizing their qualities, relaunching their image and implementing tourism. Since 2002, all engineering-type interventions have been transformed into opportunities to experiment creative approaches through competitions rewarding the best architectural projects and artistic installations. Eighteen panoramic roads have been identified on the national territory. These are in continual evolution. In addition to the experience of passing through aesthetically involving areas, visitors can learn the history of these places and spend time there comfortably. Along each road, points of interest are signposted where travelers can obtain information, services or simply enjoy an aesthetic experience that gains intensity from the installations placed there. Each itinerary can be consulted on the official site, downloading the map or the illustrative brochure and sharing experiences.

Geiranger-Trollstigen is an exemplary synthesis of everything this great all-round scheme can offer. The authors of the various projects are always cited, but they take a back seat, giving precedence to the majesty of the landscapes they have helped to enrich. Trollstigen is distinguished for the sites traversed, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the number of equipped spaces where visitors can stop, rest and even sleep. Linge ferjekai is a small ferry terminal with a glazed waiting room overlooking the fjord and rest room services inserted in a contemporary-style building designed by the Knut Hjeltnes studio. The Juvet Landscape Hotel, designed by the Jensen & Skodvin studio, is a small structure with only nine independent lodgings adapted in their form and material to the birch forest landscape in which they are immersed. The belvederes, however, are the areas of principal interest. Here visitors can observe the fjord landscape, sculpting unique images in their memories. Ørnesvingen is a panoramic viewpoint opening onto the Geiranger fjord along the hairpin bends leading from Geiranger to Eidsdal. Designed by a composite group of architects and an artist, the belvedere is structured as a terrace with seats flanked by a small waterfall. Maximum lyricism is achieved, however, at Trollstigen where the Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter studio has discreetly redesigned the wild landscape with mimetic architectures and cement paths leading to a series of panoramic viewpoints which, overlooking a drop of 200 meters, take the visitor’s breath away.

Norway is one of the most interesting cases in which the various scenes capable of enthralling the visitor have been given extreme emphasis through an organizational project where the principal role is played by architecture, which puts itself at their service to provide amplified perceptions of them.

Environmental and climatic questions have today become ineludible themes for urban and national agendas. Even territorial and infrastructure planning seems increasingly concentrated on soft mobility, seeking to integrate and reorganize existing light networks, in response to the demands of slow living and ecotourism. Cycle tracks have gained a privileged status in the movement systems of countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, assuming a key role in the territorial structure, enabling new perceptual experiences of territorial exploration, enhancing new discoveries and typical values of the local contexts.

Territorial projects such as the Ciclovia del Sole (Sun Route) and VENTO assume a cultural dimension with their ambition to regenerate fragile territories through another means of slow tourism (see the article by Paolo Pileri).

Other more circumstantial projects are distinguished by their attention to the design of the track itself, which becomes a tool to reinforce the narration. The artist and designer Dan Roosegaarde proposed, in his works and installations, a new ecological approach to the landscape and the means of travelling through it. In the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle track, better known as the Van Gogh Path, he demonstrates how innovative design of the line can become a tool in the narration. The track extends for a kilometer at Nuenen, in the places where Van Gogh lived from 1883 to 1885. The surface is illuminated by night, tracing geometric shapes inspired by the Dutch artist’s 1889 painting, “Starry Night”. Abandoning traditional lateral illumination, the itinerary becomes a lighting fixture with 50 thousand glittering stones provided with glow-in-the-dark technology and solar powered LED lights that absorb light energy from the solar radiations and release it as the sun goes down. The track thus becomes a device capable of evoking the painter’s atmospheres, enabling those following it to feel themselves part of the work.

The same means of illuminating the route, creating itineraries of great fascination, if less poetry, is used in other contexts. In Italy, in the zone of Chiavica, a five-kilometer cycle track along the banks of the Ticino, in an area subject to environmental protection, has been created with a special resin able to absorb solar energy, releasing it at night. This work, made in response to strong popular demand, allows a visual experience of the river landscape, but one that is respectful of its environmental components.

Alongside Lake Garda, too, a zero-impact cycle track has recently been completed, and has already been nicknamed “the cycle track of dreams” for the beauty of the territory it crosses and the panoramic experience the artefact offers to visitors. The engineering work is realized in steel and wood. In certain sections, the track overhangs the water, anchored to the rocky walls of the SS45 bis Gardesana Occidentale main road, while at other times it enters old disused tunnels. Part of the larger Garda By Bike project, the cycle track begins from Capo Reamol, at Limone sul Garda (BS), and extends for several kilometers to the boundary with Trentino Alto Adige.

Equally remarkable is the territorial and the perceptual experience offered by the “Muro di Sormano”, a brief but tough climb from Ponte del Corno (CO) that wends for two kilometers with four hairpin bends to reach the summit at a height of 1124 meters. Notoriously one of the toughest cycle tracks, to the extent that it was excluded from the Giro di Lombardia for decades, it rises 300 meters with an average gradient of 12%, at times reaching 25%. After years of increasing deterioration, rendering it impracticable for cycling, the administration decided in 2006 to renew the bed of the track. This provided the occasion for Ifdesign studio to create an interesting work of landscape architecture. The project aimed to confer a new image on the itinerary through the surface layout. Designed on the narrow tongue of asphalt are dedicated info-graphic inserts relating the features of the route, the surrounding territory and its history, or offering hints on panoramic views. Created with no expense spared, the project transforms what was once a simple ribbon of asphalt into a narrative itinerary. Those following it not only obtain information on the physical structure of the territory and its landscape features, but also relive the deeds of past champions who built its history.