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Stone renaissance

In the Italian Alps more and more mountain villages and their stone houses are being abandoned by their inhabitants. But there is hope. A brave globetrotter, volunteers, local craftsmen and international experts are fighting the decay.

Words Fiammetta Bonazzi
Photography Noemi Mazzucchelli

In the Ossola Mountains between Switzerland and Lake Maggiore, Canova has long been a small village away from the tourist routes, abandoned year after year by the villagers who left to work abroad in big cities. Peace and silence reign supreme: the only noise you hear is the gurgling stream flowing between the stone houses before pouring into the Toce River.

In 1993, the American globetrotter Ken Marquardt and his wife Kali arrived in this valley during a Grand Tour of Italy. A native of Arkansas, carpenter and ancient buildings expert, Marquardt immediately fell in love with the tiny medieval village forgotten in the green setting of the Alps. He decided to live in this remote corner of Piedmont: he purchased a home and restructured it. Then he bought other ruins and gradually created around him a circle of friends, artisans and families of Italian and Swiss virtuosos. Together they restored the tiny mountain village to its former splendour, turning it into a self-sufficient community of solidarity.

Without Ken Marquardt and the Canova association the art of stone architecture would soon be lost

In 2001, Ken Marquardt founded Canova, the association for the enhancement of stone vernacular architecture. It takes its name from the village of Canova and today, 15 years later, it has become a case study that is appreciated internationally. “It was and still is a very stimulating challenge,” confirms Marquardt. Together with his team he has saved from destruction many historic buildings that had largely collapsed and were no longer habitable. The success of his personal experience convinced him to create, like a mountaineer Fitzcarraldo, a kind of WWF of stone architecture that has subscribers all over the world. Canova’s recovery projects involve local institutions, technical schools and the most important faculties of architecture worldwide.

Anyone can join the association: not only architects, engineers and designers but also ordinary people who are passionate about restoration and want to explore the issues related to the recovery of historic buildings. Since 2009 the association has also organized several summer schools reserved for college students to explain “live” the art of building with stone. The courses are held in Ghesc, a handful of medieval buildings hidden in a forest of ash trees and oaks not far from Canova, where students can “learn by doing.” They are taught by professors from the universities and also by local stonemasons, bricklayers, blacksmiths and carpenters. Recently, a workshop on the recovery of terraced landscapes was organized with Politecnico di Torino, but the association also collaborates with the Yestermorrow Design/Build School of Vermont, the Universities of Oregon and North Carolina and the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Ontario, Canada.

These workshops have added weeks of open work for volunteers: in exchange for food and accommodation, the subscribers participate in the work of restructuring Ghesc, and during the evening they take part in cultural events ranging from theatre to dance, music and storytelling. “The Ghesc village laboratory is another example of how you can create virtuous networks among young people, teachers and craftsmen and curb the savage process of demolition by mixing traditional materials and sustainable building techniques,” says Maurizio Cesprini, Secretary of Canova. Together with the architect Paola Gardin, Canova has renovated the sixteenth house in Ghesc, Casa Alfio. It is another example of eco-architecture using local wood and stone, lime and sheep’s wool for insulation.

Canova and its teams restructure and revive the stone houses

In 2013 the Canova Association was selected for the prestigious H3 project of the Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès. The foundation funds non-profit associations that hand down skills to new generations and preserve fragile ecosystems. Soon after that came another important contribution from the Compagnia di San Paolo of Turin. Among various experiments, in 2015 the Canova team started another pilot project for the cultivation of Alpine hemp according to ancient tradition in the terraced fields of Baceno, Masera and Montecrestese. The aim is to recreate a local supply chain for the production of oil, textiles, paper, plaster and building materials.

Fresh colour and modern elements are bringing new life to old villages

Interest in the format created by Canova continues to bring architects and designers of international calibre to the valley in June to serve as visiting professors and lecturers at the annual Canova Architect Encounter. Over the years, the participants have included Glenn Murcutt, the Australian architect who won the Pritzker Prize in 2002; the renowned Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron; Salma Samar Damluji, a leader in the field of preservation of architecture in mud and clay and board member of the prestigious Da’wan Mud Brick Architecture Foundation; and Bruce Mau, a close collaborator of Renzo Piano.

“The speakers of the International Architect Encounter pay for the journey out of their own pockets — their expenses are not reimbursed,” explains Ken Marquardt. “For four days they are our guests, they live with us, they are fascinated by our dynamism and our simplicity. And, above all, they value our ethical approach to architecture, which combines technical, practical skills and visionary instinct.” On this basis, “we like to think that the village of Ghesc is becoming the first of many other traditional architectural salvage yards to open in Italy and in the world,” adds Cesprini, citing the example of the architect Renato Vivaldi. In Sabina, 50 km from Rome, Vivaldi was inspired by Canova to launch a project to recover a medieval settlement. “Our challenge is not to create archaeological parks but to return our built heritage to real life,” says Marquardt. “This is the seed that we have found, and we are cultivating it in the stones of the homes in the Ossola Mountains.”