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Designer architecture in the landscape of the Aosta Valley: from Casa Capriata to the Carlo Mollino Shelter

A versatile figure in the architectural culture of the last century, but above all a passionate and frequent visitor of the Alpine region, the Turin architect and designer Carlo Mollino (1905-1973) designed an ideal prototype of a mountain house for the 10th Milan Triennale in 1954, which remained on paper due to a lack of agreement with sponsors and was only realized about 60 years later1.
Born as an initiative in 2006, on the occasion of the celebrations for Mollino’s birth, the Capriata House project, later renamed Carlo Mollino Shelter in honor of its architect, was implemented and inaugurated thanks to a collaboration between the Polytechnic of Turin, the Order of Architects of Turin, the Aosta Valley Region, the Walser Community, and the Gressoney Saint Jean Municipality2. It was the municipality of Gressoney, a small village in Aosta Valley, that agreed to host this small masterpiece of modern architecture, strongly influenced by the characteristic houses of the region, in the alpine district of Weissmatten at an altitude of about 2.050 m. Casa Capriata, indeed, is an elegant and personal reinterpretation of the so-called rascards, typical rural architecture in stone and wood of the Walser community settled in the Alpine regions, considered by Mollino himself a «delightful example of harmony between functionality and poetry»3. His curiosity for rural architecture in Aosta Valley, which he had had the opportunity to carefully study and survey when he was still a student, had also led Mollino to experiment with some furnishing elements inspired by this vernacular tradition, thus reconfirming his marked talent as a designer.

The model of the truss house – also known as the triangular house – had already been presented by the Turin architect himself between the 1940s and 1950s in several variants, such as the project for the Vertical Sports Centre at an altitude of 2.006 m (1945-47), in Villa Carando (1947), in the Vetroflex-Domus competition (1951), and in other cases. In line with the program envisaged by the Milan Triennale, which focused on the themes of industrial design and prefabrication, Mollino’s idea was based on the desire to build a light structure, made of wooden elements with a minimum section of 6 cm and with an overall scheme of trusses with chains supporting the floors.

Starting from the study of the original drawings preserved in the Carlo Mollino Archive of the Turin Polytechnic, the current project is the result of painstaking research by the vast team that made it possible to build and adapt it to current regulations. While preserving Mollino’s signature design, the architectural, structural, and technical aspects have been rethought to meet environmental sustainability and energy efficiency requirements. The project takes the form of a wooden structure raised from the ground by means of three reinforced concrete pillars, the walls of which are made precisely of the roof pitches, clad in RHEINZINK zinc-titanium sheets and including UNI-SOLAR photovoltaic cells. The building – now used as a small restaurant and included in the National Census of Italian architecture of the second half of the 20th century, curated by the General Directorate for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Peripheries of the Mic – is divided into three levels. The first level houses a bar/restaurant with kitchen and services and is characterized by a terrace bordered by a parapet with wooden uprights and crossbeams, which allows people to stay outside and glance over the artificial lake overlooking the shelter, admiring its relationship with the landscape. On the second level, two bedrooms with their respective bathrooms have been designed, while on the top floor there are two other smaller rooms. The location chosen to house the hut, which can be reached either on foot along hiking trails or by chairlift, is not accidental. Indeed, it is located near a small wooden structure transported to Weissmatten in the 1950s, but originally used as a place for tea wanted by Queen Margherita and annexed to the Savoy Castle, one of the examples of historic Art Nouveau residences that characterize the municipality of Gressoney.

It is a completely eco-sustainable structure, minimizing energy consumption for heating and air conditioning. For this reason, it was selected among the 100 projects of excellence for sustainable development in the Mediterranean Alps Euroregion. For thermo-acoustic insulation, Saint-Gobain Isover glass wool panels were used, which, combined with the good quality of the glass, the controlled ventilation and the heat recovery system, made it possible to classify the Mollino Shelter as a Multi-Comfort-House, ensuring energy savings of 90% compared to an ordinary residential building.
Particular attention was also paid to the interior, as in Mollino’s many other projects. In line with the designer’s choices, rubber flooring (Artigo) designed by Ettore Sottsass was used, while for the furnishings, some of those designed by Mollino himself and produced today by the Zanotta company were selected, such as the famous Reale table.

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