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Landscapes of memory

The regeneration of the industrial area and reuse of ancient buildings at the Arzo marble quarries (Mendrisio, Ticino, Switzerland)

Enrico Sassi

 1. The reuse of industrial areas

If we are to ensure the quality of land development, the issue of industrial conversion is absolutely central (Sassi 2009), because land is a scarce and non-renewable resource that must be used rationally and sparingly. From this standpoint, the practice of reusing industrial areas constitutes an important tool for the promotion of the centripetal development, which allows the creation of new public spaces while improving the quality of existing ones. Modern society is marked by far-reaching changes directly attributable to the processes of globalisation and the re-location of manufacturing concurrent with the increasing strategic importance of the high-tech service sector. The scope for redeveloping disused industrial land and buildings is, in this context, extremely significant. The importance of these ongoing changes was highlighted in the Rapporto sullo sviluppo territoriale (DATEC 2005), the Swiss federal government department for the environment, transport, energy, and communications. The introduction to the report – a major contribution to the analysis of land development and an indication of its future – provides a clear picture of the far-reaching and rapid changes facing modern Switzerland. To meet these challenges, the report emphasises the need to develop new visions and draws attention to the absence of a unifying vision.

The report brings into focus current trends in land development, which may be summarised as follows:

• many areas have gradually lost their rural character but have failed to acquire any urban quality; 

• the growing importance of mobility and its implication for the widespread model of urbanisation; 

• the functional segregation in land use whereby, increasingly, it is the norm to work in the city and live in the country; 

• the lack of solidarity in urban agglomerations, where urban centres bear the cost of services used by non-residents, while small municipalities have little say in decisions that affect them; 

• the increasing significance of rural areas for recreation and tourism, and as nature ecological reserves; 

• the growing demand for land and the unlikely prospect of a slowdown in this trend; 

• the importance of disused industrial land as a resource for transforming and redeveloping already urbanised areas.

Switzerland’s Federal Council had already pointed in that direction in its report Politica degli agglomerati della Confederazione (2001), which clearly outlines the aims of federal strategy: to promote the sustainable growth of urban space; to preserve the economic appeal of urban areas and a high standard of living for urban dwellers; to create a network of towns and agglomerations; to limit the expansion of urban areas, structure them, and encourage centripetal densification.

It is precisely with a view to the last of these objectives that former industrial sites and buildings are particularly significant. An essential step in promoting inner-city residential development is to assess the scope for a more intense use of the existing urban structure, focusing especially on the conversion of disused industrial facilities.

In its 2004 report “La Suisse et ses friches industrielles – Des opportunités de développement au coeur des agglomérations”, the federal government’s land development agency (Ufficio federale dello sviluppo territoriale, referred to hereinafter as ARE) estimates that the amount of disused industrial land in Switzerland is 17 million sq m, mostly located in urban regions. Most of this land lies in the canton of Zurich (24.8% of the national total), while canton Ticino ranks twentieth, with 0.3% of the national total. The study, however, only sites with a surface area in excess of 10,000 sq m, so that a considerable amount of industrial site were not taken into consideration.

Rather than the reuse of industrial buildings what emerges is the enormous potential and sheer quantity of land currently devoted to industrial activities and infrastructure which becomes available once those uses become obsolete. Making cities more sustainable is necessarily contingent upon centripetal growth and densification. In Switzerland, developable land is consumed at the rate of one square metre per second. This trend can be countered by an urban development policy geared towards denser, more efficient cities. From this point of view, industrial areas are particularly interesting insofar as, in the majority of cases, they are situated in easily accessed areas, close to railway stations and motorway exists. The typology of disused industrial buildings is not restricted to manufacturing plants, but also includes structures such as warehouses, garages and office buildings. The collaboration between the public and private sectors is a fundamental aspect in the transformation of former industrial sites. A plan to develop a new urban centre cannot be carried out by the private sector alone, which cannot deal with issues of land management and urban development. Any new construction must be the result of a mediation between private and public interests, between the legitimate needs of the private economy and the requirements of public space, infrastructure and services for which the public administration is responsible.

The real challenge urban planners face is the densification of urban areas with an existing infrastructure, rather than the development of outlying areas, which tends to encourage sprawl and the wasteful use of limited land.

The city has evolved from an industrial, to a post-industrial, to a service-based model. The demand for quality space for the service industry and high value-added production has grown, and the contemporary city – strongly characterised by the high-tech service sector – is very different from the industrial and post-industrial city, whose production systems we have inherited.

The project for the reuse of the Arzo marble quarries engaged with different scales and issues, in the awareness of its central role in the creation of public space, landscape and architecture (Arnaboldi 2012, Sassi 2017b). Taken as a whole, the projects represent an adaptation at different scales of the more general concept of a spatial project, defined as a harmonious and well-arranged composition of solids and voids (Galfetti 2009). In the natural amphitheatre we applied the principles of landscape planning (Ferrata 2008) and natural landscape design (Conelli 2017); in the public conveniences pavilion we focused on elements of architectural composition, materials and construction techniques; in the redevelopment of the existing industrial buildings we considered issues connected with the promotion, reuse and restoration of historical buildings. Specifically, in the case of the Arzo quarries the historical significance of the extractive industry for the area makes the site quite unique. Therefore, the renovation of the original buildings has great symbolic, historical and cultural value. What is at play here is a kind of persistence, or rather a form of resistance, where the land is a landscape of memory (Ferrata 2017), a physical territory that embodies a specific geological and anthropological history, as well as the humbler traces of human work.

 2. Arzo

Arzo is one of ten former municipalities that have become part of the city of Mendrisio. In April 2009 the municipalities of Arzo, Capolago, Genestrerio, Rancate and Tremona merged into the city of Mendrisio. Historical records show that the village of Arzo already existed in the thirteenth century. The historical city centre developed along the road that connects Meride and Mendrisio, where it crosses the road that leads to the customs station. The small stream known as Lanza, a tributary of the Gaggiolo river, was of crucial importance for the village, as it supplied hydraulic energy to operate the marble sawmills. Because of its marble quarries, Arzo attracted stonemasons and sculptors, like the Rossis, who worked on the duomo of Milan and Turin in the seventeenth century. Today Arzo has 1,302 inhabitants (as of 31.12.2017), it lies at 503 m/asl, and has a surface area if 2.79 km2, 72% of which is wooded, and 15% settled.

The city owes its prosperity and renown to the marble quarries, which were well-known in the Middle Ages and particularly prized for Baroque buildings.

 “The Arzo quarries were already well known in the Renaissance. As in the case of the rocks of Viggiù, different types of “Arzo marble” dating from the lower Jurassic were commonly used not only locally but all over Europe, particularly in Baroque churches because of their great colour variety. The three most significant types of rock, “MacchiaVecchia”, “Broccatello” and “Rosso d’Arzo” were carved with great skill into baptismal and holy water fonts, balustrades, pillars, flooring and staircases. They also decorate altars, for instancein the Duomo of Como and Milan or in the Einsiedeln monastery” (Monte San Giorgio 2018)

The stone quarried at Arzo is commonly and incorrectly known as “marble”, as in geological terms it is a sedimentary breccia. Quarrying started in 1300, while over the last 200 years, the quarries have been managed by the Rossi family. The stone offers a rich mosaic of colours and comes in six varieties. Macchiavecchia is a heterogeneous stone made from rock fragments of varying granulometry that date back to the Upper Trias or Lower Lias. It is striated, in vibrant shades which vary from red, yellow and gray. Rosso di Arzo is characterised by its intense red colour and homogeneous structure, while Broccatello ranges in colour from shades of red to gray. Venato, finally, is densly veined, and comes in subtle hues. Arzo “marble” has a range of applications in various contexts: in decorating significant buildings such as churches, chapels, public buildings and villas, in interior design, or in the creation of objects of various nature and form.

Figura 1. Fotografía histórica, principios del siglo XX. Al fondo, el espacio original usado como taller. En primer plano, bloques de mármol de Arzo cincelados.
Figure 1. Historical photograph, early twentieth century. In the background, the original shed used as a workshop; in the foreground, chiselled Arzo marble blocks.

The quarrying of stone blocks was initially carried out with traditional tools, such as mallets and hammers, wedges and chisels. Stone blocks were then pulled with ropes and moved on planks and large tree trunks. Often the entire family was involved in the work at the quarries and in the workshops. Around 1925 sawing was introduced as a cutting technique: a helical metal wire operated by an engine cut the stone from the rock face using the abrasive action of quartz sand. Later, with the addition of small industrial diamonds to the wire the process became much more efficient. Subsequent processing activities were largely industrialised, with saws and diamond sanders. Quarrying activities stopped in September 2009, when Rossi & co, who had quarried marble at Arzo for eight generations, ceased trading. In 2011 the Patriziato di Arzo, which already owned the quarries, purchased the buildings belonging to Rossi & Co and, together with architect Enrico Sassi initiated a project for the redevelopment of the area and the reuse of the existing buildings.

Figures 2 and 3. The disused quarries (2016). Photo: Oikos 2000 (left). The abandoned sheds (2016). Photo: E. Sassi (right).

3. The project

The project for the redevelopment of the area and the reuse of the buildings within the Arzo quarries promoted by the Patriziato di Arzo underwent a long and complex process of gestation; what has been achieved is the result of much discussion and of the constant questioning and adjusting of the initial ideas.

The project site includes the marble quarry known as Macchiavecchia along the cantonal road that connects Arzo and Meride, identifiable by a large crane and a number of marble blocks at the foot of the rock face; here we find the old sheds and the covered structure where blocks were first cut before being further processed. Deeper in the wood, we find an area that was used as a depot, before coming to the “Broccatello” marble quarry and to a large area formerly used for the extraction of inert materials, known as Ex-Cava Caldelari, a site of great natural diversity. From the geological and paleontological point of view, the entire area is part of a geotope that includes rocks of global scientific interest dating back to the Triassic and Jurassic periods. Since 2003 the area has been part of the buffer zone of the Monte San Giorgio UNESCO site. Another area known the world over for its geological significance is the former Cava Caldelari, as witness numerous publications on the tectonic phases and the palaeogeography of the Alps. Here we find rocks from the Tremona formation, also known as Retico, together with Broccatello rocks and fossil concentrations in banks or pockets (mainly brachiopods, crinoids and sponges) dating back to the Jurassic period (199-145 million years ago). The vegetation of the area is characterised by seepage, wet and dry ruderal habitats, rough grassland. As for the fauna, the quarries are an important habitat for species such as orthoptera, lepidoptera, reptiles and birds.

The project was initiated by the Patriziato di Arzo who commissioned a feasibility study on the potential of the area in 2012. From the very start the project was supported by ERS-MB (Ente Regionale Sviluppo Mendrisiotto e Basso Ceresio, the Regional Development Institute for the Mendrisiotto and Basso Ceresio districts), and was able to count on the patronage of MendrisiottoTurismo (Mendrisiotto Tourism Board) and Fondazione Monte San Giorgio (Monte San Giorgio Foundation).

The project for the redevelopment of the area and for the re-use of the buildings focussed on three areas: the quarry workshop (the conversion of the ancient sheds where marble was processed into workshops and exhibition spaces) (Sassi 2017a), the educational trail (a path that leads to the ancient quarries in the wood above), the natural amphitheatre (a project for the reuse and promotion of the great disused Cava Caldelari,approximately 4,500 square metres of very diverse terrain).

Figura 4. Masterplan.
Figure 4. Masterplan.
Figura 5. Planta general.
Figure 5.  General plan
Figura 6. Secciones del anfiteatro natural. Arriba: mirando al este, al fondo, la grúa de la cantera de Broccatello; En el medio, a la izquierda, pasarela de madera y grupo de tocas (biotopo para pequeños animales), graderío y biotopo húmedo. Abajo, al oeste, desde la izquierda: biotopo húmedo, el espolón de hormigón que forma el mirador, con mesas y bancos; El camino bordeado por un borde natural, la pasarela de madera.
Figure 6. Sections of the natural amphitheatre. Top: looking east; in the background, the crane of the Broccatello quarry, in the foreground, from the left: the wooden walkway, a cluster of stones (biotope for small animals), stepped seating, the wet biotope. Bottom: looking west, from the left: the wet biotope, the concrete spur that forms the belvedere, with tables and benches; the path bordered by a natural edge, the wooden walkway.

3.1. The Quarry Workshop

The quarry workshop project reuses and upgrades the ancient buildings of the original production facility, which consists of two discrete volumes: the main building (known as the marble shed) and a secondary building that organises access and circulation. The elevation of the main building faces on to the cantonal road and is entirely built from marble blocks. This unique feature is highlighted by a new roof cover that emphasises the material and construction technique.

Figura 7. A la izquierda, taller. Plantas y secciones de las tres fases de proyecto. En negro lo existente (arriba), en amarillo, demolición (centro) y en rojo, nuevos elementos (abajo) Figura 8. A la derecha, axonométrica del taller.   

Figure 7. On the left, Workshop: plan and sections of the three phases of the project. In black, existing (top); in yellow, demolition (centre); in red, new (bottom) 

Figure 8. On the right, Workshop: exploded axonometric.

Figura 9. Exterior del taller. Foto:  F. Simonetti
Figure 9. Workshop: exterior. Photo: F. Simonetti

The new roof has no drainage gutter and is set back from the plane of the facade, so that rainfall drips onto the marble blocks, enhancing their colour. The openings in the original facade (a door and three windows) were sealed with marble slabs to give the elevation material uniformity: the facade appears as a single large block of marble in which the traces of the original facade are etched. The old roof cover has been replaced. However, the unique, original timber truss of the marble shed has been retained. To ensure the static safety of the roof, the ancient truss is now flanked by two new steel trusses. 

Figura 10. Cubiertas y exterior del taller. Foto: A. Canepa.
Figure 10. Workshop: exterior, roofing. Photo: A. Canepa

The main volume of the building that organises circulation has been covered with a new roof, clad in marble slabs. All other volumes are covered with corrugated transparent polycarbonate panels which allow spaces to be lit zenithally. New public conveniences were built with floors made by alternating strips of Arzo marble, grey Macchiavecchia and Alp green marble; the washbasin was carved from an ancient block of Arzo red marble extracted manually, with a chisel. The two original steel doors were restored and reused, as were two ancient wooden doors inside the building. The workshop spaces have been retained, and the original machinery for handling stone has been restored.


 Figure 11. Workshop: exterior, ramp. Photos: A. Canepa, D. Simonetti y M. Villada.

Inside the ‘marble barracks’ an ancient Hatz diesel engine from 1925 operates a flywheel which in turn activates a helical wire. The wire is connected to the outside by a system of upright base supports and flywheels, and is used to demonstrate the technique for cutting marble with a helical wire.

Figura 12. Exterior del taller. Foto: F. Simonetti.
Figure 12. Workshop: exterior. Photo: F. Simonetti.

3.2. The Educational Trail

Above the current marble quarry there are a number of old, now disused quarries. The project involved organising and marking a pedestrian route (an educational trail) leading to the disused quarries, to reveal the different extraction techniques (chisel, helical wire) and the various types of stone that were quarried (Macchiavecchia red, yellow, grey, Rosso Arzo, Broccatello, Venato).

Figuras 13 y 14. Exterior de los servicios públicos. Fotos: F. Simonetti y G.P. Minelli.   
Figures 13 and 14. Public conveniences: exterior. Photos: F. Simonetti and G.P. Minelli

At the start of the trail a new building houses the public conveniences. The concrete slab is made from inert materials specially obtained by crushing marble, and the surface has been polished to reveal them. The building that houses the public conveniences is entirely built from marble blocks and its translucent canopy is supported by HEB steel beams. The doors are made from oxidised metal grills. The structure is lit from above and naturally ventilated from the opening between the roof and walls. The washbasin was made from an ancient hand-quarried block of marble. The walls were built from blocks of marble with different surfaces and finishes.

3.3. The Natural Amphitheatre

The former Cava Caldelari is an area of great significance in terms of geology and palaeontology, as well as for its flora and fauna. The project known as “Natural Amphitheatre” has been developed in collaboration with the environmental  engineering firm Oikos 2000 and involves the organisation of spaces in order to make them accessible while preserving particularly significant natural environments, by creating specific biotopes that capitalise on the natural features of the site.

Figura 15. Graderío del anfiteatro natural. Foto: M. Villada.
Figure 15. Natural amphitheatre: stepped seating. Photo: M. Villada
Figuras 16 y 17. Vistas del anfiteatro natural y la pasarela. Fotos: F. Simonetti.   
Figures 16 and 17. Natural amphitheatre and walkway. Photos: F. Simonetti

The project has cleared an area that was cluttered with quarrying detritus, now replaced by four rows of seats made from marble blocks, arranged in a semi-circle. The steps can be used as seating and allow the staging of public events. A timber walkway was built in locally sourced black locust wood to extend the footpath across the marshland area along the quarry face.

The trail leads to an area characterised by some imposing reinforced concrete walls (the base of the old crushing plant) which have been made safe by the addition of a railing made from rebars. This area - known as the baluardo panoramico (the belvedere) overlooks the quarry and has been fitted with three tables made from marble slabs.

A stair made from timber and marble connects the trail to another footpath above it. Two new biotopes were also created: a small pond where rainwater from the area is collected, and a biotope for small animals – a mound of piled marble blocks that recreates the habitat removed to make way for seating.

Figura 18. Anfiteatro natural. Foto: L. Ferrario.
Figure 18. Natural amphitheatre: Photo: L. Ferrario

4. Conclusions

The project has been inaugurated in September 2017. Local residents and authorities have welcomed the quarry’s reuse with great enthusiasm. Since the very start the project aroused the interest of the media and progress reports were regularly published, covered by the different media: press (Finessi 2017, Lippmann 2016, Finessi 2016a 2016b, Travaini 2016, Ticinonews 2016, L’informatore 2016, Magerl 2015, RivistaMendrisiotto 2015, CdT 2014a 2014b, L’informatore 2014, LaRegione 2014, GdP 2013, CdT 2013, GdP 2013, Grandi 2013, Finessi 2012); radio (RSI RETE 2 2016, RSI RETE 1 2015, RSI RETE 2 2014); television (RSI TV 2017, Teleticino 2017, RSI TV 2016a 2016b, RSI TV 2014).

The project has also been published in national and international architectural magazines (Elmer 2018, Filliger 2017, Robert 2016, Véran 2018, wbw 2018).

5. Technical data

• Client: Patriziato di Arzo

• Architect: Enrico Sassi

• Collaborators: Roberta Blasi, Irene Lucca

• Civil engineer: Pietro Brenni

• Environmental engineer and landscape consultant: Oikos 2000

• Electrotechnical engineer: Dante Solcà

• Surface: 25’000 m2 (site), 269 m(buildings)

• Cost: 1’250’000.- Swiss francs

• Design: 2012-2016 

• Realization: 2016-2017• Inauguration: September 2017

6. References

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Sassi E. (2017a) Arzo – Il risveglio delle cave – The awakening of the quarries, fotografie di Filippo & Donatella Simonetti Fontana Print, Lugano.

Sassi E. (2017b) “Designing public space - A new square for the municipality of Sonogno (Ticino, Switzerland) – Disen?ando espacios pu?blicos – Una nueva plaza en el municipio de Sonogno (Ticino, Suiza)” – in Planur-e – Territorio, Urbanismo, Paisaje, Sosteniblidad y Diseño urbano.n. 10, The space of mobility, (http://www.planur-e.es/miscelanea/vervo/dise-ando-espacios-p-blicos-una-nueva-plaza-en-el-municipio-de-sonogno-ticino-suiza-/completo)

Sassi E. (ed.) (2009) The Conversion of Disused Industrial Areas - Strategies for Urban Redevelopment, Proceedings of the Ticino Case Study Workshop about the Conversion of Disused Industrial Areas, February 28th, 2008, i.CUP, Mendriso.

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Ticinonews (2016) Ripartono le Cave di Arzo - Posataoggi la prima pietra del progetto di recupero e riusodelle cave di marmo.Ticinonews - http://www.ticinonews.ch/ticino/330259/ripartono-le-cave-di-arzo

Travaini L. (2016) Arzo Futuro solido come il marmo, Corriere del Ticino, 22.11.2016, p. 17.

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