Green roofs and facades: discussing an alternative approach to landscape heritage in Italy

Italy is known around the world for it’s rolling hills, beautiful landscape, and rustic tiled roofs over traditional stone buildings. While the desire to preserve that landscape heritage is justifiably strong, I think a certain cultural resistance to change has resulted in an unfortunate hesitancy in architectural design and a modern building stock that is, frankly, not very attractive.views of ugly architecture from train Jun 20, 2013 8-17 AM.50 This is particularly upsetting given the wealth of architectural history and professional design talent in Italy. While there are definitely cases of impressive design and innovative construction by professionals who have managed to jump through the hurdles of skeptical public judgement and restrictive building approval policies, it seems to me that the majority of projects outside of the creative hubs like Milan and the luxury scenes like Sardinia remain frozen in a state of mimicry and imitation.

For fear of stepping too far outside of the box, we have remained in it for far too long.

I use “we” loosely, because, as you may have noted, I am not in fact Italian. I hope that does not, however, delude the value of my comments. Often an outside eye can see things that a native one has become accustomed to. In my opinion, this cultural resistance to change – an aspect that everyone loves and hates about Italy at the same time – has sometimes led to restricted and monotonous architectural designs that appear fake or forced.  With this little article, I would like to remind you of a modern and beautiful way of continuing to respect the landscape that has made Italy so famous: vegetated roofs, or “green roofs”.

Before discussing this subject, I think it’s important to understand the history of residential architecture in Italy over the past few decades.

During the building boom of the 60s and 70s, Italian construction went through a period of rapid growth and development. With this unbridled expansion came some of the most experimental and interesting work in the history of Italian architecture. However, those works were few and far between, with many Italian architects making a name for themselves abroad. They were also mostly relegated to show pieces in large cities, where the town councils were more accepting of progressive ideas.

Unfortunately, the effect of this building boom on the generic building stock of suburban and rural Italy was detrimental. One need only to take a look at the sea of industrial warehouses and cookie-cutter concrete houses to understand the disappointment that many foreigners feel when they step outside of an historic city center and into the industrial monotony of the Pianura. It’s difficult to understand how a country with such a rich architectural history can have a modern building stock of such little note.

So, how can we (architectural designers in Italy) reinforce the beauty of the Italian landscape and history through modern building design?

Clearly, where an historic building is concerned, the restoration of that structure is extremely important from a cultural point of view. Unfortunately there are often not enough incentives to aid people in these types of expensive renovations. This is a subject that deserves an entirely new article, as I think it is a missed opportunity for the maintenance of architectural heritage in Italy.

However, what about the rest of our building stock? What about the sea of concrete blocks that are now energetically, seismically, and historically irrelevant? What about city center infill sites where the historic structure has been lost? What about rural sites where concrete structures interrupt the view of greenery and landscape?

I think green roofs could be a fantastic answer to many of these problems.

The extent of the technical advantages to green roofs are being continually discussed and researched: they reduce heat island effect, they contribute to insulation of the roof, they manage storm water runoff to help avoid flooding, etc.

From a design point of view, there is one much more simple advantage: They’re beautiful! Who would not prefer to look at gentle slope of native grasses, as opposed to a flat industrial roof or even a poorly located new tiled roof? From a distance, green roofs can provide a way to integrate the building into the landscape, allowing for opportunities in hilly landscape heritage areas to return the site to a more natural state. In cities, they can turn into places to escape from the hot asphalt roads.

We’ve already seen a huge increase in green roofs and facades in large, highly visible projects: the Vertical Forest towers in Milan, Vulcano Buono in Nola, Antinori Cantina in Florence, and the new soccer stadium in Siena.

Now we need to make sure that this trend trickles down to those of us who are responsible for everyday architecture. We need to educate clients to have a greater understanding of the benefits of vegetated systems and sustainable building techniques. And we need to encourage policy makers in Italy to start approving and providing incentives for sustainable design techniques, such as green roofs and facades.

Would you like to contribute to this discussion? Please comment below, as I would be very interested to hear some local (or international) opinions on this subject.


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